How Seattle Became an Oyster Town (and Where To Slurp Them)
The clean, chilly waters of the Pacific Northwest breed some of the best oysters in the world, so it comes as no surprise that the region’s star city, Seattle, brings a bounty of the best briny bivalves. Shell deposits called middens indicate that Indigenous people in the region have been eating the local oysters for as long as 10,000 years, and they’ve been an integral part of the region’s economy since European and American settlers arrived in the mid-19th century.
Dan Mallahan, the chef at Rider—a Downtown Seattle restaurant where he serves a huge variety of oysters on the half-shell—explains that the oyster farming industry grew up in Washington because of demand from the California Gold Rush. Some of the bigger producers from the era, like Taylor Shellfish, still farm today.
Seattle’s local oyster flavor
What makes Seattle’s oyster scene so amazing, in Mallahan’s opinion, is the variety. “They’re like wine,” he explains. “The area they are from is the flavor.” An overwhelming majority of the local oysters are the same species, Pacifics, but depending on where they’re grown and how—tumbled for smooth, deep cups, for example—they end up with a different flavor.
Overall, Pacific Northwest oysters are smaller, more approachable in size and flavor, and have none of the funk sometimes found in other regions. But within that, each area’s oysters have unique qualities. To an oyster newcomer, Mallahan suggests the mild Kumamoto, which is crisp and clean, with hints of cucumber. For a fanatic, he offers the Totten Inlet Virginica, which is larger and super creamy, or the Olympia—the only native oyster to the area—which is tiny and bold with mineral flavor.
How to eat an oyster (hint: don’t swallow it whole)
“The water temperature here is pretty standard all year,” explains Mallahan, which means that oysters don’t go out of season. The number of varieties goes down in the summer, he explains, but they’re always around and always good. He also dispels the myth that you’re just supposed to swallow a raw oyster. “Chew it,” he encourages. “Get the flavor.”
Where to find oysters in Seattle
Farms around the region supply stores at Pike Place Market and around town, where you can buy them if you want to shuck your own oysters. Dining out, you'll find most oyster restaurants specialize in fresh oysters, with fried and grilled oysters also typically on the menu. Many spots offer oyster happy hours, giving diners a chance to try a variety of affordable oysters. But oysters are everywhere in Seattle, so you’ll see them on tables at restaurants of all cuisines. They’re even right under your nose as you’re exploring: Seattle’s waterfront seawall is built from oyster shells.
Related: How to Select Quality Seafood: Tips from a Pike Place Fishmonger
Seattle’s best oyster houses
To eat outside: Westward’s outdoor space is a gravel beach with a view across the water and Adirondack chairs positioned around a fireplace built from oyster shells. Enjoy the sunshine or cozy up under the supplied blankets and slurp down happy hour oysters. For more, head to Boat Bar and Walrus and the Carpenter, the other oyster-focused spots from James Beard Foundation Award–winning chef Renee Erickson.
For oysters with a view: White Swan Public House serves up oysters in the shadow of the Space Needle. Stare up at it or watch the seaplanes land as you order from the daily fresh sheet, which lists a variety of oysters, including at happy hour discounts.
For the best variety: Shuckers is one of the city’s oldest oyster bars, and it brings that aged elegance to the ambience. The fresh board features interesting varieties ready to serve over crushed ice, while on the dinner menu, there’s a selection of seafood-forward small and large plates.
To slurp from the source: Taylor Shellfish Oyster Bars has locations all over town that serve up fresh shellfish from their local farms. While the original location on Capitol Hill has a fresh focus and sells oysters to-go (it's more of a shellfish bar than anything else), the rest are full-fledged restaurants. In Pioneer Square, for example, you’ll find about eight varieties of raw oysters, but also smoked oyster dip, oyster stew, fried oyster po’ boys, fried oysters with pickled ginger slaw or buffalo style, broiled oysters, or “margarita style” baked oysters. Like what you taste? Taylor sells their shellfish via their website, shipped overnight around the country.