Merchant Oyster Co. in Lawrenceville is the latest project by Chef Dennis Marron, formerly of The Commoner and also currently chef and owner at Or, The Whale in downtown Pittsburgh. It is themed as a northeast oyster and chowder house that also serves up seafood conservas and a small sandwich menu.
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Two Bars to Choose From at Merchant Oyster Co
The restaurant's space is small with high ceilings and modern ocean-themed decor, and there's also a pretty cool second floor bar. The upstairs bar space isn't really conducive to eating, unless maybe you're just getting a few oysters.
Drink options include a small wine list complete with a few draft wines and canned wines, a small and creative craft cocktail list, a good number of canned/bottled beer options, and three or four beers on tap.
We tried the Spuckie Sour with bourbon, amaro, sherry, blood orange, lemon juice, and fennel simple syrup. It was a pretty well-balanced cocktail but a little stronger bourbon flavor would have made us even happier. The fennel flavor was subtle which was perfectly fine with us. But for those looking for a bigger flavor kick, we may recommend trying one of the other cocktails instead.
Visit if You're In the Mood for Oysters
Seafood is definitely king here: clams, shrimp cocktail, mussels, and crab cakes abound on the non-oyster menu. There's also an interesting conserva menu, which we didn't get to try during our visit, with canned seafoods like smoked sardines and mackerel in olive oil.
The oyster menu includes a dozen or so options from east and west coast, and they are served with some delicious homemade accompaniments including a barrel-aged hot sauce and a pungent, vinegary pickled pepper mignonette. With our server's help we picked a few different oyster types and enjoyed them all – they were juicy, tender, and briny but not overly so.
The chowder menu includes Rhode Island Red, Rhode Island Clear, and New England. We tried the Rhode Island Red which was basically a tomato-based vegetable soup with tons of seafood. It was a rich and hardy soup perfect for cold weather.
You can also get any of the chowders in a bread bowl, which we immediately regretted not doing as soon as we saw one appear at the table next to us. It was huge and looked amazingly beautiful! A must try for us on a future visit.
The sandwich portion of the menu offers seafood options like a lobster roll and crab grilled cheese, as well as some non-seafood choices like burgers and hot dogs. We couldn't resist the seafood sandwiches and decided on the lobster roll and crab grilled cheese.
The amount of sweet, juicy lobster on the lobster roll was impressive. Also on the sandwich was an Old Bay brown butter which wasn't overpowering – perhaps it could've used a touch more. The crab grilled cheese was toasted until super crispy and had a decent amount of crab meat and tons of gooey cheese. It was perfect dipped in our tomato-y chowder.
As we recently checked out Muddy Waters Oyster Bar, we were naturally comparing our experience here to our meal there (something we generally avoid but are making an exception for here). Muddy Waters' oyster happy hour special can't be beat if you're just looking for cheap oysters ($1-2 each), but Merchant Oyster Co. had a seemingly more robust offering despite the full price (they do have a great half-off oyster special on Sunday that we look forward to trying out soon!).
For atmosphere, we liked Merchant better as it was just so loud in Muddy Waters that we couldn't even have a conversation. In terms of the oysters themselves, despite the price difference, we liked them much more at Merchant than at Muddy Waters (though that may have been because of the types of oysters that we chose). Another plus to Merchant is that you can order individual oysters, whereas at Muddy Waters you have to order by the half dozen during happy hour.
All notable things to keep in mind when going out for oysters!
Overall, the entree and sandwich options at Merchant are somewhat limited, and we definitely see this as more of an oyster and small plates bar rather than a full on restaurant. But this far inland we certainly can't say no to places like Merchant that are helping to elevate Pittsburgh's seafood scene!
Merchant Oyster Co. is located at 4129 Butler Street in Lawrenceville. Merchant Oyster Co. does not take reservations and has fairly limited seating, so it is best to plan your visit accordingly or call head to check on if they have a wait before visiting!