Humans have been eating oysters for thousands upon thousands of years, and they've probably been debating about where the best bivalves come from the entire time. About 150 years before David Foster Wallace could consider the lobster, Herman Melville examined the oyster: "Methinks that in looking at things spiritual, we are too much like oysters observing the sun through the water, and thinking that thick water the thinnest of air," he wrote in Moby-Dick.
A passion and awareness of an oyster's provenance and qualities is a measure of any oyster shucker, farmer, or bar owner worth their salt. To learn about the oyster world inside and out, we spoke with Jeremy Sewall, chef and co-owner of Boston’s Island Creek Oyster Bar, and Lissa James Monberg, who handles marketing for the family-run Hama Hama oyster farm and on-site Oyster Saloon on the Olympic Peninsula, on ways to identify an exceptional oyster bar and how to order when you're there.
If you're in a new area, a line outside an oyster bar is, unfortunately, a good sign. "Oyster bars should be busy," Sewall says. However, the bar should be bringing more to the neighborhood than just crowded sidewalks. A good oyster bar is part of the community and is "paying homage to local seafood culture," says Sewall. When eating oysters from outside the local area, make sure you have an appreciation for where they come from. "The point of eating a raw oyster is to eat something that's really alive, that takes you somewhere and tells you about a particular time and place," Monberg says.
If you don't know your blue points from your kumamotos, don't be afraid to ask your server for some coaching. In fact, well-educated servers are a good measure of an oyster bar. "If the folks serving the oysters are geeking out on them," says Monberg, "then you know that the entire restaurant cares about selection, freshness, and proper handling," says Monberg.