Snockey's: Three generations, 100 years of seafood

Cofounder Frank Snock (center) at the original in 1912.
Cofounder Frank Snock (center) at the original in 1912.
Posted: May 03, 2012

Snockey’s Oyster and Crab House — a Queen Village fish joint across Washington Avenue from the equally quirky Mummers Museum — turns 100 Thursday.

Longevity like that is astonishing, given that a restaurant marking its 10th birthday is considered an odds-defying institution in this town.

And, in this era of ever more polished menus, the fact that Snockey’s is celebrating a century in business is even more improbable given its old-school menu of fish house classics like deep-fried filet of flounder, fish cakes, deviled clams, and broiled bluefish.

But in spite of the strangely sweet and floury lobster bisque and the crab fries under a damp clump of crabmeat, Snockey’s is one of very few places I return to again and again.

For one thing, the raw bar (stocked daily with as many as a dozen oyster varieties and often three types of clams) is a rare haven for oyster obsessives.

Some may bemoan the harsh lighting, the absence of mignonette sauce, the inconsistent shucking that occasionally leaves a shard of a shell on your tongue. Yet I much prefer this experience to oyster-slurping I’ve done at many fancier places, where the bivalves are often priced at $3 plus apiece, and frequently shucked and left to languish for hours ahead of service. That’s not what oysters are about.

At Snockey’s, if you sit at the bar, you watch your oysters meet the business end of an oyster knife, and they are served forthwith. If you snag a seat during “clammy hour,” you’ll pay just $9 per dozen for the pleasure. This is less than the price of raw oysters at Whole Foods, where you have a choice of only one or two types and then the chore of shucking them.

Another happy hour bargain? The Clammy Mary. It’s a Bloody Mary in a pint glass, full to the brim and topped with a skewer of three just-shucked littlenecks — for $3.99. (For perspective, a similar libation costs $8.50 at Center City’s excellent Oyster House — plus an additional $3.75 if you’d like those littlenecks.) Perhaps this focus on value has been the secret to 100 years of success.

Of course, it could also be the hands-on approach of the Snock family, which has run the business for three generations. Though the restaurant has moved twice (from its original location on the 100 block of South Street, to just off South at Second Street, to its current location at Second and Washington, where it’s been since 1918), it has always been a family affair.

Rose Snock — founder with her husband, Frank — cooked for 79 years before surrendering her oyster stew recipe to her successors, sons Ed and Bob, a recipe that is still used to this day.

Today Rose’s grandkids, Ken and Skip, oversee day-to-day operations. Both started washing dishes and shucking oysters as soon as they were old enough to reach the sink, and neither has plans to retire. The Snocks believe that strict adherence to tradition has fueled their 10 decades of prosperity.

“We don’t have capers in our kitchen. There’s no fennel-leek reduction back there,” says Ken Snock.

The formula of fresh seafood at fair prices has worked all this time, and the Snocks see no reason to fiddle with it now.

For me, though, Snockey’s doesn’t just provide the best prices on my favorite food. When I worked across the street for four years in the middle aughts, the place was, at least at first, too foreboding to enter. Eventually, I gathered my nerve to enter this world that seemed restricted to only a tried-and-true native South Philly clientele. Once inside, I felt welcome.

Though the beers on tap are mainly mass-market, there is always at least one craft brew such as Heavy Seas or Victory. On that first visit, a longtime bartender told me a credible-sounding story about a murder that had occurred decades before in the building where I then worked.

“There’s a ghost on the third floor there, haven’t you heard him?” he asked. From then on, I found it impossible to stay too late at the office or to go in by myself on weekends — a major gift for an ambitious yet superstitious twentysomething. My love of oysters was nascent but my devotion to Snockey’s was immediately cemented.

Over time I would learn to appreciate the utter lack of pretense and disregard for trends at this spot. The menu does not change. Which is not to say there isn’t something very throwback-hip about Snockey’s. The red-paneled and dimly lit back room, lined with little booths on one side of the narrow space and a long bar on the other, reminds me vaguely of a dilapidated Ranstead Room (Stephen Starr’s pseudo-secret cocktail lounge).

And in recent years, the crowd has shifted somewhat.

“We sell more raw oysters now than we have at any other time I can remember,” says Ken Snock. He has noticed a new generation, people who grew up accustomed to eating raw fish thanks to the sushi craze of the ’80s and ’90s, embrace his restaurant in a way their parents didn’t.

“Oyster appreciation skipped a generation, and I’m glad to see it’s back.”

Younger oyster lovers — always alert to great deals — sit shoulder to shoulder with the old guard during happy hour. If you squint at the unironically displayed nautical-themed paintings, you can imagine that the pipe-smoking, white-bearded mariner is winking from his place of honor on the wall.

After oysters, the younger crowd may be headed to a gastropub in the neighborhood for dinner, or to another ultrahip restaurant in town. But, well after these of-the-moment restaurants have run their course and shuttered, I’ll keep coming back to Philadelphia’s old-school fish house for briny bites of our shared, authentic food heritage. And I can only hope the place doesn’t change a bit in the next 100 years.

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