On a recent trip to New Orleans, I set out on a mission to try as many Gulf oysters as possible in the span of one weekend. My goal: to sample them both raw and cooked, with visits to some of the city's historic and new-school oyster bars (and a touristy joint thrown in for good measure). Sadly, I missed a few of the classics on this trip—namely Casamento's, Superior Seafood and Pascal's Manale—due to timing and season, but I still found five that really knocked my socks off.
But first, a few notes on Gulf oysters. Southern bivalves are plumper, softer, and meatier than most Northern varieties, not to mention less expensive—because of the warm waters (oil spills notwithstanding), a year-round supply can be harvested. The oysters themselves tend to be on the mild side, lending them well to a range of preparations—throughout Louisiana and its neighboring states, you'll find them served raw on the half-shell, chargrilled, broiled Rockefeller-style, and stuffed into po' boys. Here's where to find 'em in all their glory!
Pêche Seafood Grill
The sleek Donald Link newbie in the Warehouse district takes a modern approach to Southern classics. I pulled up a seat at the raw bar and was treated to some of the best raw oysters on my whirlwind weekend—sweet and briny Dauphin Island oysters out of Alabama ($1.95 each) and mild local Hopedales ($1.35 each), which are supplemented by a rotating selection from distributors like Hama Hama Oyster Farm and Island Creek. A half-dozen on the half-shell didn't do the trick, but a dozen more later, I left satiated and highly impressed. And along with some serious raw mollusks, baked clams and seafood gumbo, Pêche had the most charismatic shucker in town.
Royal House Oyster Bar
Royal House is one of the few French Quarter oyster bars where natives belly-up for fresh bivalves. You'll find meaty local varieties out of St. Bernard parish and Hopedale at competitive prices ($8/6; $13/12). The old-school house also features a stunning interior with a long, antique bar and a second-floor balcony for those hoping to dine with a view. The signature Oysters Royale ($12) tops a half-dozen oysters with mixed seafood stuffing that's baked until bubbly. The raw guys aren't bad, either.
Oysters Rockefeller was invented at Antoine's Restaurant in 1899, but I prefer indulging in Galatoire's rendition ($12.50). Hitting up this dazzling old-school establishment is one of my NOLA traditions, and I always start with the iconically rich dish. Beneath the crisp, browned surface, you'll find a buttery filling of spinach, garlic, onion, and anisey Herbsaint liquor that offers a delightful contrast to the oyster's briny, meaty character—no matter where you get it, it's a must-try for New Orleans newbies.
Felix's Restaurant & Oyster Bar
Directly across the street from Acme, sharing a similar neon sign, Felix's is a bit less crowded, a touch less touristy, and offers up plump fresh oysters on the half shell ($8.75/6., $13.95/12). Pop in for a standing round at the bar and watch the shuckers at work—mine, one Michael Jackson (who had the license to prove it), pulled out an oyster the size of two fists and dared me to eat it. It wasn't pretty, but boy was it good.
Drago's Seafood Restaurant
This Central Business District classic may look like more like a TGI Friday's than your typical New Orleans oyster bar, but Drago's, "Home of the Original Charbroiled Oyster," has earned its claim to fame: a sizzling mix of garlic, butter and herbs with Parmesan and Romano cheese—cooked in-shell on the grill ($11.95/6, $18.95/12). The result is cheesy, briny, and deeply satisfying.