The World's Top Oyster Bars
Perhaps it’s their pungent, briny liquor, crashing likce surf across the tongue. Perhaps it’s those evocative names, derived from actual locales: Pemaquid! Skookum! Tatamagouche! Or perhaps it’s because they’re still alive when you eat them. Does any food pack such a powerful sense of place?
Rare is the culture that doesn’t love oysters. They are everywhere. But they’re also decidedly Somewhere: within its singular shell, each oyster carries its provenance like a fingerprint. Knocking one back is like mainlining the cove it came from.
In today’s global food economy, geography is more or less moot. Maine lobsters turn up in São Paulo, Dungeness crab in Shanghai, Norwegian salmon roe at your suburban IKEA. I live in New York City, where pretty much any foreign delicacy is readily had, from jamón ibérico to blowfish. But not English Colchesters or French Belons or South African Knysnas or hundreds of other varieties of oyster that thrive beyond our shores. The U.S. government forbids the import of oysters from abroad, with exceptions for those from Canada, Mexico, Chile, South Korea, and New Zealand (the latter three are almost never sold stateside, in any case). Oysters are among the last of the “go-to” foods: you have to go to them.
So for three years I’ve done just that, circling the globe on an international oyster quest—part-time, mind you, but with full-time conviction. It helps that I travel for a living. Wherever my peregrinations take me, bivalves form the subplot. I’ve sampled minerally Grebbestads in Göteborg, monstrous madrasensis oysters in Mumbai, clean-flavored Nha Trangs in Saigon, fishy Mali Stons in Croatia. I’ve combed 19 countries in search of the perfect oyster, and the perfect oyster bar. And though I’ve eaten several thousand since my quest began—and twice sliced my hand shucking them—I’ve never once tired of their taste.
I first fell for oysters at New York’s Grand Central Station, where the renowned Oyster Bar, opened in 1913, serves 2 million bivalves a year. On a standard night they’ll list 30 on the menu: Moonstones from Rhode Island; Phantom Creeks from British Columbia; Meximotos from Baja; perhaps savory Conway Cups from Prince Edward Island—which taste, no joke, like chicken. Just as every celebrated stage actress finds her way to Broadway, every North American oyster worth its salt makes its way to Grand Central. There’s an irony in this, for New York Harbor was once the hub of all Oysterdom, sending its bountiful harvest across the nation and around the world. The great tide has since reversed: today the city exports none and imports untold millions.
Many a night I passed in the vaulted chambers of Grand Central, conferring with shucker Luis Iglesias about his picks for the day. My favorites were invariably East Coast. It’s said that people prefer oysters from the water they grew up swimming in, and that’s certainly true for me. Devouring a briny Maine oyster never fails to catapult me back to childhood summers, inhaling that brisk seafoamy air and, just as often, a wave up my nose.
Biologists have documented some 400 species of oysters worldwide. But even within the same species no two will have the exact same flavor, depending on water temperature, salinity levels, tidal patterns, mating cycles, the plankton they eat, and the mineral content of their habitat. The variables can be infinitesimal: a Wellfleet, Massachusetts, oyster harvested at six feet deep may taste wholly unlike one found at seven. The thrill of oyster-eating is picking up on nuances of texture and taste from one hemisphere, continent, bay, or creek to the next.
Like wine, oysters exhibit a discernible terroir. Indeed, the vocabulary of oyster flavors overlaps with that of wine: terms like “crisp,” “buttery,” and “flinty” are common, as are comparisons to cucumber, melon, and green apple. The menu at Boston’s Neptune Oyster bar—an Art Deco jewel box in the North End—has some particularly fanciful (some might say absurd) descriptions, noting a “buttered popcorn” finish in the Katama Bays from Martha’s Vineyard, traces of “mushroom” in the Marion Ports, also from Massachusetts, “raw sweet pea” in Rhode Island’s Rome Points, even “hints of Brie” in the nearby Ninigret Ponds.
