Rockefeller, stew, chowder and pie; steamed, grilled, deep-fried or raw with a squirt of lemon; no matter how you prefer your oysters, there’s no denying these delicacies have deep ties to the Big Apple. Before the 20th century, New York Harbor may have been home to half the world’s oysters. Author Mark Kurlansky, who details New York’s history of mollusks in The Big Oyster, explains that, for more than a hundred years, the city produced the best anywhere—a title it wants to regain.
NYC Oyster Facts
- Oysters helped to build New York City—burned oyster shells were converted to lime, a material used to construct Trinity Church and other buildings in Lower Manhattan.
- Manhattan’s Pearl Street may have received its name from the crushed oyster shells the Dutch covered the route with in the 1700s. Another story suggests the street’s name comes from the piles of shells left there by the indigenous Lenape people who lived on the island.
- Oysters were once New York street food. They were sold from boats and carts around the clock. Hungry diners could load up on oysters for pennies. Today, one oyster costs about US$3.
Long Island Gems
Beginning a little more than half a kilometre from Manhattan and reaching as far as the Atlantic Ocean, Long Island remains one of the top-producing oyster regions on the Eastern Seaboard. The iconic Blue Point Oyster originated here and still thrives. New York State took these oysters so seriously, it passed a law in 1908 to protect the name. Blue Points must be grown in Great South Bay water and live there for at least three months.
On the North Shore of the island, Oyster Bay represents more than a Billy Joel song or the site of his multi-million-dollar mansion. In the 1600s, the Dutch settled here and named the hamlet after the water’s wealth of shellfish.
The bay’s annual Oyster Festival attracts more than 200,000 attendees who devour 60,000 bivalves over the course of two days. The Pine Island Oysters served at the fest come courtesy of Frank M. Flower & Sons, one of the remaining New York oystermen cultivating these bivalves from Oyster Bay. Enjoying them on the half-shell is a highlight, but seasoned chefs and volunteers whip up a variety of oyster-centric dishes as well.
Further east on Long Island is the North Fork region, where the maritime village of Greenport is situated. For two decades, Widow’s Hole Oyster Farm has produced oysters in Greenport Harbor, delivering them to New York restaurants.
Bringing Oysters Back to New York Harbor
Step aside pizza and bagels, oysters were once recognized as the quintessential New York food. In the early 1900s, New York Harbor held 220,000 acres of oyster reefs, with more than 1 billion oysters coming out of the water annually. That is until contamination and overfishing put an end to the Hudson River’s stockpile of these delicate bivalves. Enter the Billion Oyster Project (BOP)—an organization venturing to reverse the damage and harvest oysters in the harbour. Since 2014, the initiative has planted 26 million oysters and recycled 1 million pounds of shells through a partnership with more than 70 New York City eateries. BOP aims to restore at least 1 billion oysters to the harbour by 2035, enabling the city to regain its status as the world’s oyster capital.
3 Places to Eat Oysters in New York City
Grand Central Terminal is an iconic transit hub and the home of one of the city’s most beloved oyster bars. More than a century old, Grand Central Oyster Bar & Restaurant plates 25 or 30 varieties of oysters daily.
In the East Village, Zadie’s Oyster Room, a participant in the Billion Oyster Project, serves oysters from various regions. It features an all-night happy hour on Mondays, and from 5 to 7 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays. There is also a nightly US$1.50 “chef’s choice” special.
Oysters rotate each day at Mermaid Oyster Bar in Greenwich Village, a nautical-themed eatery dishing out only responsibly sourced seafood. Bivalve lovers can expect Peconic Bay, Navy Point and Black Duck Salts, among others from the Atlantic and Pacific.
[This story appears in the January 2019 issue of WestJet Magazine]