Dining Review: A Trio of Rhode Island Oyster Bars

Head to these spots for buck-a-shuck and slurp away.

Photography by Angel Tucker

Bristol Oyster Bar

448 Hope St., Bristol, 396-5820, bristoloysterbar.com
Scene: Gallery opening in which you get to sit down (if you can find a seat).
Buck-a-Shuck Hours: Monday thru Saturday from 4-6 p.m. and all day Sundays
Signature Drink: Cucumber Lemon Drop. Critics be damned.
Unexpected but Obligatory: Cornmeal fried oysters with honey Buffalo sauce and bleu cheese cream. Given the unadulterated joy of a raw oyster, this is really messed up. And so much better than you’d imagine.

Bristol Oyster Bar may be historic on the outside but its interior is far more arthouse. The classic brick exterior gives way to an industrial minimalism that plays out in brick, metal and the nightly menu scrawled on hanging craft paper. Bar space is precious — slightly more than a dozen seats — because the objet d’art is a case full of oysters, clams and behemoth shrimp lying provocatively behind glass. How do you know they’re good? Shuckers slurp them hungrily as they work, like a bartender downing shots to face the demanding crowds. There’s a true-blue Bristol crowd in khakis and coiffed bobs but the heart of the bar, on both sides, is young. Men in heavy-framed glasses fill the outside perimeter, servers with exuberant cynicism man the interior. “Your Cucumber Lemon Drop was a pain in the neck,” one laughs as he places an acidic vodka in front of a diner who is no less enthused to be draining it.

There are a number of drinks that sound more like sorority house specials (chocolate Manhattans and grape cosmos among them) but the go-to options are strong, clean and complement an oyster like nectar. Speaking of which, there are a dozen local varieties on any given night, all fresh off the ice and served with one of four sauces. It’s tough to pass up the horseradish-heavy cocktail but pickled jalapeño and onion is an equally good option for heat and bite.
 

The raw bar samplers platter including an assortment of oysters, littlenecks, cocktail shrimp and a lobster tail. Cornmeal fried oysters with honey Buffalo sauce and bleu cheese cream.
 

The crowd certainly shows up for a buck-a-shuck, but Chef Adi Mandel offers a menu too compelling to be eclipsed by an endless platter of Moonstones. If the attitude here is young, the food ages everything about ten years. It’s mature without being staid, interesting without being overwrought — and it’s responsible for making Bristol Oyster Bar a restaurant more than just a raucous room. It may be that as well but Mandel and owner-fisherman Peter Sebring are interested in a good time for their age group first and then the college kids can come along for the ride. You can certainly get a drink here — but the real draw in Bristol will always be the reverence that Sebring gives to the ocean and the manner in which that respect manifests itself in every oyster that’s pried open by expert hands. If you stood on a dock, they couldn’t taste better.
 

 

Escargots topped with cheese, butter and garlic.
 

Greenwich Bay Oyster Bar

240 Main St., East Greenwich, 398-2462, greenwichbayoysterbar.com
Scene: (New) English pub with the faint whiff of mermaid in the air.
Buck-a-Shuck Hours: Monday-Friday 4-6 p.m., weekends 12-6 p.m.
Signature Drink: GBOB — vodka, cocktail sauce, lemon and a juicy oyster.
Unexpected but Obligatory: Cod Reuben. Add this to the list of items you’d never think would make a beer even better.
 

Tucked away on East Greenwich’s Main Street, the town’s eponymous Oyster Bar puts all its emphasis on “bar.” It’s a small space with a big menu; one that rings familiar to families around town who often stop in for takeout orders or a chat with the nightly cocktail shaker. Oysters are tucked away against the wall, usually offered in three varieties from small and sweet to mammoth and meaty.

Cocktail sauce is the go-to condiment though there’s also a mignonette (which, in this case, is close to straight vinegar). For those who like their raw bar cooked, you can readily make a meal out of the giant shrimp. At $5 a pop, they ain’t cheap but you’ll need a knife and fork to take them down.

The rest of the menu is dedicated to the Ocean State rather than simply the ocean, covering requisite Rhody dishes: calamari (fried, sautéed, sticky and on pizza), stuffies, clear chowder and a lobster roll. It also inches toward the culinary roulette wheel, tossing in paella, po’boys and escargots. The effect is either heaven — a one-stop shop — or a hodgepodge, depending on how streamlined you want your oyster bar to be.
 

The calamari pizza with banana peppers, black olives and fontina cheese. The fried cod reuben.

Greenwich’s real draw here is not the ocean but the land and the people who occupy it. The crowd is largely local and most know each other and the servers by first name. Some nights, it’s hard to tell whether they’ve come in to drink, to eat or simply to catch up on the town news that is offered across the thick wooden bar. It may be just a stone’s throw from the water but it’s the type of place you hole yourself up in for the long run with only enough dim lighting to ensure you look as good going out as you did going in. And before you committed yourself to a night of shooters.
 

 

TwoTen Oyster Bar and Grill

210 Salt Pond Rd., Wakefield, 782-0100, twotenobg.com
Scene: Dockside dining that turns from laid-back Margaritaville to simply laid-back once winter rolls around.
Buck-a-Shuck Hours: Seasonal hours vary, call ahead. Winter: weekdays 4-6 p.m., weekends 11:30 a.m. -1 p.m.
Signature Drink: Bacon Bloody Mary.
Unexpected but Obligatory: Fried oyster tacos. Suddenly, from across the room, a bottle of Corona spots the deep-fried bad ass dish of his dreams — and the two fall in lime-tinged love.
 

If you’re dedicated enough to visit the oysters’ home, TwoTen Oyster Bar and Grill has set up shop on the water in Wakefield and serves them outside for as long as possible. Outdoor patio heaters burn well into the cooler weather on the street side of the bar as well as the dockside.

Unlike many of its landlocked competitors, TwoTen is all about the water, even in its aesthetic. White is the dominant color and an expansive marble bar hugs the icy shellfish beds. Industrial stainless fixtures add to a bright, clean interior that feels more like a summer house that was opened in the off-season for a blow-out party.
 

Rhode Island-style fried calamari. Fried oyster tacos with shredded organic cabbage, cilantro, honey lime vinaigrette and spiced Mexican crème.
 

Servers in summer tend to be young, as attractive as the setting and just mildly out of sync but the year-round staff knows just what’s good and what to pair it with. Will a Bloody Mary overpower the flavor of a good oyster? Not if you consider it a chaser rather than an aperitif. The menu also hits every note between traditional and modern — particularly when the summer crowd dissipates and a restaurant needs to become a weeknight destination for working folk. Old school diners stock up on stuffies and fried calamari while the modernists tend to focus on the sushi bar.

The only thing missing after several drafts and a platter of Moonstones and East Beach Blondes is a second floor with several equally serene rooms. Maybe the neighborhood can Kickstart a TwoTen inn so we can arrive in September and stay until the summer home opens again.
 

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