An air of homecoming attended the reopening of the sorely missed Sansom Street Oyster House one evening last week, its name, in keeping with its sleeker lines, now collapsed to Oyster House, period.
That it resides on Sansom Street apparently is considered superfluous information for a place that has been a fixture there, east of 16th, for more than 30 years.
By 4:55 p.m., Sam Mink, at 33 the latest family member to run the haunt, had final words for the servers: Please, he implored, keep refilling the big goblets of oyster crackers; and mind the horseradish pots, too.
No spotlights swept the wet sky. No evidence of an event planner was in sight. Sam's father, David, in a maroon polo shirt, swept off the front doormat with a hand broom.
This was the softest of soft openings. But old customers had no trouble sniffing it out. The first one in, Joan Quann, a retired French teacher in straw hat and amber brooch, contentedly ordered her twice-a-week usual, a half dozen oysters on the half shell.
On the feeding plain that is Center City, you have your choice these days of a flood tide of high-end steak houses. Small BYOs, French bistros and burger bars are legion. You may select, as well, from a handful of soulless seafood houses, chains without resonance, the Bookbinder ships having sunk, and the once-bold Striped Bass with them.
What you are harder-pressed to find are 120-seat places on the order of Oyster House, now on its third generation of Minks, harking to the days (its lineage goes back to Kelly's on Mole Street) when corner oyster saloons were as common as pizza stands, offering various fish chowders for lunch, fried oysters (in delicate corn flour, if you wish) with chicken salad, and plain grilled bluefish.
If the loyal regulars could have hugged the joint, they may well have. It has been closed for a year, hidden behind a plywood curtain while it was remodeled. (The Mink family reclaimed it after an interim operator, Cary Neff, ran into financial - and a few food-quality - difficulties.)
Familiar faces were back where they belonged. Fred Finlan pouring beer. Veteran servers serving. The dream team of shuckers (Ameen Lawrence, Cornell Rhoades, and Tyrone Jennings), manning a more-central raw bar, ice piled high, stools lining it on three sides; "the hottest seats in town," Mink the younger assessed objectively.
It is not by any stretch a nostalgia room, though. Brett Webber, the architect, replaced the walnut paneling with white subway tile over seagull-gray wainscoting, and installed chunky counters of Valley Forge marble (once used as paving at Independence Hall), and hardwood flooring, the red oak salvaged from roof timbers from the Academy of Music, the white oak from a Delaware factory.
At first glance, the room still empty, the lights on full, it can seem surgically overlit. But as the light dims and the room is peopled, you can imagine, as Webber suggested, a more maritime (or maybe urban fish market?) kind of scene.
Even the snapper soup, dark and heavily thickened with roux in its last incarnation, has been overhauled by chef Greg Ling: It is still rustic, though more generously chunked with turtle meat, its richness not from roux but from stock simmered with carrot, onions and allspice - a step up to some tastes, an off-putting mutation to others.
Whatever, the returnees brought their own memories - a mother who went into labor after a meal here, a young lawyer who had his first business lunch here after graduating from law school 10 years ago, a guy whose father routinely brought him in for a bite after shoe-shopping at Sherman Bros. next door.
The room may have been streamlined (though the antique oyster plates escaped banishment). An anomalous chopped-beef burger was being offered (albeit with a fried oyster atop). And up-scaled classic cocktails (a serviceable negroni among them) were making a debut.
But a Mink was back in the house. And from the first looks of things - from the chilled Wellfleets to the sides of pepper hash - there was a heady feeling that, yes, on this block of Sansom at least, you could go home again.