Food & Drink

A Southern Oyster Bar Revival

Celebrate the South’s bivalve renaissance at one of these new oyster bars

Photo: Rinne Allen

A dozen on the half shell at Seabear

When Bryan Rackley and his business partners were preparing to open Kimball House—their grandly nostalgic restaurant set in a former Atlanta-area train depot—they came across a turn-of-the-century menu for a formal dinner. The meal began with a Manhattan and an oyster. “Frankly, that’s not a good pairing,” Rackley says in hindsight, but the notion of serving oysters and cocktails inspired him. “Both had so long been dormant in our culture but were experiencing the same trajectory of rebirth.”

During the decades of railroad expansion, oysters traveled all across the country packed in ice and sawdust. They found happy homes in sleek upscale bars near train stations in cities from coast to coast. Sadly, Prohibition put a quick end to many of the bars, though a humbler tradition still held on in the coastal South. “All these wonderful shacks along the road kept the culture alive,” says the food historian Jon Rowley. Some argued that the South’s raw oysters couldn’t compare to their briny, cooler water brethren up North. So in the roadside seafood joints down South, you had your saltines and cocktail sauce, and you heeded the old r month rule. But that’s all changing. 

Over the past couple of years, scores of oystermen in the Gulf and the Atlantic have begun raising “off-bottom” oysters in suspended cages to produce uniformly plump selects with nuanced flavors. Many of these specimens show up at Kimball House, which opened in 2013 with a long retro bar, where guests can sample meticulously crafted drinks and eat their way through a list of two dozen appellation oysters—Northern Cross from Virginia, Point Aux Pins from Alabama—described on the menu like wines, noting flavors such as “salted parsnips,” “watermelon,” or, simply, “kapow!” Kimball House set the tone for the next generation of Southern oyster bars, and today the region is home to an ever-growing number of stylish exemplars. They’ll probably cough up some saltines and hot sauce if you ask, but really, all you need to do is tip your head back and savor a perfectly shucked oyster in all its naked glory.

Elysian Seafood

New Orleans, Louisiana 

When the husband and wife chefs Brandon Blackwell and Jennifer Sherrod-Blackwell took over the eight-seat oyster bar inside historic St. Roch Market, they created a streamlined menu of much-loved standards, such as shrimp cocktail and marinated crab claws. As for the oysters, they serve at least three Gulf varieties daily, highlighting different production methods. Choose from a cultivated oyster (the kind sold by the bushel), one grown on the ocean floor, and an off-bottom variety grown in a suspended cage. Frequent favorites include the bloody-sounding Murder Points and Massacre Island oysters farmed around Mobile Bay. (The latter goes particularly well with a splash of the house mignonette.) A late-night happy hour with seventy-five-cent oysters draws a boisterous crowd of chefs and neighbors.

Photo: Chris Granger

A simple shrimp cocktail at Elysian Seafood

The Katharine Brasserie & Bar

Winston-Salem, North Carolina 

While many of the South’s new oyster bars pay cultural tribute to Southern fish camps, pre-Prohibition Americana, or a mixture of the two, a few look to the Old World. The in-house restaurant at the new Kimpton Cardinal Hotel—housed inside Winston-Salem’s R. J. Reynolds building—evokes art deco style, from its long zinc counter to the globe lights suspended above marble-topped booths, and the lively raw bar puts you more in mind of Toulouse-Lautrec than Diamond Jim Brady. The daily oysters share ice-heaped platters with stone crab claws and bay scallop crudo, and the cocktail menu is designed to recall swank nineteenth-century hotel bars, with a focus on aperitifs. The full menu is solidly French. Think rabbit rillettes, escargot, and foie gras torchon. Then think about another dozen oysters.

