Now comes a new golden age of oysters in New York City, with more restaurants including an ever growing variety of bivalves on their menus.
While most oyster joints are clustered in Manhattan, there are good ones in all five boroughs.
Here is a short list -- an even dozen seemed apt -- of some of my favorites, spread out over the city.
The Grand Central Oyster Bar, along with the great train station itself, turned 100 this year. The oyster menu, changing daily as an oyster menu must, usually has 25-30 varieties on ice. Mollusks somehow taste better under the warmly lit, vaulted Gustavino tiled ceiling.
The Grand Central Oyster Bar is on the lower level of the GCT, 89 East 42nd St. Information: +1-212-490-6650, http://www.oysterbarny.com/
The Famous Oyster Bar. This small bar and restaurant is neither famous nor a proper oyster bar, yet has been serving theater crowds since 1959.
The oyster lineup, changing daily on the chalkboard behind the bar, is brief -- when I visited there were four east coast specimens plus Kumo Guay, from British Columbia. Proximity to Broadway lights make this joint both convenient to the theater and a tourist magnet.
The Famous Oyster Bar is at 842 7th Ave. Information: +1-212-586-6525.
The Mermaid Inn has three locales in Manhattan, each with its own charms. I prefer the Greenwich Village site on MacDougal for its cozier atmosphere. Happy hours from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. -- even on weekends -- include select East Coast oysters for a buck, West Coast for $1.75.
The Mermaid Inn locations are at 79 MacDougal (+1-212-260-0100); 96 Second Ave. (+1-212-674-5870); and 568 Amsterdam (between 87th/88th Streets); (+1-212-799-7400.) Information: http://www.themermaidnyc.com/
The John Dory Oyster Bar. This Broadway restaurant is part of the Ace Hotel. The main bar is flanked by two gigantic globular aquariums, each swirling with tropical fish. I sampled happy hour offerings -- a half dozen Mermaid Coves from Prince Edward Island and a pint of Oyster Stout from Brooklyn, all for $18. More dedicated oyster eaters can sit at the small raw bar manned by two shuckers.
The John Dory Oyster Bar at 1196 Broadway (at 29th St.). Information: +1-212-792-9000; http://thejohndory.com
Fulton. The owner of gourmet grocery Citarella, Joe Gurrera, opened this Upper East Side seafood spot in 2008. A cozy bar surrounded by dark wood and brick has a small but serviceable happy hour from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., with East Coast oysters $1 each, West Coasters for $1.50. The servers didn’t appear fully up to speed on oysters -- mine misidentified the Hama Hama as Kumamoto (who does that?). Still, a fresh and tasty oyster forgives all.
Fulton is at 205 East 75th St. (off 3rd Ave.). Information: +1-212-288-6600. http://www.fultonnyc.com/
Aquagrill. Restaurateur couple Jennifer and Jeremy Marshall opened Aquagrill in 1996, and it’s been my favorite SoHo oyster place since. While they no longer have a happy hour, the mollusk list is deep and diverse with both coasts well represented, plus farther-flung selections such as the Kiwi Cup from New Zealand. The enormous Belon from Maine is like dessert.
Aquagrill is at 210 Spring Street, on the corner of 6th Ave. Information: +1-212-274-0505 http://www.aquagrill.com/
Cull & Pistol. A “cull” is a one-clawed lobster; a “pistol” has no claw at all. Happy hour is early -- 3:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays -- and what a selection for a buck apiece.
“We don’t even bother with Blue Points,” the barman told me, since that particular brand is so commonplace. Being from Rhode Island, I had to try the briny-sweet Watch Hills, which aren’t really cultivated in Watch Hill, but close enough.
Cull & Pistol is at Chelsea Market, 75 Ninth Ave. Information: +1-646-568-1223 http://cullandpistol.com/
South Fin Grill. It must get lively at South Fin Grill in Staten Island, because they have a no-hat-wearing policy to ensure that patrons remain recognizable in the security cameras. I sat hatless at the outside bar, along the expansive South Beach, with the grand Verrazano-Narrows Bridge as a backdrop. The oyster list is limited -- Blue Point, Malpeque, and Kumamoto -- and still good enough to eat.
South Fin Grill is at 300 Father Capodanno Blvd., S.I. Information: +1-718-447-7679 http://www.southfingrill.com/
The gold standard by which I measure raw bars is Maison Premiere in Williamsburg. The classic absinthe bar in front has a dark, warm atmosphere. Serious oyster-eaters should sit at the small raw bar in back, manned by two expert shuckers. Farther back, an enclosed garden space is just as inviting. Far and away the best happy hour in the city, weekdays 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., with most mollusks $1 apiece. The sound system plays nonstop blues for some reason.
Maison Premiere is at 298 Bedford, between South 1st and Grand, Brooklyn. The lone sign out front reads “Bar-Oysters.” Information: +1-347-335-0446; http://www.maisonpremiere.com
One must foray deep into Queens to find a proper oyster bar. It’s worth it, because they take their oysters seriously at London Lennie’s. The family-run seafood restaurant and bar has been a Rego Park fixture since 1959. The bar -- fronted with east coast bivalves -- can get lively, even on a weekday afternoon. Les Barnes, son of founder Lennie, is an affable presence, and he definitely knows his oysters. Their website even features an informative how-to-shuck video.
Happy Hour: Mon-Fri, 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.: $1.25 per oyster, chef’s choice.
London Lennie’s is at 63-88 Woodhaven Blvd., Rego Park. Information: +1-718-894-8084 www.londonlennies.com/
MP Taverna is trying. Opened earlier this year, it is establishing itself as a go-to seafood spot in Astoria. I liked the atmosphere at the bar -- locals, newly arrived residents, a few trolling Manhattanites like me. It was almost unforgivable to receive the plate of oysters without the requisite bed of ice. Almost.
MP Taverna is at 31-29 Ditmars Boulevard in Astoria. Information: +1-718-777-2187; http://michaelpsilakis.com/mp-taverna/#&panel1-5
Cosenza’s is a retail fish market with a wonderful twist: freshly shucked oysters served outside. From a makeshift raw bar and a single table, I sampled local Blue Points, creamy Evening Coves from British Columbia, and a briny specimen from Taunton Bay, Maine. A perfect curbside spot for people-watching on the famous -- and surprisingly quiet and quaint -- Arthur Avenue.
Cosenza’s Fish Market is at 2354 Arthur Avenue, Bronx. Information: +1-718-364-8510.
(Mike Di Paola writes on preservation and the environment for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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