Few experiences rival that of slurping down a truly great raw oyster. That first taste is a lot like flipping back the covers of a freshly made hotel bed and crawling into those cool, crisp, well-made sheets. It's not that you were unhappy with your own bed, but suddenly you're thinking, Whoa, this feels really good. I should most definitely do this every day. Then your bill arrives and reality kicks in; in the blink of an eye you've gone through all five stages of grief and come to terms with your ill-fated return to the drudgery of everyday life.
Luckily, oysters are not hotel beds. They are far more delicious and significantly more affordable. And it just so happens that New York City is home to some of the most extensive oyster selections out there: common East Coast varieties like Blue Points and Malpeques, and through the wonders of modern day shipping, varieties from the West Coast and beyond. But for those of us who fantasize about the bivalves and dread the hefty price tag—a dozen not-so-filling oysters can easily land you with a bill of $40—wish-fulfillment can get a little tricky. That's where happy hour comes in.
If you live in New York, you've probably noticed the recent proliferation of bars advertising oyster happy hours, often selling them for just $1 a pop. While nothing sounds better than washing away a long day of work with an affordable dose of that oceany goodness, a disappointingly bland oyster can make that day a whole lot worse (and a spoiled oyster can also make it a whole lot longer).
We set out on a mission to determine the very best places to scratch our oyster itch(es) without breaking the bank. Our top considerations were: 1) the freshness and flavor of the oysters, 2) the quality of shucking, 3) the selection available during happy hour, and 4) the overall ambiance of the bar or restaurant. We definitely encountered the rubbery, the gritty, and the bland, but also found eight spots that really blew us away. Hit up the slideshow above for the play by play, or head straight to our recommendations below.
Best All-Around: Maison Premiere
Happy Hour: Monday to Friday, 4 to 7 p.m.
You really can't go wrong with this Williamsburg oyster house. Its charming turn-of-the century decor and extensive absinthe menu are the perfect complements to an extraordinary selection of fresh, expertly shucked oysters. Not all of their oysters are included in the happy hour special, but with 19 $1 varieties, it was far and away the broadest and least expensive-for-quality menu that we encountered on our hunt. Read more »
Best Cocktails: Prima
Happy Hour: Monday to Friday, 5 to 7 p.m.
Prima offers a solid selection of East Coast oysters and a nice, clean shuck, but what really seals the deal is their amazing cocktail menu. Well-balanced and expertly crafted, their drinks knocked my socks off. During their happy hour, both oysters and cocktails are sold on a two-for-one basis. At $1.50 each the oysters on the slightly pricier side, but if you plan to have a drink or two with a small nibble, it's a steal. Read more »
Most Locations: Mermaid Oyster Bar/Mermaid Inn
Happy Hour: Monday to Thursday, 5:30 to 7 p.m.; Friday to Saturday, 5 to 7 p.m.
Sometimes an oyster craving simply can't wait. With three restaurants located around the city, Mermaid makes it easy to get your fix. The happy hour offers an option of $1 East Coast oysters and $1.75 West Coast oysters, along with $1 raw clams. Top off your raw bar feast with a reasonably priced glass of house wine or Mermaid's very own oyster-friendly brew. Read more »
Mermaid Oyster Bar/Mermaid Inn: Locations in West Village, East Village, and Upper West Side; themermaidnyc.com
For a Relaxed, Intimate Night: Domaine Wine Bar
Happy Hour: Monday to Friday, 5 to 7 p.m. Soaked in dim, red-tinted light, Domaine has a quiet, appealing intensity. They serve a rotating menu of one oyster variety at a time, but my $1 Blue Points were luscious and meaty with incredible flavor. The bartender is more than happy to suggest thoughtful wine pairings, and should you decide to stick around till 9 you can add some live music to that buzz. Read more »
Best Neighborhood Joint: Cornelius
Happy Hour: Tuesday to Thursday, 5 to 7 p.m., and again from 10 p.m. until closing
Cornelius is one of those great neighborhood bars that just gets even better because it has a $1 oyster happy hour. One warning: the oysters here varied; some were puny while others were meatier. Either way, my friends and I have no problem polishing off 38 of them. Beers are $4 during happy hours (hello Lagunitas IPA!). They also win for best cat sticker on the bill. Read more »
Best Late-Night Oysters: Essex
Happy Hour: Sunday to Friday, 5 p.m. until closing
Essex is a rare gem in this coveted scene, shelling out $1 oysters long after other bars have bumped their prices back up. On the smaller, more generic side, they weren't the best Blue Points I've ever had, but they were a far cry from the worst. And of course they get some major points for making a dozen oysters into a cheap(ish) drunk food I won't regret come morning. Read more »
Best Wine & Cheese: The Ten Bells
Happy Hour: Monday to Friday, 5 to 7 p.m. and Saturday to Sunday, 3 to 7 p.m.
Holy...moly, do these guys have a wine list. And a cheese list. And a charcuterie list. Oh yeah, and there are two rotating varieties of $1.25 oysters on hand a full seven nights a week. We can say more, but do we need to? Read more »
Best Place to Get Fancy: Lure Fish Bar
Happy Hour: Monday to Friday, 5 to 7 p.m.
The Blue Points are plump, wet, juicy, and $1.50 each, which means $18 for the dozen. Order them at the bar, where it's loud and swinging with stylish folk, many of whom look like they're out on a hot date. This is a good spot if you're meeting up with someone in Soho for drinks and bar snacks, but aren't sure if it'll turn into real dinner after (and if it does, there's a full seafood-centric menu and a sushi bar in the back). Read more »