Whether or not it was pay day, Jasmine Norton would stake out a spot at an oyster bar every Friday. But it was not always easy to convince friends to join her — both the shellfish and the atmosphere in which they were served could be intimidating.
"There was this unwritten rule in certain oyster bars," Norton said. "Actually it was written. … It would say, 'business attire required.'"
Now, Norton is among local vendors changing how and where oysters are eaten by dressing the mollusks up and serving them in places where customers can dress down.
She launched a mobile oyster bar, the Urban Oyster, this spring to expand customers' palates by offering chargrilled oysters smothered in sauces and cheese, pushing aside the pretense of a marble raw bar in favor of farmers markets, festivals and events where the bivalves can be enjoyed in a T-shirt and jeans.
"I see a slow transition into a more relaxed environment taking place with the whole seafood and oyster scene — even where you can find oysters now," Norton said. "You can go to a farmers market and find oysters."
It wasn't always that way. When Nick Schauman was looking to launch the Local Oyster as a roving oyster bar in 2013, he came across only two others in the country. That has changed in the last four years.
"You can go on Instagram right now and every city in America has a traveling oyster bar," Schauman said.
Schauman found a permanent home for the Local Oyster at Mount Vernon Marketplace in 2015. He is now looking at opening a second location, as well as a seafood restaurant in Remington that will carry Local Oyster favorites.
His stall specializes in Skinny Dipper oysters farmed at True Chesapeake Oyster Co. in Southern Maryland by Patrick Hudson, his partner in the Local Oyster.
Although they have evolved into a luxury cuisine, oysters were once considered food for the poor. A population boom and overharvesting led to scarcity of the shellfish and higher prices — sometimes $3 or more per oyster on the half shell.
Tony Guarino, a consultant for Lee's Pint & Shell in Canton, recalled the days when oysters regularly went for $1 apiece. The 50-cent oyster happy hour at Lee's aims to make oysters accessibly priced for customers.
Since Lee's opened last October in Canton, the restaurant has shucked more than 125,000 oysters, and the Tuesday-to-Friday happy hour accounts for about half its oyster sales. It's an inexpensive way for novice oyster eaters to slurp down shellfish, owner Dave Carey said.
"We kind of just went on that bandwagon that there's probably a lot of people out there that want to try oysters that may be intimidated by them, so we kind of dummied it down and made it really accessible," Carey said. "If you come in and order six oysters at $3, you don't feel bad. If you went at $3 apiece — at $18 — you might feel bad."
When Carey rebranded Saute as Lee's last year, he aimed to create a casual neighborhood hangout and "take the edginess off eating oysters."
"A normal oyster bar, it's a bit intimidating. It carries an aura about it," Carey said. "When I walk into some oyster bars I feel a little unsure of myself."
While Lee's aims to cater to customers through a relaxed atmosphere and low prices, Norton uses creative preparations to reach customers who might not consider eating raw oysters.
"With anything else you say you don't eat, maybe it's the way it's prepared," she said. "A lot of people don't like eggs over easy but they like scrambled eggs. … So why not put some bacon and barbecue and cheddar on an oyster?"
Her chargrilled oyster flavors include BBC (bacon, barbecue, cheddar), buffalo sauce and "Cheese Louise," made with mozzarella and Parmesan.
"If you see a raw oyster — even the look of it — some people aren't going to try it," Norton said. "I have definitely converted quite a few people and that's the whole idea, opening people's minds to food in general."
Norton does all of her business at events and pop-ups, such as the Rotunda Farmers Market in Hampden, where she set up for the first time last week.
Zenali Martin, 24, was Norton's first lunch customer at the Rotunda market. Martin works nearby at Clipper Mill as a computer-aided technician for the environmental consulting firm Biohabitats. She said she comes to the market every Tuesday, and was glad to see the Urban Oyster among the vendors last week.
"It didn't occur to me that I could have oysters for lunch," she said.
She typically eats raw oysters, but at the market she opted for Norton's oyster tacos, made with fried oysters and slaw.
Norton recently launched a GoFundMe crowdfunding campaign to raise $35,000 for a food truck. And Lee's is growing, too. The restaurant is preparing to open its second floor the first week of October, adding 60 to 80 seats and a larger raw bar.
"Right now we feel like one thing we're missing out, or the customer experience is missing out on, is that we shuck our happy hour oysters not behind the bar because of the volume and the space," Carey said. "So we have a whole shucking station elsewhere, whereas with the new experience upstairs and the bigger raw bar we want that whole experience where they're shucking in front of you because in my opinion, that's part of it."
For every 50,000 oysters Lee's sells, the restaurant hosts a free oyster event. The next one is set for Oct. 14, when the restaurant will close the surrounding streets and serve 10,000 free oysters to patrons.
The Local Oyster splits its oyster sales — about 200,000 a year — between events and the market stall.
Schauman built the Local Oyster as a place to cater to customers from all walks of life. He ate his first oyster at Lexington Market with his grandfather, and he designed the Mount Vernon Marketplace location to reflect the atmosphere of seafood stalls of yesteryear at Baltimore's public markets.
"For me it was reminding people like where we're from," Schauman said. "Oysters — it was nourishment. It wasn't intended to be pretentious or expensive, and you know being in Baltimore I think it's important that people kind of take a step back and appreciate the history of it. And Baltimore was one of the biggest oyster distribution centers in the country."
The Mount Vernon oyster bar draws customers from Federal Hill, Roland Park, Lexington Market and other neighborhoods.
"It was kind of like the mashup of the more sophisticated oyster bars and Hollins Market. And here we're kind of right in the middle," Schauman said. "They can all hang out here at the same time and be neighborly. We're not trying to impress anyone. We just want everyone to feel at home."
Darwin Appleby, 55, was among the recent customers at the bar during a Wednesday happy hour, one of the more popular times. Appleby slurped down a dozen oysters — three each of the four varieties the bar was serving. He said he's not picky when it comes to their origin or preparation.
"I like 'em cooked, I like oyster stew, I like 'em raw. I really don't have a favorite," Appleby said.
It's customers like Appleby who keep the Local Oyster busy. He works nearby and estimates he stops by the market once or twice a week.
"It's something about the animal itself. They're visceral and you hold them and you get to smell the sea, and when you put them in your mouth it's got this whole mouthfeel happening, and it brightens all of your senses," Schauman said. "And I think that's why people keep coming back because if you love 'em you can't go more than a week without coming and hanging out."
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