Only a little over a year old, Seabear Oyster Bar has been making waves in Athens’s culinary scene since serving up their first plate. While it’s not the only restaurant in Athens that serves oysters, it is the only one that focuses almost exclusively on the delicacy. As with most seafood, however, freshness makes all the difference in a diner’s experience. So how does Seabear keep an eye on its prized cuisine that comes from the Atlantic Ocean, over 230 miles away?
The WHO: Three leaders from Athens’s infamous and now-sister restaurant, The National, came together to create this new aquarium of foodie opportunity. Peter Dale and Chris Luken, head chef and bar/business manager at The National, respectively, still work at both restaurants, according to a profile done by the Athens Banner-Herald. But Patrick Stubbers, once a sous-chef at The National, now devotes his time entirely to Seabear as co-owner and head chef. Athens’s eaters are not easily satisfied, but together the three have combined years of experience to cook up a new experience – one that makes you feel as if you are sitting on a dock off the Georgia coast shucking oysters you just caught.
The WHEN: Open since June 2014, the restaurant is open seven days a week from 3 p.m. to midnight, perfect for late lunches, dinners, and those late night oyster cravings; and happy hour is from 3-6 p.m. every day, too, making it a compelling post-work hangout.
The WHERE: Seabear is located in the old Coca-Cola bottling plant (a.k.a. the Bottleworks, built in the 1800s!) on Prince Avenue, directly across from Hendershot’s Coffee. It’s only a short walk from downtown, but there is ample space for free parking.
The WHY: Several restaurants in Athens do seafood well – think Square 1 Fish Co. or Marker Seven Coastal Grill. Yet only one so prominently projects its feelings about fresh and sustainable seafood. With oysters, especially, taste and experience can be severely diminished if not freshly caught, quickly transported and properly prepared. According to their website, Seabear’s leaders wanted to give Athens diners the ability to experience tasty, fresh oysters without having to drive the four-plus hours to the Georgia coast. With that motivation, and the desire to keep their impact on the Atlantic’s ecosystem as low as possible, Seabear was born.
The HOW: First, Seabear partnered with Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch to ensure their oysters were grown sustainably. Then, they chose select oyster farms that met their criteria. “We hope to encourage the oyster industry, and we want to do this conscientiously,” their website says. Currently they serve seafood from farms in the Pacific Northwest, New England, and Virginia; a complete list of their oyster providers can be found on their website. Because of pollution, over-harvesting and over-development that has destroyed oyster habitats and depleted their population, Georgia oysters are not yet able to be served at Seabear. However, with the work of marine scientists from the University of Georgia and the Department of Natural Resources, as well as experienced fisherman and oyster enthusiasts, Georgia oysters are making a comeback. Until then, fresh and sustainably raised and harvested seafood travels upstream by way of the Altamaha River, then up the Oconee River to Athens.
And, finally, the MENU: Last, but certainly not least, are the oysters themselves. Seabear exclusively serves raw oysters on the half shell which changes selection daily. A plate of a dozen oysters could come from over six different farms; and each variety tastes and looks unique, too! For anyone who has never tried an oyster, fried or raw, imagine being able to taste something so fresh you can almost taste the salty ocean. Not everyone is a fan of the texture of raw oysters alone, but on top of a salty cracker with all the fixings - horseradish, cocktail sauce, hot sauce and more - you’ll experience an enlightening combination of flavors. And before you know it, you’ll have eaten a dozen or more. But don’t worry, oysters are chock full of nutrients (well, the raw ones at least) so you don’t have to regret asking the waitress to bring you another dozen. While there is an option for a fried oyster po’ boy sandwich, you’ll have to stick with raw if you want oysters alone. Classic seafood favorites with Seabear’s signature twist can be found in shrimp ‘n grits, crab and shrimp cakes, steamed PEI mussels, mini lobster rolls as an appetizer and much more, which can be found on Seabear’s website. But in order to find the fresh catch being served today, it’s best to go in and find out for yourself.