Where to Eat The Freshest Oysters in Charleston Right Now
How do these salty pearls of goodness wind up on our plates?
There’s no denying that Charleston is an oyster-loving town. At nearly every restaurant, you’re likely to find at least one oyster dish on the menu, and spring and fall events calendars are usually stocked with at least one oyster roast every weekend. (That was, of course, until COVID-19 had other plans for us this year.)
But while many of us are happy to dab on some cocktails sauce and slurp our oysters straight out of the shell, a lot of times we don’t think about all that goes on behind the scenes to bring these salty little pearls of goodness from the ocean to our plates. Like wine, oysters have merroir, or flavor that is dictated by where they’re grown.
“At a winery, the grapes take on the flavor of whatever soil they’re planted in, so you could have a really good pinot noir and then go 10 miles down the road and that pinot noir could taste totally different. Same grape, different flavor. The same can be said of oysters,” explains Trey McMillan, owner of Lowcountry Oyster Company. “The salt content of the water here is super high, so our oysters take on that flavor. But, we also have a lot of marsh grass that you don’t find elsewhere around the country, which give our oysters a lot of minerals that finish with distinct sweetness.”
Growing up in Charleston, you’ve likely heard the old adage that oysters should only be consumed in “r months,” which tend to be the coldest of the year. And while that may have been true in the 1500s when the phrase was first coined, that isn’t necessarily the case today.
“There are four r’s in the word refrigerator,” jokes Jared Hulteen, director of operations at Barrier Island Oyster Co. “Back in the days before mechanical refrigeration, you had to eat oysters in the r months because it was safer. Here in South Carolina, our oysters are intertidal, meaning when the tide is up they’re submerged, but when the tide goes out, they’re exposed to the air and heat and the chance of them developing harmful bacteria is very high. While that’s still true of wild oysters, with the farming method, the oysters stay continually submerged and under 50 degrees, keeping them safe to eat throughout the year.”
And while some people might balk at the idea of eating farmed oysters, it’s actually a much safer and environmentally sustainable choice than eating selects (aka the oysters that are handpicked from oyster beds in the wild). “When people pick selects from oyster beds, what they’re doing is destroying oyster habitats which then in turn destroys fish habitats and crabs and contributes to erosion,” Hulteen says. “A healthy estuary is also important for the economy because it supports so much more than just oyster sales.”
Next time you’re out at a restaurant and find an oyster you really like, ask your shucker for the tag, so you can learn more about where it comes from, what kind of environment it’s grown in and what about the flavor that appeals to you. Right now, you can order oysters directly from Barrier Island Oyster or Lowcountry Oyster, which ships nationwide. Or just order your favorite kind of oysters at one of these fine oyster establishments throughout the Charleston area.
Located in a converted old gas station, Leon’s is a bright and airy spot that’s a great option for a casual lunch or dinner, specializing in fried chicken, oysters, cold beer, and soft serve. You can get oysters from the raw bar with cocktail sauce and mignonette, or the famous char-grilled oysters with lemon, parsley, butter, and parm. For a fuller meal, try the fried oyster roll with lettuce, tomato, avocado, and comeback sauce, or an oyster-fry up with fries. Finish it off with a fresh soft serve or a frozen rosé slushie for a perfect summer treat.
How to order: Make reservations for dine-in through Resy and place takeout orders online.
A new entry to Charleston’s dining scene is the Royal Tern, bringing some more fine dining options to Johns Island. The self-described eatery is helmed by Chef David Pell and features an array of fresh seafood options and craft cocktails. In addition to your staples (fried oyster baskets, raw oysters on the half-shell, and seafood towers), Royal Tern has a lot of inventive oyster options, including the salmon and oyster tartare, an oyster banh mi sandwich, and baked oysters with tomato, bacon, cream, and spinach.
How to order: Make indoor dining reservations through Resy or place a takeout order by calling 843-718-3434.
