Storied Shellfish

Taste the city’s legendary local seafood.

By Allecia Vermillion


For centuries, local indigenous tribes have harvested shellfish from abundant coastal waterways in what is now Washington state. When disappointed gold hunters in California discovered that the real riches lay to the north, they started bringing shiploads of delicate oysters back to satisfy San Francisco’s appetite. Meanwhile, settlers established shellfish farms on the Washington coastline, turning the wild delicacies into something grown with intention.

Today, Washington carefully manages its shellfish harvests and produces more oysters than any other state. The largest grower, fifth-generation Taylor Shellfish Farms, ships its oysters and geoduck (an oversize native surf clam shaped like an elephant’s trunk, pronounced “gooey-duck”) to high-end restaurants around the country. Taste these local treats at Taylor Shellfish Oyster Bar (1521 Melrose Ave) in Capitol Hill’s Melrose Market. A sort of hybrid seafood market and oyster bar, Taylor lets you fashion your own platter of fresh-shucked oysters from water tanks that bubble right next to the table. For a full restaurant experience, Taylor Shellfish can also be found within the historic charm of Pioneer Square or in the shadow of the Space Needle in Queen Anne.

Oysters can be fat and sweet or petite and salty, depending on the characteristics of the water where they grow. On the waterfront, Elliott’s Oyster House (1201 Alaskan Way) assembles the largest variety in town—including native, coppery Olympia oysters and Pacific oysters originally from the shores of Asia—delivering the true breadth of local oyster farms directly to your table. Chef Renee Erickson maintains careful relationships with Washington’s small farms to build the daily menu at her casual oyster bar, The Walrus and the Carpenter (4743 Ballard Ave NW) in Ballard. A half dozen varieties fill wire baskets at the shucking station, while her fried oysters offer a satisfyingly crunchy entry point for newbies. Erickson is also the culinary brain behind Westward (2501 N Northlake Way), where you can tuck into fresh local oysters—or Manila clams, house clam dip, or an entire seafood tower—while admiring the Seattle skyline from the north side of Lake Union.

Say “clams” in this town, and locals think of Ivar Haglund. The prank-loving folk singer–turned–entrepreneur opened his Ivar’s Acres of Clams (1001 Alaskan Way) restaurant on Pier 54 in 1946. Today, the company’s restaurants remain a staple for classic shellfish preparations like Penn Cove mussels in a coconut curry broth, Manila clams steamed in white wine, or the restaurant’s signature chowder, brimming with clams and bacon. Another casual local favorite, Pike Place Chowder (1530 Post Alley, 600 Pine St), brings home competition awards for its seven chowder styles, including gluten free, crab, and scallop versions.

White Swan Public House (1001 Fairview Ave N) also knows how to get creative with the harvest, serving dishes like “poutine of the sea”—steamed clams and a chowder-inspired gravy over fries—next to classic preparations like seafood stew and oysters on the half shell. Each dish comes with a view of boats bobbing on Lake Union. Meanwhile, at seafood-focused RockCreek (4300 Fremont Ave N), chef Eric Donnelly dresses pristine clams, mussels, and oysters in smart flavors like pastis butter or coconut-herb broth.

Those who are really serious about shellfish can get up close and personal to the source with a day trip to the Taylor Shellfish (2182 Chuckanut Dr, Bow) market and patio 90 minutes north of Seattle by car, or another multigeneration enterprise, Hama Hama Oyster Saloon (35846 N US Hwy 101, Lilliwaup), a 30-minute ferry ride and 2-hour drive along Hood Canal on the Olympic Peninsula. These destinations let you savor the fresh flavors of local shellfish while overlooking the wild beauty of their native waters.


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