This weekend I finally got the chance to visit Lee and Ricks Oyster bar. The restaurant itself is one of my husbands favorites, and since the day we met he has mentioned it frequently over the years.
So where else would we possibly go the night before our trip to Universal studios? Yep, you got it, no other than that very Oyster bar itself; I was eager to finally see for myself what all the hype and longing was about.
Warning; after visiting this Oyster bar you may feel cheated and upset with any other establishment you care to visit. Once you’ve been a first time, you’ll want to go back time and time again to get that delicious seafood that is unlike no other.
So, here we were – cruising down old winter garden road – our stomachs prime for heavy food consumption, and our excitement similar to that of a small child on Christmas morning. It was 6.30pm, the weather was gloriously sunny with a little cloud, just like the pictures you see advertising Orlando in magazines, and as our Jeep began to slow for a turning my husband pointed and said ‘there it is!’
I immediately sat up straight in my passenger seat, squinting my eyes to follow his point, staring straight up ahead with anticipation at the ship shaped restaurant approaching at 45mph; already I fell in love with its quirky outside and those bright red letters which read ‘U.S.S Lee & Ricks’.
We were here. The restaurant my husband had swooned over for years, and spent many nights reminiscing to me about was finally in front of me, and I was going to walk through those doors and be in for the time of my life. (Unbeknown to me at the time, I would exit a few hours later with my life forever changed.)
The entrance was mysterious, giving off vibes of a boxers locker room, and I just had to know more as I pushed the door aside.
Lee and Ricks Oyster bar originally opened in 1950 – the first of its kind for the area – selling only oysters to the people of Orlando, with only 9 stools available at the time. It’s said that Rick himself, having once been a sailor, had to travel weekly to get oysters in order to keep up with the high demand that had flooded the little ship shaped restaurant since day one. Word travels fast when the words are spoken so fondly; In fact, they even included the history on their menu which I always love.
Now, picture this. You walk down a small hallway made of wood, with quirky seafood signs, into a restaurant with two sides. One side a dining room with a long blue stone bar.
The other side a few booths, and the same long stone blue counter in the shape of an L, which now showed the wear and tear of many previous customers, and years of service, in the most loving way of paint chips and ruggedness.
It was unlike anything I had ever seen. The smell of salt filled your nostrils as though you were stood on the bow of a ship, breathing in the deep sea air, and I almost expected to hear a seagull cackle in the not too far distance.
We chose the second side, with the L shaped bar, and found the perfect stools to plop our butts on.
First up, we ordered a pitcher of a locally brewed beer by Blue point. A deliciously refreshing beer that went down a treat, and I kid you not when I say this restaurant just oozes authenticity and a real ‘old school’ feel. The glass I poured my beer into even tasted like salt water when I pressed my lips up onto its icy rim. At those first few sips of beer it seems that maybe the oysters had become so much a part of this restaurant that even the brine had made its way into every part of the place, and no matter how hard you scrubbed and scrubbed – that muddy/salty oyster coating would forever linger within the establishment walls.
Our waitress was absolutely fantastic with the history, the location of catches for every piece of seafood on the menu, and a personality that made you want to stay until you had to prop yourself up on the bar with that salty beer glass.
The menu had all of my favorites: oysters, mussels, crawfish, snow crab legs and more.
I turned to my husband and said ‘oh boy, I want all of this’. He turned to me and nodded his head, closing the menu. I nodded back. In those moments of silence neither of us spoke, but yet we both understood exactly what the other meant in our weird husband and wife telepathy.
It was on. Tonight would be a feast to remember. I didn’t wait all of these years for my husband to finally introduce me to his favorite joint, without really throwing caution to the wind. We were going to get whatever our hearts desired and we were going to make it a night that neither of us would ever forget.
Our waitress came back with a gleaming smile, and a notepad.
‘For starters, a bucket of oysters’ my husband said, matching her smile.
The oysters were kept inside of a huge storage bin right in front of where we sat. The buckets were stacked, full to the brim, and as the night went on I wondered how deep it really was, as it seemed to have no end of oysters in its depths. Take a look at the picture below for yourself.
My husband ate the oysters raw, as is his favorite way, and I ate mine steamed. As they arrived I noticed for the first time the trench lining the opposite side of the bar. It was an oyster graveyard of the most extreme. Empty shells, devoured of their squashy innards, were discarded into its stone depths and then scraped with a tool that looked like a rake, into a trash somewhere deep below. I was amazed, never before had I seen anything like it in my life, and all of a sudden I felt as though I had teleported back into the 1950s aware that nothing much had changed since then in this little place, and I imaged people sat here – as I was now – enjoying not only the oysters, but also the interaction of the whole process. How many other couples in love had sat were we sat? The number was wild to think of, and all I could do was watch oyster shells be tossed into the graveyard as fast as they could be consumed – as I thought of the years gone by within these walls.
