Parked out in front of Harpoon Larry’s Oyster Bar is a decrepit 70s-era conversion van with a giant lobster draped over it. As far as I can tell, neither the van nor the lobster has moved in years, and both are quietly decaying in their awesome splendor next to the obligatory light-up alphabet sign. It’s weird and trashy and fantastically alluring all once … and it’s a pretty good metaphor for the Hampton institution that is Harpoon Larry’s.
Harpoon Larry’s is a veritable dive in the best sense of the word. The décor is random-water-related-stuff tacked to the wall, the vibe is casual and familiar, the service is chummy, and the kitchen is probably a natural history museum of grease formations. And the food is generally pretty great. While the occasional Hampton Roads joint can half-assedly get the dive part down, very few turn out consistently repeat-visit worthy fare and fun like Harpoon Larry’s.
Open since 1991, I can’t tell that Harpoon Larry’s menu has changed much. Remarkably, the prices have gone up far less than rate of inflation over the past 20 years. As if I needed to tell you, the menu is seafood-centric – simply, expertly and consistently prepared. From Old Bay-dosed steamed shrimp to plump crab cakes to spicy blackened flounder to sumptuous raw oysters (they can always tell you where the oysters were plucked from), Harpoon Larry’s seafood is always – literally always – spot-on. In the dozen plus times I’ve eaten there, I’ve never had so much as an errant oyster-shell flake wind up on my plate, which is something the vaunted Legal Seafood can’t claim.
The restaurant obviously decided some years ago that they had a formula that worked, and they haven’t tweaked it much. Personally, I’d like to see them branch out a bit and maybe add some depth to what they’ve got going on. I’m thinking some sole meuniere – you know, something bright and light without being too hoity-toity, or maybe expanding out into spicy creole territory. Just a thought.
This isn’t to say that Harpoon Larry’s doesn’t occasionally pull a spectacular surprise out of its crab claw every now and then. The parmesan-encrusted tilapia they had on special one day was a dish far and above Harpoon Larry’s humble trappings. The succulent fish arrived wrapped in a crisp herbed crust that lifted this ordinarily dull fish to impressive heights.
Harpoon Larry’s dining room is really two rooms, which is probably an artifact from the
era in which smoking was allowed in restaurants. Don’t you miss those good old days? Yeah, me neither. In fact, my Harpoon Larry’s experiences vastly improved when I could walk into the room on the left and not feel like I’d just wandered into the middle of a five-alarm fire.
Anyway, the room on the right has the raw bar, some tables and a fish tank. One kid I took there decided to name one of the fish “Sushi.”
That night devolved into a chaotic kid berserker assault, replete with spilled drinks, high-pitched shrieks, and lots of running around. All of which the tattooed and pierced waitstaff cheerfully responded to with extraordinary patience and professionalism. Not bad, seeing as how I was already plotting where I could dispose of a couple pint-sized bodies.
(That’s a joke, Nancy Grace. Chill.)
The left-hand, much larger, room is what used to be the smoking area. It also features the bar, which runs the length of the room, and is really the heart of the restaurant. Stay there long enough, and you can see the restaurant go through several metamorphoses. You start with the early crowd, which means families with small children flinging food on the floor while a few guys who are probably a lot younger than they look sit at the bar, quietly drinking themselves into oblivion. As the evening wears on, the food flingers are displaced by couples and groups of friends looking to knock back a few beers. Every now and then, you’ll see some small child sent to the bar by an unhappy mom to fetch a father having too much fun watching NASCAR with some of the old guys, who by now have invariably have been joined by 20ish shot-wielding women whose hemlines aren’t too far off from their necklines. Not too long after that, the place goes full-on nightspot as the crowd gets louder, looser, and a whole lot more fun.
One starts to wonder: isn’t this more like what a bar is supposed to be? Why here? At this random seafood restaurant? Why not at a, well, you know … at a bar?
Well, dear reader, this is because the state (commonwealth, whatever) of Virginia is apparently run by a bunch of fifth graders with the collective common sense of a sea cucumber. McDonnell and his merry bunch of nitwits like to yammer on about freedom and small government and the free market, but all that good stuff comes to a screeching halt as soon as alcohol (or uteruses, but that’s another discussion) comes onto the scene.
See – in Virginia, it’s illegal to run a bar. Yep, pretty much on the order of molesting a child. If you want to sell booze, you have to show that 45% of your profits come from non-booze sales, i.e., food and soda. Seeing as how it’s impossible to run a bar and have 55% of your profits come from beef jerky and pork rinds, you pretty much have to run a restaurant instead. A restaurant with a bar inside of it. Like Harpoon Larry’s.
Virginia’s insane liquor laws don’t stop there. It’s illegal to advertise happy hour outside the bar or discuss the price of your drinks outside the establishment. You can sell a shot and a beer, but not a shot in a beer. Waitresses serving alcohol have to be 18, but if you have a license, anyone in your family can sell booze. Virginia’s ABC’s site even says that 11 year olds can sell alcohol if they’re blood relations. Here’s a great video on the topic.
You might ask: what public good does any of this serve?
I would answer: God only knows.
But I’m not bitter. Not at all.
But it’s exactly this kind of friction that makes Harpoon Larry’s the cool place it is. It’s a bar in a state that’s trying to outlaw bars. You get the neighborhood barhounds while folks post reviews complaining about how they sat at the bar with their kids and heard “inappropriate language.” You have uptight neighbors living in crappy apartments complaining about the noise. The dolts at the mattress store next door often pay a galoot to sit outside and keep restaurant patrons from parking in their lot (lest an 11 p.m. mattress customer be thwarted). You even get surreal treats, like when a guy in a Santa Claus outfit stumbled out of the restroom only to do a faceplant in front of a bunch of blue-polyester Air Force guys.
“We only served him coffee!” an overly nervous waitress blurted out as the stunned blue-suiters looked on, slack-jawed.
Yeah, this place rocks.
Address: 2000 North Armistead Avenue, Hampton
Phone: (757) 827-0600
Note: There appears to be a place of the same name in Virginia Beach with a different menu. I’ve never been, but I am 100% sure it’s not nearly as cool as the Hampton joint.