Digging the Oysters in Charleston

Sunday, April 13, 2008

In the marshy environs of Charleston, we had oysters on the brain. How could we not? The South Carolina city is flanked by the Cooper and Ashley rivers and is fronted by the Atlantic Ocean. And since our visit was in an "R" month (February), we set out to sample as many oysters as we could in a couple of days.

Our oyster exploration centered on the downtown market area, a lively source of food, entertainment and socializing since the late 18th century. We found plenty of restaurants advertising tempting prices per dozen. These oysters generally are of the local and Gulf variety; specialty oysters, or those flown in from other locales, cost more. There are no better or best kinds; it's a matter of personal choice.

The young and the fun wind up at Pearlz Oyster Bar on busy East Bay Street. The joint was hopping on a winter weeknight, with all the seats along the bar taken and most of the tables in the middle of the restaurant occupied. We opted for a booth, where it was a little hard to hear over the lively chatter and the Clemson-Florida State basketball game on TV. Though Southern oysters were on the menu, we opted for a sampler of Canada Cups, bluepoints and Montauk oysters, which came with cocktail and mignonette sauces. All three types went down nice and smooth, like fine wine.

153 E. Bay St., 843-577-5755 . A dozen Southern oysters cost $9.95; sampler (also a dozen), $16.95.

Offerings at the Charleston Crab House might tempt even non-oyster enthusiasts. The oysters McClellanville were swimming in butter and garlic and had grated Parmesan cheese melted on top; the Buffalo-style fried oysters came with a fiery kick soothed by a blue cheese dipping sauce. We sipped brews from the local Palmetto Brewing Co. while sitting beneath a French Quarter-style lamppost on an outdoor patio overlooking the historic market. With its clean finish, the Palmetto Pale Ale offered a nice, light contrast to those gussied-up platters.

41 S. Market St., 843 -853-2900. A dozen steamed or raw oysters cost $10.99; a dozen oysters McClellanville, $12.99; a half-dozen B uffalo-style oysters, $7.99.

We liked the name: A.W. Shuck's. But the menu was less engaging and the atmosphere a little touristy. The Apalachicola oysters from the Florida Panhandle were good, but we weren't crazy about the butter crackers (we vote for plain ol' saltines) or the soundtrack. ("Get Down Tonight"? No, thanks.)

70 State St., 843-723-1151. A dozen oysters, $10.99.

At Hank's Seafood Restaurant , we experienced a revelation: oysters from Totten Island, Wash., which were served with Apalachicola oysters and the very salty Carolina Cups. The Northwest mollusks had a melony taste as delicate as their shells. We savored these little epiphanies in the large, airy dining room while the friendly wait staff competed to serve us.

10 Hayne St., 843-723-FISH. A dozen Gulf oysters, $11.95; a dozen-oyster sampler, $14.95.

At the Noisy Oyster , the top halves of the glass walls facing Market and East Bay streets are lowered in good weather, offering an up-close view of the horse-drawn carriages, market vendors and tourists at this busy intersection. The restaurant serves local and Florida oysters throughout the week and flies in specialty oysters for weekend menus.

24 N. Market St., 843-723-0044. A dozen local oysters, $8.99.

A block or so away near the Customs House, the large Fleet Landing Restaurant offers indoor and outdoor dining in a former 1940s naval building on the Cooper River. The eatery serves its fried oysters with Southern Comfort barbecue sauce; or go for the chilled kind on the half-shell.

186 Concord St., 843-722-8100. A dozen local oysters, market price.

The Pavilion Bar is a pearl of a place, even though it doesn't serve oysters. Even in February, we could enjoy our chilled martinis on the rooftop terrace of the boutique Market Pavilion Hotel. Each table had an outdoor space heater nearby, and plexiglass walls insulated us from the wind. With a first-rate view of the city and the full moon over the Cooper River, it was a great place to dream of future oysters.

225 E. Bay St., 843-723-0500. Martinis, $8-$13.50; meals from $12.

-- Patricia Howard

For more information on travel to Charleston: Charleston Area Convention and Visitor Bureau, 800-774-0006,

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