Shucked, slurped, savoured – oysters are a delicacy enjoyed in many forms. Just outside San Francisco, the Pacific coastline is prime growing ground for these shellfish, breeding some of the best oysters in the US (if not the world). Here, we delve into why this region is a destination for oyster lovers, what varieties you’ll find, and most importantly, where to taste the best oysters in San Francisco.
What makes a “good” oyster?
Oysters are sensitive and require a certain terroir, or climate, to flourish. They thrive in clean, cold waters, which is why the protected brackish bay waters (a fresh/saltwater combo) along the Pacific coast are ideal. The growth also depends on the food in the water – if the current or tide is bringing in nutrient-rich plankton that they can feed on. There are five species found throughout the world; Eastern, Belon or “flat” oysters (found in Europe), Olympias from the Pacific Northwest, Kumamoto (originally found in Japan), and Pacific oysters. Parke Ulrich, executive chef at Waterbar in San Francisco, says it’s the water that gives an oyster its characteristics and sense of place.
“The same oyster grown here in Tomales Bay with a sandier bottom and good tidal influence versus the oyster grown in British Columbia will be very different. Oyster farmers set themselves apart – whether it’s a honeydew melon finish or a buttery finish, you can taste different things in the oyster,” says Ulrich.
As well as being delicious, oysters are actually very good for you. Rich in zinc, low in calories, and full of good fats, Chef Ulrich attributes his good health to his daily oyster intake.
Now that you’re an expert, here’s where to sample the best oysters in San Francisco:
Hog Island Oyster Co.
A trip to the Bay Area is not complete without a visit to Hog Island Oyster Co. Founded in 1983 as a small wholesale oyster retailer and farm, the company has since grown into a nationally acclaimed brand. If you have the time and access to a vehicle, make the journey to their oyster farm in Marshall, a little over an hour north of San Francisco. Purchase a bag of freshly harvested oysters, roll up your sleeves and shuck them yourself on the shores of Tomales Bay. Slurp ‘em fresh or throw them on the charcoal grill for a savoury barbeque flavour. Not ready to get your hands dirty? Belly up to “The Boat,” the outdoor oyster bar serving pre-shucked raw and barbequed oysters, local breads, cheeses, and more (by reservation only). Reservations are also required for the shuck-your-own picnic tables Friday – Monday.
“It’s not just a place for people to visit – it’s also our production centre. Seeing all of the activity happening while you’re sitting by the beautiful shore – it’s a very casual, enjoyable experience,” says John Finger, co-founder of Hog Island Oyster Co.
Can’t make the trip to Marshall? Head to the restaurant at San Francisco’s iconic Ferry Building. This picturesque location with Bay Bridge views sources sustainably caught fish, including a rotating selection of oysters featuring one or two Hog Island varieties like the Hog Island Sweetwater, Hog Island Kumamoto, and Hog Island Atlantics. The casual yet cosmopolitan vibe is bustling with travellers and locals any time of day – the restaurant serves up two million oysters in a year.
20215 Shoreline Highway, Marshall; One Ferry Building, San Francisco.
Also situated along San Francisco’s waterfront is Waterbar. The eatery serves oysters for all occasions – casual diners en route to a San Francisco Giants game (just a few blocks away), or for special celebrations such as anniversaries and fancier affairs. A $1 oyster special is on the menu from 11:30am – 5:30pm.
“We feature one oyster for the special each day. Then, diners see the list and want to try the other options. They like to experiment – the oyster bar is a big focal point,” says Ulrich.
Waterbar has 23 varieties from the five different species on its menu, with shipments of fresh oysters arriving six days a week. Keep your eyes peeled for oysters with a lot of “liquor” or saltwater in the shell – that’s where you’ll find the best flavour.
399 The Embarcadero, San Francisco.
Swan Oyster Depot
You’ll know you’ve found Swan Oyster Depot when you spot the queue halfway down the block on Polk Street. This no-frills seafood counter has attracted fish lovers since the 1890s, offering some of the freshest seafood and oysters in San Francisco and the wider Bay Area. If you’re lucky to snag one of the 18 stools at the counter, sit back and enjoy the bustling ambience as you marvel at the shucking and cracking skills right before your eyes.
1517 Polk Street, San Francisco.
A San Francisco institution since the 1970s, Zuni Café’s changing menus always incorporate seasonal, organic ingredients. A special oyster and shellfish menu breaks down the options by species and locale, often including Pacific, Kumamoto, and Eastern oysters. Pair your selection with a glass of wine from the 100-plus selection of Californian, French, Italian, and Spanish options.
1658 Market Street, San Francisco.
Mission Rock Resort
If finding a good special is your mo., Mission Rock Resort’s oyster happy hour should be on your San Francisco agenda. The rotating selection from the raw bar includes shellfish combinations like the Petite Shellfish Plateau – six oysters, two clams, four prawns, Dungeness crab, ceviche, the works. Bask in the sun on the deck along Mission Bay, the sunnier, fog-free corner of the city.
817 Terry A. Francois Boulevard, San Francisco.
Anchor & Hope
For a heartier happy hour, Anchor & Hope’s Oyster & Stout Happy Hour pays homage to Ireland and England, where oysters are often paired with pints. Half a dozen oysters and a Dublin-style stout go for $11, while the chef’s selection oysters are just a dollar each. Coined as an “East Coast meets West Coast” fish house, the restaurant’s seasonal selection includes everything from lobster rolls to salmon to trout. Oyster varieties include species from both coasts.
83 Minna Street, San Francisco.
Whether you savour them as an appetizer or an entire meal, sampling an oyster (or a dozen) is a must for your San Francisco excursion.
Virgin Atlantic operates direct flights to San Francisco from London Heathrow, making it easy to slurp fresh oysters anytime on the West Coast.
Have a favourite restaurant to sample oysters in San Francisco? Let us know in the comments section below!
Written by Lindsay Wright