Trends: Oyster Bars Everywhere

 Photo Credit: Emily B. Hall

Photo Credit: Emily B. Hall

If you live in Athens, Ga. at the moment, and are in any way concerned with restaurants, good food and chefs, at least at the moment, or have a mild fancy in raw oysters, then the opening of Seabear Oyster Bar this week caught your interest, if not your fanaticism..

Not that there aren't strong raw oyster offerings in Athens already, but Seabear, perhaps due to its owners (two beloved Athens chefs) and its location (the hip and getting hipper Prince Avenue area), has shucked a chord. (Sorry about that last one. I had to try something.)

Athens, though, is just catching up to the rest of North America which has gone oyster bar crazy in the last few years. Brett Anderson wrote a great New York Times piece about the trend, quoting one oyster bar owner as saying, "Oysters are one of those perfect foods."

The farm-to-table trend, of course, extends to the sea. And folks looking deeper for, and I hate this word but it's an accurate description of what's driving all this, "authentic" food experiences need look no further than the oyster for a direct connection to where one's food comes from.

Or it's just a bunch of hipster shit. Forbes was calling oysters the new sushi back in 2011.

Despite the shiny, tiled, sort of modern, look to the hip sales points of bivalves (check out this Food & Wine slideshow of the best oyster bars around), this trend, this business growth, is all tied back to the rise of East Coast aquaculture, as succinctly explained in this Undercurrent News article from earlier this year: 

The century-old days of the neighborhood oyster bar are coming back in the United States after years of gradual growth, thanks to the US farm to table movement and an upsurge of enthusiastic small farmers.

In Chesapeake Bay, the oyster production grew by 806% between 2006 and 2012; and the east coast shellfish production has doubled in five years at a steady rate of 12% each year, according to Robert Rheault, executive director of the East Coast Shellfish Growers Association.

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“When I started, back in 1995, there just weren't very many people growing oysters. There were just a couple people in Maine, a couple in Connecticut,” said Skip Bennett, founder of Island Creek Oysters, which started as a farm in Duxbury, Massachusetts. Things have since dramatically changed, he told Undercurrent.

“I flew down the south coast and down over Rhode Island, and I swear — every where you looked down at there seemed to be an oyster farm,” said Bennett.

“Now, you are seeing people in their early-to-mid-20s getting into oyster farming, because the market is there. There is an excitement to what is going on in the industry,” said a top executive with one shellfish distributor, who did not want to be quoted by name.

A bit deeper into the story is this point about the Gulf spill and the havoc it wreaked on the domestic oyster supply. Not mentioned is a growing vibrio problem, that thing that makes humans sick, in the Gulf, among a few other biological concerns that popped up before the BP spill that primed the Chesapeake's oyster boom.

On the production side, the East Coast has also benefited from the hit on production in the Gulf, from the BP oil spill. US west coast production has not been able to pick up to compensate, because of ocean acidification issues, sources at the recent Global Seafood Market Conference, held two weeks ago in Miami, Florida, said.

As a result, the Chesapeake Bay has taken up the slack from the impact on Gulf production from the BP oil spill.