Finding a table for two at 1:30 for lunch should be easy, right? Especially on a frigid, windy day. Even on a holiday Monday. If your destination is Neptune, the sliver of an oyster bar on Salem St. in the North End, don’t take it for granted. At 1:30 there’s a 20-minute wait, and the line stretches through the heavy flaps designed to keep cold off the tables near the door when people go in an out. In fact, Neptune is always crowded, and most evenings, especially weekends, crazy busy. It’s small, and cramped, and so noisy that shouting is the norm, and today at least half of it is freezing every time the door opens. But no one seems to mind, as what seems to be the lone and very hard-working waiter runs back and forth in organized frenzy.
This is a shaky season for restaurants. The South End has seen two big closings. Rocca, led by talented and veteran owners and a TV celeb chef, folded Jan. 1. Ginger Park, with another well-known chef, closed a month or so earlier. There are rumblings about more. Meanwhile, openings pop up like mushrooms after rain. And it’s January. And it’s cold. And it snows and snows and snows.
So how come Neptune is so busy this January day? Neptune has been going strong since November 2004, so owners Jeff Nace and his wife had the advantage of building up clientele and reputation in the fat years. In fact, it’s easy to see that the word has spread beyond Boston when you see patrons toting suitcases out, and the couple next to you is talking about home in Atlanta.
Small helps to fill the place, but turnover matters most — and Neptune’s kitchen staff, working in a closet-sized space, is fast, and the waiter super-efficient. Not to mention the lightning-quick shucker in the window. The menu is almost all seafood, and not cheap, but irresistibly appealing.
And then there’s that feeling that everyone is so happy to be there — to have found a spot even if the two young dudes adjacent are practically in our laps, and the couple on the other side is rather loudly explaining step-by-step their tourist trail through Boston, and those blasts of cold air recur intermittently. We’re happy slurping oysters, and checking out who’s getting the clam chowder, and who’s holding out for lobster rolls. The feeling of everybody being in this together may be one of Neptune’s biggest and most-enduring attractions.