Charleston: A Thwarted Quest for Oysters

Cape Arago at Sunset

To anyone who has taken even a cursory gander over previous posts, my obsession with fried oysters is readily apparent. While I did make a noble effort toeat healthfully on the road this year, I could not deny myself oysters when traveling to the coast. And, I had been waiting for years to eat the perfect fried oysters in Coos Bay.

This winter was the fourth year I have conducted site visits in Coos Bay. Each time I visit, I am in town for exactly one dinner and one lunch. After consuming my first meal of fried oysters in the town at the unsurprisingly disappointing Red Lion restaurant, I vowed to find some exceptional fried oysters in the area. Hey, if you only have two meals per trip, they should be worthwhile. (And, lunch is always the Cafe Mediterranean. It may be perplexing that I eat falafel and lentil soup every single time I have lunch in Coos Bay. But, that’s where my people want to go.)

My proclivity for oysters has propelled me to restaurants up and down the Oregon Coast. Typically, oysters are some of the freshest items on the menu. So, they are a safe bet. Plus, virtually anything good tastes even better fried. On the Southern Oregon Coast, it seemed that Charleston, the town on the ocean just west of Coos Bay/North Bend, would have lots to offer, especially given that it is renowned for their seafood. So, I thought my quest to find my perfect oysters in the Coos Bay area would be easy. Not so.

Marine Mammals of Simpson Reef

My search began with the February 2008 trip to a place recommended by Rachel Ray, The Oyster Cove Grille and Bar. It sounded promising. I arrived too early (they open at five), and killed time by meandering up the Cape Arago Highway in driving rain, stopping to bolt from the car and read educational markers about Simpson Reef. By the time I returned, I was soaked and ready for my plate of dreamy fried oysters.

The inside of the Oyster Cove Grille and Bar is all lovely dark wood and sweet tables with white linens and small bouquets. I felt odd throwing my soaked rain jacket over the seat and taking a table all to myself. Additionally, I was the only one in the restaurant, and I discovered after sitting down how expensive it was.  To be honest, what I remember is the awkwardness. The meal was forgettable. I paid too much for what I hoped would the ultimate dish of fried oysters and was left feeling robbed.

The next day, a local told me I had gone to the wrong restaurant. “There is another place. Just to the left after the bridge.” I vowed I would go there next time.

Unfortunately, the next time I didn’t make it as far south as I had intended. Instead, I ate in Yachats and had sub-par oysters in a restaurant decorated by a repeat pattern of saucy looking hippie mermaids. That was March 2009. A sad time.

And, so March 2010 came around. It was my last visit to Coos Bay for my job. I had to find my oyster place. I knew it was supposed to be. And, I was ready.

As my colleague Matt – to whom I had relayed the trials and tribulations of my search – and I crossed over the bridge into Charleston, I eagerly looked to the left. I had been waiting for this moment for three years. Rays of light would come down from heaven to shine on the house of my perfect oysters. There would be a bugle call signaling that I had finally arrived. Or, at the very least, there would be a weather-worn clapboard building with the signature blue metal roofing of the coast with a sign out front heralding a name based on a provincial maritime pun.

No. There was a pile of burned rubble.

High Tide Cafe's Jaunty Sign

I don’t know that I can adequately articulate the disappointment that swept over me. At first, I refused to process it. “Well, let’s drive around and see if they were talking about someplace else.” No. They were not. “Let’s drive up to Cape Arago and see if things are different when we come back.” They were not. The giant pile of rubble was still there. Still charred. Still disappointing.

Slightly down the road from the ruins of my perfect oyster house, was another restaurant with an appropriately pun-based coastal name, The High Tide. From the outside, it looked either closed or exceptionally sketchy. Turned out to be neither of those things, but it also wasn’t particularly good.

My tiny plate of fried oysters were not only lackluster, but expensive. All in all, they made me even sadder. My colleague’s dish was equally boring and over-priced. I have since been told they make decent fish tacos, which I suppose are just fine. But, I wanted fried oysters, my perfect fried oysters. And, that was too much to ask of Charleston.

I end with a plea: If you know of a place in Charleston (or nearby) that has those perfect fried oysters – the ones that are crispy on the outside, luscious and juicy ocean on the inside – please tell me. I can’t let go of the hope that my oysters are there, even though they may have literally gone up in smoke.

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