A slippery tradition thrives at the Hon Bar, where the first Friday of the month features a treat

It's Oyster Night, hon

Maryland Journal

January 08, 2007|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,SUN REPORTER

No one, as far as Paul Bartlett can tell, knew much about the guy. Even his name was unknown; but his routine, as observed by the regulars, was systematic.

About three years ago, when the Hon Bar began giving away free oysters on the first Friday of the month, a short fellow would saunter in and proceed to devour the mollusks by the dozen.

"I have no idea where he came from, but he was a short man," said Bartlett, as he shucked oysters on a recent Friday for customers at the Hampden bar. "He would start coming in around 7, take about a dozen, sit down, eat them. Then he would go away, come back every 15 minutes or so and eat a dozen more. He was like a vacuum cleaner. And he never said anything. He would come every month, and I bet you he is the single reason why [the owner] now charges money for them."

A few months into the oyster giveaway, the bar began charging for them - the price has risen to $3 for a half-dozen - but it has not hurt business. First Fridays at the Hon Bar continue to be one of the most crowded after-work spots in the city.

Denise Whiting, owner of the Hon Bar and adjacent Cafe Hon, decided the appetizers would be a good way to show appreciation to customers, especially with the popularity of oysters in Maryland. It also helps that Whiting is good friends with George Hastings, world-renown oyster shucker.

Hastings generally doles out the oysters, bringing a crowd of his loyal followers. Consequently, Hon Bar more than doubles its business on oyster Fridays compared with regular Fridays, with customers going through 600 easily, Whiting said.

"It is a fun way to gather the community together," said Whiting, also the founder of HonFest, a celebration of anything Hon held every June. "And since this is Cafe Hon, and I like to think I give people permission to have fun, this is just an extension of that."

Hernia surgery put Hastings on the shelf for the most recent oyster Friday. Bartlett filled in for Hastings and missed nary a beat.

Bartlett, Hastings and Dale German, who also was on hand, make up the "Three Oyscateers," a trio whose calling in life is to dispense oysters to the masses around Maryland and compete for shucking titles.

Bartlett, as is the case with any good shucker, kept the night lively by hobnobbing with customers, slurping an oyster here and there over a three-hour span. A moderately warm evening at the beginning of the coldest month of the year had the bar packed as if it were September.

"It is a fun thing to do. It is really a Baltimore thing to do," Bartlett said.

Pat Halle, 56, lives in Waverly and says she does not usually make it out to Happy Hours anymore. First Fridays at the Hon Bar is an exception. "I do not go to bars," Halle said. "But the oysters here are always good."

Halle sat next to Kara Kemahli, 32, and talked to her as if they were long-lost friends. The two had met just minutes earlier.

Kemahli says she comes to the Hon Bar every Friday night. Before Halle clued her in that the oysters are served the first Friday of every month with an R (plus May), Kemahli said that she and her friends were never sure when the slimy treats would be available.

"I did not even know that," Kemahli said. "We come here every Friday, and sometimes, it was like, `Oh my God, the oysters are here tonight.'"

Jerry Dziecichowicz of Little Italy is well aware of when oyster night is. He and his wife, Rita, usually come with their friends, Jerry and Janice Walters, and whomever else they can drag along (this Friday, it was Janice's cousin Bill Bertazon).

Dziecichowicz, 59, saw a sign advertising the event about a year ago. The foursome has come ever since, arriving early to secure a table.

"We plan for this," said Dziecichowicz, who estimates he can go through three dozen. "We start talking about this in the middle of the month, and we actually plan to do this. In the summer, we are like, `Oh no - no first Fridays.' But then we buy crabs."

Dziecichowicz says he has made friends with a number of the regulars. But he never got the chance to meet the short man who downed oysters like they were potato chips.

That guy does not come around anymore. It is easy to understand why, considering he would be spending more than $40 if he did.

"You have to still be able to do business and make money," Whiting said. "If you just charge a couple of bucks, that usually eliminates the people that eat outrageous amounts."

brent.jones@baltsun.com

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