Oh Shucks: Best Oyster Bars and Festivals
For true Washingtonians, oysters are more than just a seasonal treat—they’re in your blood. Chesapeake Bay oysters have been a culinary and cultural mainstay for over a century. In the early 1900s, this city had over 150 oyster bars, which were frequented by politicians and day laborers alike. Those salty little pearls, small in size and full of flavor, bring us together, bridging the gap between blue-collar informatlity and culinary opulence. The District is still full of places to indulge our cravings, from Old Ebbitt Grill—where tickets for their Annual Oyster Riot last year sold out in ten minutes flat—to Hank’s Oyster Bar, which offers a half-priced raw bar every night from 11 p.m. to midnight.
And the surrounding Delmarva area is brimming with festivals and restaurants celebrating these briny little treasures. Oysters are in season in a big way, and there is plenty of time left to partake in this regional, epicurean eccentricity. So don’t waste these prime “R” months—head toward the water and try out these seaside bars, shacks and festivals for all the shucking oysters you could ask for.
At the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, Md., you can learn how to harvest your oysters and eat them, too. At the museum’s annual Oysterfest, sample Chesapeake Bay oysters right out of the water while exploring an oyster nursery, learning how to make a dip-net and viewing the museum’s restoration of the skipjack Rosie Parks, which once sailed the bay dredging for oysters.
Attendees will be challenged to an oyster slurping contest, while local chefs will be challenged to an oyster stew-making competition, with the winners of both taking home the grand prize of bragging rights for the rest of the year.
With other activities such as riverboat cruises, face painting, scavenger hunts, a touch tank, live music and cooking demonstrations, there are plenty of amusements for all ages.
There will also be educational opportunities to learn about the bay’s oyster culture, which is not only vital to the ecosystem but also part of the region’s heritage. A century ago, the bay had perhaps the largest populations of oysters in the nation, and though their numbers dwindled enormously due to over-fishing and pollution, they have been making a thundering resurgence over the past decade thanks to rehabilitation efforts and preservation initiatives.
To celebrate Chesapeake Bay oysters, head out to Oysterfest on Nov. 5, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, visit Cbmm.org.
In a small town in Virginia, the locals are gearing up for the fast-approaching Annual Urbanna Oyster Festival, now in its 54th year. What started as a small gathering to promote the local economy has now grown into a two-day event that draws some 75,000 people from across the region. The festival features over 125 craft booths, more than 50 food vendors, wine tastings, two parades – the Fireman’s Parade and the Festival Parade – and the crowning of a Festival Queen and a Little Miss Spat. And of course, there will be mountains of oysters, cooked or served raw in their myriad forms.
Attendees can participate in an oyster shucking competition, browse through vendors selling everything from jewelry to furniture, and learn about the rich local history at the Oyster Festival Waterfront. The exhibits will highlight the restoration and preservation of the bay and its oyster industry, while providing live music and cruises. You can even attend demonstrations that will teach you how to be a pirate.
The festival will take place Nov. 4 – 5 from 10 a.m. through 7 p.m. Visit UrbanaOysterFestival.com for more information.
If you can’t make it to these festivals, don’t worry—you haven’t missed your chance to sample the best of oyster season. There are plenty of oyster bars surrounding D.C., big and small, white collar and blue, which offer up the freshest catch any day of the week.
In Annapolis, three oyster bars never fail to please an oyster-loving palate: O’Brien’s, McGarvey’s and O’Leary’s.
O’Brien’s Oyster Bar is the restaurant with history. The building has been some form of eatery or watering hole since it first opened as the Rose and Crown in 1744. It has been a tavern, a pizza pie shop, a cabaret, and was even rumored to be a brothel before it settled in its current incarnation as a celebrated seafood haven. Let’s hope it stays this way. Don’t miss out on their Chesapeake fried oysters—they’re the best around.
McGarvey’s Saloon & Oyster Bar is the great neighborhood pub. Relax in a casual atmosphere with a beer, an order of their delicious crab dip, and a dozen oysters. Voted Best Bar and Best Raw Bar last June by the Readers’ Choice Awards for The Capital Newspaper, this bar is clearly a people-pleaser. With oysters served raw, steamed and Rockefeller-style, there’s plenty of briny fare to sample.
O’Leary’s Seafood Restaurant is the fine dining restaurant. Enjoy fresh oysters while surrounded by paintings rendered by restaurant owner Paul Meyer himself, whose vision for O’Leary’s “attempts to capture the combination of sophisticated fine dining and ultra-fresh ingredients within a contemporary Annapolis environment.” Pique your appetite with Oysters Italienne, baked with prosciutto, basil, garlic and Parmesan cheese.
In Solomon’s Island, Md., try the appropriately named Solomon’s Pier, which serves the kind of delicious oysters you’d expect from a town surrounded by water. Munch your way through a basket of fresh-fried oysters while enjoying the view through the restaurant’s wide, arching windows overlooking the water.
But maybe you want an expert’s opinion on where to go to get your bivalve fix. Noted chef Jordan Lloyd of the Bartlett Pear Inn, in Easton, Md. has some excellent recommendations. For great oyster shacks, Lloyd says, it’s good to get off the beaten path. He and his wife Alice, who own and operate the inn and restaurant, recommend Brasserie Brightwell Café & Comptoir in Easton, which offers an oyster-loaded raw bar, and The Bistro St. Michaels, whose Oysters Du Jour are always worth the trip.
But Lloyd doesn’t have to go far at all for great oysters – Pear, Bartlett’s restaurant, has its own version of Oysters Three Ways that would knock the socks off even the most critical oyster connoisseur. Pear, which was awarded five stars by Open Table and received a near perfect score across the board by Zagat, serves its guests six Chincoteague Bay oysters, four prepared cold and two hot. The first pair is served cold with pickled shallots and tobiko caviar; the second pair, also cold, is plated with lemon preserve mignonette and ponzu sauce; and the final hot pair is served Rockefeller style with leek fondue and bread crumbs. With such delicious oysters, you might be inspired to spend the weekend away at the cozy inn and try them every day.
To try Lloyd’s Oysters Three Ways for yourself, visit Easton, Md. For reservations, email Reservations@BartlettPearInn.com.