The Idea of the Oyster Bar

The secrets behind the ice and stainless steel

At Jianna in Greenville Chef Michael Kramer puts the oyster bar front and center
At Jianna in Greenville Chef Michael Kramer puts the oyster bar front and center (Jianna/Derrick Simpson)

By Stephanie Burt

The turn of the calendar towards fall quickens the blood of some toward goal line whistles and tailgate parking, but for others autumn is all about the letter “r.”

If you’re an oyster lover, you know the months ending in “r” are the traditional oyster eating season. While quick-shipping and oysters farming have changed the traditions somewhat, when the weather turns cooler, some of us begin studying raw bar menus like others do fantasy football lineups.

Carolinians have a seemingly insatiable appetite for oysters these days, and not just for oyster roasts, that cool weather Lowcountry tradition. In the past few years, the number of menus featuring raw oysters on the half shell has grown exponentially throughout the Carolinas, showcasing the regional “merroir” an oyster can provide, from salinity to size to even style of shell.

Variations in style extend even to the oyster bar itself, whether it’s tucked into a corner of the restaurant, serving as a grand centerpiece, or even woven into the restaurant’s philosophy and culinary approach. Oyster bars have really begun to change how restaurants look and feel, and if you study them a little closer they divulge secrets beyond just seafood selection.

“The materials are very important to a classic or traditional oyster bar design,” says David Thompson of David Thompson Architect, who has designed at least six oyster bars and has another in the works. “To me that includes a stone or zinc bar top, a visible ice display, and a glass enclosure or partition using metal framing such as stainless steel, blackened steel or brass.”

Natural stone recalls the natural environment, and all that stainless steel and glass not only illustrates cleanliness and purity but also subconsciously hints at the bracing nature of a cold, salty oyster. It’s cool, elegant, and showcases the bevy of bivalves, setting up the selection for the diner and visually suggesting the choice nature of the shellfish displayed.

One of Thompson’s most well-known oyster bar designs is at The Ordinary in Charleston. The bar, tucked at the back of the restaurant in a high-ceilinged space that was once a bank, sits like a jewel case glittering with ice and offerings during every service. The bank’s original vault was incorporated into the design, which only enhances the beauty and heightens the sense that the seafood selections are valuable.

The oyster bar at the heart of The Ordinary incorporates the old vault door from the former bank building
The oyster bar at the heart of The Ordinary incorporates the old vault door from the former bank building (The Ordinary/David Thompson Architects)

“The rawbar is at the centerpiece physically of the restaurant, and the centerpiece of what we do at The Ordinary,” says Chef Mike Lata. “The simplicity of a single, shucked oyster is an important part of the conversation of where we’ve come to in ‘mariculture.’ The oyster variety is the same all the way from Nova Scotia down the East Coast, but the environment, from silty to rocky, the energy of the waves, the waterflow, influences the size and shape, make each region unique. And that culinary sense of place is what we strive to showcase here.”

The appeal of the oyster bar isn’t limited to coastal regions. In the upstate of South Carolina, Jianna in Greenville has an expansive oyster/raw bar that complements its deep prosecco program. Chef Michael Kramer says shucking oysters right out in front of the guests is part of the restaurant’s philosophy of bringing diners into the kitchen through design. When it comes to dressing oysters, “everybody has their own eating style,” Kramer says. He keeps the garnishes classic: hot sauce, mignonette, horseradish, lemon, and cocktail sauce.

“The oyster bar has been such a great element of the restaurant because people love them,” he says. “It really drives business when people are craving oysters, and many people like the celebratory aspect of starting a meal with oysters.”

Kramer gets to the heart of another element contributing to the rise of the oyster bar: its healthy addition to the bottom line. Sure, an oyster bar at a restaurant takes up square footage, but it can act as a prep station combined with seating, and it provides an “add-on element” for all tables, not just the guests seated at it. The bar is not only a draw on its own but a driver of ticket averages overall.

In South Carolina, commercial fisheries’ oyster sales were more than $3.7 million in 2020, and in North Carolina, that number was more than $4.5 million—and that’s in a year where many restaurants were not open at full capacity for many months.

Eric Montagne shucking a green gill oyster at Locals Seafood
Eric Montagne shucking a green gill oyster at Locals Seafood ( Courtesy Locals Seafood.)

Locals Seafood in Raleigh and Durham has been working directly with commercial fisheries for 13 years. They not only provide wholesale options for some of the Triangle’s best kitchens but also have their own their restaurants in Transfer Co. Food Hall (3,000 square feet) and Durham Food Hall (around 300 square feet) that feature oyster bars.

“After I joined the team as the executive chef, the very next hire after me was head shucker Gary Beacham,” says Eric Montagne of Locals. “We think the most important aspect of the design of the oyster bar is the one-to-one contact and the communication with the shucker.”

A tray of fresh-shucked North Carolina oysters from Locals in Raleigh's Transfer Co. Food Hall
A tray of fresh-shucked North Carolina oysters from Locals in Raleigh's Transfer Co. Food Hall (Dispatch Staff)

Many chefs and restaurateurs speak of the variety of oysters and their characteristics in a similar way that sommeliers do when it comes to grapes and viticulture. “That kind of culture and enthusiasm is infectious. We like to share our nerdiness,” he says.

And that’s the final product of the oyster bar—education—teaching one diner at a time the nuances of tides and taste that are fun and delicious but can also lead to consideration of ecology, overfishing and general respect for the environment and its seasonal offerings. And for many chefs and diners, a good raw oyster is always a good idea.

“I grew up on the West Coast and was a surfer, and so each time I open a West Coast oyster, it reminds me of that specific scent of the sea,” Kramer says. Oyster bars offer the promise of weaving memory and food together with a good time, whether it’s your 300th oyster or your first.

About the Author

Stephanie Burt

Stephanie Burt is an audio producer, food and travel writer, and the host/producer of The Southern Fork podcast. She has contributed to numerous publications including Saveur, The Washington Post, The Bitter Southerner, and Conde Nast Traveler. In the kitchen, she loves cooking from her vintage community cookbook collection or trying to perfect her roasted chicken recipe. Follow her on Instagram.