Salty and deliciously decadent, the oyster epitomizes the taste of the coast. Here's where to enjoy it in its purest form.
Union Oyster House, Boston, MA
Daniel Webster, the 19th-century orator and politician, ate here. So did John F. Kennedy, whose favorite booth now bears a commemorative plaque. Serving seafood since 1826, Union Oyster House claims to be the oldest continuously operating restaurant in America. These days it can be touristy, especially in the upstairs dining room. But even locals love to sit around the semicircular oyster bar, which shucks more than 3,000 bivalves on a busy day; 617/227-2750 or unionoysterhouse.com
The Grand Central Oyster Bar, New York, NY
Beaux Arts elegance and great seafood have soothed travelers on the lower level of Grand Central Terminal since 1912. Yellow-tiled arches soar above the diners and supply a distinctive, if noisy, ambience. The menu always offers several varieties of oysters plus a large assortment of the freshest fish available that day. The ever-changing nature of the commuter clientele means you can't beat the people-watching; 212/490-6650 or oysterbarny.com.
McGarvey's Saloon & Oyster Bar, Annapolis, MD
McGarvey's rests just off Ego Alley, the narrow arm of the harbor that extends into downtown Annapolis. (The waterway's name derives from proud owners who cruise back and forth, showing off their boats.) Whether you arrive by land or by sea, you'll enjoy the marble-topped oyster bar in this cheerful, energetic place. Those squeamish about raw oysters or clams can get them steamed instead. There's a decent selection of beers and wines, as well; 410/263-5700 or mcgarveyssaloon.com.
Awful Arthur's, Kill Devil Hills, NC
Locals and Outer Banks tourists alike congregate at the copper-topped raw bar in this popular place near the Avalon Fishing Pier. Other notables besides the oysters include the crab balls, steamed spiced shrimp, and Atlantic Ocean views from the upstairs lounge; 252/441-5955 or awfularthursobx.com.
Boss Oyster Restaurant, Apalachicola, FL
Sit on the waterfront deck and stuff yourself with Apalachicola Bay oysters―raw, roasted, fried, steamed, or baked. Ramshackle though it may be, the Boss Oyster provides superb seafood. Some of the wilder baked variants include Oyster St. George (topped with asparagus, garlic, shallots, and Colby cheese), Oyster a la Artie (blue crab, artichoke, Monterey Jack cheese), and Oyster Greektown (garlic, parsley, feta cheese, Greek olives). Or pick any three toppings and create your own culinary masterpiece; 850/653-9364 or apalachicolariverinn.com.
Acme Oyster House, New Orleans, LA
The shuckers behind the raw bar (on your right as you walk in) serve oysters and banter in equal proportions―and with equal speed. In a city where the hard-partying spirit can sometimes curdle into hucksterism or sleaze, Acme gets it just right: great food, genuinely friendly service, and a rollicking atmosphere founded on an appreciation for customers. If you can't have a good time in this French Quarter institution, you're either a confirmed grouch or dead; 504/522-5973 or acmeoyster.com.
Monterey's Fish House, Monterey, CA
It's away from the water, nowhere near Cannery Row or Fisherman's Wharf, but area residents know how to find this cozy neighborhood establishment. It fills fast, so call for a reservation. Or just enjoy the people-watching as you wait for a seat to open up at the horseshoe-shaped bar. If you prefer your mollusks cooked rather than on the half shell, try the heavenly oak-grilled oysters. Sample the excellent bouillabaisse, too; 831/373-4647.
Tadich Grill, San Francisco, CA
Hangtown Fry, an egg-and-oyster concoction devised during California's Gold Rush that gradually disappeared from most restaurants, remains a fixture at Tadich Grill. That's appropriate, because Tadich is San Francisco's oldest restaurant, founded as a coffee stand during the peak gold-fever year of 1849. It's still one of the city's best places for seafood. Some diners find the no-nonsense waiters a bit brusque, but they'll usually slow down long enough to answer any questions you may have; 415/391-1849 or tadichgrill.com. For both terrific seafood and exceptionally cheerful service in San Francisco, try Swan Oyster Depot; 415/673-1101.
Elliott's Oyster House, Seattle, WA
Elliott's, on Pier 56, not only serves more than a dozen varieties of oysters every day but also will take the time to explain their differences and relative virtues. The chic decor and Elliott Bay views, particularly at sunset, enhance the experience. Try oysters with the mignonette topping (frozen red wine vinegar and champagne), and, if you still have room, order dessert; 206/623-4340 or elliottsoysterhouse.com. Another good choice in Seattle: Brooklyn Seafood, Steak & Oyster House; 206/224-7000 or thebrooklyn.com.
Rodney's Oyster House, Toronto, ON
Some regulars say Rodney's just isn't as cozy since it moved to its current downtown quarters, a few blocks from Lake Ontario. But it is definitely bigger, thus giving more diners a chance to sample the wonderful oysters. The restaurant offers a half-dozen or so varieties in summer, more than 20 in deepest winter. Rodney himself (Rodney Clark), originally from Prince Edward Island, often roams through the crowds dispensing oyster lore and good cheer; 416/363-8105 or rodneysoysterhouse.com.
The Marshall Store, Marshall, CA
This utilitarian oyster shack stands on stilts above Tomales Bay an hour and a half north of San Francisco. Time your visit to miss the lunch rush so you can relax on the deck, soak in the rugged scenery, sip a little wine or beer, and eat all the raw or barbecued oysters you want. But bring cash, because that's all the store accepts; 415/663-1339; or visit their Facebook page.
Gilhooley's Restaurant & Raw Bar, San Leon, TX
No kids, no credit cards, no ambience (it has always been something of a biker bar), but gritty Gihooley's, on Galveston Bay between Galveston and Houston, sure serves great oysters. Even staunch eat-it-raw aficionados need to try the Oysters Gilhooley—fresh-shucked oysters topped with Parmesan cheese and garlic butter and smoked with oak and pecan wood; 281/339-3813.