Okay. I will admit it. I was an oyster virgin. It’s true. Until very recently, I had never, in my life, bitten, slurped or chewed the shelled sea delicacy. I had convinced myself that I would not enjoy the oyster’s taste or texture—whether grilled, charbroiled, fried or raw.
I was wrong.
And if there is any place to taste your first oyster or your hundredth and first oyster, it’s The Half Shell Oyster Bar & Grill at 3101 Esplanade Ave.
The restaurant is located near Bayou St. John, with lots of off-street parking, and surrounded by a number of other restaurants and markets along Esplanade Ridge. Inside, the digs are quaint and simple, the sort of place that is perfect for enjoying shellfish and your favorite cocktail or beer without all of the commotion and hullabaloo of a French Quarter dive.
It is the classic neighborhood joint. And Ninth Ward native and owner Mark Johari Lawes makes you feel like a neighbor with his big personality and gregarious manner.
Without a doubt, The Half Shell is for oyster lovers. Order them by the half dozen or the dozen, Rockefeller, raw or charbroiled. I enjoyed the house special Voodoo Bleu Oysters—charbroiled then topped with generous chunks of smoky bacon and delicate bleu cheese crumbles.
When the aromatic platter of oysters arrived, I was still a bit apprehensive. Equipped my oyster fork, I dug in, though. To my surprise they were quite good. As the saying goes, don’t knock it until you try it. Now, I won’t declare myself the world’s biggest oyster fan. In fact, I am still certain that I wouldn’t want them raw. But I am a fan of The Half Shell, one of the newest Black-owned restaurants in the city.
If oysters aren’t your thing, don’t fret. The Half Shell offers lots of unpretentious, straightforward, New Orleans-inspired fare, with crab cakes and barbecue shrimp on the appetizer menu and seafood platters, rib-eye steak, po-boys and burgers rounding out the entrée offerings—all reasonably priced. Daily specials include red beans and rice on Mondays and seafood pasta on Fridays. A full breakfast is served every day, and a catering menu is on its way.
Open since August 2014, Lawes, whose partner in the endeavor is one of his sons, says business has been good.
And Lawes knows business. He has owned a number of night clubs, eateries and even a limousine company in the New Orleans area. He is the former owner of Café Negril.
He happened to be cruising down Esplanade one day during the past summer when he noticed the location was available.
“It looked like a nice spot, a nice area that could use some real world class action,” says Lawes. “I saw it on a Monday; by Wednesday, I had a lease in hand.”
Still, getting the doors open to The Half Shell was not as easy as that. There were some challenges to getting his license to sell alcohol at first. But he knew he had to have it for the restaurant to be as successful as possible. After all, what’s an oyster bar without, well, the bar? So Lawes would not be deterred, though he didn’t quite understand the objections considering that every other restaurant in the area serves beer and wine.
“I got some push-back at first,” he says. “But I remained persistent, and it’s been on the incline since the day we opened. I came here to do business. I want to provide a product and service that the community will enjoy. And I have a good, quality product.”
And when you go to The Half Shell, there is also the opportunity to support other Black-owned enterprises.
Lawes’ non-alcoholic beverage offerings include the Bissap Breeze, a natural tea and drink line made locally by a husband and wife team of entrepreneurs, Tyrone and Esailama Henry.
If you must have hot sauce for those oysters, you can grab a bottle of Sweet Jonesin’, the gourmet line of pepper sauces created by local businessman Oren Jones.
The Half Shell employs about a dozen people. In fact, Lawes hired a young man on the spot the same day this writer visited. After his son conducted a brief interview, Lawes told the man to return at 6 p.m. that day to start work there. The only thing that gives Lawes more pleasure than providing jobs to people from his community is building a business that he can one day pass down to his children.
“I know the restaurant and the bar business. I employ good people. I know I serve good food,” he says. “I thought this would be a great opportunity to leave a legacy for my children.”
The Half Shell Oyster Bar & Grill is open 7 a.m. until 9 p.m. Monday through Friday (closed on Tuesdays) and from 7am – 3pm on the weekend.
For more information, visit www.halfshellneworleans.com or call (504) 298-0504.