“Either you’re an oyster bar guest or a dining room guest,” says John Gurgone, General Manager at Shaw’s Crab House.
Shaw’s is the 31-year-old Chicago institution known for its simply steamed seafood, and as John points out, the restaurant offers two distinctive but equally iconic experiences. On one hand, there’s the dining room: 330 seats, white tablecloths, 17 servers at a given time, reservations strongly recommended. This is where tourists come in after architectural tours and where locals gather for business lunches or to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries.
The oyster bar is a separate room entirely, with around 95 seats available exclusively for walk ins — a mix of bar seats, high-tops, and casual wood tables. Oysters, predictably, are the main event: the centerpiece of the room is an oyster shucking station, where at any given time 12 varieties are served (six east coast, six west coast).
Otherwise the menus are largely the same, but it’s the vibrant atmosphere that sets it apart: a live band plays jazz and blues music every Sunday through Thursday. Here’s how the two spaces work together.
Back of the House
Both the oyster bar and the dining room have their own dedicated kitchens. All oysters are shucked in the oyster bar kitchen, and there’s also a separate sushi kitchen in the back of the restaurant that serves both rooms. Since the main dining room is three times the size of the oyster bar, John says, “It has a kitchen that’s four times the size.”
“It’s pretty amazing,” he adds. “In the oyster bar you have two cooks, and on a Saturday night they’ll feed 250 people.”
People come to Shaw’s to eat, says John, whether they’re in the main dining room or the oyster bar. And what’s made them successful over the years is consistency — serving high-quality, seasonal product as simply as possible.
Some cooks work in both the main kitchen and the oyster bar kitchen, but the servers never cross over from one side to the other. The oyster bar has four servers on a given night; the dining room has up to 17. While the training process and steps of service are similar for both rooms, in the oyster bar servers have larger stations due to the more casual atmosphere.
Most of the staff at Shaw’s has been with the team for an exceptionally long time. John says his oyster bar bartenders average 15 years there, and his main four servers average 10+ years. In the dining room, the same thing: four of the servers have been here close to 30 years.
“I’ve been in the restaurant game since I was 14 years old — I’m 32 — and I’ve never worked for people who took care of their employees as well as they do here,” he adds. The original chef and GM at Shaw’s are still executive partners in the restaurant, which speaks to the familial environment of the team.
When John interviewed for his job at Shaw’s, his closing words were, “This is my last job interview.”
John explains: “I like to say that anybody from Chicago eats in the oyster bar, and anybody not from Chicago or on business eats in the dining room.” He grew up in Chicago and has worked at Shaw’s for two years, and to this day he hasn’t eaten a meal in the dining room.
Interestingly, both rooms have around the same number of regulars — but the nature of those relationships is completely different. In the dining room Shaw’s has a lunch club: behind the host stand is a board with removable metal plates, each inscribed with a name. When lunch club regulars come in to dine, the plates are placed on their tables — and these are people who eat lunch at Shaw’s as many as four days a week.
In the dining room regulars are “Mr. Reed” or “The Resnicks,” but in the oyster bar they’re more likely to be “John” or “Bill.” They’re known on a first-name basis because they don’t make reservations. “When they come in it’s like Cheers — you know everybody by name, and first name only,” says John.
We asked John if the oyster bar and main dining room businesses complement each other in strategic ways, but he thinks the overall split of food and beverage sales is pretty similar between the two.
One way the spaces do complement each other is in availability and overflow. If someone calls on Saturday looking for a 7 p.m. reservation, they probably can’t get one in the dining room — but they’ll only have to wait 20 minutes for a table at the oyster bar. “That’s pretty freaking cool for a restaurant that’s booked solid 65% of the year,” he says.
On a given night there will be one manager in the oyster bar and between two and four in the dining room. In both spaces, a manager will speak to every table that comes in — no small feat, since on a Saturday night Shaw’s serves up to 1,000 people between the two rooms.
“That’s why I work here, why I work in this industry. It’s why they hired me. You could give someone good service and be polite, but to give someone hospitality is totally different. It’s equal to people dining in your house, coming over for dinner. That’s hospitality — not just giving service.”