King Street Historic District
The Darling has one of the prettiest raw bars in the city, with idyllic views of King Street at any time of the day. The gorgeously designed space is the perfect atmosphere for girls’ night out or a nice date option without breaking the bank. Mosey up to the raw bar and take a stroll down the oyster options available daily, or start your meal with a pepper vodka oyster shooter if you think you can handle the spice. An oyster fry basket is a great way to go for dinner, served with fries, kale slaw, and plenty of tartar sauce.
How to order: Make a reservation for bar or dining room seating through OpenTable.
When it comes to soul food, Chef Sean Mendes serves up fresh and flavorful favorites in his cozy James Island restaurant that are not to be missed. His menu is an ode to his grandmother and reflects recipes he ate and learned to cook in her kitchen. But oysters are the shining star. If you’re looking for something super fresh, you can add fried oysters to the pantry salad or Caesar salad options, or if you want something handheld, the oyster po’boy (served blackened or fried with Nunya sauce or Gillie’s style with fried green tomatoes and Geechee sauce) or fried oyster tacos are definite winners.
How to order: The restaurant is currently open for limited patio dining and takeout orders can be placed by calling 843-297-8615.
Tucked into a cozy corner of the Cigar Factory, Rappahannock Oyster Bar is a modern and casual seafood restaurant with one impressive 40-seat copper bar. The raw bar features the namesake Rappahannock River oysters, as well as a few other Virginia oysters and clams for shellfish fans. Small plates include grilled oysters with smoked jalapeño butter, and an oyster po’boy with tomatillo salsa verde, napa slaw, and house chips. And if you’re a fan of oyster shooters, Rapp’s got five different options for you to choose from.
How to order: The 4,000-square-foot interior dining space is now open, as well as the relaxed outdoor patio area so you can dine in without being too close to your neighbor. Make reservations through OpenTable.
The lively, French-inspired seafood restaurant has been going strong since its fall 2017 opening. Monday nights are very special at Nico, as the restaurant offers half-priced oysters, while Tuesdays will get you a whole shucker platter for just $38. If you’re dining in, be sure to give the tuna oysters with citrus relish a try for something refreshingly different, or consider the merguez butter house-roasted oysters with shallot and sausage. If you’re looking for takeout, the dozen pre-shucked oysters are always a hit, along with the baked camembert oysters with garlic and white wine, plus a glass of daily froze to wash it all down with.
How to order: Make reservations for limited seating on the patio or dining room or place a takeout order via Cake.
French Quarter and Avondale
The self-proclaimed “eclectic little oyster bar” has two locations in Charleston, and both feature a pretty hearty list of oyster-centric dishes and snacks that Charlestonians crave. Start your meal with a signature oyster shooter with pepper vodka, or a Southern-fried oyster platter with bleu cheese and Buffalo sauce. Then, dig into a fried oyster dinner with chips and corn fritters or an order of crispy oyster tacos with shredded lettuce, marinated tomatoes, Old Bay, and Tabasco aioli.
How to order: Get there early if you want a seat at either restaurant’s raw bar or place a takeout order through UpServe.
A little over a year ago, Charleston staple Blossom added a breathtaking oyster bar overlooking East Bay Street. The people-watching is great, and the oysters are even better. There are a few different oyster options on the menu, as well as wood-oven pizzas (with cauliflower crust for those looking to decrease their gluten intake), as well as traditional southern dishes like shrimp and grits, and tasty desserts. Traditional oysters on the half-shell with mignonette and cocktail sauce are always a winner, and the cornmeal-fried oysters with fries are a deliciously crispy option, too.
How to order: Make an indoor reservation through Resy or place a takeout order through ChowNow.
Although many locals were sad when Market Street staple A.W. Shucks closed after nearly 40 years, the more upscale concept seems to be doing well. O-Bar on State Street features a diverse oyster-forward menu with plenty of seafood favorites. Grab some fresh oysters on the half-shell or a child oyster shooter from the raw bar. Or heat things up with fire-roasted oysters with parmesan cheese and garlic butter, or a baked oysters palmetto with pimento cheese and bacon. The fried oyster roll with Asian slaw and Sriracha ranch is a great handheld option, while the seafood towers are more of a splurge.
