Reconsidering the Oyster Bar (and Its Drinks)

Oysters and booze have always gone hand in hand, from the sea creature's days in seedy saloons to its high rolling stint in fine dining. With the recent reintroduction of the dedicated oyster bar, Marian Bull takes a look at what goes best with bivalves.

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Consider the oyster bar: a bustling, social place full gleaming silver platters that smell of the sea. It’s the only genre of bar whose identity stems from a singular food.

Where oysters were once considered a luxury item reminiscent of champagne and crystal glassware, thanks to a new generation of oyster bars, they’re quickly becoming representative of America’s middle class of eaters and drinkers. And as they’ve gone from commonplace to rarity and (almost) back again, the drinks we pair with them have followed suit.

Despite their modern connotations, the oyster’s origins are humble—particularly in New York. When the Dutch landed on Manhattan in the 1600s, they inherited one of the richest, most active oyster beds in the world. They began eating them with same enthusiasm they applied to their consumption of beer, quickly pairing the two up in taverns.

In fact, many of New York’s early beer-filled watering holes doubled as bars and restaurants where oysters were not just served raw, but also pickled, fried, stewed and stuffed into a number of dishes. In 1783, New York gained its very first “oyster cellar”—a saloon located a few steps below street level that specialized in oysters—and by the late 1800s, according to Mark Kurlansky, author of The Big Oyster, New York was “a city overtaken by oystermania.”

It was contagious.

With the expansion of America’s railroads, oysters were shipped on ice to Buffalo, Cleveland and Cincinnati. And, in 1869, the first fresh oysters arrived by rail to San Francisco, where runoff from the gold rush had decimated the surrounding oyster population. Locals quickly transplanted Atlantic oysters to the bay, and soon had a multimillion-dollar industry on their hands, feeding East Coast gold miners hungry for a taste of home with plenty of booze and beer to wash it down.

Other bars have followed suit, many of them deliberately seeking to shake off the oyster’s persistent reputation as a luxury bar snack. For example, Eventide Oyster Co.—which opened in Portland, Maine, in 2012—offers an oyster list that would put up a good fight against any of New York’s, but pairs it with bottles of “delightfully trashy” Twisted Tea and a Fernet Sour that comes with a warning: “Your mom won’t like this.”

From East Coast to West, aristocrat to miner, this was, according to Kurlansky, “one of the few moments in culinary history when a single food, served in more or less the same preparations, was commonplace for all socioeconomic levels. It was the food of Delmonico’s and the food of the dangerous slum.”

Then things took an ominous turn. In the 1920s, the New York and Chesapeake Bay oyster markets crashed. Unprecedented pollution from the industrial revolution decimated oyster populations (London had previously experienced a similar wipeout), and a typhoid outbreak traced to oysters in the ’20s saddled bivalves with a reputation for carrying disease. Prohibition put the final nail in the oyster’s coffin, as the closing of taverns meant the disappearance of the oyster’s primary habitat.

For the next decades, the oyster survived mostly in fine dining restaurants, its rarity—and resulting high prices—placing it among the ranks of caviar, lobster and champagne. And though institutions like Swan’s Oyster Depot in San Francisco (opened in 1912) kept the memory of the oyster’s heyday alive in isolated enclaves, it mainly toiled in obscurity, its everyman past a forgotten memory.

It wasn’t until the 1980s that the oyster—and its accompanying bar—began to show signs of a comeback, mostly via the proliferation of the oyster happy hour. One of the first places to introduce a designated oyster deal, Shaw’s Crab House in Chicago, began offering oysters at half price in the late ’80s, giving the oyster an everyman boost that caught on in many of the city’s other establishments.

By the end of the 20th century, Congress had passed the Clean Water Act, which helped to restore healthy conditions for oysters on both coasts. Restaurants began offering options on the half-shell in greater numbers. But even these places—like New York’s Grand Central Oyster Bar and Aquagrill—were full-on restaurants with oysters as one of their many options. It’s really only recently that we’ve seen the true rebirth of the dedicated oyster bar—and with it, a reconsideration of what we drink alongside oysters.

Among these nouveau taverns is Brooklyn’s Maison Premiere, an absinthe bar with a soft spot for champagne and an oyster list known for its quality and diversity. Aiming to make its mark as a drinking establishment with a deliberate focus on shellfish, Maison has offered an oyster happy hour since day one, hawking dollar oysters, cocktails and a wide range of wines, from sherry to champagne.

Other bars have followed suit, many of them deliberately seeking to shake off the oyster’s persistent reputation as a luxury bar snack. For example, Eventide Oyster Co.—which opened in Portland, Maine, in 2012—offers an oyster list that would put up a good fight against any of New York’s, but pairs it with bottles of “delightfully trashy” Twisted Tea and a Fernet Sour that comes with a warning: “Your mom won’t like this.”

While every restaurant worth its brine has at least a few house cocktails and classics on offer, hard booze with oysters has also become increasingly commonplace. At Hard Water in San Francisco, a whiskey bar with an interest in raw seafood and Southern cuisine, half a dozen daily oysters get paired alongside whiskey flights and pork belly cracklings. One option for baked oysters is even topped with bacon and Old Grand Dad bourbon. At Seattle’s The Walrus and the Carpenter, Hama Hamas might get polished off with a house Gin and Tonic or a glass of Sigalas Assyrtiko from Santorini.

Sparkling cocktails, beer and wine get equal attention at Island Creek Oyster Bar in Boston, with a special emphasis on sherry, whose briny, salty manzanilla and fino styles are a natural fit alongside creatures of the sea.

What pairing, one might ask, will the modern oyster bar dig up next? Raki? Amaro? Mead?

All fair game, perhaps. But Rowan Jacobsen, author of A Geography of Oysters, dares to suggest that the great undiscovered oyster pairing is water. “Don’t laugh until you’ve tried it,” he argues. Though, history may not look too kindly on such an extreme departure from tradition.

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