One of the striking things about Delaney Oyster House, the excellent new seafood lounge I reviewed this week, is the absence of seafood towers there. Although the downtown Charleston restaurant stresses its raw shellfish service, Delaney breaks with current trends by putting its clams, oysters, shrimp and crab claws on the same platter.
So does the lack of stacking mean the seafood tower is about to come down? Or is the single-level approach just a Delaney idiosyncrasy? According to people associated with restaurants which swear by towers, the latter seems more likely.
“Plateaus are still selling very well at The Darling,” says Colleen Troy, spokeswoman for the Upper King Street restaurant. At The Darling, a $90 platter consists of clams and oysters down below, and crab legs and lobster up top. Troy estimates it feeds eight people, adding “Many larger parties often start their meal with a plateau or two.”
Seafood towers date back at least two decades, but it appears their popularity was dented by the Great Recession of 2008. Towers, which were slowly gaining traction in big cities, reemerged around 2014, when Food Republic published a story titled “Are we on the verge of a seafood tower revolution?” pointing out that chefs were making room on the traditional tiers for prepared seafood, such as oyster shooters and crudo.
Chief among the chefs leading the seafood tower charge was Mike Lata, who invested in plenty of tower architecture before opening The Ordinary in late 2012, although not enough to meet the demand created by the restaurant energetically circulating images of its signature tower.
“I bet we sell more triple towers than I thought,” Lata’s partner Adam Nemirow told Eater Charleston in 2013. “We've had to order more cages.”
By the following year, national interest in seafood towers was climbing dramatically, a phenomenon illustrated irrefutably by a graph showing Google searches. The number of people seeking out seafood towers has increased approximately 600 percent since The Ordinary’s early days.
According to Google, when people enter “seafood tower” into its search engine, they’re also likely to enter the words “Ruth’s Chris.” The steak chain in 2015 introduced its tower “as part of a broader menu refresh,” according to company spokeswoman Stephanie Tobben.
The Ruth’s Chris tower isn’t so much a tower as a raised tray with shrimp and a pair of lobster heads with parsley stuffed in their mouths, but it surely helped alert Americans to perhaps the most festive element of seafood consumption.
“I guess the mentality is that it is the raw bar version of a tasting menu,” says Kyle Anderson, general manager of Rappahannock Oyster Bar, where towers are holding strong.
Among the restaurateurs who share Anderson’s confidence in the timelessness of the tower is Ravi Scher, who earlier this year on Facebook teased the opening of IOP Raw, Long Island Café’s adjacent raw bar, with the word “Progress” and a single image: A gleaming silver three-tier tower, tags still attached.