Put your lips together and say mah. Gently move your tongue behind your upper teeth–lu—glide it towards the palate and roll it back—uh—then return it to its original position after delivering a sharp sk.
The word itself is disgusting, and so are the images that it inevitably evokes. But the process of pronouncing it—with the tongue’s languid, circular movements—is particularly similar to that of eating an oyster.
Voilà, the most controversial of mollusks. It’s been used as an aphrodisiac since time immemorial. It started pirate wars. It became a trademark of the aristocracy when it was revealed that Louis XIV had an affinity for them—and in the US, selling them between May and September was even forbidden for a long time. When the act was repealed in 1961, Oyster House celebrated by setting a copy of the law on fire. That level of commitment to oysters hasn’t changed much: in Philadelphia, Oyster House still does oysters best.
Opened in 1947 as a lavish eatery serving only a select business crowd, Oyster House quickly became a staple in the refined dining scene of Philadelphia. It wasn’t, though, until 1969—when the restaurant moved to its current location on Sansom Street—that founder Samuel Mink’s son David took over the business and decided to rebrand it. David focused not on the clientele, as his father—a lawyer—had, but on the variety of the menu and the freshness of the ingredients.
Though the restaurant on Sansom is still a magnet for suit–wearing professionals, especially during lunchtime, Oyster House stays true to the tradition of serving only the freshest seafood. The business has clearly rebranded to accommodate the contemporary customer—and how far the décor has evolved since the restaurant’s beginnings is obvious before even stepping in.
Behind the immense glass windows, the restaurant itself is almost a display, or a museum in which the main exhibits are the Mink family’s oyster–shaped plates. They look refreshing, with their lively colors and pearly textures—and in an otherwise industrial milieu, with subway–tile walls and dangling bulb pendants, they shine even brighter. In a sense, Oyster House is an unexpected, modern take on the glitzy American oyster bar, revealing to its customers a faint flavor of its glory days.
Committed to David’s ideal of diversity, Oyster House offers three different menus for lunch, brunch, and dinner, along with two others for drinks and desserts respectively. Unsurprisingly, the restaurant tends to get a bit crowded during the evenings, as its array of bite–sized options for dinner perfectly complement the drinks you might be tempted to order from the bar in the center. Until recently, that was the only time I’d been there. Now, though, I decided to check it out for my favorite meal of the week: Saturday brunch.
My friend and I were seated at a table in the back, behind the bar, as most other customers were. I had assumed the “display” made the light in the front too strong for the mildly hungover clientele, but to my surprise, essentially all brunch–goers were middle–aged couples, or families with children. I originally thought the ambiance was rather cold and empty, with a not–so–friendly staff, but the man at the table next to mine quickly corrected my assumptions. He and his wife, I found out, had been coming to Oyster House once a month for years. They weren’t even from Philadelphia.
With that kind of reassurance, we decided to start off with eight oysters. There’s an art to eating them, and the menu is helpful in that all varieties are clearly labeled in terms of origin. But a nice touch would’ve been to have some taste and texture descriptors next to each name; especially since they were all Atlantic oysters, saltier and brinier than Pacific oysters—which are more easily palatable for those who are just being introduced to the wonders of oyster–eating. The server wasn’t too helpful, either: he gave us a list of what we had ordered, mentioned their respective origins (again), and instructed us to eat them in counterclockwise order.
Not all oysters are created equal, and there are obvious differences in aspect—but they’re all fresh, and they smell like the summer breeze. I learned a while ago that that is the best indicator of their taste, and the Oyster House passes the quality test: shucked in plain sight behind the bar, the oysters are of the highest quality, and all of them taste—as I told my friend—like the ocean.
Naturally, there were some that stood out. My favorite were probably Cape May and Wellfleet—from Cape Cod—whose meatiness and pleasant taste, a mix of sour and salty, make them the safest picks for novices. Others, like Mermaid Cove and Beach Blonde, were particularly savory, especially when paired with the mignonette. And of course, there were some disappointments like Montauk Point, whose black streaks and disappointingly small size made it the only oyster to look completely unappetizing, which it was.
The appetizers did their job, and by this point our appetite was bigger than when we sat down, so we each ordered one of the large plates. As we found out, the “large” in that name is a bit of a stretch: the serving sizes are borderline unsatisfactory. Add to that the fact that classic recipes such as Eggs Benedict are reinvented, with seafood instead of meat, and you can easily be left wanting.
So, that’s what I had—the Lobster Benny—and what first caught my attention was the plating. The otherwise perfectly poached eggs were almost indistinguishable behind a shrub of spinach and lettuce. The plate was crowded, and as much as I’d love salad, I didn’t expect it to make up three fourths of my meal.
My friend’s pick, the Hangtown Fry, was a sort of omelet with fried oysters and bacon. Just like mine, it didn’t look too tasty, and my friend described the mix of flavors as unimpressive and “mushy.” All the flavors seeped together, and the dish could’ve probably used another piece of bacon.
If there was anything that made up for our experience so far, it was the desserts. My butterscotch pudding was smooth and rich, and my friend’s chocolate pie was just the right balance between gooey and crunchy. In the end, they were the only items whose prices were justified.
Oyster House is expensive. For cheaper, people could get much better food elsewhere—and there would most likely be the option to turn the meal into a bottomless brunch. Our $90 tab didn’t include any beverages, and as much as I love the restaurant for dinner, their brunch options are disappointing at best.
Perhaps what’s worth checking out is their happy hour buck–a–shuck, when the daily oyster varieties sell for $1, and drinks are heavily discounted. Even during regular business hours, their incredibly varied oyster selection is undoubtedly unique in Philadelphia, and definitely worth the price tag. Otherwise a trip to Oyster House, no matter how forgettable, will most likely burn a hole in your pocket.
TL;DR: The oysters are great, but for the price, you’ll be paying as much for reputation as the actual recipes.
Location: 1516 Sansom St.
Mon–Wed: 11:30 a.m.–10 p.m.
Fri–Sat: 11:30 a.m.–11 p.m.