Not only do the flavors of oysters vary widely, so do the rituals that attend their consumption. Some people treat them as delivery devices for Tabasco. Some lay their slippery prizes on saltines. Some dunk them in Bloody Marys or pints of stout. The Fujian Chinese fold them into starchy omelettes laced with chilies and pork fat. Some chefs gussy up half shells with minced jalapeño, coriander, and a cool tomato gelée. Some prefer their oysters poached, grilled, fried, stewed, smoked, boiled, pickled, or, God help us all, smothered in bread crumbs and butter and cheese. Some presume oysters to be a ticket to bed, and don’t care how they’re prepared, just as long as they get some. But a purist takes his oysters straight, no chaser. (You wouldn’t taste-test an espresso by dousing it with soy milk, would you?) I don’t necessarily eat the whole dozen naked—a good mignonette can be a thing of beauty—but my first oyster is always unadorned, a visceral shot of the shore.
Humans have used oysters throughout history—as fertilizer, as ballast, as material for roads and landfill, and as food. It was the ancient Romans who first learned to farm them, but wild oysters were harvested long before that. Prehistoric peoples left mounds of discarded shells, called middens, as evidence of their ostreaphilia. Archaeologists have found shell heaps in such far-flung locations as Brazil, Scotland, and Australia.
In America, the oyster’s heyday came in the 19th century, when every seaside town was littered with sidewalk oyster carts. The advent of the railroad took them far inland as well. (In Paris, the best oyster joints were always clustered around the terminus of the train lines from Brittany.) Nourishing and plentiful, oysters became a staple food of American dockworkers, rail workers, and landed gentry alike. But overfishing and pollution nearly wiped out the domestic oyster. By 1930 the edible population in New York Harbor—which once numbered in the billions—had vanished. Scarcity led to price hikes. Like lobsters, another former workingman’s grub, fresh oysters became a rich man’s delicacy. From the 1940’s through the 1980’s, the vast majority of oysters consumed in America came from a can.
Since then, of course, the half shell has seen a revival, spurred by a proliferation of skilled cultivators on the one hand and serious-minded oyster bars on the other. “We are entering an oyster renaissance in North America,” Rowan Jacobsen declares in his lively primer A Geography of Oysters.
Among ostreaphiles—the most parochial of eaters—a spirited rivalry divides North Americans down the middle. West Coasters call Eastern oysters boring—so subtly flavored that all you taste is seawater. East Coasters find Pacific oysters cloyingly fruity. “If I wanted a melon, I’d eat one,” scoffs Jay Shaffer, owner of New York’s Shaffer City oyster bar. “I don’t want distractions—give me the sea.”
My own tastes lie with Shaffer’s, but I’ll admit that the West Coast has the more developed oyster culture. In the coastal communities of Oregon and Washington State, I’ve seen 12-year-old boys with their own oyster knives. Monogrammed. On the shores of Puget Sound, roadside stands sell 50-pound bags of oysters for families to shuck around a picnic table. What the lobster is to New England, the oyster is to the Pacific Northwest.
I will also admit that sampling the smoky-sweet, silver-dollar-size Olympias at Elliott’s Oyster House, in Seattle, made me rethink my East Coast allegiances and seriously consider moving to Seattle. Man those Olys were good.
I encountered even more revelations overseas. At a small café on the Dalmatian Coast of Croatia, I lucked upon the elusive Ostrea edulis, a.k.a. the Mali Ston, a strong-flavored specimen purportedly favored by Emperor Franz Josef. Mali Ston itself is a fortified medieval harbor town northwest of Dubrovnik, fronting a small protected bay where underground springs and freshwater rivers create an ideal feeding ground for oysters.
A South African friend turned me on to his country’s native Knysna, a pearl of an oyster, nutty and creamy and utterly unique. In Brazil I tried the Chilean borde negro, with its inky-black-rimmed meat and face-slapping saltiness; some years ago it was sold in the United States, but seems to have disappeared since. If you find any, let me know.
I also discovered some unforgettable oyster venues. Paris has, of course, Bofinger, the 1864 Alsatian brasserie off the Place de la Bastille, with its Belle Époque interiors and bow-tied waiters and sidewalk troughs piled high with Fines de Claires, seaweed, and melting ice. But it also has L’Écume St. Honoré, a folksy bar à huitres near the opera house, with cheesy murals of Mont-St.-Michel and piped-in recordings of seagulls. Sophisticated it is not, and yet I’ve never had Belons so pristine. They give you a pail for discarding the shells—a reminder that in France oysters are still an informal, workaday food. (The French reportedly eat 4.4 pounds of oysters per person per year, more than any other people in Europe.)
