Ancient oyster shells found during archaeological excavations of Gallo-Roman sites in Paris indicate that residents of the French capital have loved these bivalves for centuries. Their popularity got a major boost during the 19th century when expansion of the French rail system made it easier to supply the city with oysters from Normandy, Brittany and the French Atlantic coast. Today France is one of the world’s largest consumers and producers of the shellfish, which are scarfed down with gusto in the city’s many oyster bars and brasseries, especially during the height of the season from September to April.
Most Paris oyster vendors offer two types of oysters, creuses and plates. Creuses are cupped oysters that will fit into the cup of your hand; most of them are of the Japanese variety, the spawn of which were imported into France after a disease nearly eliminated the Portuguese variety in the 1970s. Plates, or “flat” oysters, are native to Bélon and much rarer. Oysters in France are calibrated from 000 to 6, with the smaller number confusingly indicating the larger oysters. They are typically served with shallot vinaigrette and lemon wedges, although most French oyster connoisseurs insist they’re at their best just as nature makes them.
Here are six of our favorite places for an oyster feast in Paris. (The average price is per person for a three-course meal without wine.)
This recently opened restaurant overlooking the Place de la Madeleine, a historic hub for gourmet food shopping and dining in Paris, occupies the space that formerly housed the celebrated grocer Fauchon. The restaurant showcases the oysters of Amélie, a producer in the Marennes-Oléron region on France’s Atlantic Coast. The novelty here is that aside from popping in to sample a dozen freshly shucked oysters, you can also order a selection of intriguing oyster dishes created by talented young British chef Sam Kazemi, including smoked oysters, oyster tartare and oysters flambéed with ginger, soy sauce and onion. US$79
24-26 Place de la Madeleine, 8th Arrondissement. Tel. (33) 1-40-07-90-06
This miniscule no-reservations raw bar in the heart of Saint-Germain-des-Prés serves some of the best bivalves in Paris. Régis, the harmlessly grumpy owner, brings them in daily from Marennes-Oléron, and he’s also drawn up a short but excellent wine list of bottles mostly from the Loire Valley that team well with the shellfish (try a Montlouis, a crisp, aromatic, flavorful wine made with Chenin Blanc grapes). Every customer is required to order at least a dozen oysters, which are served with good bread and excellent salted butter. US$50
3 Rue de Montfaucon, 6th Arrondissement. Tel. (33) 1-44-41-10-07
Decorated like a sea shack, this small, friendly pine-paneled dining room in Montparnasse is reminiscent of the simple little raw bars found in Brittany, which, for many Parisians, bring back happy memories of shellfish feasts during seaside holidays. The main reason it is so popular, however, is that it serves up succulent oysters that are raised by the owner in the Bassin d’Arcachon, in southwestern France. Many of the regulars add an “Assiette des Landes” to their order of oysters — a garnish plate, with a choice of foie gras or smoked duck breast. This is a wonderful low-key place. US$45
La Cabane à Huîtres
4 Rue Antoine Bourdelle, 15th Arrondissement. Tel. (33) 1-45-49-47-27
The new trend in Paris is for oyster producers to open oyster bars to sell and showcase their own production. For example, the oysters at this stylish, reasonably priced restaurant in the heart of Paris come from Maison Thaëron, a family-owned oyster farm in Riec-sur-Bélon in Brittany. They also serve other shellfish, including mussels, cockles, clams and scallops, along with a very good lobster salad. The regulars love to quaff the Domaine de Gournier white from the Cevennes with their shellfish, and it’s a great buy at US$17 for a half-liter carafe. US$34
48 Rue Laffitte, 9th Arrondissement. Tel. (33) 9-82-33-93-47
This elegant restaurant with an attractive contemporary décor and outstanding service is run by Michelin two-star chef Michel Rostang, and it serves some of the world’s best seafood, including a spectacular array of oysters. The offer changes regularly but often includes meaty beauties from Utah Beach in Normandy, and a lineup of pedigreed bivalves from famous producers like Gillardeau and David Hervé in the Marennes-Oléron; Prat-ar-Coum and Cadoret in Brittany; Florent Tabouriech from the Étang de Thau on France’s Mediterranean coast; and Spéciales Perles de l’Impératrice by Joël Dupuch, a sixth-generation oyster farmer from Arcachon. Make it an all-oyster feast or follow with beautifully prepared dishes like macaroni and cheese with lobster, bouillabaisse (it’s excellent) or roasted scallops. US$90
Place du Maréchal Juin, 17th Arrondissement. Tel. (33) 1-42-27-82-14
It’s no surprise that the seafood sibling of the popular Le Paul Bert bistro next door serves superb oysters because the proprietor is Gwenaëlle Cadoret, the daughter of a famous oyster grower from Riec-sur-Bélon. You can easily make a meal of the bivalves here, but there’s a full catch-of-the-day menu if you decide to follow your oysters with a sole meunière or sea bass baked in a crust of salt. US$45
L’Ecailler du Bistrot
22 Rue Paul Bert, 11th Arrondissement. Tel. (33) 1-43-72-76-77
Prices reflect approximate cost of dinner per person, excluding wine.