I slurped my first oyster while standing in brackish water on the lower coast of Brittany. The sensation filled me with wonder. I had eaten something that was still alive—something pure and oddly fleshy trapped in a bracing sip of seawater. Decades later, I’ve still never warmed to oysters Rockefeller, oyster po’boys, oyster stews, oysters with Chinese black bean sauce, or other dishes in which the bivalves are fried, broiled, stewed, topped, or spiced. All that fancifying goops up an already perfect food.
Happily, raw oysters are hot like never before in Atlanta. Credit a surge in local seafood restaurants, the popularity of cocktails and beer (oysters and alcohol are natural bar buddies), and the hunger for all things sourced from small-scale craftsmen. The finest oysters tend to come from high-salinity coastal areas in Washington state and select pockets up the Eastern seaboard, including the Chesapeake Bay, Massachusetts, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island. As with most foods produced by artisans, these splendors come with a hefty price tag (worth it, in my opinion): Most restaurants sell quality oysters for $2.50 to $3.50 each.
You rarely find oysters from our nearby shorelines: In the South Carolina and Georgia Lowcountry, the environment encourages mollusks to grow in calcified clumps that limit their commercial appeal. One Savannah company, Spatking Oysters, is working to increase its production of cultivated single beauties; keep an eye out for them on Atlanta menus in the coming months. And I admit, I tend to shy away from the Gulf Coast specimens, whose texture I find flabby.
Note that these five favorite spots for oysters (whose selections change daily; I’ve noted some standouts) each have thoughtful beverage programs as well. Champagne, sour beers, Scotch, fino sherry, and white wines with mineral heft and plenty of acidity make ideal accompaniments. Heighten the flavor of oysters, if you like, with a judicious squeeze of lemon, or dash of hot sauce, or intense mignonette. Just don’t let me catch you drenching one of the world’s natural wonders in cocktail sauce.
Decatur’s nostalgic homage to grand, bygone hotels opened in September and instantly began offering the metro area’s finest oyster service. Co-owner Bryan Rackley dedicates himself to building relationships with boutique producers all over the country. He and his crew work out of a subway-tile-lined alcove to the left of the restaurant’s bespoke bar, sending out handsome metal platters. His list, complete with wine-like tasting notes, constantly rotates through sixteen to twenty-five pristine oysters—twice as many as most other places in town. Start with Hama Hamas from Washington’s Puget Sound, with aromas of lovage and cucumber, or the slender Olde Salts from Virginia. Love the medicine bottle dropper of mignonette (a simple mixture of apple cider vinegar, Champagne vinegar, and shallots). Oyster fiends and early birds take note: Monday through Friday from 5 to 7 p.m., the restaurant discounts its selection; most run between $1 and $1.75. 303 East Howard Avenue, Decatur, 404-378-3502, kimball-house.com
Hugo’s Oyster Bar
Roswell’s jolly new gathering spot (the sibling to C&S Seafood and Oyster Bar in Vinings) is one of the few local places to find barely salty but rich Apalachicolas from Florida, which take kindly to a dab of fresh horseradish. They’re in the mix among familiar and lesser-known oyster varietals such as famed Blue Points and springy, delicately bitter Naked Cowboys, both farmed on the Long Island Sound. If you prefer your oysters cooked, Hugo’s serves them Rockefeller-style with plenty of spinach and Parmesan, or, in a nod to Texas flavors, blanketed with bacon, cheddar, and jalapeño. 10360 Alpharetta Street, Roswell, 770-993-5922, hugosoysterbar.com
The airy oyster bar attached to Ford Fry’s lavish seafood palace at first served only two or three varieties a night. Recently, though, the selection has broadened to include more options from the East Coast (firm, sweet Fisher Islands from New York; plump Westport Islands harvested in Maine) and the West (including two from California: plump and meaty Fish Points and robust suckers from Pebble Beach). Don’t ignore the addictive housemade oyster crackers on the side. 914 Howell Mill Road, 404-477-6260, theoptimistrestaurant.com
Ink & Elm
If you’re sitting at the bar of this Emory Village glamour-puss—which divides its space into an upscale restaurant, casual tavern, and lounge—be aware that the nearby fireplace generates almost enough heat to melt the ice on which your oysters perch. It doesn’t take long, though, to guzzle a mixed dozen of teardrop-shaped Beausoleils from New Brunswick, boldly saline Rhode Island East Beach Blondes, or citrusy Wiley Points. The bartender convinced me that a few drops of Scotch carefully dripped from a straw are a novel way to season an oyster, and that a glass of smoky, beguiling Talisker single malt contrasts admirably with the bivalve’s brininess. 1577 North Decatur Road, 678-244-7050, inkandelmatlanta.com
Shucks Oyster and Wine Bar
Oysters and grilled cheese sandwiches? That’s the Americana concept behind Tom Catherall’s cozy new hangout in Brookhaven. A platter of craggy beauties—try the saline, clean-tasting Chincoteagues from the Chesapeake Bay—comes with an array of condiments, including ponzu-soy and a light-bodied hot sauce. For bargain hunters: Check out the restaurant’s Gulf Coast oyster happy hour, Monday through Thursday from 5 to 6:30 p.m., when $6 scores you a dozen bivalves. 705 Town Brookhaven, 404-846-1777, h2sr.com/shucks
This article originally appeared in our February 2014 issue.