In Sydney I went three times to the Boathouse on Blackwattle Bay, an oyster’s throw from the Sydney Fish Markets—partly because its Sydney Rocks are sensational, but also because it was the only place I could find that shucks them in-house. Seriously: in Australia oysters are shipped to restaurants “pre-shucked,” stacked like so many teacups in refrigerated crates. This outrageous practice rids the oysters of all their precious liquor, which is half the point of eating them. (For shame, Australia, for shame!)
In London I braved the supercilious maître d’ and exorbitant prices for oysters at Wiltons, a 267-year-old stalwart in St. James (jacket required). The sand-colored walls are hung with portraits of the restaurant’s master shuckers, including Thai émigré Sam Tamsanguan, who won the ’99 world championship for speed-shucking. (He opened 30 in 3 1/2 minutes.) At Wiltons Tamsanguan works at a more measured pace, and he carefully set me up with a dozen British “natives,” a variety of the rare European flat oyster, which has a round, scallop-like shell, a fibrous, almost crunchy texture, and a tangy, metallic aftertaste. They arrived on a dimpled silver platter, with a half of lemon wrapped in cheesecloth—a thoughtful touch—and a generous pour of Sancerre.
Just south of Galway, Ireland, on a weir beside a river that runs into Galway Bay, I spent a blissful afternoon at Moran’s Oyster Cottage, an 18th-century tavern—all pine wood and thatch—immortalized in Seamus Heaney’s poem “Oysters”:
s boisterously democratic as Wiltons is exclusive, Moran’s feels like some family’s rowdy, boozy reunion. And its Irish Rocks are fabulous: the outer shells fuzzy and green; the inner nacre a blinding white; the meat resembling (and even tasting like) delicately grilled eggplant. Afterward you can stroll beside the estuary to the beds where the oysters are raised.
There’s something spiritual about eating food steps from where it was born. But the most extraordinary oyster bar I visited lies nowhere near a working oyster bed. Rather, it sits atop a high-rise hotel in Kowloon. Because of Hong Kong’s relatively open import laws—and also because rich mainland Chinese visitors will pay through the nose for this sort of thing—the Sheraton’s Oyster & Wine Bar is able to source oysters from all around the planet. On any given night you might find specimens from Tasmania, Oregon, British Columbia, Colchester, Long Island, Brittany, Japan, New Zealand, Namibia—Namibia!—Chile, even Irish Rocks from Galway Bay. (For all I knew they came from Moran’s.) Reading the menu is like scanning the arrivals board at Hong Kong Airport. Indeed, the Sheraton’s Oyster & Wine Bar may be the least green restaurant on earth: every item on the menu takes at least a four-hour flight to get here. (Because of pollution concerns, Hong Kong’s own oysters are no longer eaten raw.) Except for the stirring views of Victoria Harbour, there’s nothing “local” about the place. But for oyster-chasing obsessives like me, it offers a chance to see the world—or at least taste it—in two dozen slurps.
The Namibian turned out to have a mouthfeel like a cream-filled donut, less oyster than oyster mousse. The Fine de Bretagne was a coppery, ornery beast, the size of a small banana. The Tasmanians were in even better condition than those I’d had in Australia; same with the Colchesters and Oregon Kumamotos. Here was final proof that oysters—stubbornly sedentary for most of their lives—can actually travel quite well, safely sealed in their shells and bathed in their own life-sustaining liquor. If properly transported and stored, an oyster will survive for weeks out of the water, and should lose little of its character in transit.
On my last afternoon in Hong Kong, I dropped by the Sheraton to survey the day’s oyster offerings, and my heart leapt at a familiar name:
Damariscottas (Maine, U.S.A)
Sweet Lord. You have to understand: Damariscottas are my all-time favorite oysters. Their beds lie just upstream from the chilly Atlantic on the tidal Damariscotta River. (Some of the more famous Damariscotta “brands” include Pemaquid, Glidden Point, and Dodge Cove.) The confluence of fresh- and saltwater infuses them with that coveted combination of sweetness and brine. Surviving the cold requires a strong constitution, so Damariscottas are hardy, thick-shelled oysters, firm in texture and (I like to think) resolve, not unlike the burly guys in galoshes who haunt the wharves of Maine’s midcoast. They taste like—well, like how I imagine drowning might taste, but in a wholly good way. And here they were, a dozen time zones away, in Kow-freaking-loon.
