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Bye Bye, Bivalve: Dollar Oysters Are Rarely a Dollar Anymore

The once-ubiquitous, delicious "loss leader" is getting tougher to find in NYC.

8:50 AM EDT on October 5, 2022

Two people shuck and eat oysters on a picnic table in the setting sun.

(Charlotte Harrison / Unsplash)

In 2017, I had my very first oyster at a happy hour at Osamil in Koreatown after work. It was a briny revelation, slurped with cold white wine, french fries and a favorite coworker. They cost a dollar each, and I was easily talked into a dozen—they barely made a dent in my nonprofit worker salary. It was a formative experience, a continuation of the long relationship that we New Yorkers have with these tasty bivalves.

But the dollar oyster is endangered. Roundups of oyster happy hours now rarely feature dollar deals. Eater's Dollar Oyster Map has not been updated since 2019. Even Osamil has shifted to a drinks-only happy hour, and serves full-priced oysters at $18 for a half dozen.

Low-cost oysters are perhaps the most famous kind of loss leader, a gateway to lucrative alcohol sales and other dishes with higher profit margins as a quick happy hour might turn into a two-hour meal. But running a restaurant has gotten far more expensive thanks to inflation and supply chain issues, and steeply discounted oysters aren't a practical program for many places, especially when higher-priced oysters remain incredibly popular. 

And with restaurants operating with smaller teams than before the pandemic, menus are getting simpler. The $4 oyster is sold as a luxury in a way the dollar oyster wasn't.

"The dollar oyster is a vestige," said chef Thom Chun of Grand Army in Downtown Brooklyn. Grand Army had a dollar oyster happy hour from shortly after opening in 2015 until March 2020. When the restaurant reopened for outdoor dining in June 2020, it shifted to a $25 per dozen deal, which is offered from 5 to 6 p.m. on weekdays and 2 to 4 p.m on weekends.

According to Chun, there are a few reasons for the price adjustment, including the difficulty of sourcing a quality oyster for less than 50 cents apiece.

"We don't want to find the cheapest oyster possible just to hit this benchmark and to follow a tradition that maybe it’s time to change, with rising costs across the board," Chun said. "There's no question that we'd probably get more business through our doors with $1 oysters. But we have a reputation for great seafood, and that's the identity we want to commit to instead of this old-school dollar happy hour."

Chun says their current happy hour remains "a great way to get people in the door and show there are other things we can do," but that they break even on costs with the $2 oysters.

Union Square Cafe's dollar oyster happy hour used to feel like one of the city's best-kept secrets, considering that their dinnertime price was $4. But when the restaurant opened after the pandemic shutdown, they raised their price to $24 for a half dozen. "We're certainly not ruling out a return to a more traditional happy hour in the future," general manager Denez Moss told us.

In Williamsburg, Maison Premiere, which once had a dollar oyster happy hour worthy of coverage in the New York Times, eliminated it when they reopened in June 2021. Now, you can get East and West Coast varieties from $1.75 to $4.75 per oyster.

"Rather than limiting our oyster happy hour to a 3-hour window on weekdays, we now offer 3 varieties of oysters every day, all day, for $1.75 until sold out," the restaurant's ownership wrote in a statement. "In addition to passing along an excellent product at an excellent price, this still enables us to pay our staff competitively while sustainably supporting our beloved oyster farmers and precious aquatic resources."

Many former dollar oyster hotspots like Mermaid Inn, Goodnight Sonny, and Flex Mussels are now charging $1.25, $1.50, or $2, though it doesn't seem to be hurting demand. On a recent Friday afternoon, I attempted to get $1.25 oysters at Mermaid Inn in Greenwich Village. The restaurant opened at 4:30 and when we arrived at 4:38, there was a line around the corner.

But the dollar oyster isn't completely dead. It's still available at The Ten Bells in the Lower East Side and Bushwick, at Ama in the East Village, and at Lighthouse in Williamsburg. 

Tommy Mendes, a co-owner of Bar Belly in the Lower East Side, has no plan to raise prices for its dollar oyster happy hour, which started when the place opened in 2012 and is advertised in its Instagram bio. "I associate it with when you buy a newspaper, [the bodega] might make three cents on it, but it's everything else you buy when you get that paper," Mendes said. "It works for us."

When Bar Belly reopened for indoor dining after the 2020 shutdown, the oyster happy hour, which typically features Chesapeake oysters—Mendes said there's no way he could offer West Coast oysters for a dollar—returned as well. 

Mendes sees many customers stay past happy hour and become returning customers. The shells from happy hour are collected by the Billion Oyster Project, which works to restore reefs in New York harbor.

"The oysters are a big hook," Mendes says. "I can't tell you how many emails and phone calls I get about oysters. You see people that are not regular clients, but they're here for the dollar oysters."

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