If you eat in restaurants, you have seen — and likely consumed — shellfish from Island Creek Oysters. The company has been growing and selling oysters for almost 30 years, its success measured by the bivalves’ ubiquity on menus in this region and beyond. (At California’s French Laundry, the oysters in chef Thomas Keller’s signature “oysters and pearls” dish are Island Creeks.)
But it isn’t until you visit Island Creek’s main campus in Duxbury that the full hatchery-to-table vision comes into focus.
It’s a fine New England story. Skip Bennett, lobsterman’s son, grows up digging shellfish in Duxbury, where shipbuilding was once the town business, until cutting-edge technologies like steamboats and trains came on the scene. Bennett decides he’s going to try growing clams here: Clams die, exeunt clams. But what kid from Massachusetts is going to give up on his home turf that easily? So he pivots to oysters, which turn out to thrive in the rough and tumble microclimate of frigid Duxbury Bay — thus seeding new industry in the area, with many arms: shellfish hatchery and farm, distribution company, direct-to-consumer retail outfit, sustainable aquaculture foundation, caviar packager, tinned fish purveyor. (Coming soon: Island Creek’s own cannery, in New Bedford.)
Island Creek offers hatchery tours that give guests a glimpse of the science, industry, and business sense behind every platter of fresh-shucked oysters. And there is a casual spot by the water to eat those oysters, along with clam dip and chips, caviar-topped hot dogs, and more. The outdoor Raw Bar reopens for the season May 3; as of January, there’s a year-round indoor space too. But something was missing: a (slightly) more formal restaurant showcasing Island Creek oysters and other sustainable seafood. When the historic Winsor House Inn — built in 1803 by one of Duxbury’s most prominent shipbuilding families — became available right across the way, the move was clear. Add it to the portfolio.
The Winsor House opened in late 2021. Earlier that year, Bennett and partners Shore Gregory, Garrett Harker, and Jeremy Sewall had closed their decade-old Island Creek Oyster Bar in Kenmore Square, parting ways. It feels like a million light years ago, but in some ways the Winsor House picks up where Island Creek Oyster Bar left off. Like the Boston restaurant, it is a culmination: the place where all the hard work of production and procurement comes together on the plate. It is the knot that ties the Island Creek package together.
A meal here must begin with oysters. (It’s also fine to end with them.) The Island Creeks are as good as ever, but even better are the Aunt Dotty variety the company grows on the tidal flats at Saquish Neck. (They’re named for Bennett’s aunt.) Also from Saquish are the excellent Tumblecans, a collaboration with Chicago chef Paul Kahan of the Publican, tumbled to encourage growth and create a shell with a deep cup. These meaty oysters are a rare treat, harvested for just a few months in late fall and early winter. The raw bar list shifts depending on availability, and might include Sand Dunes from Prince Edward Island, Breakwaters from Sakonnet River, R.I., Puffers from Wellfleet, or Aphrodites from South Thomaston, Maine. Whatever the variety, the farmer who grew it is listed alongside. Oysters are served with lemon and mignonette. You can also get cocktail sauce, but only if you ask: “It took me two years to grow it. It takes two seconds to screw it up,” reads a quote printed on the menu from Bennett, in reference to the condiment.
You can get full caviar service, with hash browns, sour cream, and more to accompany the white sturgeon eggs from Sterling Farms in California or Siberian caviar from Adamas in Italy. A more economical option might be adding caviar to your oysters, for $8.50 a pop. There are crudo dishes, kept simple and elegant so you can taste the raw fish: delicious but diminutive squares of tuna with kohlrabi, lardo, and salsa verde; Japanese hamachi with citrus and salt.