In a fit of irrational exuberance, I shelled out $78 for a dozen. They were worth every cent. I knocked back the first, and bang—just like always, I was immediately back on the beach, eight years old, dashing from the frigid surf to the warm comfort of a Star Wars towel, the wind in my ears and the salty Atlantic on my tongue.
Sure, they might have tasted even better plucked fresh from the Damariscotta River. But I prefer to imagine that, like me, they’d gained something in the journey. Or maybe I was overthinking it. Maybe they just tasted like home.
Peter Jon Lindberg, T+L’s editor-at-large, still has his Star Wars beach towel.
“Oysters, like all men, are somewhat weaker after they have done their best at reproducing.” —M.F.K. Fisher
That old wives’ tale about eating oysters only in the “r” months (September through April)? Mostly that’s a holdover from the time before refrigeration. These days, the best safeguard against any health risks associated with oysters is selecting your purveyors with care. Most oysters should be safe to eat if harvested and transported properly, though even then, the unexpected can happen—something that I, and my oyster-loving compatriots, choose to accept. It is true that summer is spawning time—female oysters release up to 100 million eggs in a single season— during which oysters can seem a bit, um, flaccid and spent. Oysters feed most ravenously in fall and early spring, filling up with glycogen and turning plump and opaque; for most oysters, those are the prime times to eat them.
Open since 1912, Swan is San Francisco’s best—and unquestionably the friendliest—oyster bar. Sal Sancimino bought the place in 1946; it’s still run by his six jovial sons. Join the line—there’s always a line—for one of the 19 stools at the old marble counter, and order a portion of just-picked Dungeness crab (when in season), topped with Swan’s piquant cocktail sauce; a bowl of rich, not-too-thick New England–style clam chowder (the best on the West Coast); and a dozen impeccably shucked, plump and briny Miyagi oysters. Chase them down with a hoppy pint of Anchor Steam, then order a dozen more. (Open for breakfast and lunch only.)
If you turn up your nose at cooked oysters—if the word “Rockefeller” makes you scoff—then prepare to change your tune at this charming general store/sandwich joint/oyster shack on the edge of Tomales Bay (just down the road from Tomales Bay Oyster Company). The raw oysters are fabulous, but the barbecued and the Rockefeller are both revelations. The store also sells some terrific Kermit Lynch wines but has no liquor license, so you’ll have to take your oysters outside to one of the makeshift tables (fashioned out of wooden barrels) overlooking the water, sipping your Sancerre from a plastic cup. Trust us: you won’t mind at all.
A delightfully rustic, resolutely informal shuck-your-own joint right on glittering Tomales Bay (up the road from the Marshall Store), with the verdant Point Reyes National Seashore rising opposite. Park yourself at one of the weathered picnic tables right on the pebbly beach, then take your pick of the Pacific oysters (priced according to size) kept in outdoor troughs. Plucked straight from the adjacent bay, often just hours before, they’re astonishingly tasty. Your neighbors at the next table may be a family with their own monogrammed shucking knives (maybe you can borrow one if you didn’t bring yours), bearing huge picnic baskets of fresh baked bread, salad, and chilled wine.
Xinh Dwelley was born in An Hoa, Vietnam; during the war she found work cooking for the U.S. Army, and eventually moved to Washington State. Since then she’s become one of the Northwest’s most celebrated oyster experts—she’s a five-time winner of the West Coast Oyster Shucking Championship. She’s also an excellent cook, and her Vietnamese seafood restaurant in the oyster-mad town of Shelton, on the Puget Sound, is among the best on the Olympic Peninsula. Xinh gets her oysters from Taylor Shellfish Farms, also in Shelton, which harvests the renowned Totten Inlet Virginica (an Eastern oyster transplanted to Puget Sound) as well as some top-notch Pacifics, Kumamotos, and Olympias.
