Exploring the French Quarter's "Oyster Alley"
New Orleans – By 4:30 in the morning, Al Sunseri is usually performing his pre-dawn stake out near the corner of Iberville and Bourbon streets in the French Quarter. He's an owner of P & J Oyster Co., and he's looking for a parking spot for his delivery truck. It's important to get into position before the beer vans 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 mere steps of each other: Acme Oyster House, Bourbon House, Felix's Restaurant 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 his Red Fish Grill and five years later his cousin Dickie Brennan opened Bourbon House just across the street. There were once others - places like Holliday's Oyster Bar on Iberville, Messina's Oyster House on Chartres and Paddock Restaurant & Oyster Bar on Bourbon. Such a 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 here still gives a taste of what the old days may have been like.
- While each restaurant here gets its oysters from the same purveyor, P&J's, there's plenty to set each apart. Some request oysters from specific harvesting areas and that can determine a distinctive flavor. More distinguishing still though, is the ambiance of the bar, the personality of the shuckers on prowl behind it and the opportunity for style points - like the composition of cocktail sauce or the presentation of the oyster itself. All this can sway preferences and cement loyalty to one place or another.
- For instance, walk into Felix's and you'll find no chairs or stools at the oyster bar. Rather, customers stand elbow to elbow, slurping together. Order a dozen oysters and each is sent rattling across the marble bar top. There is no plate or tray, just an oyster on marble awaiting your attention.
- Just across the street at Acme, the oysters are dispensed with dexterity by as many shuckers as can possibly fit behind the modest-sized bar. They're needed, because the place has grown so popular the line of customers waiting to get in typically snakes down the sidewalk outside, hemmed in by a rope barrier.
- Next door, Bourbon House is the most urbane of the options. It's crescent shaped bar -- topped with marble, trimmed in brass and anchored by a cast iron tower holding layers of ice, oysters and garnishes -- is a focal point in the sprawling restaurant.
- When big crowds are in town, all of these oyster bars can fill to the brim. That's when its most useful to remember the Red Fish Grill. The oyster bar here is no secret, but it isn't as prominently featured as its peers. Even when the dining room is jam-packed, you can usually slip in using the separate bar entrance and get right to slurping. On a busy night in oyster alley, it's good to have options.
P & J Oyster Co. 1039 Toulouse St., New Orleans 504-523-2651
Acme Oyster House 724 Iberville St., New Orleans 504-522-5973
Bourbon House 144 Bourbon St., New Orleans 504-522-0111
Felix's Restaurant & Oyster Bar 739 Iberville St., New Orleans 504-522-4440
Red Fish Grill 115 Bourbon St., New Orleans 504-598-1200