Diners have a growing appetite for the bivalve, which raw bars are happy to satisfy
From the September 2016 issue
During a day trip to Rehoboth Beach, Tina and Rick Betz of Wilmington decided to belly up to the bar at Henlopen City Oyster House. They each ordered a beer and a dozen oysters on the half-shell. As the afternoon progressed, they ordered another four dozen. “The bartender said: ‘Boy, you guys like oysters, don’t you?’” Rick Betz recalls. “So they gave us a dozen on the house.”
Eighty-four bivalves evidently were not enough. They then sat at a table in the restaurant to enjoy fried oyster po’ boys and oyster stew. Too full to drive home, they got a hotel room in town.
The Betzes aren’t the only restaurant customers who love this particular shellfish. The popularity of oysters on the half-shell has been rising. At the end of 2014, they appeared on 9.6 percent of all menus nationwide, according to Nation’s Restaurant News, an industry magazine. That was a 15.7 percent increase from 2010.
This past year, three restaurants with a raw bar opened at the beach: Matt Fish’s Camp in the Lewes area, Chesapeake & Maine in downtown Rehoboth and Starboard Raw in Dewey Beach. Oysters are also appearing on menus in restaurants without raw bars.
“More and more restaurants are offering them,” agrees Eric Sugrue, managing partner of Big Fish Restaurant Group, which owns Big Fish Wholesale Seafood Co. “They are now offering more varieties. The product is getting better, and people are into it.”
A trend based on tradition
Betz grew up in Baltimore in the 1950s, a time when crude-looking carts sold oysters on street corners. “I would watch the old men slurp them down, and I thought it was disgusting,” he recalls. Those men, however, were participating in a tradition that extends far beyond Maryland and across the Delmarva Peninsula. Archeologists have found oyster shells at Native American dig sites and those of early settlers.
During the 19th and 20th centuries, disease periodically claimed large oyster populations. Damage to oyster reefs and an increase in runoff into the waterways also led to a decline. And there were health concerns. Oysters, which gobble up algae, act as filters in the water; as pollution rose in the waterways, people were more hesitant to eat raw oysters.
Improved environmental conditions and modern oyster farming have helped the population rebound and ease consumer fears. The farmers monitor the water temperature and bacteria levels. Oysters are placed in the ultimate growing conditions and raised off the bottom of the waterway (on racks or in bags or cages) for easier access and to allow grasses to grow and provide nutrients.
Feeling more confident — and more experimental — consumers like Betz have been more willing to give the bivalve a try.
A rising tide
Despite that growing confidence in the product, raw bars in the Rehoboth Beach area were a rarity in 2005, when Jeff Hamer opened Fins Fish House & Raw Bar. He got the idea to open Fins when he still owned Arena’s Famous Deli & Bar and Java Beach Bagel Company & Cafe. “At least once a night, when I was walking the floor of Arena’s, people would say: ‘Hey, where can I find a raw bar?’ I heard that for years,” he recalls. “Not one around here,” he told them. That’s certainly changed. Hamer currently has two Fins locations and a third, featuring Big Oyster Brewery, a sister operation, is in the works.
In 2006, Jamie Davis opened JD Shuckers Seafood Grill & Raw Bar on Route 24. He’d worked at McGarvey’s Saloon & Oyster Bar in Annapolis, and he wanted to bring a similar concept to his hometown. Business has steadily increased. During the summer, he went through as many as 4,000 oysters a week, including up to 1,200 on Thursday buck-a-shuck nights. He’s now opening a Georgetown location.
Henlopen City Oyster House, which opened in 2010, went through 7,000 to 8,000 oysters during one weekend in July. “The popularity of oysters has exploded,” says Chris Bisaha, who owns the restaurant with Joe Baker.
* * *