According to Jon Rowley, a Washington-based seafood consultant, in the early 1980s only one restaurant in Seattle was shucking and serving fresh oysters.
“The rest were just washing and reusing shells over and over again, filling them with oysters from a jar,” he explained
Now, Seattle has emerged as the hub of the Northwest oyster scene, with a new generation of oyster bars serving up Kumamotos, Little Skookums and Baywater Sweets.
The Wall Street Journal’s Sarah Karnasiewicz notes that over the past five or six years, the number of oysters farmed in the region jumped from 5 to 23 million annually.
While there are five species consumed in North America, two species, Crassostrea gigas, or the Pacific oyster, and Crassostrea virginica, the Eastern oyster, are most common.
Sarah points out that most oysters have descriptive names such as Moonstone and Sweet Petite, or geographic “appellations” like Wellfleet and Colville Bay.
And oysters assimilate the unique character from the place in which it grows, so ambient minerals, algae and salinity levels profoundly effect its flavor profile.
Rowan Jacobsen, author of “A Geography of Oysters” and the website the Oyster Guide, explains:
“Whereas your average—usually Louisiana—Gulf oyster can have a muddy bayou flavor, Pepper Groves are intensely salty, with an almost astringent finish. And Point Aux Pins, grown in Alabama’s Mobile Bay, have a sweet-salty umami note.”
Outstanding Oysters Bars Around the Country, courtesy of The Wall Street Journal
Rappahannock Oyster Bar at Union Market
1309 Fifth St. NE, Washington, D.C.
Tucked inside Washington, D.C.’s bustling new Union Market complex, this outpost of one of the longest-lived family-run Chesapeake Bay oyster outfits is already attracting throngs with its seasonal menu of seafood dishes and stupendously fresh Virginia oysters, including bold, briny Olde Salts and creamy, mild Rappahannocks.
Eventide Oyster Co.
86 Middle St., Portland, Maine
Since opening in 2012, this bright, inviting spot has quickly established itself as the pearl of Portland’s Old Port. Grab a seat at the bar hewn from cement and Maine granite, nosh on house-made pickles and a cup of chowder, and browse the selection of oysters arrayed on crushed ice: 18 enticing varieties, nine from Maine and nine “from away.” Don’t neglect the top-notch cocktails, like the surprising and simple celery gimlet.
2600 Travis St., Houston, Texas
This sunny Houston seafood house, with James Beard award-winning chef/owner Bryan Caswell at the helm, has long used its menu to celebrate indigenous Gulf seafood—including the up-and-coming field of reef-specific oysters, like Pepper Grove and Ladies Pass, from Galveston Bay.
Shaw’s Crab House
21 E. Hubbard St., Chicago
Chicagoans have a well-documented appetite for oysters going back to the 1800s, when oyster brokers from the East navigated the Erie Canal and Great Lakes to get the goods to hungry patrons. While Shaw’s hasn’t been around nearly that long—it opened in 1984—sitting in one of its red leather booths, attended by a bow-tied waiter and supping a dozen Conway Cups on the shell, is a timeless pleasure.
The Walrus and The Carpenter
4743 Ballard Ave. NW, Seattle
In an old marine warehouse in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood, chef Renee Erickson has created the prototype for the modern oyster bar—whitewashed brick walls, gleaming zinc bar—and a wide and tempting menu of Pacific oysters. The service is equally impressive: Staffer Anthony Pane is renowned as one of the country’s fastest, cleanest shuckers.
14B Orchard St., New York
One of a great wave of oyster bars and upscale “clam shacks” cresting on New York’s Lower East Side this fall, this shabby-chic den from the team behind the Fat Radish is already luring in the hip and the hungry with a selection of East and West Coast oysters, swank cocktails and artful bar snacks.