Cold Waters Heat Up The Nation’s Oyster Bar Scene

Though the old saying, “Oysters should only be eaten in months that end in an ‘r’” was debunked by refrigeration and modern mariculture, the truth remains: oysters are the ideal fall food. “Oysters thrive in cold water,” says Adam Evans, the chef of Atlanta’s white–hot seafood restaurant The Optimist and the aptly named next–door oyster bar, The Oyster Bar at The Optimist. “So when the water starts to change, they get this rush of cold water, plump up, and get really nice.”

The Oyster Bar at The Optimist is just the latest of a slew of oyster bars opening across the country. In the trendy L.A. neighborhood of Silverlake, L&E Oyster Bar has been attracting crowds since it opened in January. They serve a menu of hot and cold seafood items, including a fantastic oyster po’boy and a grilled oyster platter alongside their always–changing raw oyster list, sourced from all over the country and Canada. “My partner and I love oysters,” explains co-owner Tyler Bell, “but we couldn’t find a great oyster bar like the kinds you find in New York, Boston, San Francisco, or Europe, so we opened our own.” The hankering for bivalves has been so strong, Bell recently doubled capacity by taking over the floor upstairs.

On the Eastern Seaboard, Serge Becker, owner of hipster havens La Esquina and Miss Lily’s, opened his Swiss spot Cafe Select in 2008, but it was just this summer that he converted the restaurant’s secluded back room (accessed through the kitchen) into Cervantes’ Oyster Shack and Bar. They serve schnitzel, Zurich veal, and Swiss bratwurst in the main dining room, but offer lobster salad, octopus salad, steamed mussels, ceviche, and raw oysters in the back. When deep winter hits, they’ll turn it into a fondue bar, but for now, it’s veal up front, oysters in the back.

In May, Evans and Atlanta chef–of–the–moment Ford Fry debuted The Optimist to crowds and rave reviews. The space features a large horseshoe bar, beachy decor, and a casual patio with a putt–putt course attached. A coastal region’s worth of oysters, lobster rolls, chowder, salads, and peel ’n’ eat shrimp fill the menu, and the cocktails, like the pink gin martini called The Truth As We Know It, are designed to pair well with oysters.

Though Baltimore is a seafood-centric town, first–time restaurateur Candace Beattie noticed there was a hole in the marketplace where raw bars were concerned. So after moving back home after a long stint in raw bar-heavy Boston, Beattie opened Thames Street Oyster House in the summer of 2011 in Baltimore’s Fell’s Point. She serves a mix of New England and Maryland standards.

But it isn’t just that oysters are conquering new territory. Even in the oyster heartland, new oyster shacks flourish. The talk of Boothbay Harbor, Maine this year is The World is Mine Oyster: a new restaurant with a rustic, camp-themed interior, a patio overlooking the bay, and a lengthy menu of Maine-raised oysters, served raw, steamed, baked, in shooters, and topped with everything from sour cream and caviar to serrano ham or blue cheese and bacon. In nearby Portland, three–month-old Eventide Oyster Co. offers 18 varieties of oysters from Maine and “from away” to its coterie of salty regulars.

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