Without a little background knowledge, the world of oysters and oyster-eating can be perplexing, confusing, overwhelming, and maybe even a little frustrating; who knew there could be so many choices. Having recently rekindled my love for these tasty treats, I decided to educate myself with a quick Oyster 101 review. Armed with my new-found tips, I began my hunt for the best oyster bars in Charleston to enjoy a wide variety of selections and preparations guaranteed to satisfy my deepest oyster craving. Although many restaurants offer oysters on their menu, I have chosen ones that feature oysters as one of the “stars” of the show. First up a little review…
Oysters are filter feeders. They, quite literally, capture the essence of the region (the minerals, the grasses, the plankton), the water (especially the salinity), and serve it right up to you in a neat little bite. These nutrient combinations differ from one location to the next. In the oyster world, this regional distinction is called merroir – a nod to the wine term terroir, which speaks to the unique taste characteristics imparted by a given region.
Surprisingly, there are only 5 species of oysters harvested in the U.S., but there are over 300 unique oyster varieties produced in North America. Once again, the differences, the variety, comes from where they live, the water they filter, and how they are handled. Their taste, in the end, is local…a product of their merroir.
Here are the 5 species and a few of the more common varieties you might find on a menu:
- Pacific Oysters (also known as Japanese Oysters) – popular on the west coast and Europe. Small, sweet, with creamy white texture and a robust, briny flavor. Examples: Totten Inlet, Fanny Bay, Sweetwater Oyster from Hog Island
- Kumamoto Oysters – Kumamotos used to be lumped into Pacific name, but it is a different species. Known as the “chardonnay” of oysters because of its sweet, fruity, and sometimes nutty taste, it’s the oyster that “everyone likes”!
- Atlantic or Eastern Oysters (crassostrea virginicas) – This is the most common type of oyster and one most often served, representing 85% of all those harvested in U.S. and Gulf of Mexico. Examples: Bluepoints, Wellfleets, Malpeqeus, and Beausoleils
- European Flats – Often called Belons, Flats are very rare. A small harvest in Maine is the only U.S. producer. They have a meaty texture almost with a crunch along with a sharp mineral and seaweed taste.
- Olympia Oysters – Native to the west coast and mostly cultivated in British Columbia and Puget Sound. Smaller than the other species, Olympias are about the size of a quarter with a sweet, coppery, metallic flavor.
Great Oyster Resources
As I noted, these 5 species produce over 300 varieties which makes it pretty impossible to know about each one specifically! I highly recommend the following resources which contain invaluable general information and also regional information for virtually any/every oyster you might encounter on a menu!
www.oysterguide.com (check out the oysterfinder tab)
www.oysterater.com (can even add this to your phone for quick info)
For book lovers, I highly recommend:
(CLICK IMAGES to see full descriptions and reviews via Amazon)
While most oysters are meant to be eaten raw on the half shell, there are other preparations that are equally delicious. Steaming or roasting is a very common cooking method in the Lowcountry which adds a smokiness and concentrates the briny flavor; you can find those out at Bowen’s Island Restaurant (they fry them up as well).
For most, however, a splash of hot sauce, lemon, or horseradish is all you need to slurp down some goodness.
Now on to some other great places that serve up the best oysters in Charleston and remember many of the oyster bars offer unbelievable happy hour pricing!
Here are 15 of Charleston’s Best Oyster Bars
167 Raw, 289 East Bay Street, $$
Although it looks unassuming from outside, prepare for some of freshest seafood in Charleston. Along with a great selection of oysters, Raw serves up plenty of other delights like lobster rolls and tuna burgers. Prepare to wait…it’s first come, first serve; no reservations.
Amen Street Fish & Raw Bar, 205 East Bay Street, $$
If you are looking for a variety, you have found the spot. Amen offers a wide selection of nationally known types alongside some local favorites. Look for excellent happy hour pricing from 4pm-7pm, weekdays.
Bowen’s Island Restaurant, 1870 Bowen’s Island Rd, $$
Looking for a perfect sunset, a bucket of steamed oysters, in a place where every hour is happy? Head out to James Island and out the dirt road that leads to Bowen’s. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience…guaranteed!
Coast Bar & Grill, 39-D John Street, $$
With a name like Coast, how could it not be the freshest? Don’t miss the great prices during happy hour during the week.
The Darling Oyster Bar, 513 King St., $$
Located on the poplar King Street, The Darling offers counter service with some great oyster treats. Happy Hour pricing makes this a popular after-work spot.
Fleet Landing Restaurant & Bar, 186 Concord St., $$
Fleet Landing offers a great seafood dining experience right on the water. Although Fleet’s doesn’t offer a wide variety of types of oysters, they do deliver delicious nightly selections, as well as, a hearty menu for all those non-oyster eaters.
Hank’s Seafood Restaurant, 10 Hayne St., $$$
The Seafood Tower is the star at Hank’s, but honestly, you could say that about many of the menu items. This restaurant recreates a classic Charleston Fish House with an old-fashioned saloon style bar.
Leon’s Oyster Shop, 698 King St., $$
If you like oysters, cheap beer, awesome salads, random other “fried” things, then you will LOVE Leon’s. It’s straight up good food in a cool renovated garage.
Nico Oysters & Seafood, 201 Coleman Blvd., Mount Pleasant, $$$
Nico, which opened roughly 6 months ago, is quickly growing into one of the best oyster finds in the city. Chef Nico Romo offers a fresh take on Charleston’s Shem Creek with his French touch and a wood-fired grill approach.
Oyster House & O-Bar, 35 South Market St., $$
Raw, grilled, wrapped, fried, vodka-infused…you name it; the O-Bar has it and at great prices during Happy Hour!
The Ordinary, 544 King St., $$$
James Beard Award Winner Chef Mike Lata (also the mastermind behind FIG) offers the world of seafood possibilities with oysters firmly in the spotlight of the Raw Bar. The Seafood Tower is one of the house specialities, but there are so many more. Reservations are a MUST for dinner and fill quickly; plan ahead.
Pearlz Oyster Shop (2 locations), 9 Magnolia Road, West Ashley and 153 Bay Street, $$
A self-described eclectic little oyster bar, Pearlz is at the top on many lists for the best raw oyster offerings at unbelievable prices (once again hit Happy Hour early…raw bar fills fast). Features lots of local and gulf varieties and also other popular types found outside “these parts”.
Prohibition, 547 King St., $$
Jazz, whisky, and oysters…pretty much says it all! Prohibition is a gastropub where no secret handshake is required.
Rappahannock Oyster Bar, 701 East Bay Street, $$
Rappahannock Oyster Bar (Charleston) is nestled in a jaw-dropping 19th-century cigar factory along Charleston’s Cooper River on East Bay Street. Leading the charge is Chef Kevin Kelly who left D.C.’s Michelin-recommended Rapp Bar. With a 40-seat bar and a superb outside dining area, Rappahannock offers plenty of options on and off the menu.
The Victor Social Club, 39-F John St., $$
The Victor Social Club offers a little touch of Havana right in the center of the Lowcountry. The menu is small focusing on oysters and other small plates, but the delivery is big. Live cuban inspired bands play every Wednesday-Friday, and Happy Hour offers some huge savings on the raw bar and cocktails.
Whether you are an oyster newbie or an aficionado, Charleston offers a plethora of dining options for satisfying your tastes. These restaurants offer a range of national favorites and also local delicacies along with a wide variety of settings to savory your favorites.
Happy Slurping and no shucking required!
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