Spaghetti nero with Maine lobster at Birch & Barley Credit: Jarrad Silver

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Eight Neighborhood Restaurant Group restaurants raced to add lobster to their menus this week. Most of the dishes debut today. While showcasing a luxury crustacean at the same time people are clearing out the shelves at Trader Joe’s seems odd, there’s a mission behind the group’s move. 

NRG Corporate Chef David Testa read a Bloomberg article published earlier this month about how U.S. lobster prices have plummeted to their lowest level in about four years. One of the biggest markets for Maine lobstermen is China, especially during Lunar New Year (Jan. 25 through Feb. 8).

Sales were already slow because of the strained relationship between the U.S. and China based on the Trump administration’s tariffs. Then coronavirus rocked the world. Chinese consumers aren’t going out and restaurants aren’t buying lobster like they normally do.  

“We saw an opportunity to help these fisherman out and started buying product,” Testa says. “We’re a fairly large company in the DMV area, so we have an opportunity to get lobster on quite a few different menus and offer our guests something we aren’t usually able to offer them.” 

Lobster prices are typically outside the range of what NRG’s mid-range restaurants can afford. Testa buys from ProFish, where he says prices have dropped by about 20 percent.  “Everyone has product they’re really wanting to move,” Testa continues. “With lobster and seafood everything is fresh. You don’t have the luxury of sticking the lobster in the freezer.”

NRG’s sales representative at ProFish, James Willden, confirms those numbers. Lobster prices are down 17 to 20 percent across all sizes. “There’s no exporting going out at all,” he explains. “There’s an influx of inventory and a need to move product. Demand drives prices up and the reverse drives it down. China is always the first choice, especially during Chinese New Year. It’s really opened us up to see some very competitive and friendly prices.”

While the fishermen likely wish they were making the margins they’re used to, it’s helpful to move product even at lower prices, according to Willden. Coronavirus is wreaking havoc on the restaurant industry, and that includes the farmers and watermen who sell products to chefs. “NRG is doing a great service both for the industry and for the fishermen in Maine by putting these on as many menus as possible,” he says.

Restaurants affiliated with ProFish—Ivy City Smokehouse Tavern and Tony and Joe’s—are also running lobster specials. And those who aren’t going out to eat can pick up lobsters in the market on the first floor of Ivy City Smokehouse Tavern. Call ahead to make sure they have them.

The following NRG restaurants are serving lobster dishes:

Bluejacket300 Tingey St. SEMaine Lobster Roll, split top bun, celery, Duke’s mayo, and hand cut fires – $18

The Sovereign1206 Wisconsin Ave. NWLobster Waterzooi with Maine lobster, mussels, shellfish broth, and grilled sourdough bread – $28

Iron Gate1734 N St. NWOak-Roasted Whole Maine Lobster with squid ink bucatini, tomato, chili, marjoram, and garlic butter (for two people) – $49

Rustico4075 Wilson Blvd., Arlington and 827 Slaters Lane, AlexandriaLobster & Truffle Mac n’ Cheese with Maine lobster and sharp American cheese – $15

Birch & Barley1337 14th St. NWSpaghetti Nero with Maine lobster, arrabbiata sauce with harissa and garlic bread crumbs – $23

Columbia Firehouse109 S St Asaph St., AlexandriaWhole Roasted Maine Lobster with garlic & herb butter, roasted potatoes, and grilled asparagus  – $35

Owen’s Ordinary11820 Trade St., North BethesdaSurf n’ Turf with Maine lobster tail, grilled flat iron, hand cut fries, and drawn butter – $39