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Whether broiled with shallots, breadcrumbs, and decadent butter; freshly shucked and accompanied by pickled tomato and horseradish; drizzled with lemon anchovy cocktail sauce; grilled with garlic, lime juice, and chili flakes; or served raw and paired with a delicate sparkling beverage, California’s best oysters on the half shell ooze elegance as they lay atop a bed of ice garnished with bright lemon wedges.
There’s something so luxurious about the idea of eating oysters, as they conjure up images of fancy dinner parties, cocktail dresses, and special occasions—but that is not how they got their start as a California staple.
According to historians, oysters cost less than beef during the early 1800s, so they were a popular source of protein for families of all economic statuses during the Gold Rush. The prices only increased after tiny Eastern oysters were brought in via railway to the San Francisco Bay, where they were able to finish growing before being sold at a premium.
The first commercial oyster beds in California came about in 1851, as more Americans settled in San Francisco in hopes of finding gold. But tastes changed during the early 1900s, when the fear of diseased seafood scared the population into avoiding oysters—though by this time, oysters from San Francisco Bay were the most valuable in the state.
Today, oysters have retained their status as a delicacy, and their popularity has skyrocketed in recent years. Oysters are popping up on the menus of waterfront shacks and fine-dining restaurants, while sophisticated oyster bars are springing up in coastal towns across California. Though there is no end of quality establishments to choose from, these are the best oyster bars to visit for a refined experience in the Golden State.
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Location: 20215 Shoreline Highway, Marshall
Hours: Outdoor dining reservations are available Friday through Sunday, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Hog Island Oyster Co. is a true farm-to-table oyster bar, raising sustainable shellfish in San Francisco and Napa and serving them with the freshest ingredients. This not only means that the menu at each location changes often, but also that the quality and quantity of the oysters are unparalleled—making Hog Island one of California’s best oyster bars. Slurp the day’s specials; chow down on the grilled offerings tossed in bourbon, brown sugar, and chipotle; and pair the shellfish with mushroom and Moroccan olive tapenade. Tried-and-true classics like the clam chowder and steamers are also available. And for an extra kick of strangely satisfying flavor, add pickled vegetables to your oyster po’boy—once you try it, you may never go back to the original.
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Location: 12781 Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, Inverness
Hours: Take-out is available Friday through Sunday, from 12 to 6 p.m., and patio dinners are available Thursday through Sunday, at 5 and 7 p.m.
Saltwater Oyster Depot resides in Inverness and focuses on thoughtfully gathered ingredients that are simplistically prepared. The restaurant has minimal decor, wooden tables, and an inviting atmosphere that makes oysters feel approachable. Enjoy raw oysters on the half shell—or, if you get the chance, dig into the broiled oysters topped with Fresno chili, lemon, and garlic butter for an out-of-this-world experience. Finish off the meal with the melon gazpacho or halibut ceviche to further amplify the experience.
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Location: 234 Townsend Street, San Francisco
Hours: Temporarily closed
Petit Marlowe is located near San Francisco’s SoMa district in the China Basin, about one block from Oracle Park, home of the San Francisco Giants baseball team. The Parisian-inspired eatery transports guests with its refined plating, quaint aesthetic, and vintage French decor. The oysterette’s black-and-white checkered floors are covered by dozens of hungry individuals nearly every night, so reservations are highly recommended, though walk-ins can be accommodated at the open bar stools at the counter.
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Location: 568 Sacramento Street, San Francisco
The ambience at Leo’s Oyster Bar in San Francisco is as deliciously charming as the cuisine; with pink and green wallpaper, rattan chairs, dim lighting, and printed floors, the oyster bar emits a 1950s Beverly Hills lounge vibe. The raw bar is complemented by sumptuous lobster rolls, rich oyster deviled eggs, and refreshing ceviche—and an extensive list of drinks with tropical flavors that are sure to delight your taste buds. If you’re ever in the area when this popular spot is open, do yourself a favor and stop by; even for those who aren’t crazy about seafood, this joint is a hit.
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Location: 1517 Polk Street, San Francisco
Hours: Open for to-go orders Monday through Saturday, from 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
While this landmark San Francisco lunch counter may not look like much, Swan Oyster Depot has established a name for itself as one of the best oyster bars in California and one of the top seafood restaurants in the world. With a legacy that has extended 100-plus years, the Sancimino brothers are the heart and soul that keep patrons lining up out the door. Order a bowl of the Boston clam chowder, a half dozen oysters on the half shell, and the cracked crab for an incredible meal and an unforgettable experience.
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Location: 3295 Dunes Drive, Marina
Hours: Wednesday through Sunday, from 4 to 9 p.m.
Settled in the Monterey area of the Central Coast, Salt Wood Kitchen and Oysterette takes a seasonal approach to its menu, serving up some of the best oysters around. Inspired by the surrounding area and the Pacific Ocean, this eatery specializes in raw, cured, and wood-fired cuisine, so there’s always something new to try. Opt for the grilled oysters smothered in kimchi butter, the oysters Rockefeller with Béarnaise sauce, or the mignonette-topped Morro Bay oysters for an evening you’ll remember for years to come.
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Location: 1637 Silverlake Boulevard, Los Angeles
Hours: Take out available Wednesday through Sunday, from 4 to 9 p.m.
L & E Oyster Bar is a Los Angeles must-see. The alfresco dining area, green-and-white tiled floors, and upstairs lounge complete the culinary experience. Grab the crab cake sandwich to-go, and when you can dine in, try the oysters Rockefeller or the fried oysters with remoulade—but make sure to save room for the roasted carrots accompanied by dill yogurt and caraway or the smoked trout salad adorned with egg, breadcrumbs, and a drizzle of Dijon.
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Location: 1148 Manhattan Avenue, Manhattan Beach
Hours: Sunday through Wednesday, from 11:30 a.m. to 10:00 p.m., and Thursday through Saturday, from 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.
Fishing with Dynamite is an intimate Manhattan Beach destination dishing out traditional chilled oysters paired with horseradish and lemon. The oyster bar combines the best of classic pairings—such as blue crab cakes with mustard remoulade—as well as unique combinations like the “Summer Tonnato and Momotaro” tomato toast with shaved fennel and capers. The retro patterned floors mesh with the quaintly nautical decor for a cozy, modern oyster bar experience.
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Location: 1654 India Street, San Diego
Hours: Monday through Sunday, from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.
San Diego’s Ironside Fish and Oyster serves up single oysters and large platters, making it the perfect stop for any level of hunger. Order the grilled oysters with green garlic butter, the charred broccolini finished with lemon zest and chili oil, and the persimmon and burrata salad topped with hazelnut and radicchio. It’s bound to be a meal you won’t soon forget.
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Rachael Medina is the staff writer and content manager for California.com. She was born and raised just outside the Mojave Desert in Southern California and moved to the redwood forests of Humboldt C…
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