From seafood shacks to high-end hangouts, our list for eating bivalves by the Bay
By Charles Russo
Human beings have been eating oysters since forever. In modern times, these fleshy morsels of the sea have gone from a poor man’s staple to a pricey culinary delicacy, farmed to odd deliciousness and shipped live all over the world for consumption.
Here in the Bay Area, we are —thanks to the mollusk farmers of west Marin—a celebrated spot on the map when it comes to the who’s who of elite oyster-producing. As a food trend, however, oysters have gone in-and-out of popularity over the years, until finally evolving beyond raw bar specialty houses and when-in-Rome seaside fare. Here on the Peninsula, we’ve seen a rising tide of oyster-centric restaurants in the past few years, who like the shellfish themselves, each have their own nuances and characteristics.
So whether you, like us, can easily put away a dozen—or two (or three)—of the briny bivalves, or just want to get a sense for where to get initiated, we put together this handy guide of where to find great oysters at the best venues on the Peninsula.
If there is tangible evidence that oysters have arrived as a hip part of the local food scene on the Peninsula, the Flea Street Oysterette might very well be Exhibit A. Nestled into a trellised porch outside of the popular restaurant, this recent venture by owner Jesse Cool and executive chef Charlie Parker emphasizes simplicity and freshness for both the top-notch oysters and creative cocktails that they offer. Unsurprisingly perhaps, the local response to the Oysterette was swift: “it took off right away, our customers were really thrilled,” Cool says.
In addition to popular varieties, such as Kusshi and Marin Miyagi, they also feature some lesser-known oysters as well, such as Sister Point and Cooke’s Cocktail. Cool finds the entire concept “just really…fun,” but redirects credit to her head chef: “Charlie Parker is a master with oysters. For New Year’s he made the best Oysters Rockefeller I ever had.” Look out for unique menu additions like that on special occasions and don’t shy away from attending on winter evenings—they just added heat lamps to the porch.
The Oysterette, at the Flea Street Cafe// Wednesday to Saturday, 4.30pm to closing
3607 Alameda de las Pulgas, Menlo Park//650-854–1226
A Coastside institution, Sam’s offers up a top-notch raw bar which—according to co-owner Julie Shenkman—shucked over 150,000 oysters in 2017. Their list typically includes about a half-dozen quality varieties, and features a $1 oyster happy hour on Tuesday evenings that draws a large and ravenous crowd. Shenkman is quick to characterize Sam’s as a New England-style restaurant, so a hearty dozen arrives with proper old school accompaniments of fresh horseradish, red wine vinegar mignonette and cocktail sauce.
Beyond the bivalves, Sam’s boasts a huge seafood menu, from ceviche to seafood paella (not to mention their highly-touted lobster roll). Even still, the setting itself is most often the star of any visit, as Sam’s sits on a bluff along Highway 1 overlooking Pillar Point Harbor, with sprawling windows in every westward direction as well as ample outdoor seating.
When the Half Moon Bay weather is good, the setting at Sam’s is simply spectacular.
Sam’s Chowder House//11am to 9pm
4210 Cabrillo Hwy, Half Moon Bay//650–712–0245
Splitting the difference between casual clam shack and a more refined seafood restaurant, Rustic House casts a wide net with a huge range of dishes, including shrimp po’ boys, cioppino and grilled mahi mahi. The atmosphere is casual though lively, particularly during happy hour (2pm-5.30pm, Tuesday to Friday) which features $6 cocktails and $2 oysters.
In addition to their raw bar, Rustic House features four different grilled oyster options, including bourbon & brown sugar.
Rustic House Oyster Bar and Grill // Tuesday to Sunday: 11:30am to 9pm.
295 Main Street, Los Altos//650–642–4142
920 El Camino Real, San Carlos//650–394–4534
A local mainstay dating back to 1976, the original Fish Market on El Camino Real in Palo Alto was instrumental in bringing a real deal raw bar to the Peninsula, and its immense popularity soon spawned locations both up- and downstream, in San Mateo and Santa Clara.
Without a doubt, The Fish Market offers the best price on oysters around the Peninsula, with a list that is succinct and satisfying, including many of the same notable oyster varieties — from Kusshi to Kumamoto — being served at the higher-end-higher-price restaurants in the area.
Best of all, their happy hour includes $1.50 oysters and quality booze in the well drinks. (Offerings and hours vary from location to location.)
The Fish Market// 11am to 9 pm (with slight variations between locations)
3150 El Camino Real, Palo Alto//650–493–8862
3775 El Camino Real, Santa Clara//408–246–3474
1855 South Norfolk, San Mateo//650–349–3474
For a more off-the-beaten-path oyster experience, check out this yakitori house in Burlingame. In addition to a diverse small plate menu featuring the likes of hamachi carpaccio, fried baby tako (octopus) and soft shell crab salad, Mokutanya offers a nice selection of oysters in small servings of four, not to mention a $1 happy hour special on Mondays and Tuesdays featuring Fanny Bay and Skookum.
Proceed to their huge list of yakitori (charcoal-grilled skewers) and finish with one their five signature ramens.
Mokutanya Charcoal Grill//11am-2am
1155 California Dr., Burlingame//650-348-9388
While fish can fit the format of the highest of high end restaurants (see The Sea, below), there is a perennial appeal for a down-to-earth, red-and-white checkered tablecloth, fries with malt vinegar, blue collar seafood shack.
The two locations of the Old Port Lobster Shack both offer oysters, though not with the same variety as the rest of their menu. In this context, the oysters are a gateway dish to more serious sea fare, namely—the Maine lobsters that they have flown in fresh on a weekly basis.
Lobster bisque, lobster rolls, whole lobster, louie salad….with Lobster. The bivalves play second fiddle here, but we’re not complaining.
Old Port Lobster Shack//11am to 9pm
20 Woodside Plaza Redwood City//650-366-2400
3130 Alpine Road, Portola Valley//650-561-9500
The Lamborghini of oyster houses on the Peninsula, where Executive Chef Yu Min Lin compiles a diverse list of quality varieties for your consumption. Of course, the inherent simplicity of excellent oysters can easily be overshadowed at The Sea, where Yu conjures culinary wizardry from a wide range of creatures of the deep blue, from tuna tartar to caviar.
Keep an eye out for his seasonal specialties, which have included the likes of baked abalone and sea urchin cauliflower soup.
But be mindful, if the food is on another level at The Sea, so too are the prices.
The Sea by Alexander’s Steakhouse//5.30pm to 9.30pm (9 on Sundays)
4269 El Camino Real, Palo Alto//650-213–1111
Located in an old art deco building in downtown San Mateo, Kingfish has the swanky atmosphere dialed-in with their extensive raw bar, high end cocktails and overall New Orleans-style ambiance.
The oyster selection is one of the best on the Peninsula, featuring exquisite obscurities such as Reach Island, Steamboat and Pearl Island (not to mention our personal favorite—Skookum). With $5 Moscow Mules at Happy Hour, it’s well worth the visit.
Kingfish//4.30pm-10pm (10.30 on Friday and Saturday); Closed Sundays
201 South B Street, San Mateo//650-343–1226