SENA15: Oyster bars thrive on varietals, adventurous reputation
Flash back to a few years ago when oyster bars were the hottest trend around. As hip new spots cropped up all over the country, oysters found glamorous new light, pairing perfectly with specific wines or beers. Proving skeptics wrong, the appeal of the oyster has lasted, forever escaping the term “craze” and instead shifting to a mainstay on most modern-day menus.
“I see more oysters on regular restaurant menus in addition to just going to an oyster bar. It’s a trend. The oyster is being more represented across the board,” said Patrick McMurray, owner of Pearl Diver restaurant, The Ceili Cottage restaurant and Starfish Catering in Toronto. He’s also the world’s fastest oyster shucker, according to the Guinness Book of World Records.
“Oyster specialty restaurants will do well only because people have a passion for it and think it’s a good idea. People who eat oysters tend to be like-minded; they have a healthy lifestyle and are more adventurous toward food. They have fun in that way.”
The production factor makes it easy for bar and restaurant owners to cater to their more adventurous diners. Oysters tend to be easy to produce, said McMurray. Other proteins require processing, cooking and plating. “But the oyster — you bring it in, fridge it, open it and put it on a plate and serve it,” he said. “You really don’t have to add anything to it. Oysters are a lightweight product.”
Lightweight and sustainable. As seafood sustainability grows into a bigger topic of conversation, McMurray reiterated how oysters are among the top most sustainable seafood products.
“The only red light is dragging for wild oysters; that’s more harmful. Farming is better for the environment because the oyster gives back,” he said. “It filters algae from the water, and that allows plant life to grow. There’s nothing but good when it comes down to oysters.”
Jeremy Sewall, owner and chef at Boston’s Island Creek Oyster Bar and Row 34, echoed that the oyster’s staying power is due in part to farming.
“Popularity of oyster farming is at an all-time high,” he said. “A lot of people are getting into it because it’s a sustainable fish source. It’s carbon negative, and oysters take more bad stuff out of the water than they put in. There are reasons oysters are popular, other than they’re amazingly delicious — oysters are here to stay, [unless] we, as a human race, screw them up.”
Sewall takes a different approach to each of his restaurants, and even though both have evolved since their openings, they hold true to their founding seafood source: the oyster.
“Variety is everything if you want to be an oyster bar,” he said. “People are more knowledgeable now, so they want a variety — East Coast, West Coast, Toronto, Irish, European…when paired with wines and beers, [oysters] make their own special event.”
Sewall’s Island Creek restaurant, founded four years ago, has expanded to include fish and chips, fried clams and more. But Sewall said the establishment hasn’t lost sight of “what we are.” Sewall and his partners wanted to create a traditional oyster bar “with an incredible list of oysters. We were trying to curate an oyster list that was second to none.”
Today, Island Creek works with a number of fishermen and farmers to create a menu that’s printed daily. The restaurant offers between 10 to 15 varieties of oysters at a time from both New England and the West Coast. “We try to showcase that every day, and that hasn’t changed over the four years.”
Row 34 tends to have more of a regional, New England focus, Sewall said. The restaurant may offer one or two varietals from the West Coast during this time of year, “but we definitely stay more local on that list,” he said.
Row 34 is about a year old and is located in South Boston. “At the core, it’s an oyster bar, but [we also serve] chowder, fish and chips … it’s a little simpler with a modest approach. It has a great beer list. We think of it as an everyday place you can go to a few times a week for dinner.”
Island Creek Oyster Bar is on McMurray’s top picks of Boston oyster locations that Seafood Expo North America attendees should check out. “Island Creek has a contemporary design and is absolutely gorgeous,” he said. Union Oyster House, located on the Freedom Trail near Faneuil Hall, is another must-see spot. “You can go sit at the bar and hear stories from shuckers and soak up the history,” McMurray said. “It was a favorite among U.S. presidents.”
Last but not least, McMurray suggested Neptune Oyster bar on Salem Street. “It tends to be crazy-hard to get into, but it’s worth it.”