In his seminal and snarky tome “No Reservations”, author-celeb Anthony Bourdain revealed his passion for fresh oysters. Make that incredibly fresh oysters, straight from the ocean. During a family vacation in southern France in the 1960s, a local fisherman convinced a young Bourdain to try one during a boat trip. The old salt snatched an oyster from the water, quickly shucked it and handed it to him on the half shell. Eager to prove himself, Bourdain ate it and a love for both shellfish and all things culinary was born.
While oysters that fresh may not be your cup of tea, there are plenty of restaurants both in the United States and overseas that serve them raw and prepared in any number of ways. Purists, like Bourdain, insist that oysters should be enjoyed “cold” with a minimal amount of pomp and circumstance. Perhaps with a little lemon juice or a touch of cocktail sauce but no more.
If you didn’t know already, raw oysters must be consumed while they’re still alive. Eating a dead one that hasn’t been cooked will likely lead to a rather unpleasant – and in some cases severe – bout of food poisoning. Given the advancements in overnight shipping in recent decades, however, it’s possible to enjoy fresh seafood from eastern Canada in places like Seattle. This is a fantastic development for bivalve fans since an oyster’s flavor can vary based on its original port-of-call. While the taste of many varieties may not be discernible to the casual oyster fan, others are radically different. For example, “Conway Cups,” found along the shores of Prince Edward Island, taste like chicken. A discerning connoisseur will judge the quality of an oyster by its smell and texture. A good oyster should smell faintly of the ocean and be chewy and solid.
Further complicating matters, the U.S. government blocks the import of oysters from almost all foreign locales, a hold-over from an era when their reputation for “not travelling well” could lead to severe intestinal discomfort. It’s fairly simple to track down bivalves from Canada and Mexico here in the states, but good luck finding any from Chile, South Korea, or New Zealand, the other nations on the list. If you’ve got a hankering for oysters caught along the shores of Southeast Asia, you might have to fly all the way to Hong Kong for them.
Regardless of how you like them, the following establishments consider bivalves an art form:
Union Oyster House
41 Union Street
Boston, MA 02108
This beloved New England institution opened it doors nearly two centuries ago in 1826. The current proprietors claim that the Union Oyster House is the oldest continually operating dining establishment in the United States. Since the early 19th century, luminaries like author Daniel Webster and the Kennedy clan have all dined there. Supposedly, JFK was so infatuated with the Union’s oysters that his favorite booth still bears a plaque with his name on it. Decades prior Louis Phillipe, the ousted king of France, served out his years of exile teaching students French in an apartment on the second floor. As if that isn’t enough, according to legend, the Union even first debuted toothpicks in America. But enough about the place’s history; how’s the food? It’s worthy of political dynasties with roots on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, disgraced and otherwise. The Union specializes in fresh oysters from Cape Cod, serving them stuffed, baked and steamed on the half shell and cold, for those who prefer them without the fixings.
Grand Central Oyster Bar
89 East 42nd Street
New York, NY 10168
Despite its odd location, in a dining concourse underneath Grand Central’s main hub, the Oyster Bar has served hungry travellers and locals since 1913. A great spot for people watching, the atmosphere definitely hearkens back to a bygone-era. The tablecloths are
checkered and patrons dine beneath the station’s iconic yellow-tile arches. The menu includes no less than 30 different bivalves from all over North America. On an average night, you’ll be able to try selections like “Lady Chatterly” oysters from Nova Scotia or “Yaquinas” shipped direct from the Oregon coast. The chaotic ambiance isn’t for everyone though and there’s plenty of far more trendy oyster bars opening up around Manhattan as we speak. That said, how many of them will still be around a century from now? Grand Central continues to stand the test of time and serves over 2 million oysters every year.
Grand Central Oyster Bar
Drago’s Seafood Restaurant
2 Poydras Street
New Orleans, LA 70130
A great spot if you like oysters that are both delicious and capable of taking years off your expected lifespan. Repeat-customers swear by Drago’s. In addition to more traditional oysters on the half shell, the restaurant also serves ’em up on skewers wrapped in bacon or sauteed in a tasso cream sauce. Drago’s signature charbroiled bivalves were the brainchild of manager Tommy Cvitanovich, who came up with the recipe in 1993. They serve over 900 of these puppies a day and each comes to the table practically swimming in a sauce comprised of garlic, special herbs and butter. Definitely not the place to head if you’re dieting…like most dining establishments in the Big Easy.
Elliott’s Oyster House
1201 Alaskan Way #101
Seattle, WA 98101
The inhabitants of the Emerald City take their oysters seriously and the folks at this local landmark are no exception. Located on Pier 56 near the historic Pike Street Market, Elliot’s offers elegant decor along with gorgeous views of its namesake bay and Bainbridge Island. There’s over a dozen varieties of oysters on the menu as well. Their Oysters Rockerfeller are baked with fresh spinach, Pernod, bacon and Hollandaise Sauce. Elliot’s also serves selections originating from Japan and France but raised locally. Sustainability is a big part of their credo. The staff recycles everything possible and proceeds from Elliot’s annual New Years celebration are donated to the Puget Sound Restoration Fund.
Elliot’s Oyster House
1658 Market Street
San Francisco, CA 94102
This posh eatery in the city’s SoMa neighborhood first opened its doors in 1979 and locals have been raving about its culinary delights ever since. Giant gallery windows, a brick oven and a copper-top bar compliment a wide array of oysters and other dishes. The menu changes daily, but Zuni’s exotic bivalves typically hail from locales like the coast of British Columbia, Tomales Bay in Northern California and all the way east to Prince Edward Island. The waits on weekends can be long so be sure to call ahead for a reservation.
The Oyster and Wine Bar
18th Floor, Sheraton Hong Kong Hotel & Towers
20 Nathan Road, Tsim Sha Tsui
Hong Kong, PRC
Located high atop the Sheraton Hong Kong Hotel and Towers, the Oyster and Wine Bar’s exquisite view of the city’s skyline is almost as good as the seafood. Over thirty varieties of oysters are flown in daily and the helpful staff is more than willing to explain the characteristics of the selection on hand. Each day’s catch is kept on ice in the middle of the restaurant’s elaborate horseshoe oyster bar.
The Oyster and Wine Bar
55 Jermyn Street
London SW1Y 6LX, United Kingdom
An institution that hails all the way back to 1742, Wilton’s is THE place in England to head for oysters. Here, they arrive at the table on silver platters wrapped in cheesecloth. Wilton’s specializes in British bivalves, which are noted for their unique texture and tangy flavor. If you go, keep in mind that jackets are required and your tab may run into the four-figures.