Few people have a middling relationship to raw oysters—this mysterious, ubiquitous bivalve is loved and loathed in equal measure. These ten East Bay spots fall on the love end of the spectrum, and offer the best quality and presentation of these strange and healthful sea creatures on the east side of the bay. (Let me know if I missed your favorite oyster destination in the comments below.)
One of two classic French bistros in the East Bay (the other being Café Rouge), À Côté is a solid destination for a simple plate of oysters, though they don’t even appear as a choice on the online menu. There’s usually only a couple of options, and on our last visit they were Marin Miyagi, the most commonly grown oyster variety on the West Coast, and Steamboat, from Steamboat Island in Puget Sound, served with a savory granite with a chile kick. (You can ask for cocktail sauce or mignonette, if you prefer.) The former, named after the region in Japan where Miyagis originated, tend to be mildly briny, medium-crisp, and quite meaty, while the Steamboats are sweeter, with a melon undercurrent. The wine list is a huge strength of the restaurant, featuring natural wines (a rarity on this side of the bay) and an oft-changing series of flights from Lesbos, Croatia, or some other region you’ve most likely not drunk your way through—yet.
One of Oakland’s most happening new restaurants, alaMar is a perfect pairing with a flick at The New Parkway Theater, and while the menu is mostly about all kinds of seafood other than oysters, it’s one of the few places I recommend that serves them up in any way other than simply shucked, with sauce on the side. These Kumiai bivalves (named after the native residents of Baja) are small and deep-cupped, so always juicy. They’re also very briny, so chef Nelson German’s light-handed addition of cilantro, ginger, and hickory-smoked Tabasco makes sense. I wish the wine list branched out beyond California, but I might be a minority in this regard.
A dozen oysters at Café Rouge, followed by a burger and fries, is one of the best dinners in Berkeley, if you ask me. This lovely spot down on Fourth Street has long been an anchor in the East Bay food scene, with its careful attention to sourcing ingredients and always-simple presentation. There are typically four oyster choices. We recently had Hog Island Sweets, Kumamotos, Rock Points, and Beausoleils, a nice mix. Hog Islands are, perhaps, the most-seen oyster on Bay Area menus, as they come from right up the road in Marshall, a speck of a town near Point Reyes. And they’re the oyster that I would long for if lived elsewhere, as they’ve rooted a great nostalgia in me for their mineral flavor and perfect balance between saltiness and sweetness. Pretty little Kumamotos are a Japanese variety now grown throughout coastal Washington and in far Northern California. They’re more sweet than briny, with a medium firmness. Rock Points from Quilcene, Washington are their opposite cousin: medium-size, crisp oysters with more brininess than sweetness. Beau Soleils, from New Brunswick, are raised in floating bags, constantly rubbing up against their neighbors, which leaves them clean and consistently formed. They are firm and mild, among the mildest oysters available.
1782 Fourth St., Berkeley [map]
Ph: (510) 525-1440
Hours: Mon-Thurs, 11:30am-9:30pm; Fri-Sat, 11:30am-10pm and 5pm-10pm; Sun, 11am-9pm
Price Range: $$ (Entrees $11-$17)
May I just cut to the chase and say that Hopscotch is my absolute favorite oyster destination on this quite marvelous list? This quaint restaurant, with a stellar menu of cooked foods, such as black cod marinated in sake lees, buttermilk fried chicken, and a very respectable burger, offers the most beautifully shucked and presented oysters I’ve had anywhere in California south of Tomales Bay. When I visited, the oyster of the day was shigoku, which means “ultimate” in Japanese. Grown in Willapa Bay, WA, they are lightly briny, with a crisp texture and mild artichoke flavor. And Hopscotch serves them with the best mignonette I tried on this go-‘round, hands down. The secret? Instead of straight vinegar with shallots, chef Kyle Itani balances the vinegar with a bit of sparkling wine, which sweetens it slightly (but not too much), and takes the acidic edge off. Even more special is his treatment of these beautiful bivalves in what he calls “yonsei” style, with sea urchin, salmon roe, and ponzu. Just the best. And there’s a Loire Valley Muscadet from Domaine Vinet that is the perfect pairing for either style of oyster.
