The old chestnut—to favor the months with an “er” in their names when it comes to eating oysters—was based partly on the belief that cooler waters produce fresher tasting, brinier oysters. These days, among chefs, they’re favored as a fall appetizer because come October, “oysters are packing on lipids and glycogen for the long winter ahead, and they’re really nice and fat and sweet-tasting,” says Robert Spaulding, the executive chef of Elliott’s Oyster House in Seattle, which celebrates Oyster New Year on November 11.
Like the Oyster New Year, fall oyster festivals abound in part to celebrate this zaftig-ness. New York City’s Oyster Bar & Restaurant, inside Grand Central Terminal, hosts the raucous Oyster Frenzy every autumn, with events like slurping and pro oyster-shucking contests, chef demos, cocktail competitions, and plenty of their oyster varieties on the half shell. “It’s standing room only,” says the executive chef, Sandy Ingber.
Also in October, Cape Cod’s Wellfleet, home to one of the East Coast’s most popular name mollusks, hosts its OysterFest—which in eleven years has grown from a beachside get-together for a couple hundred fishermen and their friends to a weekend-long festival that draws some twenty-thousand visitors from up and down the seaboard.
Festivals offer entrée to the lusty pleasure seekers who tend to be drawn to the culture. But it’s easier now than ever to find reputable purveyors of both freshness and variety in restaurants and oyster bars all over the country. “Nationally oysters are gaining in popularity as awareness and education are on the rise,” says Spaulding. “There are a lot of places serving oysters that didn’t used to, and new oyster bars are opening up.”
For a top-notch experience, find a restaurant doing a brisk raw-bar business. “The best oyster bar is the one with the freshest oyster,” says Michael Sherpa, the chef at the always-packed Neptune Oyster in Boston’s North End, which sells more than two thousand a day.
Most will offer a range of mollusks, from the smaller, crowd-pleasing Wellfleets and Island Creeks on the East Coast and the sweet Kumamotos and Kusshis on the West to the larger, brinier, and more metallic Belons that longtime oyster connoisseurs like Ingber favor.
"Come October, Oysters are packing on lipids and glycogen for the long winter ahead, and they're really nice and fat and sweet-tasting."
– Robert Spaulding
Undeniably part of the pleasure lies in comparing and contrasting different types. Oysters inspire as much regional pride and prejudice as competitive sports do, and selections tend to skew largely, if not entirely, toward the closer coast. “It’s almost unanimous that West Coast people like West Coast oysters, and East Coast people like East Coast oysters,” which tend to be much brinier, says Jasper White, the owner of the Boston-area seafood chain Summer Shack and the author of numerous cookbooks, including Jasper White’s Cooking from New England. Others have suggested that people actually prefer the flavor of the ocean they grew up with: the salty Atlantic or the milder Pacific.
At Grand Central’s Oyster Bar, Ingber stocks twenty-five to thirty varieties of the freshest oysters available daily, always choosing two-thirds from the East Coast; at Elliott’s in Seattle, Spaulding offers samplers of both Washington and Canadian products, but rarely anything from the East. “The people who come in want local oysters, so that’s what they order,” he says.
Asked whether it’s the endless variety that makes ostreaphiles so fanatical about oysters, White answers, without guile, “No, it’s because they’re the greatest food on earth.”
Oysters, he maintains, are the true appetizer. “They stimulate your appetite. You get this burst of flavor, and they’re light.” Plus there’s a ritual involved. “They’re one of the few things we eat live,” says White. “They’re sexy. They’re romantic. It’s like wine: It’s exciting to taste a new great oyster, just as it’s exciting to taste a new great vintage.”
"Oysters are the trUe appetizer. They stimulate your appetite. You get this burst of flavor and they're light. They're not filling."
– Jasper White
Like wine, an oyster’s structure, flavor, and texture reveal where and how it was grown. The East Coast offers just one native species, the Crassostrea virginica; distinctions among the dozens of varieties reflect differences in cultivation, nutrition, and conditions. Generally speaking, the farther north one goes, the crisper and saltier the oyster.
Of the virginicas, Island Creeks, from Duxbury Bay, Massachusetts, are a go-to for their exceptional quality and mossy, moderately salty flavor. (Thomas Keller serves them at The French Laundry, in Yountville, in California’s Napa Valley, and at Per Se, in New York City.) Standing out among East Coast offerings are the bold, coppery Belons, a species imported from France (Ostrea edulis) and raised in Maine’s Damariscotta River.
West Coast oysters tend to be milder and sweeter, owing to the Pacific’s lower salinity level. The only native species is the tiny, cucumbery Olympia (Ostrea lurida), once fished almost to extinction; today the petite Pacific oyster (Crassostrea gigas) is the most cultivated. Also widespread is the Japanese Kumamoto (Crassostrea sikamea), a good beginner oyster with a gentle melon and mineral flavor.
For a truly bicoastal bivalve, try the Totten Virginica, an émigré to the Totten Inlet in Washington’s Puget Sound. “It has the look of an East Coast oyster and a flavor kind of like both together,” says Ingber. “It’s incredible.”
Kris Wilton has written about art for Modern Painters, Art+Auction, ARTnews, and Artinfo.com, for which she was executive editor, and about other cultural topics for Slate, The Village Voice, and Entertainment Weekly. She is based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.