Seattle’s most famous oyster palace has a prime setting on the downtown waterfront, a handsome 21-foot-long bar, and best of all, a ready supply of rare Olympia oysters (Ostrea lurida), a silver-dollar-size mindblower that’s found only in the Pacific Northwest; its smoky-sweet flavor and slightly grassy notes linger long in the mouth. (“Olys” were James Beard’s favorite oyster.)
This 1919 landmark in the Garden District is acclaimed for its seafood gumbo, soft-shell crabs, signature “pan bread,” voluble and friendly staff, and not least, its fresh-shucked Gulf oysters—just $8.50 for a dozen. It’s closed in the summer when local oysters aren’t in season.
Grand Central Oyster Bar & Restaurant
Opened in 1913, tucked in the vaulted subterranean chambers of Grand Central Station, the Oyster Bar serves two million bivalves a year. On a good night it’ll list 30 on the chalkboard: Moonstones from Rhode Island, Phantom Creeks from British Columbia, Meximotos from Baja, perhaps savory Conway Cups from Prince Edward Island (which taste, no joke, like chicken). Ask master shucker Luis Iglesias about his picks for the day.
This intimate and super-casual restaurant near the Williamsburg Bridge serves only one or two varieties a night, but the oysters are exceptionally fresh, always well-chosen (usually East Coast), and impeccably shucked. And if you happen to be there when the elusive Dodge Coves (from Maine’s Damariscotta River) are on the menu, well, lucky you.
Home of Manhattan’s best lobster roll, this perpetually jammed West Village favorite limits itself to just one type of oyster per evening, ensuring the utmost quality and freshness. Chef/owner Rebecca Charles, who spent her childhood summers in Maine, has a perfect touch with fish and seafood, and her tiny dining room and bar captures that homey New England seaside shack look with uncanny flair.
Shaffer City Oyster Bar & Grill
Few New Yorkers know oysters the way Jay Shaffer does. The Long Island native even raises his own, on beds in Shinnecock Inlet (he sells them here as “Shaffer Cove” oysters). He opened this convivial seafood restaurant in the Flatiron District in 1998, and the bar swiftly became a go-to destination for Manhattan oyster lovers, not just for the dizzying range of East and West Coast varieties but for Jay’s inimitable bluster and banter.
Shaffer City has since closed.
Barbara Lynch is one of Boston’s most celebrated chefs, with restaurants like No. 9 Park, Sportello, and the Butcher Shop. But it’s arguably her South End oyster bar that has the most devoted following and the winningest, most casual vibe. Here’s where to sample the great oysters of New England, including Island Creeks (from Duxbury, MA) and bracing, briny Pemaquids (from Maine).
You have to hand it to Jeff and Kelli Nace, owners of this minuscule, retro-themed gem in the North End—they don’t shy away from florid descriptions. The oyster menu notes a “buttered popcorn” finish in the Katama Bays (MA), traces of “mushroom” in the Marion Ports (MA), “raw sweet pea” in the Rome Points (RI), even “hints of Brie” in the Ninigret Ponds (RI). Squeeze onto one of the 16 bar stools and 26 banquette seats and order a dozen or two, then delve into a tantalizing menu of seafood dishes both traditional and creative, highlighted by a spicy cioppino, seared scallops, and a pristine selection of crudo.
Rodney Clark, a native of Prince Edward Island (one of the world’s great bivalve grounds), has spent two decades building up an unbeatable global network of oyster growers; depending on the season he’ll source from Canada’s Maritime Provinces, the U.S. East Coast, the Gulf of Mexico, the West Coast, and in the summertime, New Zealand and Australia.
Just south of Galway, Ireland, on a weir beside a creek that runs into Galway Bay, this 18th-century tavern—all burnished wood and thatch—was immortalized in the Seamus Heaney poem “Oysters”:
Our shells clacked on the plates
My tongue was a filling estuary
Moran’s feels like some family’s rowdy, boozy reunion. And its Irish Rocks are fabulous: the outer shells fuzzy with sea moss; the inner nacre a blinding white; the meat resembling (and even tasting like) delicately grilled eggplant. Afterward you can stroll beside the creek to the beds where the oysters were raised.
