Editorial Note: We wrote this article right before the pandemic started, but now most of these restaurants have reopened their outdoor dining.
In 1822, New Yorkers were introduced to the Fulton Fish Market, one of the city’s first open-air seafood markets. Originally located in lower Manhattan’s historic South Street Seaport District along the East River, the Fulton Fish Market quickly became one of the nation’s most vital seafood wholesalers during its 193-year run (in 2005 it relocated to the Bronx).
Before the skyscrapers and industries and toxic sewage run off, New York Harbor was teeming with oysters, clams, mollusks and crabs. By 1887 the Fulton Fish market was selling 50,000 oysters a day. Oyster cellars or taverns also became increasingly popular during this time, and the ones that sprang up on Canal Street, dubbed “the Canal Street Plan” offered all-you-can-eat oysters for six cents.
Today oyster bars around the city continue to draw crowds, not only offering dollar oyster deals but also practicing sustainability in unique ways. This benefit is especially important for a city that eats up to half a million oysters a week.
After road tripping to Maine to learn about oyster cultivation for an article I wrote for Public Goods, I returned to New York with a deeper appreciation and understanding of oysters. Whenever my friends and I met up at an oyster bar for happy hour, I’d be the one asking the waiter questions.
I began to expand my horizons by visiting new restaurants and sampling various types of oysters sourced from across the country — no longer limiting myself to just $1 happy-hour oysters or the cheapest options available. Besides sharing a commonality in oysters, these restaurants also share a penchant for sustainability.
Here are some of the city’s most notable hot spots:
1. Sel Rose
Sel Rose in Manhattan’s Lower East Side donates its oyster shells to the Billion Dollar Oyster Club, a nonprofit restoration project aimed at improving New York Harbor.
Along with 75 other restaurants (including Mermaid Inn, Maison Premiere and Pilot, highlighted in this article) around New York City, Sel Rose diverts throwing its oyster shells in landfills. Instead, the Billion Oyster Project (BOP) has another use for them.
Because they can filter large amounts of water a day (up to 100 gallons), oysters naturally purify the water, filtering nitrogen pollution as they feed. The project states that water quality in New York Harbor “is improving,” but contaminants such as heavy metals continue to toxify our water.
At the moment, it would not be wise to eat oysters grown in the harbor. But perhaps by 2035 — when the project aims to have restored 100 acres of oyster reefs — that situation might change.
Each week, the Billion Oyster Project collects 8,000 pounds of shells from various restaurants and transports them to Governor’s Island where they will “cure for a year before being reintroduced to the Harbor as cultch [bones, shells and organic matter that make up oyster beds] and reef substrate [surface where organisms live and feed from ].” BOP employees then grow new oysters on the cured oyster shells with as many as 20 new oysters on a single shell. These shells are then deposited at designated reef sites.
Though BOP claims it will take “generations to restore the damage caused by centuries of over harvesting, pollution, and dredging,” they remain hopeful. Since its inception, BOP has already restored 28 million oysters
“Sometimes I’ll get artists who ask for oyster shells and I’ll just give ‘em to them,” a waiter at Sea Rose told me during a busy happy hour.
Another benefit of this project is that the oyster reefs can aid in storm damage by abating and thwarting environmental factors like flooding and erosion.
The Mermaid Inn (East Village and Upper West Side) and The Mermaid Oyster Bar (Greenwich Village) want their diners to be experts when it comes to oysters. They have created Oysterpedia: the Mermaid Inn app that provides a comprehensive glossary of oyster terms as well as oyster descriptions: origin, shell size and shape and flavor profile.
On Mondays, happy hour lasts until close. Dollar oysters and reduced priced menu items, like salmon tartar and fish tacos, are prepared in the kitchen with precision and speed. A third Mermaid Inn location, in Chelsea, opened its doors this past fall, attesting to the reputation and popularity that lies in the Mermaid name.
3. Grand Army
While some establishments model themselves in tradition, other places attempt to spearhead trends by offering edgier experiences. Grand Army, in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, offers sophisticated cocktails and raw oysters that arrive at the table with a caddy of tinctures. A vial of baby blue liquid labeled “coconut” did not render flavorful — unless pina colada-flavored oysters are your thing nor did the orange vial labeled “taco.”
Past Williamsburg, where the Brooklyn Queens Expressway stretches overhead and Hasidic men and women dress in traditional garb, past Brooklyn Heights with its cobblestone streets and boxy tall apartments and perfectly trimmed square green shrubs, I met my friend for dinner.
At the northwest edge of Pier 6 in Brooklyn Bridge Park, aboard Pilot, a trendy bar on a docked vintage boat offers an exceptional experience between May and October. While dining on oysters, ceviche, burrata, heirloom tomato and watermelon salad, Jonah crab claws, or sipping on creatively-themed cocktails such as the Permanent Vacation or Skipper Key, you are afforded the expansive sites of lower Manhattan. Reservations are a must, especially during that golden hour when the sun sets the city ablaze.
The boat, a rare surviving Grand Banks style schooner built during the Roaring Twenties, offers an experience worthy of bragging rights. The first time I went there this past May and posted a photo on Instagram, my inbox was flooded with friends asking where I was. They couldn’t believe something so exquisite was within our backyard.
On a cool May evening, Monica, a childhood friend, who had been to Pilot six times last summer, cheered our friendship. We clinked glasses and sipped tropical concoctions through metal straws, and pored over the menu. For appetizers, we decided on a dozen Navy Point (Long Island Sound) and Montauk Pearl (Block Island Sound) — likely contenders for two Long Island girls.
“Is this guy really saving the ocean right now?” she asked.
I had to crane my neck to see what she was talking about.
A Pilot employee, laying on his belly on the dock, was holding a 30 foot pole with a knife affixed to the end. Painstakingly, he tried to grab a large piece of shrink wrap that was tangled in the thick wrought-iron chain that docked the boat.
Our waitress brought over a glass bottle of cool drinking water with a quote etched on the bottle:
“Everyone deserves clean water and together we’re helping more people get it.”
Underneath the quote, the “charity: water” insignia appeared.
New York City Restaurants who participate in this project charge diners $1 for the tap water that typically comes complimentary. This fee funds sustainable, community-owned water programs in 27 countries around the world. Since 2006, charity: water has funded 44,007 water projects and provided 10,043,704 people with clean water.
New Yorkers and their relationship with oysters has lasted for some 200 years, though the way we source them has significantly changed. Thanks to ecological boons like the Billion Dollar Oyster Project and the restaurants that participate in it, the future of oysters looks promising.
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