Acme Oyster House
724 Iberville St., 522-5973; www.acmeoyster.com
144 Bourbon St., 522-0111; www.bourbonhouse.com
Felix's Restaurant & Oyster Bar
739 Iberville St., 522-4440; www.felixs.com
Red Fish Grill
115 Bourbon St., 598-1200; www.redfishgrill.com
By 4:30 a.m. each workday, P&J Oyster Co. owner Al Sunseri performs a pre-dawn stakeout near the corner of Iberville and Bourbon streets, looking for a parking spot for his delivery truck. It's important to get into position before the beer trucks and other suppliers arrive to restock the many nearby bars, because P&J workers have their own heavy lifting ahead of them at this particular corner.
The intersection is home to four bustling oyster bars within steps of each other: Acme Oyster House, Bourbon House, Felix's Restaurant & Oyster Bar and Red Fish Grill. P&J supplies them all, and its pre-positioned delivery truck dispatches hundreds of pounds of in-shell oysters to their doors each day.
Acme and Felix's have had an oyster rivalry on the 700 block of Iberville for generations. Ralph Brennan came along in 1997 with Red Fish Grill, and five years later his cousin Dickie Brennan opened Bourbon House just across the street. There were others — places like Holliday's Oyster Bar on Iberville, Messina's Oyster House on Chartres and Paddock Restaurant & Oyster Bar on Bourbon — contemporaries of Acme and Felix's that are now long gone. The high density of oyster specialists once earned the area the nickname "Oyster Alley," and while that moniker is rarely heard today, the modern concentration of oyster bars still gives a taste of what the old days may have been like.
The fact that each restaurant gets its oysters from the same purveyor should not imply uniformity. The different bars often specify in their orders which oyster-harvesting areas they prefer, Sunseri says, though only Bourbon House advertises — on a chalkboard behind its bar — the particular zone where the day's supply started. Further, there is the ambience of the bar, the personality of the shuckers and the opportunity for style points ranging from the composition of cocktail sauce to the presentation. All this can sway preferences and cement loyalty to one place or another.
Felix's is my favorite of the four establishments. The fare from the kitchen is unremarkable, but for my money, the oyster bar is just right. The bar offers no stools, so customers stand elbow to elbow, slurping together. Order a dozen oysters and each is sent rattling across the marble bar top, like stake markers in some primitive game of chance. There is no plate or tray, just an oyster on marble awaiting your attention. A make-your-own cocktail sauce station holds down one end of the bar, with a bottle of Jack Daniels whiskey converted into a ketchup dispenser. A prized luxury elsewhere, the local abundance of oysters makes them an affordable, no-fuss staple in New Orleans. The ability to walk into Felix's, instantly dispatch a raw dozen and be back on your way in a matter of minutes embodies the casual convenience we enjoy with oysters here.
But it's a rare hour when such a quick turnaround is possible just across the street at Acme. Their oysters are magnificent. They are always cold but not icy and dispensed with dexterity by as many shuckers as can possibly fit behind the modestly sized bar. The difficulty is getting to them. The process begins outside, where a rope barrier designates a chute on the sidewalk for hungry patrons. A hostess calls in groups as space opens inside, and she goes over Acme's ground rules by rote, like a stewardess before takeoff: no outside drinks, all members of your party must be present to be seated, etc. There is a sense of being herded that always makes me wonder why I'm not already working my way through a second dozen oysters at Felix's.
Apart from the raw excellence of its oysters and the draw of its reputation, some of Acme's popular appeal has to be its saloon ambience, complete with beer-sign lighting and sports memorabilia. It's a loud, comfortable, casual space. At Bourbon House, however, any raucousness carried in from the street quickly bumps back from the easy elegance of the restaurant's oyster bar. A focal point in the sprawling restaurant, the raw bar is crescent-shaped, topped with marble, trimmed in brass, anchored by a cast-iron tower holding layers of ice, oysters and garnishes; surrounded by antique oyster plates mounted to the walls. It's prowled by outgoing shuckers who joke with each other and with game patrons.
During the holidays, or when a large event comes to town, all of these oyster options can fill to the brim at once. Such a time highlights one particular charm of the Red Fish Grill. While the oyster bar is certainly no secret, it is not prominently advertised and does not attract as single-minded a following as the other destination oyster bars. Even when the dining room is jam-packed, it's usually easy to slip in the separate bar entrance and bypass the clamor around the greeters' stand.
A dedicated oyster station occupies a convex bulge at the far end the restaurant's room-length bar. The oysters come across cold and neatly shucked, and if the cocktail sauce lacks a little zing, well, just take a page from Felix's do-it-yourself playbook and spruce it up with the bar's bloody Mary condiments.