The amount of seafood, and the quality of it, that is consumed in New Orleans is staggering. In particular, the volume of certain shellfish—crabs, crawfish, shrimp and oysters, in particular—that is served in restaurants each week is enormous. Out of all the shellfish produced in our waters, the oyster is my personal favorite. Perhaps this is for no other reason than that the oyster tends to be more time-consuming to open, and the work involved causes one to appreciate them even more.
Oysters can be prepared many ways: Bienville, Rockefeller, fried, in po-boys, and others. It seems that most of the different oyster preparations either originated in New Orleans or eventually found their home here. This includes the renowned Oysters Rockefeller, which was first served at Antoine’s in the 1800’s. A customer was said to exclaim of their celebrated oyster dish, “Why, this is as rich as Rockefeller.” It seems that no matter how an oyster is prepared, so long as it is fresh it comes out tasting great.
The most honorable way to eat an oyster, however, is raw on the half shell. And the best way to partake of this ritual is in one of New Orleans’ many oyster bars watching somebody else do the work while you enjoy the fruits of their labor. The oyster bar as an eating establishment was actually preceded by the oyster saloons and the oyster parlors of the early 1900s. The saloons were where gentlemen could go to enjoy raw oysters without the presence of women, while women were only allowed to frequent the parlors. Needless to say, now that both men and women are allowed to enjoy oysters together in the late 20th Century in New Orleans, there is no shortage of oyster bars in town. Many are clustered in the French Quarter, although most neighborhoods seem to have at least one. Most no longer just serve raw oysters, but also offer a limited menu of some sort, usually focusing on shellfish.
What qualities should a respectable oyster bar possess? Proper treatment of the oysters is critical. They should be kept cold right up until the time that they are served, either on ice or in the refrigerator. And they should not be opened and allowed to sit for very long prior to being eaten. This is probably the most important element of an enjoyable oyster experience. Finally, the shucker’s ability to separate the oyster from the shell without leaving shell fragments is also important. In the four restaurants mentioned here, shucking was not a problem. The shuckers that we encountered obviously both knew and enjoyed their jobs.
Other characteristics that contribute to the overall experience include the ambience, condiments and of course price. Ambience is important for the reason that oysters should not be eaten in too sterile an environment. Every restaurant that we visited this month had its own personality and the appropriate ambience for serving shucked oysters on the half shell.
Condiments should be varied and accessible. Not everybody likes their oysters naked. At the very least, ketchup, horseradish, fresh lemon and hot sauce must be available to be used separately or to be combined at the table to taste. Since everyone has different tastes, mixing utensils are preferred rather than prepared sauce. Again, all of the oyster bars visited scored points here. Price is important for the reason that oysters, and all shellfish for that matter, were not created to be eaten in small amounts. You like to be able to eat your fill without continually referring back to the menu to make sure your can afford what you are eating. Prices ranged from $6 to $6.50 per dozen.
The four restaurants reviewed this month all have oyster bars as a central fixture. Three are in the French Quarter, one is Uptown, and all of them serve good oysters at reasonable prices.
It would be very easy to wander the Quarter aimlessly while sampling from the oyster bars that seem to increase with every block. A good place to start is at the Acme Oyster House at 724 Iberville Street. The Acme is an old standby. Crowded and noisy when we were there, it was thoroughly enjoyable. Get your oysters and drinks as you walk in (pay when you order) and find a seat in one of the dining rooms. The drink bar is strategically located adjacent to the oyster bar. What’s a dozen oysters without a Dixie? Condiments are available on the bar and also at each of the tables. What more to be said? Oysters come a half dozen for $3.75 and one dozen for $6.50. A limited menu is also available. It’s a great place to start an oyster tour of the Quarter.
Next, venture across the street to Felix’s at 739 Iberville. The first things that you are likely to notice are the oyster shuckers on your right, if you enter from Iberville Street. There were four working when we went in, and they were all shucking. Again, the choice is to sit at the bar or at a table in one of the many dining rooms in the restaurant. We chose a seat at the bar so that we could watch the masters at work. These were the best oysters of all—cold, big, and uniform in size. A bonus is the relatively large selection of beer, unless you prefer champagne. A full menu is also available. Felix’s is a must stop on the tour.
Next, amble down to Decatur Street. Have you ever wandered by the big pot of boiling crawfish in the window near the French Market? It belongs to the French Market Restaurant and Bar at 1001 Decatur. Walk in past the pot of crawfish and you will be faced with the oyster bar. You must belly up to this one since seats are in short supply. Good oysters and a good selection of other types of seafood as well. In fact we were surprised to find that they offered Dungeness Crab, a West Coast delicacy. We passed on it this time, but we were assured that they are flown in fresh and they will be tough to pass on a second time. The idea of being able to enjoy a combination of oysters, crawfish and Dungeness at the same sitting is almost too much. The cost for a dozen oysters and two beers was slightly more here than at the other restaurants by about two dollars.
The last place on the tour was Casamento’s at 4330 Magazine Street uptown, a place that is synonymous with oysters, at least to locals. Casamento’s is almost too clean. With its polished white tile, its almost like an old time New England diner, only cleaner. The focus of the menu here is oysters; raw, fried, in stew, and in a sandwich. Other menu selections include a variety of sandwiches, egg dishes, spaghetti and some additional seafood selections. We enjoyed everything about Casamento’s, including its unpretentious nature, the pace of the service (all table service) and the prices. Casamento’s is perhaps the epitome of the neighborhood restaurant. Start with the oysters then have some gumbo. Their gumbo is superb. Unlike the other restaurants that offer continuous service, however, Casamento’s hours are limited, so call before you visit.
Obviously, the oyster is meant to be enjoyed in a variety of ways. Some of us just happen to prefer them raw. Eat them as you will, but eat them. Some other restaurants around town that we are told serve a good oyster include The Pearl, Stephen and Martin, Drago’s (in Metairie) and Sammy’s on Bourbon Street. And prices vary. During Happy Hour there are places around town that offer them real cheap. So look around and sample them as you go to assure maximum pleasure. It’s tough to get enough of them.