The restaurant that lit up Oak Bluffs

For a shining moment, the Oyster Bar reigned supreme.

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It was early June 1987, the day of the much-heralded opening of the Oyster Bar (an American Bistro) in Oak Bluffs, Raymond and Jaime Schilcher’s (now Jaime Hamlin) follow-up to Feasts in Chilmark, and there was a lot riding on it. One hundred people had received invitations, and were eagerly waiting to find out how the Schilchers had transformed the old Brass Bass space at the end of Circuit Ave. 

But there was one small problem. There was a pinhole leak in one of the gas lines in the kitchen, and the board of health refused to give the restaurant a license to open, and even though the leak had been repaired, the inspector wasn’t coming back that day. Raymond and Jaime were not about to turn away 100 people. 

Time for Plan B. They rented grills and pot burners from Tilton Rentals and decided to do the cooking out on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant, much to the surprise of the motorists passing by and pedestrians being seduced by exotic aromas. The next morning, Schilcher got a call from the board of selectmen, and as he said, “They gave me a good tongue lashing.” But ultimately they agreed to give the Oyster Bar its permit, and the restaurant was open for business — with a real kitchen — later that day. 

In retrospect, Schilcher said, “It put us on the map. Everyone was talking about us. We couldn’t have asked for a better opening.”

This was not the Schilchers’ first rodeo. The couple had met at the Quilted Giraffe, a nouvelle cuisine eatery in midtown Manhattan. Jaime had restaurant experience on the Vineyard, and when she and Raymond were married, they came to the Island and opened up Feasts, off Post Office Square in Edgartown. “Raymond wanted to open a store like Dean and DeLuca’s,” Jaime told me recently, “and for the first year, we had a takeout business, and then we began serving dinners.” Buoyed by their success in Edgartown, they opened up Feasts in Chilmark, where the Chilmark Tavern is today. 

Back in 1986, Chilmark was the hinterlands for restaurants, but Feasts — with its open kitchen, its eight-foot-long mesquite grill, and hearty fare — was, according to Schilcher, turning away about 100 people a night. The problem, as with so many restaurants on the Island, was the short season. Business in Chilmark dropped off abruptly after Labor Day, and on top of that, they had no liquor license. So after a couple of years, they decided to sell. “It’s like what they say about owning a boat,” Schilcher said, “the two happiest moments are when you buy it and when you sell it.” 

Schilcher was about to get happy all over again. He got a call from realtor Natalie Conroy, who told him the Brass Bass, a restaurant in Oak Bluffs, was for sale. So on a bitter cold day in January 1987, Raymond and Jaime pulled aside a piece of plywood on the back of the building (there was construction going on at the time) and crawled through a hole in the wall into a bathroom, and then into the main dining room: “It was spectacular,”  Schilcher said. “We couldn’t believe it!”

The Schilchers cobbled together a deal with the owners, and bought the lease for about $250,000, not an inconsiderable amount in 1997. On top of that, they had to rehab the place from top to bottom, but the bones of the building were magnificent: a 16-foot ceiling, towering windows fronting Circuit Ave., and Grecian columns. And most importantly, it had a beer and wine license for the first two years, which they later converted to a full liquor license. 

Up until that time, Oak Bluffs was hardly a mecca for dining. Since the Brass Bass had closed, there were Giordano’s and Stanley’s in the summer. Year-round, there was the Ocean View and there was Linda Jean’s, and … well, there was Linda Jean’s. There were other places elsewhere on the Island, but the place that Schilcher was most fond of was the Ocean Club at Five Corners in Vineyard Haven. The Ocean Club was a freewheeling bistro that opened in the ’80s in the midst of sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll — “It had a wonderful ambiance,” Schilcher said, “straightforward American food, great staff, and the owners, Matt and Richie, were great showmen. The Ocean Club sort of showed me the way, then we took it to the next level.”

To begin with, the dining room of the new Oyster Bar was a showstopper. There were the high ceilings, and the columns, and Schilcher with perhaps just a touch of ironic hyperbole proclaimed, “It was like a classic cathedral in France — the 13-foot ceilings brought it closer to God.” 

“The Oyster Bar had big windows, and we got sheer white material to put over them; it floated in the breeze,” Jaime said. “The columns and the walls were a pale pink.” It also had what was one of the first open kitchens; diners enjoyed seeing the inner workings of the kitchen. Only the dish staff were behind a partial wall. 

“I said to Raymond,” Jaime said, ”you have to have an office. So he got some glass doors and built an office in the corner of the room.”

There was a carved mahogany bar running nearly the whole length of the building, with a raw bar at the end. 

