Discover Charleston

Food Undone: Oysters and Farmers of the Sea

Helping to preserve wild oyster populations, oyster farmers deliver succulent bivalves with distinctly southern merroir.

Oysters. Known in the Lowcountry as essential to daily living for both the Carolina coast and the dinner table.

The season for oysters is here

One simply can’t live in the Charleston area without going to an oyster roast or seeing oysters on a menu at the local restaurant. So where do they come from? Most people think they magically appear on their plate shucked, on ice, roasted and prepared. How nice and easy! But let’s investigate further how oysters are truly a farm to table or rather “ocean to table” product that takes over a year (12-18 months) to grow and is essential to sustainable waterways and our ability to continue to enjoy them year after year.

Many of the best oysters in Charleston SC originate from Carolina coast oyster farms | WhereTraveler
(Courtesy The Obstinate Daughter)

An In-Demand Farm to Table Product

These days the demand for oysters, also known as bivalves, is booming not only at local restaurants but also in the home. With recent changes in eating habits due to the pandemic, more people are dining in. Thanks to local oyster farmers like Trey “Cricket” McMillan, owner of Lowcountry Oyster Company (Lowco Oysters), bivalves can now be shipped directly to the home with contactless delivery for all your oyster needs. But before those succulent delicacies arrive, the farming must be done.

Oyster farmers ensure you get the freshest and best oysters in Charleston SC | WhereTraveler
Lowcountry Oyster Company owner and farmer Trey “Cricket” McMillan raises bivalves to supply some of the best oysters in Charleston.  (Courtesy Barbara Skidmore)

Oyster farms start with seeds. Oyster seeds are oysters that are one inch or smaller. These seeds start in a nursery outside of the ocean consisting of millions of seeds per silo. The survival rate of seeds is only 30% before they hit the ocean water. Not great odds for those little babies. Why seed? According to McMillan, hatchery-raised seeds takes the pressure off the dwindling live oyster stock due to overfishing. Let’s get these babies in the water.

Finding the best oysters in Charleston South Carolina starts with farmers tending oyster seeds to make it the baby bi-valve stage | WhereTraveler
Only 30% of oyster seeds survive to become babies before hitting the water to mature. (Courtesy Barbara Skidmore)

Oyster floating cages are the next step for baby oysters, rotating into different cages based on size. Bigger oysters will grab the nutrients before the smaller oysters, making the separation imperative. Of the 30% that make it to the water, there is a 90% survival rate of oysters after they hit the ocean. Teenager oysters may be difficult (staying up late, not listening, and talking back) but they are survivors. When can those oysters hit the doorstep or the table? After the oysters are 3 inches long, game on. Farmers pull oysters to harvest on the same day for delivery to restaurants or overnight to homes.

Oyster FAQ

After the long year journey, the oysters are ready! Now what? For the novice oyster eater, oysters showing up at the door could be daunting. Here are some answers to common questions.

  1. Oysters can last up to 10 days on ice or in the refrigerator. Do not freeze the oysters as that will kill them, and they just made it all the way to the doorstep. Don’t let that year-long journey be in vain.
  2. Oysters are eaten raw, roasted on the grill, fried, and steamed, then garnished with many different toppings. Get creative or don’t, it will still be delicious.
  3. When shucking use that handy oyster knife and a towel. No one wants to go to the hospital because of shucking. Stitches are cool, oyster stitches are not.
  4. What terroir is to French wine, merroir is to oysters. The flavor nuances—from extra briny to buttery sweet—reflect the waters where it was raised. Find your favorite by sampling different varieties.
At Lowcountry oyster roasts you’ll shuck the best oysters in Charleston South Carolina | WhereTraveler
Oyster festivals celebrate the R months with outdoor roasts as plentiful as the sea’s bounty (Photo by jessevolk, courtesy of Charleston Wine + Food)

Oysters Out

Don’t want to eat oysters at home? No problem. Look for a local oyster roast to support. Oyster roasts will come in clusters, not singles, cooked and delivered to the table. Of course, eating at a local restaurant is also an option. Find out what local restaurants serve the best oysters in Charleston including Lowco Oyster cups. Supporting local restaurants and farmers has never been easier with this list of places relied on by locals, and always recommended for tourists:

  • The Darling Oyster Bar- Go for Brunch and pair your oysters with The Captain Bloody Mary.
  • 167 Raw- Head here for lunch to beat the line and start with the oysters; add a Shrimp Po Boy and a Frośe.
  • Tempest Charleston- Perfect for a dinner date. Start with the oysters before diving into the Whole Fish and a glass of white wine.
  • 5 Church Charleston- Sit at the bar with oysters on the half; plus add a cocktail and enjoy the beautiful space.
  • Fleet Landing- Surprisingly, this is the only downtown waterfront option (it's super family-friendly too). Start with the oysters, pair them with a beer, and enjoy the harbor view.
  • Prohibition- Cocktails and oysters are the perfect partners. Sit on the back patio to enjoy the weather.
  • Amen Street Fish & Raw Bar- People watch outside while you sample the oysters before the various seafood entrees. Great for lunch, dinner, or happy hour.
  • NICO Oysters + Seafood- The name says it all. Only open for dinner or brunch. Pair those oysters with champagne or a glass of white wine.
  • The Obstinate Daughter - Go for dinner and lunch and share the oysters before the Farro with Chicken or Cavatelli.
  • Pearlz Oyster Bar- Lunch at Pearlz for a laid back, casual outing; grab some oysters at the bar; be adventurous and go for an oyster shooter or two.
  • Felix Cocktails et Cuisine- Pair the oysters with champagne and some frites; belly up to the bar and enjoy the classic French scene.
  • High Cotton- Brunch is calling, and so is the Mimosa Trio with an oyster back. Enjoy the music and the southern charm.
  • Delaney Oyster House- On the half shell, head to Delaney Oyster House for all the oysters. Share a bottle of bubbles on the patio and enjoy the historic ambiance.
  • Gabrielle at Hotel Bennett- Sit on the patio looking onto Marion Square eating roasted oysters with a glass of rośe before sunset.

Sustainable Seafood

Knowing about an oyster's past helps plan for, and enjoy, future dining experiences whether at home or a local restaurant; it’s never been more important to support local businesses and farmers—even those farming the ocean.

The freshest and best oysters in Charleston are carefully harvested along Caroline shores | WhereTraveler
From seed to baby, to mature for harvest, 3" size is optimal for plucking from the sea. (Courtesy Barbara Skidmore)

Each individual oyster has made its way to the table. That long growth period is sustainable through oyster farms such as Lowcountry Oyster Company. Oysters are a traditional food long used for celebrations. Move over turkey, ham, and roast beef, Oysters are taking back their rightful place as the centerpiece for the holidays.

Discover More

Wanna indulge in LoCo Oyster Cups direct to your door? Shuck yeah… click here. Visiting the Lowcountry and wanna know where to dine on the best seafood in Charleston? Read here. Interested in learning about other Lowcountry farmers and their oyster’s merroir? Plan a trip* and see for yourself why the best oysters in Charleston start in local waters. Some harvesters offer tours and tastings too.

*Please be sure to contact each establishment to verify opening hours, reservation policies, health requirements, and any other variations as the months progress.