BOSTON -- The sun was sinking slowly behind the striking outline of Boston's Rose Wharf Hotel and tiny waves lapped at the lobster boats anchored below in the harbor.
Inside the gay green-and-blue striped tent with a huge banner announcing "Venus Seafood in the Rough," a light breeze was rippling the edges of the canvas and lanterns hanging overhead swayed lazily back and forth. The white picnic tables were crowded with adults and children hungrily picking at paper plates filled with mountainous piles of fried clams and onion rings.
A voice over the loudspeaker briefly interrupted an old Beatles hit to announce "One hundred and twenty pickup." Our order of grilled shrimp, fried calamari, "Aunt Regina's Crab Boil," and steamed mussels was ready.
"We used to drive all the way up to Essex or Marblehead on the North Shore to eat fried seafood and lobsters in the rough," says Jane Levine, who is co-editor of the Zagat Restaurant Guide to Boston and lives in Brookline, a suburb of Boston. "But that took 40 minutes and we had to plan the outing. Now we just hop into our car whenever we feel like it without bothering to change and drive 10 minutes to get here."
Boston has always been a seafood lover's paradise, drawing visitors from all over the country, especially during the summer months. Numerous restaurants feature all kinds of fresh fish and seafood specialties, but there was a gap after Legal Seafoods -- a Boston institution that made its reputation by serving fresh, reasonably priced seafood on paper -- redecorated and became an upscale eatery. No place in town offered seafood in a simple, modest, traditional New England setting, particularly outside in the rough.
Conveniently situated just off the Central Artery (I-93), Venus opened in May and is well worth a visit. For those passing through the city on their way to or from Maine or Cape Cod, the restaurant offers travelers a chance to experience the best of local fare without driving city streets or veering much off their route.
The seafood is fresh and nicely cooked; onion rings are crisp and steamed crab is sweet and lightly infused with a spicy crab boil seasoning. It is served on sturdy paper plates with plastic knives and forks and the prices are moderate to inexpensive. (A clambake dinner of steamers, lobster, french fries, coleslaw, corn on the cob, and watermelon sells for about $15.)
Venus is the brainchild of Susan Chused-Still and Maggie McNally, two Boston cooks who established an exemplary reputation at The Blue Diner, another Boston restaurant, where they prepared classic regional and American dishes. As Chused-Still explained in a recent interview, Venus had opened briefly the year before under another name with a continental menu, but the venture failed and they were brought in by the investors to do something different.
"The previous cook had tried to do butter sauces and fettuccine and it just didn't work in a paper plate operation," Chused-Still said. "We walked into the tent and decided that it was perfect for a "seafood in the rough" menu. It really was a continuation of the theme we started at the diner of Americana or more specifically New England. Since both Maggie and I grew up in New England, we were familiar with the authentic thing. And we really wanted to offer a moderately priced seafood restaurant that maintained a top-quality standard and was comfortable enough for people to bring their kids and make a mess."
In addition to the top-of-the-line complete seafood dinner, the menu features the normal dishes one expects for any seafood restaurant: lobster, clams (fried and steamed), mussels, and fish and chips, but each day, Venus also offers a grilled specialty depending on the catch of the day, which may be scallops, shrimp, swordfish, or mahi-mahi.
In addition to the grilled seafood, the meal also offers a choice of french fries or corn on the cob, green salad, cole slaw or steamed vegetables. (One evening, there were steamed asparagus and carrots.) The price is usually under $10.
All the seafood is from Maine and beyond George's Bank, the women are quick to assure customers. Nothing is caught in Boston Harbor.
Although the restaurant has yet to receive extensive local publicity, word of mouth has already drawn a number of regular customers. "Our audience so far is a real mixed bag," says McNally. "The tourists stumble upon us and they walk in and think 'Gee, this looks like New England is supposed to be.' The locals who come here tell us that this is exactly what this town has needed. They thank us for saving them money on gas mileage."
Venus is open from Wednesday through Sunday, lunch and dinner, plus Tuesday lunch from May to late October. No credit cards or checks are accepted. Nina Simonds is the author of "Chinese Seasons" (Houghton Mifflin) and "China's Food" (Harper and Row).