What You Don't Know About Oyster Happy Hour Specials
Oyster happy hour specials are as commonplace in New York City as sample sales and CBD infusions, for better or for worse. Some places can be great, but others have no business doing them. Here’s what you should know to get the best value for yourself.
As a 20-something-year-old working in advertising (i.e., broke) years ago, I relied heavily on oyster happy hours to get my fix. I was never too picky about where I went for oysters as long as there were a few varieties to try. But the idea of an oyster happy hour doesn’t make me very happy anymore. Just as I have evolved away from dive bar well drinks, I have also outgrown much of the $1 oyster happy hour scene. I can still see the appeal for many people—why pay $3 apiece when you can pay just $1??—but the saying, “You get what you pay for,” is often true.
Justin Ho from NPR recently produced a radio story about The Economics of $1 Oyster Happy Hour that highlights the ups and downs of this increasingly popular promotional tactic. The piece is short (under 5 minutes), but we spent about an hour hashing over the subject at Cull & Pistol months ago. I’ve had time to marinate on my own about this subject and wanted to share my perspective in greater detail.
What Should You Know About Oyster Happy Hour Specials?
Oyster happy hour deals are not all created equal because:
Businesses do not employ people with the same level of experience in handling and serving raw shellfish
Subsequently, the oysters are not all of the same quality and freshness
Oysters are not cans of beer or hot dogs. They are alive. They are sensitive to temperature and handling. They have a relatively short shelf life. They require a skillful hand to open carefully and cleanly. For me, I wouldn’t trust just anyone to do this. I mean, would you trust your local pub to serve you sashimi? The bargain might end up backfiring big time.
“Does that mean oyster happy hours can make me sick?”
There’s a pretty low risk of getting sick (food poisoning) from an oyster, whether it’s offered during happy hour or not, but you can get screwed in many other ways. Inexperienced shuckers can lose 25-50% of the oyster meat when they’re trying to open them quickly. Some also scramble the meat beyond recognition that it looks and tastes (texture-wise) unappetizing. Others aren’t able to detect off-tasting oysters from good ones. Some places get slammed during happy hour and so you end up waiting around forever and receiving less-than-great oysters. I don’t see the value in that…
“But I think $3.50-$4.50 is way too much to pay for an oyster.”
Ok, I get that. We all perceive value differently based on how much we know and care about the subject. When we don’t understand or appreciate the value of something (for me, it’s red wine and musical theater/concert tickets), we seek the lowest cost option possible. We want a bargain. Unfortunately, what ends up happening is a price war to the bottom. The uptick in Oyster Happy Hours signal to the world that the fair market value of an oyster is low when they are not.
$1 oysters are loss leaders for most businesses. Their goal is to entice you in and hope that you’ll stay for a drink (or two) and dinner. In NYC, restaurants will buy oysters for 55 to 85 cents apiece depending on the variety. This doesn’t include the cost of unusable oysters in the bag, storage cost, and service. If the Happy Hour only offers Malpeques, Bluepoints or Chesapeakes, you know that the restaurant is trying to minimize the product cost. These varieties are not inherently bad, but the experience is not that interesting as a purist and true oyster enthusiast. For folks who enjoy piling on the accouterments and swallowing oysters unchewed, the random Oyster Happy Hour is a perfect occasion.
How to Assess An Oyster Happy Hour Deal
Based on what I said above, how can you tell if an oyster happy hour promotion is good or not? This isn’t foolproof, but here are three questions that I ask myself to minimize wasting money on bad deals.
Question 1: Has this place been recently recommended to me by someone who knows oysters (I keep a short mental list).
If yes, I feel pretty comfortable with ordering a dozen to begin.
If not, see Question 2.
Question 2: Are they shucking oysters in the front of house?
If yes, I observe whoever is shucking for a few minutes. Businesses that have the guts to put their shucker in front of guests generally have a baseline level of experience in handling raw shellfish. If the shucker produces a platter that generally meets my Standards, I’ll order a dozen.
If not, see Question 3. Alternatively, I may also look at recent photos posted of the oysters by other patrons on Instagram or Google before I read reviews. If they bombed, I’ll skip oysters entirely. If they did ok, I’ll order a small quantity to try out.
Question 3: Are they knowledgeable about where the oysters are from?
If yes, my confidence level increases if the menu identifies the harvest location down to the body of water (not just state). It’s a small detail but it’s quite telling about the level of thought that goes into the program. I’ll order a dozen. If only a state is listed, I’d probably just order three to begin.
If not, and I’m feeling bold, I’ll still order three to satiate my curiosity. Usually, I am disappointed, but I’m still an optimist!
Where I Go for the Best Oyster Bar Happy Hour Experiences in NYC
These are the most reliable spots (as of writing this post in October 2019) for high-quality, high-variety, and well-shucked oyster happy hour service:
Cull & Pistol in Chelsea Market (website)
Crave Fishbar in Midtown or UWS (website)
Zadie’s Oyster Room in East Village (website)
Sel Rrose in Lower East Side (website)
Eater, The Infatuation and Thrillist have also compiled much more extensive lists of dollar oyster deals and happy hour specials in case you want to try your luck, but let me just say this: I’ve been to a few and they were horrific. I’m not sure what their listmakers were thinking. Maybe I should go on an Oyster Happy Hour recon mission to just show you what I mean…