We’ve updated this 2020 story to include some new oyster spots in Sonoma and Marin County.
It’s oyster season. At least technically, since January, February, March and April have an “r” in them, which makes them safe according to popular lore. Though a true oyster lover’s passion for the briny little creatures is bound by no calendar, the cold waters of winter truly make it the best time to shuck, slurp, and savor our favorite bivalves.
Here’s the twist: As close as Sonoma residents are to oyster nirvana (aka Tomales Bay), I’ve always held to the idea that an oyster is an oyster no matter where you eat it, coast or no coast.
Sure, there is that whole sea-air thing, and the winter months are a lovely time to visit the North Coast — so I’ve decided to split the difference, heading from Petaluma to the tiny towns of Tomales and Bodega Bay then winding back a few miles to Valley Ford. It’s my take on an adventure-filled, slightly-off-the-beaten-path loop to uncover the ultimate oyster-eating spots.
Ready to go? Shell yeah!
11:30 a.m., The Shuckery, Petaluma
THE ORDER: Half-dozen raw oysters, two baked Bingos, and a 2018 Pinot Gris-Chenin Blanc blend, because that’s how I roll.
THE SCENE: The restaurant is barely open for the day, but I’ve got to get an early start. Two dozen oysters aren’t gonna get in my belly on their own. Behind the counter, restaurant owner Jazmine Lalicker is tackling a pile of unshucked oysters with a quick flick of the wrist. The sunny bench seats by the window (with pillows) haven’t yet been snapped up.
I always forget how much I love the small, unassuming Kumamotos. If you’re a beginner, start with these sweeter petite half-shells and work your way up to larger, chewier oysters. The Bingos, however, I’ll dream about all day. A mixture of Cognac, mayonnaise, Parmesan, and garlic makes a crispy and browned crust. Bonus points for the oyster liquor that pools inside the shell, perfumed with garlic. I’m not afraid to admit I licked the shells — even though a small child looked at me with utter disdain.
REGRETS: Not taking a flying leap into the day with an oyster shooter.
100 Washington St., 707-981-7891, theshuckeryca.com.
(Temporarily Closed) 1:30 p.m., William Tell House, Tomales
THE ORDER: Half-dozen raw oysters on the half-shell and seafood chowder with a crisp and minerally white wine. You don’t sit at a bar and order a Shirley Temple. Nor does it really go with oysters.
THE SCENE: Belly up to Marin’s oldest saloon, just across the county line. Though the dining room and outdoor patio are delightful, the antique wood bar is much more convivial. Take a peek at the to-and-from chalkboard where you can see which locals have bought a round or two for a fellow drinker. The full menu is available at the bar, from oyster po’boys to chowder, fish tacos, and smoked trout salad. To make dining easier, you get a wooden tray that extends the eating surface — convenient to oyster-liquor sippers. Raw oysters are served on ice, which is so much nicer than piles of salt. Ice-cold oysters with a touch of mignonette, sip of wine, spoon of hot chowder. Repeat. Everything is so right with the world.
REGRET: The oyster po’boy I didn’t have.
26955 Highway 1, 707-879-2002, williamtellhouse.com.
2:30 p.m., On the Road
Digestion is about the most exciting part of this leg of the trip. Not that the drive to Bodega Bay isn’t lovely, but a combination of rogue farm implements, bicycle riders, and winding roads along these windswept hills requires attentive driving rather than rubbernecking.
3 p.m., Rocker Oysterfeller’s, Valley Ford
THE ORDER: Half-dozen raw oysters, five cooked. Margarita, rocks.
THE SCENE: Like walking into your super-cool grandma’s house. Everything here is warm and cozy, brightly colored, with a slightly Southern drawl. It’s easier to plop down at the bar than sit alone in the dining room. Plus, it’s a lot funnier to listen in to someone else’s conversation than the one in your head saying, “God, I don’t know if I can eat another oyster.” I pray over the margarita a little. The Tomales oysters are a little bigger than I’m hoping, but the jalapeño-honey mignonette adds just the right sweetness to the briny raw oysters. I’m more excited about the baked oysters. Their signature Rocker Oysterfeller is a cheeky take on the old school Oyster Rockefeller, made with arugula, bacon, cream cheese, and a cornbread crust. That and the Estero Gold cheese-blanketed oysters are delish, but I fall in love with the Louisiana Hots, an oyster bathed in hot sauce and garlic butter. My resolve is renewed, I can eat at least one more oyster. With a little more garlic butter this time.
REGRET: Being afraid of the Hangtown Fry. Not hanging out with my bar mates just a little longer.
14415 Highway 1, 707-876-1983, rockeroysterfellers.com.
4:30 p.m., Fisherman’s Cove, Bodega Bay
THE ORDER: Half-dozen barbecued oysters, coffee.
THE SCENE: Fishing boats and crab pots along Bay Flat Road are within oyster-shell-throwing distance. I’m headed for what looks like a bait and tackle shop because, well, it is. That is not mutually exclusive to also selling some dang good barbecued oysters with garlic butter. These aren’t the tiny sweet ones, but hearty, palm-sized oysters that can put up a fight with the shuckers. Overly optimistic tourists huddle outside on picnic tables. Locals gather at the tiny tables and bar stools inside, gingerly slurping the hot oysters served on the half-shell and laughing at the shivering tourists. Slivers of extra-garlicky garlic bread are ideal for sopping up any remaining juices. I could now safely repel a vampire, should it come to that.
REGRET: Coffee and oysters taste awful together.
1850 Bay Flat Road, 707-377-4238, fishermanscovebodegabay.com.
As the sun drops in my rearview mirror and the oyster shells cease crunching under my tires, I take a deep breath — or at least as much as one can with two dozens oysters in tow. What’s become obvious is that oysters are delicious no matter where you eat them, so long as they’re freshly shucked, the wine is cold, and the company is good.