I can't shake the feeling upon entering the sterile cavernous hall, ceiling fans silently stirring the air-conditioned void, that everything here is eerily lifelike. That low hum in the background? That's not the compressors straining to refrigerate the wholesale tonnage of shellfish kept on hand. No, it's the sound of your soul being inexorably sucked from your body, like so much claw meat from the shell, by the utter vacuity of the atmosphere.
The dutiful young waitress waters a table full of octogenarians and pedals on over to see if I need another minute before I order. “No, please, please let me order now.” I get the burger, medium-well, and fries and a Coke. The safer, the better. Just blend in. Keep my head down and this all will be over in a half-dozen oversized bites. Pay the check, in cash. Back slowly away and nobody'll get hurt. …
Ah, but seriously. The burger is good enough to change my mood. Though there's nothing, I mean nothing, happening on the floor, I can hear laughter coming from the open kitchen. Happy cooks are a good sign. They might just save humanity, or at least the humanity of this place. And that's enough for me to relax; that somebody back there is engaged in an authentic reality, rather than filling the role for which they've rented themselves out by the hour.
My 4-year-old is excited; there is steamed shrimp and jasmine rice on the kids' menu and a coloring book with an occupations theme and a little box of four crayons. She's oblivious to the world beyond our booth, except when our server comes by for our order and she pretends shyness. Later, she stuns our server by confidently asking to see the dessert menu. The Reuben is as good as the burger and the steamed shrimp (nine of them on the kids' portion) are just slightly spiced. A scoop of vanilla ice cream seals this experience in her mind, and mine, as a favorite take-your-kid-to-work experience.
The first breezes of fall on a quiet evening transform the patio overlooking the sea of asphalt that is Courthouse Place from one of the more banal rings of hell to a tolerable purgatory. This time I'm serious, and I need to get down to business. I have to force myself to order shellfish and raw oysters whose origins are unknown on a Sunday night. But this is the work of an honest critic: subjecting oneself to the average experience, sometimes in places one would never choose to spend time or money. I decide to splurge on the Big Daddy Steamer Platter ($30) and a baby spinach salad, which turns out to be the best decision I make. A nice vinaigrette, shreds of parmesan and chunks of pancetta are perfect foils to the burgeoning platter of nine oysters on the half shell, a dozen little neck clams, a pound of steamed shrimp, and a half-pound of steamed crab legs. And it's all good. Almost.
As the evening cools, half a Little League team and its parents take up three or four tables with several orders of chicken fingers and the pan-seared salmon special. It could be a commercial for one of those oxymoronic neighborhood chains.
But then why is it always that last oyster on the plate? I've eaten enough good fresh oysters to know as soon as I put a bad one in my mouth. Sure, no matter what you do, if you eat oysters, you're going to get a bad one once in a while. But there's a moment at the threshold, when the liquor hits your lips, in which you must decide what you'll swallow whole and what you'll spit out. I surreptitiously spit into my napkin and turn it over on the plate. Coffee and chocolate-chip cheesecake erase the flavor from my palate, but not my memory. I walk away, happily. S
Shackleford's Southside ($$)
11500 Busy St.
(Courthouse and Midlothian)
Lunch and dinner daily: 11 a.m.-midnight