New book charts Chesapeake Bay oysters, restaurants and raw bars

Bill Wade Chesapeake Oyster Lovers co-authorWhether you're a full-blown oyster lover or still a little unsure about the “other” shellfish of the Chesapeake Bay, the new “Chesapeake Oyster Lovers' Handbook” is a handy guide to exploring and enjoying bivalves of the Bay.

Along with profiles of more than 120 oyster houses and raw bars in Maryland, Washington, D.C., and Virginia, authors Susan Elnicki Wade and Bill Wade also include stories and interviews with industry insiders, a little bit of history and education, a map of oyster growing regions, and a handy index and taste chart.

The meat of the pocketbook-sized 352-page book is a guide to restaurants and raw bars that carry fresh, local oysters year-round, organized by state and then region. For Maryland, that includes Baltimore, Northern Maryland, Annapolis and Eastport, DC's Maryland Suburbs and Southern Maryland, and the Eastern Shore.

“The Chesapeake Bay is experiencing an oyster boom time,” Bill says. “Thanks to new oyster-growing techniques, the bivalve population is escalating and is available year-round, which debunks the muth that they're only eaten in months with the letter 'R.' As a result, exciting new oyster houses are popping up at an astonishing rate around the region.”

Oyster House SignWhile many establishments serve oysters, the Wades focused on places that incorporate Chesapeake Bay oysters as part of their identity. A restaurant may list multiple brands on its menu or highlight different ones each week on a chalkboard, Susan explains. A shucker on staff and an oyster bar also show commitment, as does serving oysters year-round.

Readers will encounter expected establishments, but are likely to discover several surprises as well. In Annapolis, for example, Susan says many oyster fans will think of O'Brien's Oyster Bar and Restaurant, but points out that Blackwall Hitch and Boatyard Bar and Grill in Eastport may be a bit more unexpected.

“Blackwall Hitch is really into oysters,” Susan says, citing a huge oyster display and an oyster bar in the back of the restaurant. And while patrons of the Boatyard easily notice the big bar at the front when they enter, you have to walk around to the back of the restaurant to find the big raw bar and ice-filled cases with signs noting daily selections.

Diners will appreciate each entry's “Atmosphere Meter,” which rates the establishment on a scale from casual to formal. Profiles tell why a location made the list, what to expect, and a bit of a story as well as photos.

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Stories from the Chesapeake Bay oyster industry and culture

Susan E Wade Oyster Lovers co-authorBut don't think “Chesapeake Oyster Lovers' Handbook” is only a listing of places to eat oysters. Oyster enthusiasts — and those new to slurping the Bay bivalves — will learn about the rise and fall — and rise again — of the Chesapeake Bay oyster and its cultural ties to the area.

From the start the book was supposed to be more than a guidebook. “We wanted to put some of the soul of the Chesapeake Bay into it,” Susan says. “We didn't want it to be straight data,” which explains the Pearls of Wisdom section that includes stories and articles by experts in the oyster industry and those who celebrate the influence of the oyster, including the Eastport Oyster Boys.

Kevin “Brother Shucker” Brooks explains why the Annapolis-based music group incorporates oysters in its name and song-writing. Dylan Salmon of Dylan's Oyster Cellar in Baltimore gives his inside tricks and tips to enjoying oysters, including what to choose as toppings — and not. And Nick Schauman of The Local Oyster in Baltimore relates “a trip down memory lane” with oysters.

The introductory section also explains the creative seed for the book: an oyster taste test in New York City during a moms' trip where Rappahannocks from Virginia won hands-down among Northeastern oyster fans — and their surprise based on the misconception that Chesapeake Bay oysters weren't up to par.

That event led to Susan and Bill's desire to produce this book to “help the public understand the Chesapeake Bay oyster,” Susan says, as well as “to show you where to go and what to eat.” It also complements the authors' other book, “Crab Decks and Tiki Bars of the Chesapeake Bay,” which is in its fourth edition.

Click Next below to read more - charting oyster brands and tastes


Charting the different Chesapeake Bay oyster brands and tastes

To help oyster lovers and newbies navigate Chesapeake Bay selections, a third section includes a list of more than 70 Maryland and Virginia oyster growers and the brands they produce. A map of growing zones divides the Bay into 13 zones, with a salinity chart and taste chart to help explain the different brands' tastes — from sweet and buttery to briny — allowing users to easily order in restaurants based on their preferences.

While that may sound a bit complicated for the user, it's really not. The alphabetical taste chart makes it easy to look up each brand to see its salinity range and taste description.

The more than 100 brands of Chesapeake Bay oysters all come from one species. What makes them different is mainly where they are grown, Susan says, along with some other variations. At the top of the Chesapeake Bay, more freshwater flows into the oyster so its saltiness or salinity level is really low, Susan explains. In general, the lower the salinity, the more buttery the taste. At the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay or in the ocean is where oysters are the saltiest, such as the Chincoteagues.

Chesapeake Oyster Lovers' book coverOyster lovers who want to use the book to explore the different Chesapeake Bay brands should try them “naked,” Susan recommends. “Don't put any cocktail sauce or lemon on a few at first. This gives you the subtlety of the flavor without disguising anything.”

A little nervous about eating oysters? “Try them fried at first,” Susan says, although be sure it's at a restaurant that just dusts them with a little flour and flash fries them. “A good oyster house will not overcook them. Fried oysters help acclimate the mouth to the taste, but you're not eating them raw,” she says.

One last tip from Susan: Make sure the oysters are fresh.

“Chesapeake Oyster Lovers' Handbook” by Susan Elnicki Wade and Bill Wade may be ordered online at weloveoysters.com. The paperback is $23 plus $4 shipping.

By Crickett Gibbons