If a man cared, and knew all the rules, he would be really frightened to go into a decent oyster-bar and submit his knowledge to the cold eyes of the counter-man and all the local addicts. He would be so haunted by what was correct in that certain neighborhood and how to hold the shell and whether lemon juice should be used and so on that he would probably go instead to a corner drug store and order a double chocolate banana split.
- MFK Fisher in Consider the Oyster, "A Lusty Bit of Nourishment"
It seems to me M.F.K. Fisher is utterly correct, in her book-length treatment of the topic, in describing the oyster as the most sensitive food. There is the oyster’s obvious sensitivity - that it is often still alive until the moment of its consumption - but it’s vulnerable in other ways too. The oyster’s climatic requirements are stringent, as anyone whose ever been sick from one will attest. And a mere grain of sand spurs the delightful (and absurd) biological overreaction that gives us the pearl.
Yet it’s also clear that Fisher is considering equally the sensitivity of the oyster eater. Whether she’s describing a young person of aspiring virility or a king seeking brilliance (sometimes on behalf of his subjects…), it’s the woman or man rather than the bivalve who appreciates so acutely each glistening slurp. It’s the human being who must also have a glass of white wine, a lemon to squeeze, a sauce, a handful of crackers to accompany that mouthful. And we’re certainly the ones that require the cold counters and trays of ice chips to contain the flinty shells, the stools and banquettes and counters on which to prop ourselves, the low yellow lights under which to inspect our feasts.
Pondering oysters for nearly a week has been entirely pleasant, with just a few minor drawbacks. Namely, at least one of us here cannot refresh our memories as we’d like to. As with champagne, I have to settle for using my imagination. Which, again, isn’t horrible. The flavor of the ice cold sea water, the tang of the mignonette and tenderness of the flesh, and those majestic places I’ve indulged in my most favorite of delicacies... Since I can’t, while the "R" months last (and even while they don't), please go visit these oyster bars for me. I’ll be there in spirit, eyeing you creepily from above a bowl of clam chowder…
oyster bars we've known, a compendium
J. Sheekey Oyster Bar, London
Lydia: Last May, Barbara and our friend Rachael and I were all footloose and fancy-free in London and Paris, on what Bridget Jones might call a "city break." At that time last year, those two weren't yet pregnant (nor was I for that matter) and, personally, I was in the throes of an all-consuming, Zelda Fitzgerald-ish ballet obsession. And so it seemed fitting that I plan an evening of oysters at J. Sheekey's Oyster Bar in Covent Garden, followed by the absolute cheapest seats possible at the nearby Royal Ballet, for a program which I can no longer recall the name of (but which, thrillingly, involved my favorite dancer).
Though it sounds indulgent to say so, the day leading up to this evening was rife with difficulty, including an episode of too-tight clogs, mild dehydration, and a painful trip down some dangerous stairs down into a Boots Pharmacy. The afternoon in particular was burdened by one of those dismal moods that conspire and take hold when you're wearing an outfit that is a fatal combination of ill-fitting, uncomfortable, dirty, and too hot.
I'm not denying how spoiled it sounds, but it seemed absolutely necessary to our mental well-being in that dark hour before our pre-show reservation at J.Sheekey's to brave the Oxford Circus Top Shop to buy on-sale black crepe sleeveless jumpsuits and various fringed things from Kate Moss' capsule collection, and then for all of us to change outfits and trade shoes with one another. Our transformations occurred individually and silently in the beautiful brass and marble-outfitted basement bathrooms of Sheekey's. There, we were able to rest our overheated and troubled brows against the cool marble, and collect ourselves for a few minutes in the cocooning, dimly-lit stalls before going back up to the equally calming oyster bar - with only one long side-glance from the hostess as we each came trooping up in a new outfit - to consume a rejuvenating half-dozen oysters and champagne. I recall nothing from that point on but the soothing taste of the sea in my throat and the soporific feeling of the blood in my veins diffusing with the golden bubbles of one glass of champagne.
Grand Central Oyster Bar, New York
Barbara: When I lived in New York and thought I’d never leave, I was lucky enough (!) to work near-ish to Grand Central Station. And though it’s been years since then I can’t think of a single a better way to spend the evening after a long or exhausting day in the company of others than to speed to Grand Central and wind your way down into the greatest oyster bar I know. My thing was to order a glass (or a couple, they’re tiny) of Sauvignon Blanc and maybe eight oysters, as this wasn’t dinner but a happy hour for one. I’d get one or two of each type that suited me, sometimes just requesting the waitress recommend what she liked best. And then I’d probably order four or five more, and… watch everyone else do the same thing.
The ladies room, incongruously staffed by an attendant - unless, perhaps, it’s the best place to borrow hairspray after a ride on the Metro North - and flanked with those amazing sofas that look like lips, is an added bonus. Alright, it’s great for a working woman but equally excellent to visitors arriving unstressed, sometimes even just to celebrate.
