Long live the stand-up oyster bar. Although the genre of restaurants is now rarer in New Orleans, fans of sidling up to a shucker know the experience is the purest way to slurp a briny bivalve. No plates needed, the shucker lines up the shells at the end of the bar, with patrons given the option of saucing, or not, the delicious mollusks within. Any fresher, and they’d be on a boat.
Standing was once the ordinary way to eat an oyster in the 19th century, a time when oysters were cheap, plentiful, and wildly popular. There really wasn’t another option, as stools weren’t introduced in restaurants until the late 1800s and in bars, not until Prohibition. Back in the day, oyster fans stood up at places like the Sansom Street Oyster House, now the Oyster House in Philadelphia, and at stands in places like the Haymarket in Boston and Fulton Market in New York City.
“Eating oysters in New Orleans is nostalgic,” said Sal Sunseri, a vice president at P&J Oyster Company, the oldest oyster company in America. The family-owned processing plant dates back to 1876 in the French Quarter. “It’s one of the most sought-after experiences for locals and tourists alike. And to stand up and watch these amazing shuckers create their artwork right before your eyes, and do it standing up, that’s uniquely New Orleans,” he says. Sunseri should know. He does it himself every week, slurping from his own shucking stalls to taste the flavors he’s sending out into the retail world.
Today, the stand-up oyster bar is fading. Thankfully in New Orleans, a city that considers oysters a birthright, a few are still around. For the uninitiated, the experience is brilliant, and worthy of appreciation while it still exists.
1838 Napoleon Avenue, Uptown
Pascal’s Manale may just have the most beloved stand-up oyster dispensary in town. Locals come in droves to see longtime shucker Thomas “Uptown T” Stewart hold court. Stewart works the crowd, remembers his regulars, and even manages to wrangle rowdier customers with aplomb. A fixture at Pascal’s for more than three decades, Thomas is off Wednesday evenings, when another pro, Kevin Kemp, is usually in the house. The oysters are always ice cold, with Thomas dealing them out like cards at a blackjack table.
Newbies are schooled to order them at the bar, where they get a chit to exchange for either a half or a dozen. (The only way to tip the shucker is in cash, so come prepared.) Now part of the Dickie Brennan Restaurant Group, Pascal’s history dates to 1913. Vintage photos show a busy oyster bar lined with well-heeled customers. There’s talk of the company expanding the oyster bar when it gets around to capital improvements this summer, but adding seats? Perish the thought.
Mr. Ed’s Oyster Bar & Fish House
Ed McIntyre is called the Johnny Appleseed of the stand-up oyster bar, with good reason. Every time McIntyre has expanded his brand, he insists on preserving the tradition at the new location. Four restaurants in his growing stable honor the stand-up oyster bar, including his flagship Mr. Ed’s Oyster Bar & Fish House in Metairie, and three in Orleans Parish (two in the French Quarter on Bienville and Royal Streets and one on St. Charles Avenue in the Lower Garden District). At each, a version of the marble stand-up oyster bar is preserved, with a foot rail along the bottom and nary a seat to be found.
For McIntyre, it’s a personal preference. As a kid, he remembers going to the stand-up oyster bar at Bozo’s on 21st Street with his dad, a bookie who went weekly to collect money from his players. He took over the restaurant from the original owner, Chris “Bozo” Vodanovich, in 2013. “Of course, we kept the bar the way it was,” said McIntyre. “Mr. Chris never had stools, and we don’t either.”
Felix’s in the French Quarter
739 Iberville Street, French Quarter
This popular seafood stop is a hybrid sitting-standing bar: stools line most of the bar space but there’s also an open stretch to satisfy the vertically inclined. Measuring about six feet, the slot can accommodate two or three customers. Don’t let the line out the door at Felix’s intimidate you. For just oysters and a beer to wash them down, head in and sidle up to the bar. Most folks aren’t aware this is an option, so chances are an informed guest stands alone.
4330 Magazine Street, Uptown
Another old-school seafood bastion Uptown, Casamento’s, is a few years younger than Pascal’s. The Casamento brothers, recent immigrants from Ustica, a small island north of Sicily, opened their restaurant in 1919. The dining room includes a busy oyster bar where shuckers supply dozens of bivalves to servers navigating the narrow dining room. But don’t be shy, wedge in and order a dozen, spread in a line across the mint green tile.