Best Oyster Bars in America
Like a fine wine exhibits its terroir, an oyster’s merroir imparts a distinct flavor, from the briny Blue Points of Long Island to snappy Kumamotos of the Pacific Northwest to the bright Malpeques of Prince Edward Island.
“Everyone has their preference, as oysters take on the characteristics of the area in which they grow,” says Candace Beattie of Baltimore’s Thames Street Oyster House. Its specialty? Mellow Chesapeake oysters, from medium-bodied to plump.
While it’s possible to ship the bivalves across the country, there’s nothing better than tasting them freshly plucked from the water. Seafood lovers can safely get their oyster fix during months that don’t end in “r” thanks to modern refrigeration. But storied family-run joints like Casamento’s in New Orleans still close during the warmest months. (Spawning summer oysters are usually less flavorful than their winter counterparts.)
Oyster bars and street carts were popularized in the 19th century, when the mollusks grew in abundance and were considered an everyday food. You’ll find that kind of casual vibe at southern spots like the Original Oyster House in Mobile, AL, and at a growing number of waterfront bars connected to oyster farms.
But our cross-country survey also turned up restaurants that take a more stylish approach. You could spend a romantic evening slurping bivalves at Seattle’s bistro-like Walrus and the Carpenter. Oysters are a natural aphrodisiac, and these bars are sure to tickle your fancy.
Hog Island Oyster Company, San Francisco
Located inside the Ferry Building, this airy, recently expanded oyster bar provides sweeping waterfront views of the Bay Bridge along with the company’s fresh shellfish pulled from nearby Tomales Bay. Chef Christopher Laramie’s menu features sustainably raised seafood like steamed Manila clams or semolina-dusted crispy smelts. Much of the produce is grown near the oyster farm.
Casamento’s Restaurant, New Orleans
It’s hard to say what diners first notice upon entering this Uptown landmark—the signature green and white tiles or the shucker working his way through piles of Louisiana Gulf oysters. Joe Casamento, an Italian immigrant, opened the place in 1919. “The restaurant itself hasn’t changed hardly at all since then,” insists his grandson CJ Gerdes, the current owner. Gerdes, who started working at Casamento’s at age 14, still considers its ruddy seafood gumbo a new menu item, even though it was added more than 20 years ago. A more classic dish: the oyster loaf, which combines bivalves, dredged in corn flour and fried, with buttered pan bread and pickles.
The Ordinary, Charleston, SC
Chef Mike Lata focuses on East Coast oysters with a sprinkling of choices from the West Coast at this former bank building turned sleek seafood hall. “We have several oysters that we can get locally and two within an arm’s reach,” he explains, “and I like to serve them side by side to highlight their differences.” Wild Caper’s Blades oysters from South Carolina are available at the white tiled raw bar; pickled shrimp or poached razor clams, served cold with an apple cilantro and jalapeño sauce, are another menu favorite.
Gilhooley's Raw Bar, San Leon, TX
This cash-only dive’s specialty is Oysters Gilhooley, and it makes a persuasive case that the best oyster cookery comes from the Gulf region. Shucked oysters on the half shell are dotted with butter and hot sauce, dusted with Parmesan cheese, and then wood-roasted until browned. While the dish is a year-round hit, the raw shellfish pulled from Texas waters are best enjoyed in season during the colder months. 222 9th St.; (281) 339-3813.
Matunuck Oyster Bar, South Kingstown, RI
As an extension of Matunuck Oyster Farm, this seafood restaurant overlooks the estuary where the shellfish grow. After studying aquaculture at nearby University of Rhode Island, owner Perry Raso started farming oysters, eventually opening a place for diners to enjoy them. “We pride ourselves on doing clam shack fare, as well as more refined options,” explains Raso. While Matunuck’s own steely oysters served raw on the half shell are the focus, the bar also serves a few other varieties from the smallest state, side by side to highlight their subtle variations in flavor.
Taylor Shellfish Samish Farm Store, Bow, WA
Family-owned Taylor Shellfish Farms already operates three oyster bar locations in Seattle, but the best ambience is found at its farm store 90 minutes north of the city. A day trip to this bay-side shack, tucked into the tall pine trees and rocky terrain, is ideal during the warmer months of the year. It provides little more than picnic tables and grills. Eaters are encouraged to shuck their own Shigokus and Kumamotos, but the store’s employees will do it for a small fee.
Island Creek Oyster Bar, Boston
Are oysters aphrodisiacs? This is the place to find out, as Island Creek happens to be one of America’s most romantic restaurants. The muted color palette and massive wall of cages filled with oyster shells were inspired by the sunset over nearby Duxbury Bay—the location of owner Skip Bennett’s oyster farm. He and chef Jeremy Sewall highlight its bounty, along with shellfish from several nearby sources, and work closely with fishermen and farmers to secure local ingredients. The menu credits fellow oyster farmers like Don Wilkinson of Plymouth, Scott and Tina Laurie of Barnstable, and other purveyors by name.
Grand Central Oyster Bar, New York City
This institution within Grand Central Terminal serves about 2 million oysters annually to suited businessmen and tourists beneath its vaulted tiled ceilings. Open since 1913, the swanky bar has featured bivalves from all over the Western Hemisphere; a sign above the long wooden bar lists the day’s particular varieties. Its famed oyster pan roast, with gently cooked Blue Points floating in a cream sauce with chile and paprika, is one of the longest-running menu items in New York City.
