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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Thursday, July 25

Gapers Block

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When I began writing this review, I went online to get address and price information and was stunned by what I found when I typed in the words, "Half Shell."

Surprisingly, it wasn't the absence of reviews by professional food critics that disturbed me, but rather the sheer number of negative comments from unhappy patrons I found online. Was it possible that they were complaining about the same place that I have been frequenting for years and recommending to anyone with a craving for king crab or oysters?

Sure, Half Shell is a marvelously wretched subterranean dive decorated in a gaudy nautical theme and manned by a no-nonsense staff. But the gritty atmosphere provides the perfect setting to dig into a plate piled high with fresh seafood and not worry when the buttery-dipping sauce dribbles down your chin.

It is impossible that everyone is not as excited about this place as I am. I am determined to prove these people wrong:

From a reviewer: "...The place was half empty, yet they insisted on seating us at the smallest table in the hallway. When we asked for better seating, we were ignored, so we left. I won't go back again."

I am baffled by the request for "better seating." Half Shell is a cramped, dingy room lit by a few bare light bulbs with a bar running along one side and, on the other, a handful of tables that servers must adroitly squeeze between on their travels to and from the kitchen. There is no such thing as "better seating." In fact, as someone who once waited two hours for table on a Friday night, I can tell you that a seat anywhere in the joint is something to brag about. Sometimes you are seated at a table; sometimes you are seated at the bar; sometimes you are seated next to intelligent people; sometimes you are seated next to a table full of obnoxious guys. You order a cold beer and make the best of it.

Likewise, many folks blubbered about the bartender who was "too mean." Here's a tip for these people (and others who see a visit to Half Shell in their future): Be nice to the bartender for it is he who controls the seating and how often it occurs. Even on a weekend night when the line is spilling out into the street, the bartender -- without asking anyone's names -- somehow keeps track of who is waiting for a table. He mysteriously makes notes on a sheet of paper hidden under the bar. I asked to see his pad one time and he refused -- I'm convinced because he has his own special tracking system: "Bald guy with three obnoxious friends" or "annoying girl who asks too many questions."

From another reviewer: "...A friend of mine described this place as an "open running sewer," but I didn't believe him. Now that I've been there, I believe him."

I do not pretend to be an expert on "open running sewers," but when I was in grade school, my family lived in an ancient house on the East Coast and one day our septic tank backed up and flooded our yard and the rest of our neighborhood, and it smelled just awful and no one would talk to my family for an entire month. That was nothing like Half Shell.

From a reviewer: "Crab legs were far from fresh. I walked out of there feeling like I went to Red Lobster on a bad day, except that I paid double the Red Lobster price."

I haven't been to Red Lobster since I was 14; the only thing I remember about it was that everything but the silverware was deep-fried. I can assure you that while Half Shell does offer a few deep fried options (namely shrimp and smelt), they are best known for their king crab legs -- a gigantic portion of flawlessly steamed crab served a top a bed of fries and toast. Save for a few fishy bites here and there (perhaps inspiring the Red Lobster metaphor above), the crab is definitely fresh or at least fresh enough that for the last 35 years, people have come from far and wide to savor the delicious crustacean dish. As for the cost? The king crab special is a pricey $24 -- not exactly a bargain, but still less than you'll pay at more pretentious seafood places around the city.

I more than respect everyone's right to form their own opinions, but I much prefer when they agree with mine. Half Shell is awesome. Go there. Now. And don't ask for "better seating."

Half Shell is located at 676 W. Diversey, Chicago, IL 60657. They accept cash only.

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Paul / November 10, 2003 8:51 AM

... and when you go, make sure you take your hat off. If you don't, the bartender will yell at you and point to the sign on the bar.

I can't add much to the review, since I've only had a dozen decent oysters and a beer at the Half Shell, but I can recommend a much better deal at King Crab, at 1816 N. Halsted. Sit at the bar and you can slurp down all you can eat oysters, clams or shrimp for just $15.95 They have some very cheap daily specials for king crab too.

j3s / November 10, 2003 10:06 AM

Sometimes I think a reason why there's so little press about Half Shell is that its fans really want to keep it a secret. I love the place, best crab legs that I've had in town, need to go back. It's kind of an institution; when I told my mom that I went there, she told me she had her first date with my stepdad there almost 20 years ago.


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