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.

Positive Thinker Ford Fry Opens The Optimist, Bringing Oysters to Atlanta

Ford Fry’s name isn’t the only thing cool about him. The Georgia-based chef and restaurateur has a goal of bringing different types of food and restaurants to his southern state. About a month ago, he opened the doors to The Optimist Fish Camp & Oyster Bar, his seafood-centric joint in Atlanta. As they slowly educate the public on the price of truly good fish, Fry is already thinking about his next culinary venture. In New York for a stint at last week’s the Lobster Roll Rumble and the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party, I caught up with the happy chef at The Smith to discuss his laidback takeover of Georgia eats. 

After your first two restaurants, JCT and No. 246, you are on your third. What made you decided to open the Optimist and go the oyster bar route?
I was up here doing a Beard dinner four years ago and we went Mary’s Fish Camp, which made me realize Atlanta doesn’t have anything like that. Atlanta is all chains or the Oceanaire, but it didn’t have that place to go where I could get really good oysters. So, the oyster bar has oysters and all sorts of things on ice. Then we plopped a wooden oven in the center of the oyster bar and are doing roasts like whole shrimp and octopus. 

How are people reacting to the concept of an oyster bar?
People don’t understand the prices in Atlanta like they do in NYC. People see $2.50 for an oyster and they think it’s outrageous. You get a couple comments saying, “Just lower the prices and skip the fancy condiments.” We do make house-made crackers and have sauces, but the condiments aren’t that fancy or expensive. But for the most part, that has only been a couple of people and most are really excited. 

How does the Optimist differ from your other two eateries?
The JCT is more farm-to-table and what people are calling new southern cuisine. We are more southern with European techniques, like our chicken and dumplings, which we use a great chicken leg and thigh and confit it in duck fat to crisp it up. No. 246 in Decatur is almost a year old now, and it’s our second restaurant. That one is more Italian inspired, locally sourced with Neapolitan style pizza and handmade pastas.

They are both so different in concept and cuisine.
They are, but the whole theme around them is trying to source locally. They are all actually American, but they have little inspirations [from other countries]. We are also less conceptual and more chef driven. Like Drew [Belline] at No. 246, he came from Floataway Café and they have more pizzas, which is his style. At the Optimist, it’s chef Adam [Evans] and he comes Muscle Shoals, Alabama. He was at Craft here in New York and Craft (now closed) in Atlanta. 

Where are you getting your inspiration to open these restaurants?
For the most part it’s just stuff that I really want to go to and stuff Atlanta just doesn’t have. Like I love cooking in a wood-burning hearth and our next restaurant is going to have one. 

So you already have your next place planned? 
I’m thinking about it. Maybe the Spanish influence will come in here, but then again, I want it to be a locally-sourced, American tavern type of thing where most of the dishes come from the wood-burning hearth.

Where are you thinking of opening next?
Buckhead is a key area. They haven’t had anything new in so long. We thought to come in and give it something fresh.