Our waitress stood in front of us, working away, until every oyster had been shuck. There was no need for plates, no need for fancy wrapped silverware. Just us, that stone blue counter, and a small pot of hot butter and horseradish.
I feel as though I learnt to shuck an oyster just from watching; I couldn’t take my eyes off of her.
I heard that the use of the bar to eat the oysters had been a tradition since day one, and I actually loved it so much I wondered why nobody else did the same thing? It was intriguing, it was new to me, it was so wildly free that I just couldn’t get enough. Since 1950 how many oysters had been served on this bar? Millions? Billions? It seemed so beautiful to think of and yet here we were, our oysters just a small ripple in the sea of many, and I couldn’t get over their size. Some oysters were literally the size of a chicken breast in a shell, which was something I’d never come across. What bang for your buck! My husband said the brine inside was everything, and always the best out of any other oyster bar he’d been to. With my steaming preparation I lost some of that brine, naturally, but I could still taste and understand exactly what he meant. These oysters were as fresh as we’d ever get without actually going and catching them ourselves.
Carnage ensued. We destroyed them, in between gulps of beer, as fast as our waitress could shuck.
On the wall opposite our seats were stacks of saltine crackers, which were served in little red baskets, and the sauces to accompany each dish were unbranded, rugged, and added to the whole atmosphere – taking us back in time.
With the oysters long gone and in our happy stomachs we moved on to the next adventure.
My husband picked up another menu and began to point.
We ordered a plate of crawfish from Louisiana, Alaskan snow-crab legs, and mussels which were seasoned with old bay.
They didn’t take long to cook at all.
Before we knew it we were surrounded by seafood, as though we maybe had more people coming to the party, but knowing deep down it was just us and our inner fat kids waiting to dive right on in.
The mussels were just as good as mussels should be. Juicy, flavorful, beautifully colored with onyx shells. I was amazed again at just how big some of them had grown before reaching my red little basket.
Next up, the crawfish!
They were beautiful to look at, boasting the bright red that we know and love. They were small, due to the season, but flavorful and plentiful before our eyes. We took it in turns, my husband and I, to pull them apart, suck on their juicy heads, and devour their little tails. It was pure bliss, and I found myself almost bouncing up and down in the seat for the next adventure.
Last, or so we thought, we started to pull apart Alaskan crab legs. The meat was so tender it made me weak at the knees. That buttery flavor only intensified as we ate the white body part after destroying the legs. We each ate 4 legs and 1 body, surprised at just how much meat we found; the quality was without a doubt top level.
Another love of mine was the napkin position. The dishes were messy, as is expected, and the need for napkins ever present. It was as though they’d learnt over time that counter space was precious, and had taken it upon themselves to attach napkin dispensers above your head on the bar within easy grabbing reach. It was genius! The perfect placement if I’ve ever seen one in my life.
So there it was – our feast completely destroyed. I wanted more. In fact, I needed more. It was addictive, and I knew right there and then that I’d happily be an addict for the rest of my life.
I kissed my husband on the lips with excitement and love as he asked me 5 beautifully romantic words.
‘Shall we get another bucket?’
I didn’t hesitate. Yes, yes, and all the YES. I wanted another oyster bucket more than anything – heck – I wanted to eat oysters until I popped the button on my pants in the most beautiful way possible. If this was how it all ended I’d happily take the hit right there and then at that bar – defeated by oysters, in my element.
The history of Lee & Ricks is a goldmine of passion and love. To be able to add our own memories to the salty, untouched, establishment was something of a dream. From the outside ship shape, to the salty interior with paint chipped original bars, and smells of ocean; I’ve never been so blown away.
The second oyster bucket arrived, just as fabulous as the first, with another pitcher of beer. We watched the shuck show once again, and drank away, until nothing was left but our signature on the cheque.
This is how we ended the night.
Lee and Ricks Oyster bar is without a doubt the best seafood restaurant I’ve ever been to in my whole life. From only selling oysters originally, to now selling an array of seafood cooked to perfection, it leaves the rest in the dust.
The whole experience alone is something that cannot be matched, and I’m so thankful I was able to experience such a fantastic night.
To my husband – I love you for opening my eyes and showing me a slice of heaven.
To Lee and Ricks Oyster bar – thank you for changing my life forever. I will be back time and time again until I no longer have a breath left in me.
Until next time, (which I hope is only a week or so)
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