Elegance is sprinkled throughout executive chef Ben Fisher’s menu: a spring toast topped with ricotta and English pea salsa; roasted beet salad with labneh, kumquats, and smoked trout roe; a lovely piece of Arctic char beneath a thatch of greens, shaved rhubarb, and cucumber, with pine nut-nettle pesto and a sweet-spicy vinaigrette. But more often the Winsor House aesthetic leans cheeky, riffing on New England seaside traditions. Don’t let the double-negative of the “It’s Not Not Chowder” throw you. It is, and it’s a very positive experience — creamy, just thick enough, smoky with bacon, and stocked with mussels and clams. “I still think about that chowder,” a friend told me the other day, recalling a meal we shared there a year ago. It’s still that good.
“Ugly sliders” are irresistible, textures and flavors colliding on the tongue — crunchy fried oysters on squishy, sweet Hawaiian rolls with bacon, pickles, lettuce, eel sauce, and horseradish aioli. One of the best dishes on the menu is a kind of surf-and-turf toast, topped with crab, rich beef tongue, bright and sharp pickled mushrooms, Calabrian chile, sesame seeds, and thin-sliced, bright green spring onion. Another gorgeous medley of flavors and textures. Driveway Clams, the sort of dish you could make with friends over a burner in your driveway after a day of clamming, is a brimming bowl of shellfish with beans and chorizo in fragrant, sherry-scented broth with a generous dollop of aioli and hunks of toasted bread for dipping. The Winsor House’s take on fish and chips is particularly striking, featuring whole, head-on, bone-in branzino battered and fried tempura-style. It’s delicious, crisp with moist flesh. (For those who don’t eat seafood, there are options: chicken, steak, a burger. There’s also a kids’ menu.)
Not every dish lands: Swordfish and pork meatballs, for example, are overcooked, nearly burned on the outside and dry, in need of more tomato sauce. I cannot judge whether “Mary Alisa’s dank chocolate cake” is indeed dank, as a conscientious objector to the word unless it’s used to describe a basement. But I can say that the restaurant could use a slightly more fleshed-out dessert menu: Vanilla panna cotta with rhubarb granita tastes nice but is strangely runny, and the olive oil cake with caviar and vanilla ice cream seems more like a gimmick than a regular order.
These are quibbles, because the Winsor House experience is lovely. Servers are thoroughly schooled on the menu, and some commute from the city in order to work with Island Creek. There’s a strong cocktail program thanks to beverage director Dave Cagle, plus a nice little amaro list. The decor is a pitch-perfect blend of nautical, rustic, and modern, with brick and old woodwork, vintage oil paintings and a neon horseshoe crab sign, mismatched china and chairs, and different spaces to suit different moods. Along one wall, there’s a mural of a ship sailing the waves by local artist Michael Coyne. (The new indoor raw bar is just as good-looking, with weathered boards on the walls, plentiful plants and flat-screens, and groovy yellow chairs in front of the wood stove.) This is the kind of restaurant you can visit with family for special occasions, with friends for boozy brunches, with a date for drinks and oysters.
But the best way to visit is as part of the package: Hit the bayside party at the Raw Bar for a beer, some oysters, music, and mingling, babies and dogs underfoot. Take a tour, visiting the baby oysters and tasting caviar in the winter, setting out on Duxbury Bay via boat in the warmer months. Then decamp to the Winsor House for dinner and drinks.
It’s a quintessential New England experience, and a perfect summer day.
THE WINSOR HOUSE
390 Washington St., Duxbury, 781-934-0991, www.winsorhouse.islandcreekoysters.com
Prices Appetizers $6-$26, main courses $28-$85, dessert $13-$45.
Hours Dinner Sun-Thu 5-9 p.m., Fri-Sat 5-10 p.m. (Raw bar starts at 4 p.m.; bar open until 11 p.m.) Brunch Sat-Sun 10 a.m.-2 p.m.
Noise level Music can be loud if you’re under a speaker, but conversation otherwise easy.
★★★★★ Extraordinary | ★★★★ Excellent | ★★★ Very good | ★★ Good | ★ Fair | (No stars) Poor
Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.