When the winter winds blow and fresh produce withers away to a trickle of root vegetables at the market, the time of shellfish has come. Not some butter-poached lobster from a tank or pecan-encrusted farm-raised tilapia flown halfway around the world on the way to your plate, but the good stuff that comes out only in season. We're talking cold, salty, slimy stuff here, insanely fresh and popped open before your eyes, perhaps a sheen of cocktail sauce gently dabbed on before the whole slides delicately down your gullet. They are mysterious, ethereal things imbued with the power of sex and the danger of a bacterial nightmare -- but when winter comes, the oyster season hits full swing.
Lucky for us, Charleston's source of bivalves and mollusks remains relatively unpolluted and our airport brings in the world's catch on a daily basis. For this reason, one can procure a salty fix at dozens of great eateries, but a select few take the oyster art so seriously that they devote valuable space solely to the experience of consuming raw shellfish. These are the oyster bars, tucked away in the most unlikely of places, that brim with beer, wine, and, of course, tasty morsels as cold as the winter outside.
They come in different permutations, often hidden at the back of touristy places that many locals routinely bypass, but the basics are the same -- excellent, fresh shellfish accompanied by a cold brew. You may be able to order a dozen on the half-shell at establishments across the city, but these are the places we visit for an authentic shellfish extravaganza. Some will undoubtedly seem deliriously clichéd, filled with screaming kids at tables of 12, but snobs be damned. Here you will see the true showmanship of the shucker, the furious speed and brute strength of a master barman laying out dozen after dozen while quenching the thirst of a bevy of patrons bellied up to the bar.
Downtown. 35 S. Market St.
Lunch and Dinner
We generally steer clear of places that sell T-shirts alongside the grub, but Shuck's remains an exception to the rule. Despite their crowded Market Street location, this long-time denizen of the downtown scene offers a sequestered raw bar featuring cold beer, a diverse selection of steamed and boiled shellfish, and two of the best oyster shuckers in town, Anthony Irvin and Ivan Fields. They toil behind the stark white bar, furiously preparing plates and platters at record speed -- which is the true hallmark of authenticity.
The Noisy Oyster
Downtown. 24 N. Market St.
Raw bar open Fri. & Sat.
Tucked behind the raucous tables of tank-topped revelers sits a beautiful stainless steel bar with its own full-time oyster-shucker at your service. They have nine types of imported oysters, steamed crabs (both Alaskan legs and Florida stone crab claws), steamed local clusters, ice-cold buckets of beer, and tonight's game on four flat-screen plasma televisions. What else do you need to know? Currently open only on Fridays and Saturdays, local support would go a long way toward making it a full-time party over there.
Downtown. 153 E. Bay St.
Lunch and Dinner
If you can get a seat at the boisterous bar, Pearlz is the best dedicated raw bar downtown. An abundant daily selection of fresh mollusks graces the chalkboard, shucked before your eyes and served up with your choice of cold beverage, from champagne to beer. Pearlz is a great place to stop in for a bite before hitting the town or for ending a bit of carousing with that late-night munchies attack, the kitchen throws out delicious crabcakes and sliders.
Downtown. 549 E. Bay St. 577-7171
Dinner and Sunday Brunch
They've been around a long time, even at their second downtown location, but The Boathouse, overflowing with a variety of fresh seafood, still presents a singular raw bar experience. You can haul in a dozen oysters from several different origins and add a large plate of sushi while enjoying the spacious wood-paneled bar and quality selection of beers on tap. It may not be the most traditional setup, but the quality of the selections (not to mention valet parking) makes the Boathouse on East Bay a crowd pleaser.
Hank's Seafood Restaurant
Downtown. 10 Hayne St.
Home of Charleston's most impressive communal table, Hank's is a place to see and be seen. Once the headstrong new guy on the block -- self-proclaiming "world-famous" status from day one -- the venerable old warehouse raw bar and seafood palace has weathered nicely over the years to become one of Charleston's trustiest fish houses. We go for the "Grand Seafood Castle," a stupendous assortment of iced shellfish from around the globe, and one of the best seared tuna dishes around. They also serve one of the finest half-shell plates in the city, usually featuring a distinctive West Coast selection, brilliantly focused on a wide geography of taste and origin. When the entrance alcove is jammed and seats are impossible to obtain, a flute of champagne and sampler tray of iced shellfish at the bar can provide the perfect start to a night on the town. They may not be truly world-famous yet, but Hank's has certainly made a name for itself in Charleston.
Shem Creek Bar and Grill
Mt. Pleasant. 508 Mill St.
Lunch and Dinner
For those looking to find the most authentic raw bar in the Lowcountry, they need go no farther than the touristy gulch of Shem Creek. Shem Creek's back bar, suspended over the creek on the way out to the docks, remains the best in town. Behind weathered wood and overflowing mounds of ice and oysters stands 20-year veteran of Shem Creek and barman extraordinaire, Albert LaPrince. With forearms the size of battleship guns, LaPrince can keep pace with a thirsty crowd as they swill and slurp long into the night. He has won the Boone Hall oyster-shucking contest so many times that he quit entering and has no problem popping a dozen cold ones on ice in under a minute. A one-man, sweat-laden whirlwind of a show unto himself, he mixes a mean Manhattan, keeps the cold beer flowing, and plops down icy shellfish at a rapid-fire pace.
Turtle's Kitchen and Raw Bar
Mt. Pleasant. 660 Long Point Road. 849-3056
Lunch and Dinner
The Belle Hall Shopping center is a far cry from the salt air of the beach, but it hides all sorts of surprises. From the street, Turtle's looks to be a hip, contemporary dining space replete with the ambient glow of translucently backlit architecture. Hidden in the back, you'll find a brilliant space, a full bar, stacked with cold libations, a separate mini-kitchen dedicated to its patrons, and at least a half-dozen selections on the half-shell. They cater to a steady crowd of regulars who come not only for the shellfish shucked before their eyes, but the plasma screenings of Iron Chef as well.