Where To Go When You Just Want Some Oysters
photo credit: Maude Ballinger
When the need for plump, cold, alarmingly fresh oysters strikes, it strikes hard. You should absolutely listen to your internal clock. But before you head out, we have few ground rules. We need a legitimate selection of oysters, a cold glass of something, and a setting where you can order at least a dozen for yourself free of judgment. This guide has our favorite places in the city for oysters, from old-school seafood institutions to waterfront spots where you can stare at the bay and ponder the circle of life.
The MVP of Little Shucker is the raw bar. The menu at this Pacific Heights spot is full of plump local and Maine oysters punched up with a few shakes of tongue-curling house-fermented serrano hot sauce. The only thing to worry about in this breezy, light-filled space is how many oysters to order (the answer is a lot). Like your oysters a little toasty? Get the baked oysters drenched in garlic beurre blanc. Want to go all out? Get the first class ticket to Crustacean Land that is the Big Shucker. This behemoth of a seafood tower is full of a dozen glistening oysters, as well as lobster, mussels, and more. Its arrival on your table will spark an unshakeable desire to say goodbye to life on solid ground, buy a yacht, and spend eternity perfecting your free dive.
We’ve gone on and on about Zuni Cafe’s iconic (and excellent) roast chicken. But here’s where we tell you that this copper-and-brick-filled space is at its best when you’re experiencing the holy combination of oysters and wine. This Civic Center classic excels in the bivalve department. Options are broken down by species and location, from Japan to Maine to the Pacific Northwest. This is where you swing by for a fancy lunch, admire the chicken art on the walls, and devour your oysters of choice alongside a mountain of perfectly crispy french fries.
This decades-old Castro seafood counter opens at 2pm, which makes it a top contender for best mid-afternoon excursion with perfect oysters and a steamy cup of clam chowder. Slide into a seat at the bar and pick something from their daily selection of oysters, which come from places like Washington, Cape Cod, and Tomales Bay. Whatever you decide on will come with mignonette, cocktail sauce, and a dollop of horseradish on the side.
Anchovies are unsurprisingly the star at this upscale seafood restaurant from the State Bird Provisions people. But don’t overlook the oysters. At this Fillmore spot, you can get them raw (even as an optional mixed chef’s choice dozen), or go for the broiled “Western Addition” that’s fantastic. They come drenched in a date-bacon sambal butter we want to put on everything. Definitely get them on your table.
Combine the words “$2” and “oysters” and you get limitless power. Bar Crudo knows this well. So we flock to the walk-in-friendly NoPa spot for one of the best seafood Happy Hours in town. They do a $2 oyster of the day (available as a half-dozen or dozen) and $5 beers. And since this is a seafood Happy Hour after all, you should pay attention to their $2 herb and jalapeño marinated mussels, $12 seafood chowder cups, and two crispy cod tacos, also $12.
Waterfront dining at Scoma’s is one of the very few reasons we brave the packs of tourists and go to Fisherman’s Wharf. This spot is a San Francisco institution that’s been around since the 1960s—and judging by the brown leather swivel chairs, dark wood paneling, and servers in white coats, not much has changed in the way of decor since then. Not that we mind. The atmosphere sets the tone for an oyster-filled meal. Order oysters on the half shell, or go for the “Oysters alla Scoma” (their take on an oysters Rockefeller) with brandy-garlic aioli and Asiago cheese.
Leo’s Oyster Bar reminds us that eating oysters can be fun and luxurious. Their floral wallpaper, bamboo chairs, and hanging paper lanterns make this seafood spot one of the most photogenic places in the Financial District. The raw bar, which includes the two-tier tower of oysters, is the reason to come here. While eating oysters (and admiring the wallpaper) will keep you busy, they also have some great deviled eggs crowned with a fried oyster.
Hog Island Oyster Company needs no introduction, but here’s one anyway: it’s the oyster spot from Tomales Bay that's built a mini oyster bar empire across the Bay. We love their Ferry Building location with its breezy waterfront patio. We also crush hard on their grilled chipotle bourbon oysters—they’re soaking in melted butter and brown sugar, and have a nice kick. And since you’re dining at the house starring all things ocean, throw in a bowl of clam chowder. It’s creamy and piled with whole clams and thick bacon chunks for a salty punch.
Popi’s Oysterette is a temple of seafood in the middle of the Marina. You can feast on anything that swims here, including, of course, platters of excellent raw and grilled oysters. The selection of raw oysters (mostly from the Pacific) come with the usual accoutrements, plus a zingy yuzu tobiko we’d be happy to eat by the spoonful. The breezy space is the ideal backdrop for your next shellfish journey—chilled glasses of wine are always on deck, and if it’s nice out, you can kick back at the sidewalk tables while soaking in some sun.
For some briny bites before walking over to the SF Symphony to sit through live film scores, Monsieur Benjamin is the answer. The modern French spot is the ideal pre-show stop in Hayes Valley, and the raw bar items are highlights on the meat and seafood-heavy menu. Oysters sourced from all across the country get zhuzhed up with a squeeze of lemon, zingy mignonette, and hot sauce out of a branded miniature bottle.
Feeling sophisticated as hell is easy at Foreign Cinema’s patio—especially when you’re also face-to-face with an ice-filled platter of oysters. The orange-tinted string lights cast a warm glow, and high white walls transport you to a courtyard in the French countryside. The rotating selection of ten kinds of oysters on the menu covers west and east coast varieties, and comes with a side of extra shallot-y mignonette. Having something sparkling on hand is always a good idea as you pretend to be interested in whatever movie is being projected on the wall.
Waterbar is home to sweeping views of the Bay Bridge, white tablecloth vibes, and floor-to-ceiling aquarium pillars filled with real live fish. In other words, get here to eat oysters and feel like a C-suite exec. You can choose the $1.55 daily oyster or stick with other options from Washington, Maine, and Baja California. Or get ridiculous with the ridiculously named “Shellfish Indulgence Platter” ($185), which comes with oysters, tiger prawns, crab, lobster, and more. This is a place to keep in mind when you're with important clients, need to dial up the romance for date night, or, for the sake of this guide, when you just need a few oysters at the bar.
This multi-hyphenate spot functions as a Noe Valley seafood market and a sit-down cafe—and also, a Happy Hour destination. On weekdays, Billingsgate offers half-off freshly shucked oysters and glasses of cava. Soak in the naturally lit space or people watch out on the sidewalk, and maybe pick up a tray of uni, whole Dungeness crabs, or olives and almonds on your way out.
Sotto Mare is an old-school North Beach seafood institution that commits to the ocean theme like a theater kid at spirit week. Life-sized faux swordfish, miniature model boats, and somewhat hokey maritime-themed paraphernalia cover every inch of the walls. So naturally, this always-packed spot is where to go above and beyond your monthly shellfish quota. The oyster menu is loosely categorized as “west coast” and “east coast,” but no need to overthink specifics—just keep the oysters (and oyster shooters) coming and fantasize about living on a boat.