Merroir, Topping, VA
It’s worth the hour-long drive from Richmond just to soak up this restaurant’s view of the Rappahannock River flowing into the Chesapeake Bay. Merroir is linked to Travis and Ryan Croxton’s Rappahannock Oyster Company, a pioneer in reviving the region’s oyster industry after years of environmental degradation. The menu is built around the company’s three different oyster varieties—all grown in different parts of the Chesapeake. They vary in salinity and sweetness depending on where they’re grown in relation to the mouth of the bay and proximity to the Atlantic Ocean.
Eventide Oyster Co., Portland, ME
Turquoise walls make a fitting backdrop for this overflowing oyster bar, where stakes in the ice categorize the bivalves as “from Maine” or “away.” The Old Port area restaurant does New England classics like lobster rolls and chowder along with creative offerings like Kim Chee Ice or cucumber ginger. Eventide’s Chinese-style steamed bun, filled with crispy fried oysters, tomato, and tart pickled daikon, red onion, and jalapeño, is a standout.
The Original Oyster House, Mobile, AL
For more than 30 years, this family-friendly restaurant on raised pillars over Mobile Bay has served seafood with a southern accent. Gulf oysters arrive at your table on the half shell, either raw or chargrilled. And there’s plenty of the fried goodness you’d expect: fried pickles, fried crawfish tails, and fried grouper with grits. Turn up at dinnertime to savor a coastal sunset complete with egrets and salty sea breezes.
Swan Oyster Depot, San Francisco
Great things really do come in small packages at Swan Oyster Depot, a Nob Hill institution since 1912. More than a century later, locals and tourists alike will put up with hour-long waits for one of the 18 stools at the marble seafood counter. Its recipe for success combines the freshest seafood—clam chowder, crab salad, and oysters like Miyagi and Kumamoto—with friendly and knowledgeable waitstaff.
Oyster Club, Mystic, CT
Owner Daniel Meiser and chef James Wayman operate the Oyster Club out of a historic clapboard building. The duo procures seafood exclusively from Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts, yet they use it in eclectic, globally influenced dishes like steamed mussels with a coconut-lemongrass broth, lime, and cilantro. With a menu that changes daily, it’s enough to keep the regulars guessing. The shaded outdoor deck (known as The Treehouse) overlooks Mystic River and serves oysters shucked to order.
Thames Street Oyster House, Baltimore
Returning to Maryland after living in New England, Candace Beattie dreamed of opening a seafood restaurant in the historic Fells Point neighborhood. It became a reality with some help from chef Eric Houseknecht, whose own travels along the Eastern seaboard, from Florida to Rhode Island, inspire the menu. “Simple food, done well, is a part of his philosophy here—classic, traditional recipes using the best ingredients that can be found,” explains Beattie. For oysters, that means Thames Street stocks varieties from the Chesapeake Bay, as well as bivalves with a more robust minerality from as far north as Canada.
Up the Creek Raw Bar, Apalachicola, FL
The freshwaters of the Apalachicola River mingle with the warm Gulf to produce some of the finest and plumpest oysters in the country. Up the Creek is the perfect spot to slurp them either raw or “Southern Fella” style (steamed with collard greens, Parmesan cheese, and crispy bacon) while taking in the view of the river before it opens into the bay. Chef Brett Gromley’s repertoire also includes sandwiches, a fried alligator basket, and grilled conch cakes with a tupelo honey Key lime sauce and mango coconut slaw.
GT Fish & Oyster, Chicago
This polished River North restaurant sets a nautical mood with oil paintings of the seas and fishermen’s-netting chandeliers. Diners at plush banquettes feast on Michelin-starred chef Giuseppe Tentori’s lineup of East and West Coast oysters paired with cucumber cocktail sauce or ponzu mignonette. Seafood reigns here, from fish tacos to lobster rolls to tuna poke. But dessert isn’t just an afterthought: pastry chef Genie Kwon creates playful sweets like a peanut butter malt sundae with Ovaltine ice cream.
Marshall Store & Oyster Bar, Marshall, CA
Drive about an hour north of San Francisco to indulge in Tomales Bay Oyster Company shellfish served several different ways: raw; cooked with chorizo butter; with bacon and Worcestershire sauce; or Rockefeller (with spinach and cheese). The general store also sells beer and wine, but can’t technically serve it to customers; ask to borrow a corkscrew. The hypnotizing movement of boats gently drifting on Tomales Bay adds to the appeal of whiling away a few hours out here.
Maison Premiere, Brooklyn, NY
Joshua Boissy and Krystof Zizka have brought a dash of 19th-century glamour to Williamsburg by way of Maison Premiere. The bar has a replica of the Napoleon-topped absinthe fountain from the historic Old Absinthe House in New Orleans and a cocktail list to match. Bar Director Maxwell Britten offers several interpretations of time-honored drinks, but this gem of an oyster bar truly excels at seafood. Tiered seafood platters are piled high with chilled caviar, oysters, crab, lobster, clams, and shrimp. The restaurant also offers dollar oysters during happy hour Monday through Friday and at midday on weekends.
The Walrus and the Carpenter, Seattle
An ornate spiny chandelier hovers above chef Renee Erickson’s zinc oyster bar in the hip Ballard neighborhood. About a dozen oyster varieties representing the West Coast, from California to Alaska, are piled into wire baskets, topped with ice, and labeled with chalkboard signs. Diners also dig in to comforting seafood dishes like grilled sardines and scallop tartare with cucumber and dill mousseline.
Sunny Side Oyster Bar, Williamston, NC
Several shuckers at this horseshoe-shaped bar have been delivering buckets of oysters to diners for more than 20 years. The raucous seafood shanty specializes in lightly steamed oysters sold by the peck or half peck. Butter, cocktail sauce, and maybe a cracker are the only necessary adornments. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the bar has stuck to essentially the same menu since it opened in 1935, although raw oysters are now available by request.