The Oyster Bar at KaDeWe, Berlin
Lydia: The chaotic sixth floor of Berlin's Kaufhaus des Westens (or the wild-sounding Shopping House of the West!) is an unruly but yet somehow ultra-refined food court, and it is one of my favorite places to go in Berlin. Despite years of Saturday afternoon visits for various urgent food-related needs (I bought my 20th and 30th birthday cakes from their pastry counters, and it's also the only place I know in Berlin that sells Ina Garten pancake mix on the occasion that you're feeling very homesick) - I always get lost in the maze of aisles of speciality items and food counters that serve, for example, just runny French cheeses, or the city's best Schnitzels, or flutes of Moët, or giant cups of milky coffee and dense chocolate cake.
Though the sixth floor is rather overwhelming and poorly-lit, The Fishy Corner, as I call it (because it's where all the fish counters are?), is always bright and cheerfully bustling - a universe unto itself. As you duck big white platters of steaming potatoes and pan-fried fish toted by harried waiters, and peek into the long displays, filled with tentacles of various orders and all those unseeing glassy eyes, you are likely to get a hankering for a quick snack of oysters and a glass of wine. So indulge that hankering you do, sitting at the Austernbar for a half-dozen and the house white. And, as you take a hard-won seat amongst the crazy tourists and stolid Berliners, and as your own white platter with lemon wedges arrives wordlessly in front of you, it's like pulling your head beneath the din of crashing waves: for just a moment, Fishy Corner, and indeed the rest of the world, goes blissfully mute as you slurp down a magic morsel of the sea.
Barbara: As an American person with no prior idea of the differences between American and British oysters, I was of course surprised that they’re so big and meaty in Scotland. Perhaps less salty, too, but still the best date night food imaginable. My soon-to-be husband and I spent a night of madly cheers-ing our love, and our exciting adventures, and our luck at this swanky Glasgow spot. It might not be as ancient as it purports, but with its art deco bar that doesn’t look to have changed since the thirties, it’s glamorous and worth a visit. We would also urge you to drink a whiskey sour with your oysters.
Fischereihafen Restaurant Oyster Bar, Hamburg
Lydia: My eventual arrival at this deeply glamorous Oyster Bar in Hamburg came at the end of a glorious Easter Sunday with my boyfriend, following a sunny drive on the Autobahn to Hamburg from the North Sea. There, in a fit of excitement, I had eaten a whole lobster for lunch (!) and, back in Hamburg, was only vaguely hungry at 9 p.m. when we began to think about dinner. I was less in search of actual food than I was wanting of a very particular, cozy glamour to close out a perfect weekend. And so my boyfriend, being a genius, from Hamburg, and amazingly tolerant, led us with confidence to the Oyster Bar at the famed Fischereihafen Restaurant.
It's a heavily glam and old-school place - i.e. if you can't tell, just my type - with low, red linen-shaded lamps on each of the tables, a shimmering view through massive picture windows over the Hamburger Hafen, and classic, old-style wait service, complete with lowered voices and jokes and expertise. There are worn brass plaques and proper drink carts in wallpapered nooks, and the walls of the oyster bar - itself a dark, cozy alcove nestled within the meandering space - are lined with photos of celebrities and German politicians.
Giddy from the long, sunny day, the ocean air, and the peculiar happiness that comes from a velvet booth and linen tablecloths (and also maybe slightly drunk from a pear Bellini), I ordered just three dense, perfect Sylt oysters from our twinkly-eyed waiter. The oysters were delivered on a silver tray filled with ice and muslin-covered lemons, alongside small squares of dark German bread spread thickly with cold butter. A small silver fingerbowl of lemon scented water quietly appeared and I nearly fainted from glee. My happy eating was punctuated with absorbing people-watching and the funny, tired conversation that comes at the end of travel and seaside days. Eventually I ordered three more of those Sylt oysters, I drank a glass of the dry champagne, and in between and long after all of that, I felt deep gratitude for my luck, and for the satisfying of all my hungers.
The Oyster Boys, Hollywood Farmer’s Market, Los Angeles &
Richard Haward’s Oysters, Borough Market, London
Barbara: I ate the best oysters of my life at the Hollywood Farmer’s Market. I felt the Pacific in my mouth that morning. And so did my mother, who will also attest to the brilliance of the event. We tried to replicate the experience last summer in London, where for Bastille Day we had a delightful experience, Pimm’s cups, and got a couple of sunburns to boot.
Anyway what’s more exciting - or more challenging - than the open air oyster bar? Watching the shucker work his or her magic on bags full of unopened shells, discarding the tops of them into a growing heap. Watching the expert discard and set aside the ones that are too big and too small. Taking the plastic plate or tray in your eager hands whilst grabbing a handful of lemon wedges and scooping vinegar from jars with plastic spoons, balancing and probably losing a good deal of the precious saline bath you’re dying to slurp… Just don’t drop the plate. Find a stoop or a ledge in the shade. And eat as quickly as possible.
Here's our collection of Oyster Week posts...