Chicago's love for oysters dates back to the mid-1800s, when trains from the East Coast made oysters accessible to rich and poor alike. Today, specialists such as GT Fish & Oyster and Shaw's Crab House shuck thousands of oysters each week, and oysters appear on menus from steakhouses to sports bars.
And our options have increased with the opening of two serious oyster specialists: Pearl Tavern, which made its debut in January along Wacker Drive, and Bow & Stern Oyster Bar, which opened in West Town in mid-December. Both offer pristine, meticulously sourced and carefully shucked oysters, and enough extras to attract even the bivalve-phobic.
Owner Adolfo Garcia has been a partner in Barn & Company and Hubbard Inn, two impressive restaurants, but he sold his interests in both to branch out on his own.
The two-year reconstruction of Wacker Drive spelled the end of the historic Coogan's Riverside Saloon, but it proved to be fortuitous for Garcia when he was scouting locations. "I saw the original, 2-inch hardwood floors and the tin ceiling," he says, "and I took the space before I even thought of what I'd put in there."
A lot had to be done with the interior — all the original African mahogany paneling was gone — but the finished product is respectful to the space's history while managing a few whimsical touches, including a light fixture fashioned from lobster traps and mermaid images drawn on the ceilings. Do watch yourself when entering: The dining room is two steps down from the vestibule, something I nearly overlooked my first visit here.
The restaurant found an audience very quickly with Loop workers and local residents. The place is busy at lunch and pulls in a big after-5 crowd. The front door is a short stroll from the opera house and reasonable walking distance to Randolph Street's theaters. So long as Wacker Drive stays intact, Pearl Tavern should have a nice long run.
The restaurant usually features four oysters daily but changes varieties so frequently that, even on the same day, the offerings at lunch and dinner can differ. Servers know the oysters well and have the vocabularies to describe them. But for the real scoop, try to get one of the precious few seats at the oyster bar, where you can watch and learn from the shuckers themselves.
Chef Chris Lorenz, who worked at Brasserie Jo and Pelago and who claims to have notes on every oyster he's ever eaten, brings in East and West Coast oysters, though he tends to prefer the latter. "I prefer to focus on the finish, the nuance," he says, "though some prefer the (East Coast) brininess. But it's like peanut butter and jelly; you can't fully appreciate one without the other."
The rest of the menu is impressive. You'll find a sensational tuna poke here, a plump dish of cubed big-eye tuna mixed with diced cucumber and Japanese pear, sprinkled with shio-koji (a fermented rice and sea salt seasoning) and avocado puree. The "oysters Rockefella," deliberately misspelled, abandons the spinach-and-Pernod tradition and presents the baked oysters under an herbed pate a choux, cheese and dried prosciutto chips — all the salty, creamy, herby notes of the original, in a new package.
Hit the menu's crudo section for absinthe-kissed razor clams topped with trout roe, ceviche that's refreshingly light on acidity and scallops dressed with blood orange and a bit of sea salt. Shared plates are slightly larger and include an addictive lobster-and-cavatappi dish with rich Mornay sauce, but there really aren't any full entrees here, which is why nothing, save for the $30-per-dozen oysters, is more than $16.
Desserts are simple and straightforward. I'm not crazy about the Key lime pie, surrounded by walls of graham-cracker crust so thick it reminds me of a deep-dish pizza, but apparently it's a big seller.
There are about 20 craft beers on tap and a small but sufficient wine list. What impressed me were the cocktails by Wilo Garcia (Adolfo's cousin), particularly the persuasively spicy Angry Mermaid, a margarita-like drink augmented with St. Germain liqueur, habanero syrup and a toasted-habanero garnish. I'm also a fan of the Dirty Pearl, a vodka martini containing oyster brine and an actual in-the-shell oyster, and the fruity-but-not-sweet blueberry mojito. Between the oyster bar and the cocktail bar, I could spend a lot of time here.
Bow & Stern
Co-owner Jay Runnfeldt recalls slurping oysters with his grandfather in Florida. "He was a big oyster fan," Runnfeldt says. "He loved that his grandson would sit at the bar and eat oysters with him."
Runnfeldt, also a partner in Three Headed Productions (The Drawing Room, The Back Room), wanted to open an oyster bar for years but never found the right space, until, good news/bad news, the location that was home to Branch 27 became available. "We looked at no other spaces," Runnfeldt says. "This was it."
The space looks great today, the old-timey bars (separated by a wall) and hardwood floors meshing with new, deep-blue booths and banquettes. A brick- and timber-lined anteroom, which can be closed off for semiprivate parties, has an all-glass roof that lets in plenty of natural light.
The menu lists eight to 12 oysters daily, evenly split between the East and West coasts; a side card offers accurate tasting tips. Chef Brian Greene has a little fun with the sauces, presenting oysters with a chipotle-laced cocktail sauce and a mignonette sauce containing hints of wasabi and ginger. Both are so good you may find yourself asking for more.
Elsewhere on the menu, you'll find other treats, including a nifty surf-and-turf entree combining fatty pork belly (over braised kale and mustard greens, which balance the richness) with seared scallops; a lightly tart date gastrique and cherry-quince sauce add sophistication. There's a legit lobster roll here, topped with arugula and served alongside some Parmesan-dusted root-vegetable chips. Greene offers quite a few gluten-free dishes, notably a whole-fried fish (usually suzuki, and plenty for two) and a gluten-free fish and chips (usually grouper or trout, in a rice-flour batter).
The bar offers more than three dozen craft beers and a very reasonably priced, oyster-focused wine list.