How to order: Make a reservation for dine-in or patio service during lunch and dinner through Resy or walk up to place an order for takeout.
With a name like Coast, you can rest assured that the seafood you’re getting is up to snuff. The chefs meet with local fishermen and farmers on a daily basis to ensure the restaurant is bringing you the most quality ingredients. Oysters on the half shell are an old standard, and the fried oysters with bacon-blue cheese slaw and fries rarely disappoint.
How to order: Make a reservation for the dining room or patio through OpenTable.
It might seem weird to visit a steakhouse for oysters, but Oak should definitely be added to your list. In addition to oysters, Oak is great for a perfect filet mignon, bacon mac and cheese, or slice of peanut butter pie. There’s also a happy hour in the bar area Sunday through Friday from 5-7pm with fried oyster deviled eggs and steeply discounted drink specials. Regardless of the time of day, be sure to order the Oysters Rockefeller for just $3.25 apiece.
How to order: Make reservations for indoor dining through OpenTable or place a takeout order through ChowNow.
This family-owned Charleston institution is off the beaten path right on the edge of James Island, down a dirt road that you’re likely to miss if you blink. Be sure to visit right at sunset, as its marshfront location offers some of the best views in Charleston. Every hour is happy at Bowens Island where you can get all-you-can-eat steamed oysters, any time for market price. Or try a platter of the tastiest fried Carolina oysters, along with french fries, hushpuppies, and slaw.
How to order: Bowens does not take reservations and seating is first-come, first served.
Having made the move from its tiny little restaurant on East Bay to a much larger space on King Street earlier this year, 167 Raw is ready to serve up more oysters than ever before. The sister restaurant of a Nantucket favorite, this spot features seafood fare that’s much more common up north -- dishes like lobster rolls, clam chowder, and tuna burgers. The raw bar features a rotating daily selection of raw oysters, as well as a few different oyster options, like roasted oysters, crispy fried oysters, and an oyster po’boy that’s stuffed to the brim.
How to order: While the dining room and patio are both open, you can still order takeout.
Just a few steps from Market Street and Waterfront Park, you’ll find Amen Street Fish & Raw Bar. The raw bar menu changes daily, but it has been known to offer up to 20 different oysters at a time. A regular dozen will cost you about $19, but at happy hour (4-7pm during the week), it’s only $9.95. Be sure to try the oyster shooter made with house-infused, lemon-pepper vodka, Bloody Mary mix, hot sauce, and a freshly shucked oyster. If you need some greens, add fried oysters to one of the seasonal salads for a distinctly Lowcountry meal.
How to order: Make reservations for indoor or outdoor dining through OpenTable
King Street Historic District
Owner and James Beard award-winning Chef Mike Lata does amazing things with seafood in his self-proclaimed “fancy seafood” kitchen, which is housed in a breathtaking building that you might not believe was once a bank. The rotating menu is full of inventive and fresh seafood options, like oyster sliders with fresno mayo on a Hawaiian roll, or steak tartare topped with crispy oysters and horseradish. If you’ve got a little extra green in the bank, you can’t go wrong with one of shellfish towers, stocked with clams, claws, and oysters.
How to order: Make reservations through Resy or order takeout through Upserve.
Those who don’t live in Mount Pleasant might balk at the idea of having to drive all the way out to Highway 41 for dinner, but trust us when we say that it’s worth it. Start your meal with an oyster platter, which features two of each of their raw selection of oysters, or go all out with a seafood tower, featuring oysters, clams, shrimp, and crab legs. Stop by for happy hour from 3-6pm weekdays and on Mondays where fried oyster tacos are $5 and pours of tequila or mezcal range from $6-13. Their baked oysters are on deck every day of the week, and are stuffed with miso cream sauce, panko bread crumbs, and Thai basil and are not to be missed.
How to order: Order takeout online
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