Family Reunion 6

O’Donnell’s Market Offers Old Favorites in a New Format

In a community where so many things are shiny and new, O’Donnell’s Market is a welcome relic. Opened two years ago by Bill Edelblut and his daughter Ashlee, the shop marks the return of a DC-area seafood dynasty.

This story begins nearly 100 years ago when Bill O’Donnell opened the Sea Grill on E Street a few blocks from the White House. This story culminates with an oyster po’boy enjoyed outside on a beautiful, late-summer day.

The day I visited O’Donnell’s Market, which anchors the western corner of Potomac Woods Plaza, I found Edelblut busy behind the meat counter. As we spoke, I took in the sights—and smells—of the market’s attractive space: crab cakes stacked neatly on ice, a rainbow of cold salads, pretty key lime cheesecakes lined up like beauty queens in the pastry case.

These are the foods the O’Donnells have been famous for in the area for decades. The Sea Grill thrived in DC and gave way to family-owned and community-adored iterations in Bethesda and Gaithersburg. All the while, the menu and the recipes stayed the same.Boasting Norfolk-style seafood (Edelblut tells me this means lots of butter, tarragon and vinegar), O’Donnell establishments offered simple, sensational meals that became Montgomery County staples. Now, two years after closing their Gaithersburg location, O’Donnell’s is back—with a twist.

“It’s a different kind of concept than what we were before,” Edelblut says. “People want convenience, and that’s what they can get here.”

The market is certainly convenient. Edelblut says he invites calls from customers planning to swing by after work.

“They need a pound of smoked fish ready in 20 minutes. We can do that.”

Customers can also pick up Angus steaks, Maine lobster, responsibly-sourced oysters, and one (or five) of O’Donnell’s famous rum buns for tomorrow’s breakfast (or heck, tonight’s dessert).  

Anyone not in a hurry should order a glass of wine and have a seat at the lunch counter or outside at a patio table.

Which brings me to my po’boy. It seems a century’s worth of practice has indeed made perfect. The oysters were improbably fresh and impeccably fried. The roll they came cradled in was buttery and warm. The market’s slaw was bright and sweet, a perfect foil to salty shoestring fries. My body was in Potomac, but my mind was far away and beach-bound.

After my meal, I enjoyed the last of my coffee and made small talk with a couple at the next table. It was their first time at the market, but they had been devoted regulars at the Bethesda location. They were eager to enjoy their favorites again. I asked them what made O’Donnell’s so special.

“The food,” the gentleman told me without hesitation. “They weren’t trying to be trendy; the menu stayed the same. O’Donnell’s was reliable—you knew it would be good. That’s what you want in a neighborhood restaurant.”

A lot of things change. But the important things—the deep meaning of community gathering places and the pure joy of an oyster po’boy, for instance—somehow always stay the same.