Jaime, who was in charge of the front end of the restaurant, describes some of the decorative touches in the room: “There was a pink neon strip running along the top of a wall, lots of flowers, soft lighting, and really pretty Breuer chairs.” The room was allegedly once described to Island musician David Crohan, who is blind, “as being like a woman’s body, pink and sensual.” 

And then there was the artwork. “Rez Williams and Allen Whiting gave us some paintings,” Jaime said. One night Thomas Hoving, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, came in and bought a Rez Williams painting — “Icarus” — right off the wall, and went home and hung it in his apartment.

But a beautiful dining room would be nothing without fine food, wine, and service. The Oyster Bar had all three in spades. Schilcher brought an international bistro sensibility to the restaurant … everything from rotisserie suckling pigs cooked on an open wood fire to seafood couscous with roasted monkfish and homemade lobster sausage. The wine list was superb, and he surrounded himself with a bright, young, and talented staff. 

 

Schilcher hired Ben DeForest, who has gone on to open up such restaurants on the Island as the Red Cat, the Cardboard Box, and Oyster Bar 02557. He came fresh from a stint at Aujourd’hui restaurant at the Four Seasons Hotel in Boston, and became chef de cuisine at the Oyster Bar.

“Raymond took Ben under his wing and brought him along,” Jaime said, “and he was good, similar in style to Ray … they both could coax flavor out of things you wouldn’t think they should be able to …”

Constance Messmer, former head of the waitstaff, exemplifies the level of service diners came to expect at the Oyster Bar. “It was all about my ability to know Raymond’s food/flavors,” she wrote in an email, “and the raw bar flavors, like how Hama Hama oysters have a sweet finish, like a cool cucumber, and what dish was best to follow what, so people didn’t blow out their palate early on with flavor. It was the proper buildup. Get to know your people and feed them the right menu items for a delectable experience.” But the experience didn’t end with dinner — the Oyster Bar was a total scene. 

To put things into perspective, it was the ’90s. There was a lot of Gordon Gekko money out there, and here on the Vineyard, you had a lot of high rollers hanging out with locals at the Oyster Bar. As Schilcher says, it was a very democratic place. 

Schilcher has to laugh when he recalls the image of one of his shuckers, Jimmy Hoe, dressed in overalls, looking like a fisherman, drinking wine with a bigwig from American Express.

There was a healthy celebrity scene at the Oyster Bar. Schilcher remembers nights hanging out smoking cigars after hours with Billy Joel and Kevin Costner. 

Constant Messmer remembers the night that the cast of “Beverly Hills 90210” came to eat, and there were kids trying to peer in through the windows. Or the time that Sharon Stone arrived incognito, hiding underneath a big floppy hat. When she got up to go to the restroom, apparently disappointed at not being recognized, she took off her hat and flipped her hair, and sasheyed across the room.

Then there was that incident with Mike Wallace. Local artist Richard Lee, whose paintings on glass could at times be risqué, if not pornographic, did an illustration for the men’s room. His wife, Claudia Lee, remembers that it was called “Lamb of God,” and it had some images one could consider disturbing.  

“Mike Wallace had a fit,” Claudia wrote in an email, “and he made the Oyster Bar owners remove it, as he found it so offensive and he was such a good customer. I think it was sort of understandable myself.” 

Beyond Schilcher’s culinary expertise, he was something of a showman. He could often be seen popping the cork off a champagne bottle with a saber. “It was an old German meat-cutter’s knife with a 16-inch blade,” Schilcher said.

One night, on Schilcher’s birthday, things got a little rowdy. The singing group Sister Sledge was in the dining room, and the group’s hit song, “We Are Family” began to play. Schilcher jumped up on a table dancing while the sisters got up and sang along, and 250 people went crazy. Adding to the crowd’s excitement was the fact that Schilcher’s head was precariously close to the whirling overhead fan. “It was a birthday night to remember,” Schilcher said, “but it was a rare night when something didn’t happen.”

There were wild times.There were good times. “The place was big, loud, brash, no one had ever seen anything like it,” Jaime said. “The scene was buzzy … there were drugs to be had; people would say, I don’t feel like we’re on the Vineyard, this feels more like New York.”

So what is the legacy of the Oyster Bar? The restaurant closed its doors in 1997, but it opened the doors to a whole new generation of restaurants on the Island. Not that you could ever reproduce the full-tilt craziness of the ’90s. (“The restaurant business is wildly different than what it was back then,” DeForest said.)

But the Oyster Bar wasn’t just about “the scene”; it was about raising the bar on cuisine on the Island. 

Having said that, “Raymond had a gift for making a splash,” DeForest said. “He knew how to make people feel lucky to be there. What I learned from Raymond was how to create a feeling — a feeling of excitement.

“It was the right place at the right time.”