When and Where to Eat Oysters in Charleston, SC
Fall is fast approaching and it’s one of the most enjoyable times of the year in the Lowcountry. For anyone trying to decide when to visit Charleston, SC, the return of local oyster season ticks another box for planning a fall getaway.
Charleston’s flat coastline, an extensive network of tidal coves and numerous natural reefs, combined with water temperatures conducive to a long spawning season, create an ideal habitat for oysters. Harvests are in demand nationwide, and the area has even been dubbed the “Oyster Valley of Napa.” Whether it’s fine dining, trendy raw bars, or rustic outdoor roasts that get your boat rolling, Charleston’s oyster scene has it all.
When is oyster season in South Carolina?
The unwavering but unofficial rule of eating oysters is to stick to the ‘r’ months. Shellfish lovers have long followed this well-established norm and only eat oysters from September to April, and evidence shows that this practice dates back thousands of years!
Originally there were multiple layers to avoid oysters during the summer months. Since they spawn when the water is warmest, restricting the harvesting of oysters during this season was a sustainable practice so they could have time to spawn each year. Additionally, spawning oysters do not have a pleasant taste or texture; they tend to be small, watery and fragile.
The other factor stemmed from food safety. The waters around Charleston (and the Southeast in general) get very hot in the summer, increasing levels of algae and bacteria that could be taken up by wild oysters and cause food poisoning if eaten. With scorching air temperatures, reliable refrigeration (especially during transport) was also a concern in the past.
Does the “R” month rule for oysters still apply today?
Yes and no. With the growing popularity of oysters and advances in aquaponics, restaurants and suppliers no longer rely solely on wild harvests. Cold-water oyster farms safely produce tasty harvests year-round. Warm water farms have triploid breeds, which are sterile and thus avoid any reproductive issues.
Another thing to remember is that ocean temperatures vary greatly from place to place. While local oysters can be out of season in Charleston during the summer months, restaurants often source them from elsewhere in the country (or even the world) at this time of year. Connoisseurs come to appreciate different varieties of oysters the same way one would appreciate wine from different regions. Water quality and transportation are closely monitored and all fresh oysters must be stamped with origin information.
That said, if you’re really looking for the most authentic experience of tasting fresh, wild, and locally harvested Charleston oysters, sticking to the “r” months is the best idea. Specifically, the official shellfish harvesting season in Charleston opens on October 1 each year.
What is an oyster roast and where to watch it?
Oyster roasts originated in the Charleston area and continue to be a much-loved seasonal tradition. Bushels of fresh oysters are steamed over hot coals in a kettle or fire pit using a burlap sack. They’re then served family-style in the middle of a large communal table topped with the standard accompaniments of saltine crackers, lemon wedges, and hot sauce (oh, and plenty of cold beer, too). Guests gather with special shelling knives and help themselves to oysters as freshly steamed batches continue to be piled on the table.
Large-scale oyster roasts are frequently held on plantations in the Charleston area, with the Boone Hall Plantation hosting the largest oyster festival in the world each year. More low-key oyster roasts pop up frequently at local breweries, parks, bars, and literally anywhere else with some outdoor space. Here are some other favorites worth checking out:
- Oysters on the tip: monthly oyster roasts on the waterfront at the Charleston Harbor Resort and Marina with local oysters, live music, a Bloody Mary bar and craft beers.
- bohemian bull: Located on nearby James Island, this local hotspot hosts backyard oyster roasts every Thursday from 6-9 p.m., starting in November. $25 per person for unlimited local oysters.
The best restaurants to eat oysters in Charleston
Raw oysters and oyster-based dishes grace many menus across the Charleston Peninsula and surrounding areas, but below are some tried-and-true favorites to start with. These restaurants have stood the test of time and cemented their reputation for serving a selection of fresh, delicious oysters year after year.
- Amen Street Fish and Raw Bar: cozy local with brick walls in the heart of downtown. Sun – Thu 11:30am – 10pm, Fri – Sat 11:30am – 11pm. Happy hour from Monday to Friday from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.
- At Leon’s: award-winning, affordable kitchen in a converted garage. Open 7 days a week from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
- Hank’s Seafood: a historic landmark that has been named the best seafood restaurant in Charleston for the past 20 consecutive years. Sun – Thu 5pm – 10pm, Sat-Sun 5pm – 10.30pm.
- The ordinary: a former bank forms a dramatic backdrop for this upscale seafood establishment. Wed-Sun 5pm – 10pm.
- 167 Gross: New England-style oyster bar in the historic district. Monday to Saturday from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
- Oyster House/O-Bar: elegant raw bar on one side and seafood restaurant on the other, located next to the famous Charleston City Market. Popular with locals for its generous daily happy hour (4-7pm), including weekends (4-6pm).
- Fleet landing: restaurant on the waterfront in the city center, open seven days a week from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
- The darling: trendy and vintage atmosphere with creative seafood dishes and a raw oyster bar. Monday to Saturday from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday from 11 a.m. to 10.30 p.m.
- Pearl: describes itself as an “eclectic little oyster bar” in the heart of downtown. Open Monday to Thursday from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m., Friday from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m., Saturday from 12 p.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday from 12 p.m. to 9 p.m.
- Bowen’s Island: Rustic, no-frills dining with stunning views and the freshest local oysters straight from their dock to your plate since 1946. Open Tuesday-Saturday 11:00am-9:30pm. First come, first served.
The DIY approach to eating oysters in Charleston
For those feeling particularly adventurous, there is also the option of harvesting your own oysters. There are three recreational shellfish beds open to the public; Just be sure to get a South Carolina saltwater fishing license first. Head out at low tide with a sturdy pair of boots for the soft mud, and don’t forget a hammer, gloves and a bucket. Whatever the bounty, it’s sure to be a fun experience!
- Respect harvest limits: two bushels per day, maximum of two days per period of 7 days.
The world is your shell
Charleston has been a go-to dining destination for years with its wide range of culinary offerings and countless award-winning chefs and restaurants. Oysters are another highlight to add to the list, and whether visitors are seasoned aficionados or just dipping their toe into the world of oysters for the first time, they won’t be disappointed! With oyster season fast approaching, now is the perfect time to start planning your next (or first) getaway to Charleston.