Fall is fast approaching, and it is one of the most delightful times of the year in the Lowcountry. For anyone trying to decide when to visit Charleston, South Carolina, the return of the local oyster season ticks another box for planning an autumn escape.
Charleston's flat coastline, an extensive network of tidal creeks, and bountiful natural reefs, combined with water temperatures conducive to a long spawning season, create an ideal oyster habitat. The harvests are in-demand nationwide, and the area has even been dubbed the 'Napa Valley of Oysters'. Whether it's fine dining, trendy raw bars, or rustic shuck-your-own outdoor roasts that float your boat, Charleston's oyster scene has it all.
When Is Oyster Season in South Carolina?
The steadfast yet unofficial rule when it comes to oyster consumption is to stick to the 'r' months. Shellfish aficionados have long followed this well-established norm and only eat oysters from September - April, and evidence shows this practice dates back thousands of years!
Originally, there were several layers to avoiding oysters during the summer months. As they spawn when the water is the warmest, restricting oyster harvesting during this season was a sustainability practice so that they could be given time to reproduce each year. Furthermore, spawning oysters do not have a nice taste or texture; they tend to be small, watery, and flimsy.
The other factor stemmed from food safety. The waters around Charleston (and the southeast in general) get very hot in the summertime, raising algae and bacteria levels that could be absorbed by wild oysters and cause food poisoning if consumed. With the scorching air temperatures, reliable refrigeration (especially during transportation) was also a concern in the past.
Does the 'R' Months Rule For Oysters Still Apply Today?
Yes and no. With the surging popularity of oysters and aquaponics advancements, restaurants and suppliers are no longer relying solely on wild harvests. Cold water oyster farms safely produce tasty harvests all year round. Warm water farms have triploid breeds, which are sterile and therefore avoid any issues relating to reproduction.
Another thing to remember is that ocean temperatures vary significantly from location to location. While local oysters may be out of season in Charleston in the summer months, restaurants often source them from somewhere else in the country (or even the world) at this time of year. Those in the know come to appreciate different varieties of oysters in much the same way as one would with wine from different regions. Water quality and transportation are closely monitored, and all fresh oysters must be stamped with origin information.
With all of that said, if one is really looking for the most authentic experience of sampling fresh, wild, locally-harvested Charleston oysters, then sticking to the 'r' months is the best idea. More specifically, the official shellfish harvesting season in Charleston opens annually on October 1st.
What Is An Oyster Roast, And Where To Attend One?
Oyster roasts originated in the Charleston area, and they continue to be a much-loved seasonal tradition. Bushels of fresh oysters are steamed over hot coals in a kettle or fire-pit using a burlap sack. They are then served family-style in the middle of a large, communal table stocked with the standard accompaniments of saltine crackers, lemon wedges, and hot sauce (oh, and plenty of cold beer too). Guests gather around with special shucking knives and help themselves to oysters as freshly-steamed batches continue to be piled onto the table.
There are large-scale oyster roasts frequently held at Charleston area plantations, with Boone Hall Plantation annually hosting the largest oyster festival in the world. More low-key oyster roasts pop up frequently at local breweries, parks, bars, and literally anywhere else with a bit of outdoor space. Here are a few other favorites worth checking out:
- Oysters on the Point: monthly waterfront oyster roasts held at the Charleston Harbor Resort and Marina featuring local oysters, live music, Bloody Mary bar, and craft beers.
- Bohemian Bull: located on neighboring James Island, this local hot-spot hosts backyard oyster roasts every Thursday from 6 pm - 9 pm, starting in November. $25 per person for all-you-can-eat local oysters.
The Best Restaurants To Eat Oysters In Charleston
Raw oysters and oyster-based dishes grace many a menu across the Charleston peninsula, and its surrounds, but below are a few tried and true favorites to get started. These restaurants have withstood the test of time and have solidified their reputation for serving up a fresh and delicious oyster selection year after year.
- Amen Street Fish and Raw Bar: cozy, brick-walled locale in the heart of downtown. Sun - Thur 11:30am - 10pm, Fri - Sat 11:30am - 11pm. Happy hour specials Mon - Fri 3pm - 6pm.
- Leon's: award-winning, affordable cuisine in a converted garage. Open 7 days/week 11am - 10pm.
- Hank's Seafood: a historic landmark that has been named the Best Seafood Restaurant in Charleston for the last 20 consecutive years. Sun - Thur 5pm - 10pm, Sat-Sun 5pm - 10:30pm.
- The Ordinary: a former bank makes for a dramatic backdrop for this high-end seafood establishment. Wed-Sun 5pm - 10pm.
- 167 Raw: New England-style oyster bar in the historic district. Mon-Sat 11am - 11pm.
- Oyster House/O-Bar: stylish raw bar on one side and seafood restaurant on the other, located alongside the famed Charleston City Market. Popular with locals for its generous daily happy hour (4 pm - 7 pm), including weekends (4 pm - 6 pm).
- Fleet Landing: waterfront downtown dining, open seven days/week 11 am - 10 pm
- The Darling: trendy, vintage vibe with creative seafood dishes and raw oyster bar. Mon-Sat 4pm - 10pm, Sun 11am - 10:30pm.
- Pearlz: self-described as an 'eclectic little oyster bar' in the heart of downtown. Open Mon - Thur 4pm - 9pm, Fri 4pm - 10pm, Sat 12pm - 10pm, Sun 12pm - 9pm.
- Bowen's Island: rustic, no-frills dining with stunning views and the freshest local oysters straight from their dock to your plate since 1946. Open Tue - Sat, 11:00am - 9:30pm. First-come, first-served.
The DIY Approach To Eating Oysters In Charleston
For anyone feeling particularly adventurous, there is also the option to harvest your own oysters. There are three recreational shellfish grounds that are open to the public; just be sure to first obtain a South Carolina Saltwater Fishing license. Head out around low tide with a sturdy pair of boots for the pluff mud, and don't forget a hammer, gloves, and bucket. Regardless of the bounty, it's certain to be a fun experience!
- Adhere to harvesting limits: two bushels per day, maximum of two days per 7-day period.
The World Is Your Oyster
Charleston has been a go-to foodie destination for years with its wide range of culinary offerings and countless award-winning chefs and restaurants. Oysters are yet another highlight to add to the roster, and whether visitors are experienced aficionados or just dipping their toe into the world of oysters for the first time, they won't be left disappointed! With the oyster season right around the corner, now is the perfect time to start planning the next (or first) Charleston getaway.