167 Raw

Charleston, South Carolina

Scoring a seat at this tiny, shiny, subway-tiled bar with its trim menu of piscatory and molluscan glories can feel like winning the lottery. The tuna burger and crispy oyster basket beckon, though the lobster roll and clam chowder show off the owners’ New England bona fides. This restaurant is a spin-off of the Nantucket original but feels right at home in its Lowcountry space, the kind of snug storefront that Charleston can get away with. As many as ten daily oysters are listed on the menu, and you’ll need to add a few to any order. If you don’t wrangle a seat at the bar, you might end up sharing one of two community high-top tables with a trio of Japanese tourists or a pair of chatty locals. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself going in on an extra platter of oysters together.

Photo: Margaret Houston

Coveted bar seats at 167 Raw

Rapp Session

Richmond, Virginia 

Cousins Ryan and Travis Croxton are working tirelessly to bring back Chesapeake Bay oysters, in number and allure, through both their oystering operations and their burgeoning portfolio of mid-Atlantic restaurants. You’ll find Rapp Session, their newest operation, snuggled up alongside their established Richmond eatery, Rappahannock. Part market and part bar, Rapp Session is the best place to eat your way through their appellation bay oysters—Stingrays, Barcats, and Olde Salts. Other cold plates—tartares and cured meats—can stretch your oyster run into a full meal, and the drinks menu highlights Virginia wines and spirits. You might end with a snootful of Oster Vit, an aquavit steeped on oyster shells from a Richmond distillery co-owned by Travis’swife. Look for another new outpost featuring both Virginia and South Carolina oysters to open in Charleston soon.

Seabear Oyster Bar

Athens, Georgia

Since opening two years ago, this sliver of a restaurant has managed to bring in a whopping 225 oyster varieties, including the rare European Flats, the eating of which co-owner Noah Brendel describes as akin to “sucking on a penny.” Locals know to look for special themed nights, such as Tiki Taco Tuesdays, when Seabear cook Princess Negron prepares stacks of handmade tortillas to go with the Professor Seagull, a concoction of two rums with house-made banana liqueur and orgeat. Brendel and chef Patrick Stubbers have also been known to chargrill oysters on the patio. In fact, they’d love to put old-school coastal roadhouse favorites on the menu if they could ever fit a grill inside the kitchen. A daily oyster happy hour extends over three hours in the early afternoon and resumes after 10:00 p.m., when restaurant industry workers descend.

Photo: Rinne Allen

A dozen on the half shell at Seabear

Sea Level NC

Charlotte, North Carolina

Paul Manley has spent the last four years developing what he calls his own “farm-to-fork half-shell oyster” in North Carolina waters. He tapped Tar Heel State oysterman Jimmy Morris to set up a system using off-bottom oyster baskets and seed that doesn’t spawn, which guarantees consistent flavor (spawning during warm months can adversely affect oysters’ texture and taste). Manley then served the oysters at his Charlotte beer bar, Growlers Pourhouse, and used customer feedback to adjust the growing methods to tweak size and salinity. Once satisfied, he built an entire Uptown restaurant around the new space’s namesake bivalve. But he hasn’t stopped there. Each night, Sea Level serves a dozen oyster varieties from all over North America. Grab a seat at the twelve-person raw bar and watch the shuckers do their thing, or enjoy a meal of oysters and line-caught fish in the dining room.

State of Grace

Houston, Texas

It might seem like a flotilla of new seafood restaurants have docked in every Southern port, each with an oyster bar set off to the side like the captain’s bridge, but none command quite like State of Grace, Ford Fry’s Houston stunner. Though Fry runs his restaurant empire in Atlanta (including two popular oyster bars at the Optimist and BeetleCat), he returned to his hometown to open this marble-clad showcase. Snag a stool at the circular brass bar occupying the dead center of the gleaming tiled room, and feast on a regal shellfish tower, a dozen oysters supporting a second tier laden with crab, langoustine, and scallop crudo. The appellation oysters from the Gulf and both coasts need no accompaniment, yet the house-made crackers and hot sauce prove hard to resist.

Photo: Jack Thompson

Ed Warner behind the bar at State of Grace