The Best Oyster Bars

Peter Frank Edwards
by Robb Walsh - Feb/March 2010

Here are a dozen of the best oyster bars in the South

Great oyster bars are like great oysters—they’re better raw.

The old blue-collar oyster saloons of the Gulf Coast sell cheap oysters by the dozen with crackers and cold beer. The new uspcale oyster bars of the East and West coasts offer expensive farm-raised bivalves with elaborate pedigrees to be enjoyed with fine wines. These two American oyster cultures are engaged in a bitter struggle.

When you eat cheap Gulf oysters in New Orleans, the shuckers jive you about those tiny three-dollar oysters up north. And when you eat gourmet oysters in New York, the shuckers lecture that Gulf oysters are flavorless and they are likely to kill you. Oyster loyalties are provincial. Or to paraphrase the gastronome Anthelme Brillat-Savarin: “Tell me what kind of oysters you eat, and I will tell you where you live.”

American oyster farming follows the French model. Farmed oysters are more expensive to produce, which is why the French pioneered the marketing of oysters as luxury products, a tactic that Americans now emulate. Gourmet oyster sellers trash-talk Gulf oysters because the availability of cheap wild oysters makes it hard to get high prices.

Cheap oysters were once found in oyster saloons across the country, back before the native oysters were fished out. The bays and estuaries of the Gulf Coast are among the last places on Earth with abundant wild oysters. And that’s why you can still sit down in an old-fashioned oyster saloon in Houston or Apalachicola and eat oysters for pennies apiece.

But the prices get a little higher and the oysters get a little scarcer every year. It’s not hard to predict that the golden era of blue-collar oyster saloons will soon come to an end. Enjoy it while you can.

Gilhooley’s Raw Bar
San Leon, TX
Misho’s Oyster Company on Galveston Bay in the town of San Leon is one of the largest oyster processors in Texas. Owner Misho Ivic sends his choicest little bivalves to his favorite oyster bar, a ramshackle dive called Gilhooley’s. In the winter, when the oysters are sweet and plump, the ones at Gilhooley’s are always just a little sweeter and just a little plumper. Oysters Gilhooley, fresh-shucked oysters dusted with Parmesan, dotted with garlic butter, and smoked in a wood-fired pit, are premier examples of the Gulf Coast barbecued oyster genre. Gilhooley’s, which has been described by its detractors as a biker bar, has an admittedly rough-hewn ambience. It was constructed entirely of salvaged materials. The roof leaks when it rains. A sign on the front door strictly prohibits children, while another sign above the bar encourages patrons to: “Show Us Your Tits.” Hard to say whether it’s the best oyster bar in Texas despite these flaws—or because of them. 281-339-3813

Magnolia Bar & Grill
Houston, TX
This place has the freshest Gulf oysters in Houston thanks to its founder Jim Gossen, who is also among the top oyster wholesalers on the Gulf Coast. You can belly up to the oyster bar during the week, but on Sundays during oyster season, the shuckers lay out a huge bed of ice and offer all-you-can-eat oysters on the half shell for brunch. The baked oyster dishes are awesome, as are the fried oysters, the oyster po’boys, and the oyster gumbo. Check out the collection of antique oyster plates hanging on the walls. 713-781-6207; magnolia-grill.com

Dupuy’s Oyster Shop
Abbeville, LA
The oldest and most famous oyster concern in Southwest Louisiana, the business was originally opened by Joseph Dupuy in the 1860s to sell the oysters he tonged from the beds on Diamond Reef. Located on the bridge over the Vermillion River in downtown Abbeville, it has long been an oyster eater’s landmark. Dupuy’s Oyster Shop and Black’s Oyster Bar were once fierce competitors in this oyster industry town. But Black’s is out of business now and Dupuy’s carries on. 337-893-2336; dupuysoystershop.com

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