Walk into Mr. Ed’s Oyster Bar & Fish House in Metairie and the first thing you see is the last thing Ed McIntyre is going to change.
It’s the oyster bar, a triangle of marble jutting out from the long restaurant bar like the prow of a ship. There’s a reef of iced oysters under the counter, a foot rail along the bottom and no seats to be seen.
It’s a stand-up oyster bar, a relic of an older style of service and a distinctive niche in a beloved New Orleans food ritual. To McIntyre, namesake and proprietor of Mr. Ed’s, it’s also essential to his restaurant’s character.
“People tell me all the time to put bar stools here but I’ll never do it,” said McIntyre, sounding proudly defiant. “It’s part of the tradition.”
A stand-up oyster bar simply means there are no seats along the counter where shuckers work and serve. But this one difference profoundly changes the experience of an oyster bar, from the pace of the visit to the ambiance and interactions around it.
It's a brass tacks approach that embodies the unfussy abundance of Louisiana oysters, which despite recent price increases remain a bargain compared to the more boutique harvests of other areas.
The stand-up oyster bar means getting a raw oyster with minimal intermediary handling. Order a dozen and the oysters are not plated up but rather plunked down before you, one by one, direct from the shucker’s knife. The shell brims with briny liquor, the oyster’s ephemeral essence is intact. When the shucker and the eater are in sync, the only fresher oysters are on a boat.
These oyster bars parallel another old-school fixture of New Orleans dining — the stand-up restaurant bar. Tujague’s (founded 1856) and Mandina’s (founded 1933) both maintain bars that have no stools and plenty of regulars who lean an elbow down and make themselves at home.
But even in New Orleans, the stand-up oyster bar goes against the grain, and the few still in operation around town are either clinging to a tradition or rekindling one.
Altars to oysters
On a recent night at Pascal’s Manale Restaurant, the gray oyster shells hitting the white marble bar top sounded like billiard balls clattering together.
Over that rocky rumble, longtime shucker Thomas “Uptown T” Stewart greeted new arrivals breezing through the door, dispensed oysters at a measured pace to a half-dozen customers clustered around him and directed a tutorial on the restaurant's make-your-own cocktail sauce station for a first timer.
Pascal’s Manale has the best-known stand-up oyster bar in town, and it’s likely the oldest. Frank Manale opened his original Manale Restaurant here in 1913. His nephew Pascal Radosta took over in 1937, and later added his name over the door. None of their descendants who run the restaurant now knows of a time when the oyster bar had seats. Photos dating back to at least the 1940s show the oyster bar in action with well-dressed customers standing around it.
The Pascal’s Manale oyster bar is like an altar in its own alcove of the restaurant’s paneled lounge. Customers and shuckers are at eye level and interact as directly as the dealer and player at a card table. This setting encourages easy banter not just with the shucker but among erstwhile strangers who find themselves eating oysters together, standing there elbow to elbow. It puts the bar in oyster bar.
The Pascal’s Manale oyster bar runs by its own rules, and one is that the customer at the oyster bar gets priority. On especially busy nights, the staff may shut off oysters for the dining room or advise diners at tables that there will be a long wait.
Of course, the oyster bar customers have to play by the rules. They order oysters at the liquor bar. They get octagonal plastic chips — red for a dozen, green for a half — and march these a few strides across the room to redeem them with the shucker. Even though they order at the liquor bar, which is lined with stools, they have to eat them at the oyster bar, where of course there are no seats.
“Is that crazy? I guess it is, but that’s the way we do it, and people seem good with it,” said Mark DeFelice, one of the family proprietors, pondering the persistence of the approach. “You try to change something or modernize things, and you think you’re doing it for the better, but then right away you hear from people saying, 'Well we liked it better the old way.' ”
Against the grain
The stand-up oyster bar runs contrary to modern restaurant management, which ideally puts every customer in a seat, tracked by a software system and assigned to a server to keep the drinks coming, sell appetizers and push the specials.
Still, there are pragmatic considerations for restaurants that keep stand-up oyster bars. There's a quicker turn when customers aren't settled in, and they can accommodate more people in a small space. Along the way, they have developed a culture and appeal all their own.
The author Rowan Jacobsen has traveled the country to eat oysters, and he’s chronicled them in the books “A Geography of Oysters” and “The Essential Oyster.” But he had never seen a stand-up oyster bar until a visit to Pascal’s Manale. It made an immediate impression, and Jacobsen judged the arrangement “an order of magnitude better than the sit-on-your-ass oyster bar.”
“The interactive nature of the experience, and the increased awareness that one is inhabiting this slightly precarious but totally delicious moment in time, is enhanced,” Jacobsen said.
A raw ritual
There are just a handful of stand-up oyster bars in New Orleans, and they operate in their own ways.
Felix’s in the French Quarter has a hybrid, with stools lining most of the bar but with one nook still set aside for the stand-up business.
It’s a stretch of about six feet, with space for two customers, or maybe three if they’re close. Even when people are queued up on the sidewalk waiting for a table, the stand-up oyster bar here is its own little harbor for those who want nothing more than raw oysters, one by one, and a drink to wash them down.
Uptown at Casamento’s, the oyster bar mainly functions to supply the waitresses shuttling plated dozens to the tables around the narrow dining room, and the bar itself is normally lined by customers waiting for their own table. But even here it’s still possible to slide in, or wedge in, and order a dozen or so direct over the pale green tile.
Ed McIntyre, meanwhile, has served as a Johnny Appleseed for the stand-up oyster bar as he has expanded his Mr. Ed’s Oyster Bar & Fish House brand to four locations. Each has a different design, but McIntyre was adamant that all of them include stand-up oyster bars.
It started with Bozo’s, the Metairie restaurant he took over in 2013 to open the first Mr. Ed’s Oyster Bar & Fish House. Bozo’s was a seafood restaurant that carried the Croatian family name of its founder. Bozo Vodanovich first opened it in Mid-City in 1928 as Bozo’s Oyster Bar & Beer Parlor, and his son, the late Chris Vodanovich, moved it to Metairie in 1979. In all its incarnations, it had a stand-up oyster bar.
McIntyre himself grew up going to Bozo’s with his family, and the jovial hub of the stand-up oyster bar is a strong memory for him. When he renovated the Metairie address for Mr. Ed's, he kept the oyster bar intact in tribute.
Today, some newcomers tend to mistake Mr. Ed's stand-up oyster bars as simply workstations for the shuckers, like an open kitchen or a chilled seafood display stand. But those attuned to the pleasure of dispatching a fast dozen on their feet know right where to go.
“You have your regulars, people who walk right from the door to the oyster bar,” said Karl Lewis, while opening oysters at the original Mr. Ed’s in Metairie. “You know what they’re having soon as they walk in.”
3117 21st St., Metairie, (504) 831-8666
1327 St. Charles Ave., (504) 267-0169
512 Bienville St., (504) 309-4848
301 N. Carrollton Ave., (504) 872-9975
1838 Napoleon Ave., New Orleans, (504) 895-4877
739 Iberville St., (504) 522-4440
4330 Magazine St., (504) 895-9761
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