September might well signal the end of summer and the proximity of long, dark nights – but there are plenty of corking culinary compensations. Top among these for the gastronomes, gluttons and gannets of this world (ie us) is the start of the oyster season. At their best during months containing the letter ‘R’ (yes, September to April), these voluptuous shellfish keep our temperature rising through the colder months. And it looks like we’re not the only ones. The aphrodisiac qualities of oysters are legendary – why else are so many babies born nine months after the height of their season? Here are the very best places to shell out on those sexy bivalves. One swallow won’t make a summer, but it’ll herald a damn fine autumn.
Bentley’s, Regent Street
This venerable fish specialist (which first opened its doors in 1916) is a prime spot for slurping native oysters – it has been known to sell more than 1,000 bivalves in a single day. Purists will be pleased by the traditional raw offerings from Jersey or Carlingford, but Bentley’s also provides a generous selection of dressed options, from garlic-baked to Vietnamese and Catalan recipes.
If you’re salivating at this point, you should probably make the most of Bentley’s special offer: make a booking for lunch or dinner on Wednesday 16 September quoting ‘Oyster Festival’, and you’ll be granted three complimentary oysters per person.
Bibendum Oyster Bar, Chelsea
Pitched on the ground floor of Bibendum in the vintage Michelin building, this easy-going seafood and Champagne bar features an art deco, tiled interior plastered with old-fashioned cartoons depicting the tyre manufacturer’s history. But if you’re after a cosy night in with half a dozen natives, why not take away? The website contains plenty of handy tips for shucking at home – just don’t forget to buy lemons.
Chiltern Firehouse, Marylebone
The hottest ticket in town last year, Chiltern Firehouse fosters a “top, top class” dining scene. Celebrities sprinkle stardust throughout the establishment, while staff prove they are far more than just a cast of pretty faces. Now, adding yet more sparkle, is an oyster bar in the courtyard. Here a dedicated shucker prises open the bivalves so fast his protective chainmail glove is but a blur of silver.
The Cow, Notting Hill
“Excellent Sunday beef, good oysters, nice atmosphere” sums up The Cow succinctly. You’ll find this a more laid-back option for oyster eating. The bivalves might be joined by equally fine crab, a pint of prawns or a robust combination of whelks and winkles, making the venue an excellent choice for those who aren’t wholly committed to the oyster cause.
J Sheekey Oyster Bar, Covent Garden
A perfect pit stop for pre- or post-theatre, Sheekey’s Oyster Bar has become just as popular as its senior sibling next door, so follow our advice and bag a seat at the bar to get into the swing of things. The crustacea are the stars of the show, from creamy West Mersea native oysters to Jersey rocks.
Randall & Aubin, Soho
Originally a butcher’s shop, this Brewer Street evergreen is a world away from ‘ooh la la’ oysters bars, but the slightly “grubby, scruffy Soho feel” is part of its enduring charm. Over the years, R&A has maintained a hedonistic buzz, with great music, flowing Champagne cocktails and a glittering disco ball setting the scene for wondrous revelling: “it was closer to paradise than I expected”, raved one fan.
The Richmond, Hackney
The opening in Hackney of such a classy neighbourhood eatery as The Richmond is a mark of the area’s gentrification. Seafood stars on a menu that combines Mediterranean enticements with more home-grown recipes. Oysters are just £1 a pop in the oyster and raw bar during happy hour (6-7pm Mon-Fri; 5-6pm Sat). See you there.
“Laid-back glamour” seems to seep from the very fabric of Scott’s dining room, whether caught in the shine of the glossy leather banquettes, or the dazzling reflection of seafood on ice in the marble-topped crustacea bar. Here you’ll find every oyster under the sun (or should we say sea) – from Lindisfarne Rocks to West Jersey Pearls and Gillardeau Spéciales – so it’s no wonder every visit feels so indulgent.
Like the most inspirational of rags-to-riches stories, Wiltons has gone from 18th-century oyster barrow to the restaurant of choice for today’s captains of industry and toffs from the shires, serving some of the best oysters in town. Prices will make you wince, but it’s worth shelling out for a special occasion.
Wright Brothers, South Kensington
The motto here is ‘sea to plate’, so you can bank on salty mouthfuls of the freshest molluscs, plucked from Wright Brothers’ very own beds in Cornwall’s Helford River. The latest Kensington outpost (there are other branches in Spitalfields, Borough Market and Soho) is the only one to have a dedicated oyster and cocktail bar, The Mermaid. We suggest you spend a large proportion of your evening here.
This article was published 1 September