With the weather so nice on Thursday, I took my bike for a ride down Broad Street on lunch break. Being an adventurous sort, I stopped at that mysterious anachronism known as Byram’s Lobster House , thought twice – briefly, and locked up my bike and went in. If you haven’t been inside, you need to see Byram’s interior. It’s like a Twilight Zone time warp. The web was abuzz on Thursday with the launch of EatingRichmond.com, and here I was sitting down to dine alone at Byram’s.
This story revolves around a cataclysmic event, so I don’t want to waste your time setting the scene. I know from experience, those of you that comment might zero in on the drama irregardless of context, so let’s just get on with it shall we? Um… no. On second thought, I’m gonna linger on stuff and you’re gonna like it. Now. Let’s get on with that.
Sitting in my booth, listening in on a few conversations from the scattered tables of geriatric diners, I Twittered something and played Brickbreaker on my phone. The waiter explained the seafood specials and, when I said I was vegetarian but ate fish, suggested I order the $15 seafood lasagna, or if not that, the beef. How about the specials? “We have a soft-shell crab sandwich with TWO fried crabs on it, with fries and coleslaw for $9.95.” He restated the TWO crabs part, so I went with that and a small order of calamari.
Before leaving, the waiter asked where I was from, disbelieving my response and walked way puzzled about this out of place patron with too many questions and no drink order, not even lemon in his water (!). While waiting, I tried to soak up Byram’s considerable atmosphere. It’s astounding. Really. Go see it. Love it. Hate it. No matter. The place probably should have gone under a decade or two ago, but somehow it persists. So pay your respects before it’s too late.
The calamari came and it was better than expected. Rubbery? A little. But otherwise, satisfactory: non-uniform ringlets and tender tendrils. The breading was heavy, but c’mon. I adjusted my expectations, because I’d imagined disgusting filth covered with a thick layer of dust, and Byram’s blew that image away (at first).
When my soft-shelled crab sammich came out, it looked about as ordinary as could be. Frozen fries, watery mass-produced slaw, sesame seed hamburger bun with tomato, lettuce, and two glistening and darkly golden brown fried crabs that looked like misshapen bloomin’ onions or beer battered something or others. Soft shell crabs are gonna be funny-lookin’ no matter what, so I didn’t scrutinize it. Although it was my choice to have this delicacy sandwich, I looked at the plate with some remorse. But, I hit the thing with hot sauce and a light coating of tartar sauce and went to work.
A couple bites in, I remembered why I found this special item so alluring: I very nearly like soft-shell crabs, but not quite. For an ovo-lacto-pesce vegetarian, this is about as carnivorous as food can be. I’m eating the whole animal, crunching through exoskeleton, slurping up innards, totally indiscriminate chomping. Sure, it’s efficient. No crab is wasted. It’s partially gross and sexy at the same time. Maybe I was out of my mind expecting a sexy delicacy eating experience at Byram’s. These thoughts ran through my head as I worked hard to enjoy ripping through sinews and fins and unidentifiable oozing organs. Whatever, it’s just a crab.
During one bite, I went to pull the sandwich away from my mouth and met some resistance. My mouth was full and chewing, but something was still attached between the sandwich in my hand and my mouthful of food. As I pulled harder, a bit of food started coming out of my mouth and I crossed my eyes trying to see the culprit crab appendage. Bit by bit, my mouthful was pressing against the backs of my teeth and trying to make an exit as I tried to put the sandwich down. I froze when I noticed that a long black hair was dangling from my mouth and bits of crab were tangled up in it and hanging against my chin.
Like a fish caught on a hook
This is no big deal, I thought. Just a harmless pube. I’ll work around this and keep eating. And I tugged on the hair, pulling it taut, unable to dislodge it from my mouth and the food therein. At this point, I couldn’t decide if I should spit out my food or swallow it. Then my gag reflex kicked in, forcing the issue: food in or out – decide! Now I’m chewing to get the hair dislodged and I catch a glimpse of it; thick and wiry, about six inches of it in my hand and the rest between my teeth and tangled around my tongue. Spitting out food would be conspicuous, so I clutch my mouth, trying to hold the food in, gagging some more, pulling on the hair, huffing and puffing through my nose. Inch by inch it’s coming loose as I swallow bits of chewed food, but the sensation of the long limp bristle on my lips and halfway down my throat is nauseating me to the brink. With my hand over my mouth, I’m struggling to swallow, resisting vomiting, and I can feel my throat closing and my face turning red.
When I looked up from the debacle, I assumed I’d made a scene, but no one was staring at me. Before me on the plate was a 10-12 inch long mostly straight black filament, presumably a hair, with bits of chewed crab bound to it, and about a third of the soft-shell crab sandwich, fries, etc. I can’t catch my breath with a seized up throat, stomach tied in knots, blood simmering behind my eyeballs. Can’t bring myself to touch the fries or imagine eating. Surprising, cuz I’m not easily grossed out. The server was busy taking orders and busing tables, but it felt like time for me to get out of there, into the fresh air, and leave the stifling feeling of asphyxiation behind.
I moved the hair to a little plate where lemon wedges had been. I tell the server that I don’t mean to cause trouble (I really mean that, yall – just because I get off the beaten path often, doesn’t mean I want to get flat tires all the time), but there was an issue that made me stop eating. He was stunned by the sight of hair, said understood, apologized and took the little hair tapas to the front house manager, and then to the kitchen, probably to raise hell.
My server came back, apologizing profusely. He explained that no one in the back has hair that long, so they don’t know what caused this mishap. He took the sandwich off the bill as I rose and went to the front to pay. I left an undisclosed tip (sorry, exhibitionist tippers) and paid for my appetizer and left making small talk on the way out. The server was happy to be an hour or so from quitting time and I said I’d probably bring some coworkers back sometime.
Outiside, getting on my bike, I can’t decide if this is a good or bad omen for EatingRichmond.com, given that it took place on the site’s launch date. Regardless, I thought you all would enjoy this little story, at the expense of my dignity. For the rest of the day, I felt mildly queezy and eventually put the event out of my mind. Of course, now it’s immortalized, just for yall.
Not passing judgment from this experience. Maybe one day I’ll go back. Eating out is a roll of the dice, full of surprises.