1915 San Pablo Ave., Oakland [map]
Ph: (510) 788-6217
Hours: Mon-Thurs, 11:30am-10pm; Fri, 11:30am-11pm; Sat, 10:30am-11pm; Sun, 10:30am-10pm
Price Range: $$$ (Entrees $17-$24)
Like many new restaurants these days, Hutch Bar & Kitchen, in uptown Oakland, wants to be a bar that serves compelling food, and to some extent, it does. But the focus on oysters that’s implied by the signage outside is a bit misleading. They do have oysters, and they’re good, but they only have Marin Miyagis, which is one of the most commonly found in these parts. And about all they have to drink with them is whiskey. That said, tequila goes very nicely with oysters, unlike the bourbons and scotches that populate the list. The rest of the food menu, which is heavily influenced by New Orleans and points south, is pricey and, frankly, odd, given that this is primarily a whiskey bar. So, I recommend this joint for oysters (served with cider mignonette) and Espolon tequila. Now that’s a nice pairing.
Jack’s Oyster Bar and Fish House is my favorite discovery on this list. A 2014 newcomer to the Oakland Embarcadero scene, Jack’s has the look and feel of a bonafide oyster bar, with piles of the main event on display up front. They also have the biggest variety around, and on our last stop we enjoyed perfectly shucked Kusshis, Fanny Bays, Kumamotos, and Marin Miyagis (on daily special @$1.50 a pop). And there’s a wealth of other seafood options than oysters, so you can easily have a happy seafood extravaganza.
Jack’s Oyster Bar and Fish House
336 Water St., Jack London Square, Oakland [map]
Ph: (510) 271-7952
Hours: Mon-Thurs, 11:30am-9:30pm; Fri-Sat, 11:30am-10pm; Sun, 11am-9pm
Facebook: Jack's Oyster Bar & Fish House
Price Range: $$$ (Entrees $17-$24)
Marc 49 is not a dining destination, but it is a cheap-oyster destination. On Sundays and Wednesdays, there’s a $1 oyster special, and it’s never the measly rejects on offer at some other local happy hours that shall remained unnamed (unless you ask me). Recently, cleanly shucked Churchills from Washington were served super-cold, with a classic mignonette (and the kitchen produced two dozen within five minutes of our ordering them). While the wine list is nothing to write home about, there are some worthy cocktails, my favorite being the Farewell to Arms, with Herradura reposado, Nonino amaro, vanilla bitters, and Campari.
4915 Telegraph Ave., Oakland [map]
Ph: (510) 652-2100
Hours: Mon-Fri, 5pm-closing; Sat, noon-closing; Sun, 11am-closing
Facebook: Marc Forty-Nine
Price Range: $$ (Entrees $11-$17)
A sleeper of a restaurant, mostly known to residents of North Oakland, Marica is a small, lively spot that has fresh oysters every day. There’s usually only one variety, and the Kumiai has been the go-to of late. Sit at the pretty bar and order a dozen with Roederer Brut by the glass. Marica is also among the friendliest restaurants in town. It’s obvious from casual eavesdropping that this family-owned place serves many happy regulars.
My other big discovery on this elongated oyster adventure was Rockin’ Crawfish, a dive if there ever was one, with graffiti-covered walls, empty cans as “art,” and more rolls of paper towels than Costco. And what’s more, they don’t serve wine! Beer lovers are in luck, as are devotees of quality oysters. We had a dozen Kusshis for $22.99, and these would’ve been $12 if we’d thought to go on a Monday or Tuesday. Suffice it to say we’ll be back for the crawfish.
While The Cook and Her Farmer launched last year in Old Oakland as primarily an oyster bar, the po’ boys, mussels, grilled cheese sandwiches, and homemade pickles seem to get more traction. So, when we visited, there was only one kind of bivalve on the menu—Marin Miyagi— but they were lovingly shucked before our eyes and served with lemon and mignonette. Next to the homemade Kennebec fries and a kale salad for good measure, a meal worthy of repeating was born.