By Josette Keelor
Dan Kalber tried his first oyster at the age of 6, and “it changed everything.”
Years later, while attending a third-grade career fair, he met a chef, and just like that a career path was formed.
“I never looked back,” he said.
Kalber attended New York’s Culinary Institute of America, then took a brief job in Las Vegas before moving to Virginia at the age of 23 and securing a job at The Village Square in downtown Winchester.
“Been here 14 years,” he said. “They definitely took a chance on me.”
But now Kalber is the one taking chances alongside restaurant owner and Winchester mayor, David Smith.
For 16 years The Village Square has offered tasty food in an approachable dining atmosphere, later adding its V2 piano bar in the space next door at 103 N. Loudoun St.
But earlier this year, the bistro transitioned out its $30,000 piano for a raw seafood bar.
And Winchester is loving it.
The bar, which still offers burgers and sandwiches, also rotates in 10 varieties of oysters weekly along with other seafood options.
“This is our first big move,” Kalber said. And it didn’t come without risk. The restaurant had been known for its piano music and martinis, he said, so the goal in transitioning to a new focal point was to offer something that the public would accept, attracting new diners while keeping the base clientele coming back
“We shot for the stars and wanted to be very fine dining.”
The raw bar offers James River oysters for $1, which Kalber called “a really good deal.”
Other big sellers on the menu are fried oysters, crab legs and steamed, spiced North Carolina shrimp.
Oysters and clams are served on the half shell, three per order with cocktail sauce and lemon.
A half dozen broiled Virginia oysters comes with a choice of Rockefeller, Casino or Chesapeake toppings for $14.
The Oyster Sampler offers a selection of all five oysters with cocktail sauce for $12.
The Lobster Cocktail comes with pouched lobster meat, jalapeno, cilantro, avocadoes and cucumbers with a tomato vinaigrette for $16.
The Ahi Tuna Ceviche combines tuna with avocado, jicama, mango, red onions, cilantro and crispy tortilla for $11.
And the Chesapeake Bay Scallop Ceviche comes with pink grapefruit, red onions and grilled pineapples with a coconut and lime dressing for $13.
Diners looking for a seafood towner can choose from The Majestic—six chef-selected oysters, three colossal shrimp, a 4-ounce lump of crab meat and six clams for $35—or the Imperial—12 oysters, six stone crab claws, six colossal shrimp, 12 clams, a cluster of snow crab legs and a 1 ½-pound Maine lobster for $120.
A pound of steamed spiced shrimp is $14. A pound of steamed snow crab legs is $17. And the Escutcheon Steamed Muscles are $11.
Sandwiches include the Hawaiian Ahi Poke Bowl with Ahi tuna, grilled pineapple, pickled carrots and sticky rice with ponzu dressing for $14 and a crab lettuce wrap for $14.
The Maryland Crab Nachos come with jalapenos, pepper jack cheese, pico de gallo, sour cream, roasted corn and avocado for $17, and the restaurant describes its Smoked Salmon Bruschetta as “everything cream cheese” for $13.
Diners can choose from a variety of drinks that include Champagne, Cava and sparkling wine among other drinks.
Happy Hour is from 4 to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and includes a special menu with steamed, spiced shrimp for $10 per pound, James River wild oysters for $1, topped oysters for $1.50 and a glass of Cava or sparkling wine for $4.
Though Village Square and its raw bar have separate menus, diners are welcome to order from both menus in either seating area.
Among its appetizers, the VS menu includes Ahi Tuna Ceviche, Bang Bang Calamari, broiled Maryland crab cake and Oysters on the Half Shell, as well as fried green tomatoes and avocado toast.
VS offers a soup du jour and a variety of other soups, salads, sandwiches, steaks and entrees like panko crusted halibut for $28, pecan crusted salmon for $25 and the Oaxacun Grain Bowl with red quinoa pilaf, refried black beans, roasted corn and avocado salad and jicama slaw topped with cilantro and crispy tortillas for $18.
Sunday dinners at Village Green have a special menu that changes weekly, and gluten-free options are available.
Kalber credits Winchester’s resources with allowing for the sort of dining experience that customers might usually only find in seafaring communities or along the Chesapeake Bay—not on this side of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Though the Virginia Oyster Trail does extend its reach into Winchester with The Butcher Station at 3107 Valley Avenue and George’s Food & Spirits at 103 E. Piccadilly St., Kalber hoped to add even more selection to Winchester’s growing reputation as a dining destination.
“I’m from a big area where oysters are,” Kalber said, referring to a childhood spent largely in Charles County, Maryland.
Being able to offer foods like these is why Kalber wanted to open an oyster bar in Winchester.
He said every time he wanted seafood, he found himself driving 1 ½ hours to get it.
But he’s also found that the city’s changing tastes in recent years have allowed for the risk of opening an oyster bar.
When Village Square opened 16 years ago, there were only seven restaurants in downtown Winchester, Kalber said. Now there are 34 with options that include Thai, French, Italian, Mexican, Jamaican, American and vegetarian.
Seafood restaurants have come and gone from Old Town Winchester, but Kalber trusts that its legacy can thrive here.
“Seafood has always been the best story,” Kalber said. “Because of their journey.”
The seafood arrives with a tag saying where it came from and when it was caught, he explained. It could be caught fresh on a Thursday and shipped to Winchester from as far away as Alaska or Japan to be served on a Friday.
“To take something that was in the water yesterday and put in on the table today is amazing,” he said.
Kalber said he’s excited for the future of the raw bar, but he also takes care to balance his work and personal life.
He typically works six to seven days a week, spending seven hours at the raw bar, and five hours at Water Street Kitchen, a down-home cooking eatery that he owns at 2 S. Loudoun St.
“That’s the restaurant life there. Long hours. Fun, long hours.”
But he also makes as much time for family as possible, often having his young daughters visit him at work.
His wife, Alex, now a paralegal, was a pastry chef at Village Square until she gave birth to Josie, now 8. Then Lucy came along two years later.
“They enjoy the restaurant,” Kalber said.
The girls sometimes help their dad by harvesting local produce used at the restaurant, recently all picking local strawberries together and bringing their haul to Red Fox Creamery on the walking mall to spin up some fresh ice cream.
“And that’s what we’re serving right now as our ice cream,” Kalber said.
The Village Square, at 103 N. Loudoun St., is open from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Saturday, and 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday. Contact the restaurant at 540-667-8961 or visit villagesquarerestaurant.com.