My fondness for the Aiken Fish House & Oyster Bar is not as ardent as most locals’, who, in a newspaper poll, voted it “Best New Aiken Restaurant” when it opened in 2019. The fish is fresh and the preparations are tasty – no doubt about that — and service is eager-to-please. However, despite it being a mile from where I live, I tend not to eat at it too often. Why? It feels formulaic, which, to an aficionado of restaurants with unique personality, is not compelling.
Having gotten that off my chest, let me tell you about the good things to eat at Aiken Fish House. That is, Aiken Fish and Oyster House, meaning that James River oysters on the half shell are swell — simple, direct, subtly briny. Raw is the best way to have them. These oysters doctored up with cheese et al or fried tend to lose their subtle marine charm.
Among the broad assortment of flatfish, grouper is a stand-out. It flakes easily into firm, bite-size nuggets, the sweet meat especially well complemented by blackening spices. Fried and broiled versions also are available. The grouper comes as a sandwich or as a “grouper bites” appetizer with a ramekin of melted butter or as the centerpiece of dinner along with two side dishes and a couple of crisp-coat hushpuppies.
Beyond simple fish and oysters, the kitchen’s repertoire features a Lowcountry shrimp boil, shrimp & grits, fish tacos, Alaskan crab legs, and Maine lobsters.
Noteworthy side dishes: intensely verdant bacon-laced collard greens, heavyweight mac & cheese, cheese grits, and whole potatoes. Sweet potato fries come with a cup of marshmallow Fluff for dipping — a pairing that seems silly but tastes great. (Think Thanksgiving sweet potato casserole with melted marshmallows on top.)
Indoor seating at booths and tables surrounds customers with expectable nautical brick-a-brac. Outdoor tables under a tent in the parking lot were set up to deal with Pandemic lock-down and social-distancing rules. Whether outdoor seats will continue beyond the panic is not currently known.