Bart Farrell likes his with a squeeze of lemon and not much else, save for a pint of Guinness that acts as a perfect complement. For him, experiencing a raw oyster should be like plucking one straight from the water, shucking it open and having that fresh flavor explode in your mouth — without the enhancement of cocktail sauce or horseradish.
Farrell is the director of purchasing for the Clyde’s restaurant group. Having started with the local chain in 1984, he’s seen raw bars develop and grow at a few of its eateries, including the Clyde’s at Mark Center in Alexandria (1700 N. Beauregard St., 703-820-8300). "It’s something that we take a lot of pride in doing right," he said. "A lot of places will put oysters on the menu for the sake of having them. We view it as an important part of our menu. True oyster aficionados will tend to stop at a restaurant that has a good raw bar program and a good reputation, and they’re great customers to have."
From oyster aficionados to those looking for a few shooters at happy hour, Northern Virginia offers a variety of venues for a raw experience.
Kara Butler of Fat Tuesday’s in Fairfax (10673 Braddock Rd., 703-385-5717) said the restaurant has oysters harvested out of Louisiana shipped in. On Tuesdays, from 4 – 9 p.m., Fat Tuesday’s offers a "two for Tuesdays" promotion: purchase a $2 wrist band and receive $2 drink and raw oyster specials.
Thomas Stevens, general manager for the Union Street Public House in Alexandria (121 S Union St., 703-548-1785), said his restaurant has a special room for oyster lovers, perfect for weekend meals or happy hour meetings. "There’s an oyster-shucking station within a room called The Oyster Bar here. There’s also a little oven in the corner where we have some baked oysters, including oysters Rockefeller and a fresh-shucked oyster with hickory-smoked bacon and pepper butter. Those are just outstanding," he said.
As for who opens these oysters, Stevens said he leaves it to the experts. "We have full-time shuckers," he said. "You’re not going to catch me back there shucking them."
AT CLYDE’S, Farrell said his shuckers undergo intense training. "We have taken guys that have no experience shucking oysters and made them full-fledged oyster shuckers," he said. "It’s an art; it’s through constant training. We’ll just get bushels and bushels of oysters, and we’ll make them practice until they do it right," he said. "You’ll go into some raw bars, you’ll get an oyster or clam that looks like someone put it in a blender and then back in the shell. We want ours to look like you just snuck up on it and popped the top."
It’s that attention to detail, he said, the separates restaurants that serve raw shellfish from ones that specialize in it.
"Some places try to do too much. Somebody will say the want to serve oysters; well, OK, do you have a raw bar? They’ll say no, that they’ll just do them out of the kitchen. It’s kind of an afterthought," he said. "Cleanliness is next to Godliness, especially when you’re dealing with shellfish that are susceptible to bacteria."
There has always been a dedication towards safety in eating raw items at Clyde’s. Farrell said the chain stopped serving raw oysters and clams in the early 1990s for about two years. "We just felt that the industry wasn’t very well-regulated," he said. "The states regulated shellfish, but we felt that the shippers were in their infancy. People had gotten sick from eating shellfish; we felt that as our company was growing, it wasn’t worth it to put it on our menu. There wasn’t enough education at that time for restaurateurs such as ourselves to do it correctly."
In 1992, Farrell and Clyde’s met up with a man named John Rowley from Seattle, who changed their perception for how to raise and acquire oysters and other shellfish. "He pretty much introduced us to these boutique oyster farmers," said Farrell. "It’s pretty much what you see in produce today: people with small farms and growing methods. The waters where we buy our oysters — the Pacific Northwest, Alaska, New England and the Maritimes of Canada — those places are very well-regulated as far as water quality is concerned."
Clyde’s consistently tests its oysters for quality and health. After they’re purchased by the restaurant, they are sent to a "staging area" at the Old Ebbitt Grille in D.C., where Farrell and others eat a few for quality control. "If we survive the night, then we have them send them to the lab," he said with a laugh. "It’s a tough job — not only do you have to eat some oysters, you have to drink some Guinness with them."
CLYDE’S serves both raw oysters and clams for about $20-22 a dozen and $12 per half dozen. Like other establishments, there are price reductions for happy hour.
Then it’s up to the customer to figure out the best way to enjoy the slimy little treats.
"I like a little squeeze of lemon, and we serve two different kinds of sauces — a cocktail sauce, for those people who don’t really like the taste of shellfish; and for the rest of the folks, we do a mignonette sauce of cracked black pepper, red wine and vinegar and chopped shallots," said Farrell.
Whatever the methodology, heed the words of Andrew Carnegie before heading out to the next raw bar feast: "The first man gets the oyster, the second man gets the shell."