Even for those who grew up near a coast, briny bivalves can make you feel like a bit of a blunderbuss. What’s the deal with those tiny forks? Is it acceptable to use cocktail sauce? And do the shells go on your bread plate? Whether you’re looking to amp up the romance on a date night with an aphrodisiac or kicking off the weekend at a seaside spot, we’ve rounded up oyster etiquette tips from culinary pros so you can make the world your oyster. Read on and book your table at one of our top-rated seafood restaurants on OpenTable, such as the ones featured on our monthly diners’ choice lists on our metro start pages, like this one in San Francisco, to try out your newfound knowledge.
When are oysters in season?
There’s a long-standing notion around only eating oysters in the months that have an R in them, but that isn’t really true. Executive chef Dan Billo’s Atlantic Fish Company in Boston, notes, “When the water is coldest is really when oysters are at their prime, so winter is going to have some of the best selections… but really, is there anything better than sitting outside with oysters, friends, passing around a bottle of hot sauce and enjoying a good beer or whiskey in summertime? Food is really always so much more than taste, it’s who you’re sharing it with.”
Blue Point or Kumamoto? Which varieties to choose
This one is really like Biggie versus Tupac—East Coast versus West Coast. New England varieties especially tend to be meatier, brinier, and pack a bigger punch. Blue Points are found off the coast of Long Island and are bigger and brinier but with mild flavor. Kumamotos are prized for their small size, silky texture, and sweet flavors. “Trust your server the way you would a sommelier. They’re educated about what’s freshest or most unique or approachable,” says Erin DiNatale, general manager at Island Creek Oyster Bar in Burlington, Massachusetts. “I always recommend two or three varieties,” says chef Eric Hyman of San Francisco’s Waterbar. “If you stick to just a few types from different geographical regions, you won’t overwhelm your palate.”
Oysters are ideal for groups
Company is great when it comes to eating oysters. “Groups should get the same types and eat them at the same time, so they can enjoy them together and compare notes,” says DiNatale. Waterbar typically serves in alphabetical order for organizational purposes, but Hyman recommends starting with the least briny (West Coast), then graduating onto larger oysters from the East Coast, that provide “brininess with a kick.” Hyman recommends ordering three to four oysters per person.
Getting newbies to join the fun
We all have that friend who shudders at the idea of eating oysters (and not because of allergies). Executive chef Misael Reyes (pictured) and executive sous chef Brad Forsblom of Bistro Boudin in San Francisco suggest composed oysters as a compromise. “Composed oysters, like oysters Rockefellers, are a great gateway. “West Coast oysters are also very sweet and a bit more uniform in size and texture than their East Coast relatives, making them a bit easier for the novice to get down on.”
Use less sauce to enjoy more natural flavor
“With mignonette or cocktail sauce, I refer to them as the ‘training wheels’,” says DiNatale. “The more you start tasting and enjoying oysters, the more you’ll learn to pick up on and enjoy their essential flavors.” JP Potters, Restaurant Director and Sommelier for Boulevard Kitchen & Oyster Bar in Vancouver, is a bit saltier in his approach: “Cocktail sauce is for shrimp,” he says. “And hot sauce gets in the way of the delicate flavors of oysters and makes them taste all the same. I like to taste each with nothing on it to get the individual flavors. Lemon is generally all that should be required.”
Loosen up your oyster from the shell or put some sauce on it, but whatever you do, don’t scrape it out. “If an oyster is shucked properly, you’re not gonna need your fork,” advises DiNatale. “You can wiggle it around to make sure there are no issues to tilt the shell back and slide it into your mouth. It’s not recommended to eat oysters off the fork, but yes… we see people do it.”
To slurp or not
There are a few exceptions to every rule, and, in this case, slurping is a resounding yes, say chefs. “The best part for me is the liquor that’s inside the shell with the oyster, so yes, slurp away!” advises Hyman. “Really whatever you’re most comfortable with is the proper way to eat oysters, but I make sure to chew it and push it up against the roof of my mouth to get all of the flavor.”
What to do with the shells
“When I’m with a group of people, I really like when they flip oysters after they’re eaten, so I can ascertain whether there’s anything left on the platter, and from a service standpoint, they can see that platter is done when all the shells are flipped,” says Hyman.
Bubbles are a perfect pairing
Wondering what drink to order with your oysters? Champagne, prosecco and other sparkling wines come out on top. “I recommend bubbles. Some kind of Champagne, prosecco, or cava is the way to go. But a nice still wine that I love, Muscadet, is a great choice,” said DiNatale. As for Billo and friends, anything goes. “Give me a nice Manhattan, old-fashioned, gin and tonic… isn’t that what Sunday brunch is all about? I mean, a good Bloody Mary really makes the world right again every time.”
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Carley Wade is a travel writer whose experiences eating street food in Japan, English peas in the UK, free-range steak in Argentina, and Brussels sprouts at Estragon tapas in her hometown of Boston have provided unforgettable culinary inspiration. Shout out at firstname.lastname@example.org.