In London, the finest oysters tend to be found in rarefied settings, at hyper-polished, clubby places like Wiltons and Bentley’s. The latter has been here since 1914—oh, the stories its marble bar must have been privy to over the years. Bentley’s ur-English fish pie is the stuff of legend, but oysters are the main event. Sit at the bar and let the amiable shuckers prepare you a dozen (if available) of the rare European flat oyster, which has a round, scallop-like shell, a fibrous, almost crunchy texture, and a tangy, metallic aftertaste—like licking a penny.
Snooty maître d’ and exorbitant prices aside, there are few better venues for oysters than this 267-year-old bulwark in St. James (jacket required). The mustard-colored walls are hung with portraits of the restaurant’s master shuckers, including Thai émigré Sam Tamsanguan, who won the ’99 world championship for speed-shucking. (He opened 30 in three-and-a-half minutes). At Wiltons, Sam works at a more measured pace—he’ll carefully set you up with a dozen English “natives,” arranged on a dimpled silver platter, with a lemon half wrapped in cheesecloth—a thoughtful touch. The main course? It has to be the whole Dover sole, grilled and then broiled with nothing but butter, salt, and pepper.
Brittany is the heart of France’s oyster trade, providing one-third of the nation’s oyster crop, and the briny seafaring town of Cancale is its epicenter. Work up an appetite with a visit to the Cancale oyster market, whose wooden stalls cluster on the seawall above the bay; then take your hunger to this rustic harbor-front oyster house and treat yourself to a dozen, paired with a bottle of Muscadet.
Few Parisian restaurants are as evocatively nostalgic as this 1864-era Alsatian brasserie—the city’s oldest—off Place de la Bastille, with its Belle Époque interiors and bow-tied waiters. Out on the sidewalk are troughs piled high with Fines de Claires, seaweed, and melting ice.
A folksy bar des huîtres near the Opera House, with cheesy murals of Mont Saint-Michel and piped-in recordings of seagulls. Sophisticated it is not, and yet you’ll rarely find Belons so pristine. They give you a pail for discarding the shells—a reminder that in France oysters are still an informal, workaday food. (The French eat 4.4 pounds of oysters per person per year, more than any other Europeans.)
On the pastoral island of Vis, off Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast, this harbor-front restaurant has wooden tables inches from the water, with views of the old stone-and-terracotta architecture of Komiza and the rocky, pine-draped mountains beyond. A well in the center of the dining room doubles as a lobster tank, and the walls are decked out with maritime kitsch. You absolutely must try a platter of Mali Ston oysters, from the town of the same name down the coast, where underground springs and freshwater rivers create an ideal feeding ground for shellfish. (Mali Ston oysters were purportedly a favorite of Emperor Franz Josef’s).
Hong Kong is where it all comes together—at the city’s high-end oyster bars (a favorite of mainland Chinese visitors), you’ll find specimens from all over the world. At the Mandarin Oriental hotel’s oyster bar, tucked in the corner of the posh Grill restaurant, Englishman Martin Cahill oversees the superb rotating stock, which may include French Papillons and Tsarskayas, Pacific Northwest Kumamotos, Irish Rocks, and the South African Knysna, a pearl of an oyster, nutty and creamy and utterly unique.
Atop the gaudy Sheraton hotel in Kowloon, the Oyster & Wine Bar sells 800 oysters a day, and imports them from all over the planet. On any given night you might find specimens from Tasmania, Oregon, Colchester, Galway, Long Island, Brittany, Japan, Vietnam, New Zealand, Chile, South Africa, and Namibia—Namibia! If they’re on the menu, order the French Gillardeaus (a favorite of François Mitterand) and the Chilean borde negros, and swoon over that amazing view of Hong Kong Harbor.
Australia’s Sydney Rock is a small oyster with a big, sweet-salty taste. There’s no better place to sample it than at the ever-popular Boathouse, set on stilts above a rowing shed on Blackwattle Bay, just an oyster’s throw from the Sydney Fish Market (which is another must-visit site, by the way).
Enjoy some of the finest water views in town at this polished dining room overlooking Rose Bay, a 20-minute drive from Sydney’s Central Business District. Greg Doyle is one of the country’s most accomplished seafood chefs, and he has a particular knack for sourcing perfect oysters (and dressing them with a subtle, piquant mignonette).