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Mar 8, 2007 11:45 AM

Tomales Bay Oyster Company report

Years ago we went to Hog Island Oyster in Point Reyes and had a great time and great oysters. But recent visit to their website says there is now an $8 per person reservation fee to reserve their picnic tables. I thought that price is ridiculus considering it's just outdoor tables with no service. So I decide to go to Tomales Bay Oyster Company instead.

TBOC is close to Hog Island, and basically they do simliar business. You can buy oysters by the dozen or in bags of 50. Prices vary depending on the size of the oyster. They only had one kind of oysters, I can't remember if Hog Island had more variety or not.

The picnic tables are free and there are also bbq grills for each table. However, unlike Hog Island, TBOC doesn't provide anything, no shucking knife, no knives, no sauce. You can buy everything if you don't bring your own. They have knives, limes, hots sauces, etc.

We didn't have our own shucking knives so bought two at $10 each. Probably overpriced, but we had no other options.

If we had come better prepared it would've been a perferct day. The weather was great, the oysters was delicious and fresh, and the price for the oysters was so cheap. For 50 small oyster (which was actually pretty large) it was $24.99. And as it gets larger the price gone up, all the way to $50 for 50 of the jumbo size oysters.

Between the three of us we polished off 50 oysters. Briney, juicy, slightly metalic-y, the oysters were in perfect form. I think we'll be returning soon and next time we'll be bring more supplies.

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  1. My girlfriend and I did a taste test of Hog Island, Tomales Bay Oyster Co, and Drake's Bay oysters last fall. All three sell the same basic oyster (what Hog Island calls a Sweetwater), but Hog Island also has Kumamotos. Their website says they also sell atlantic and european varieties, but only the Sweetwaters and Kumamotos seem to be available consistently. The Kumamotos are more expensive, but well worth it.

    The price per dozen for small Sweetwaters is a dollar or two higher at Hog Island vs TBOC. Taste was pretty much the same (excellent). The Hog Island oysters' shells were completely free of barnacles, which probably makes a difference to restaurants, but we couldn't have cared less.

    Drakes Bay Oysters seems like a larger scale operation. They sell a lot of raw, shucked oysters (maybe that's their main business), but they have a small shop where they sell whole oysters to the public. We bought a dozen, tried 2 or 3 between us, and threw the rest away. They were positively vile! Ever handled a car battery and touched your mouth with dirty fingers?

    So for quantity go to TBOC, for variety go to Hog Island.

    4 Replies
    1. re: Zeldog

      I've been meaning to try Drakes Bay Oysters because, if I'm remembering right, they're the folks who have the booth at the Sebastopol farmers' market. The oysters there were top-notch. However, if you say that the whole oysters there are icky, you may have saved us a trip.

      Usually nowadays we call ahead to Hog Island and pick up a few dozen kumamotos and take them elsewhere to shuck and eat. We don't like to pay the $8 per person fee, and unless we get there when they first open, it gets crowded and noisy.

      1. re: Zeldog

        Drakes Bay Oysters was formerly Johnson's Oyster Farm, right?

        1. re: Zeldog

          Wow, that really surprises me about Drakes Bay (formerly Johnson's)! To my taste, the quality has improved dramatically under the new stewardship and it has the cleanest water of the three spots. I've found Drakes Bay oysters to be extraordinarily sweet and to have a marked almost ashy minerality that reminds me of Belons.

          Drake's Bay BBQ Oysters in Santa Rosa

          Alexandra Eisler's post

          1. re: Melanie Wong

            Surprised us, too. Don't know about having the cleanest water, but their operation is on an inlet off the ocean rather than in Tomales Bay proper, so it is a different environment than the other two farms. They're away from the towns, but closer to the cattle ranches. Maybe they do more quality control on oysters they send out to farmer's markets and other retail sale compeared to what they sell on site. In any case, these were not sweet, not ashy, just excessively metallic and nasty.

        2. I think under ideal weather conditions Hog Island and Tomales Bay Oyster Co. are probably similar, but when it's a month to either side of the coolest season, I give the edge to hog Island. They're further north, so I think they get more fresh cold ocean water than TBO. They also have more variety, including pretty tasty clams sometimes. We usually buy oysters and then head back to a friend's deck in Bolinas to eat, so the $8 per person doesn't throw us off.

          The produce lady in the Pt. Reyes Station food hall on 4th street (home of cowgirl creamery) was pretty specific in her preference for hog island over all other options.

          15 Replies
          1. re: SteveG

            HI & TBOC are separated by less than 2 miles or thereabouts. Hardly enough distance to make much of any difference from a temperature perspective. If you're solely basing an opinion on quality/healthiness by how far north an operation is, then you'd look towards the oyster operations in Washington state as your ideal. Then again, if you knew anything about the issues that Washington and Oregon have had with their oyster farming you'd change your perception real fast (a quick Google search will give you details about the problems they've had in the past, despite being "further north" with "more fresh cold ocean water" than HI).

            I've been to picnics at both HI & TBO on numerous occasions thru the years, though more at TBOC recently b/c of the per person charge that HI instituted. IMO, TBOC's oysters are milder tasting and better suited for people who aren't as into oysters. HI's oysters have a more "forward" taste which I like. The MO recently has been to buy a bag or two of oysters @ HI, then trek over to TBOC to buy more oysters for a side-by-side comparison. In larger groups that have more casual than ardent fans of oysters, the TBOC's tend to get faster than the HI's.

            I also notice that TBOC's oysters are easier to shuck than HI's, which at times can be a royal PITA to open.

            Hopefully, TBOC doesn't achieve the level of craziness that HI sees on nice weekends. I much prefer the laid-back environment at TBOC. It being free to use their facilities is also a welcome touch.

            1. re: Eugene Park

              We got there around 11:40 and pretty much all of the tables were still empty and available. We left around 1pm and by then all the tables were filled up. But even at full capacity, I didn't get a sense of craziness or over crowding.

              1. re: OnceUponABite

                Plan ahead and bring a cooler, shucking knife, your own fixings, and adult beverages. You can then take everything to Point Reyes Seashores picnic areas and avoid the crowds at both HI and TBOC. When we did this in the fall, both picnic areas were really crowded but the picnic area across from the PRS vistors station was open.

              2. re: Eugene Park

                TBOC is less than 2 miles from the dead end of the bay--the water is extremely shallow there and I'm hard pressed to believe it cycles in and out of the ocean as fully there as at HI, which is 5 miles north along the bay according to google maps, closer to the ocean.

                By further north, I meant closer to the mouth of the bay.

                All that said, the water quality at Drake's is indeed the best as Melanie pointed out. I have no experience with their oysters.

              3. re: SteveG

                It's been a couple years since I picnic'd and shucked at TBOC, but at that time they frequently had clams, too. Agree that this is a nice easy-going spot for an oyster feast, as long as you bring your well-packed cooler.

                1. re: SteveG

                  The Tomales bay Oyster Company has its own oyster beds and their main one is at Preston Point at the very north end of Tomales Bay. At the last vote of the oyster growers on the bay, Preston Point oysters were voted the best so I think the edge to Hog Island is not based on facts. As for Washington oysters, they are good, but they are having troubles with vibrio tubiashi which doesn't affect humans but affects the viability of their oysters.

                  1. re: Tutti

                    Thanks for the info! I'm assuming that TBOC isn't the only grower with beds in the Preston Point area. What other growers have beds there?

                    1. re: Tutti

                      Well, since my comment in 2007 I've learned that Hog Island leases 160 acres of bay in a variety of locations, and they pull oysters from different parts of the bay depending on season. Lesson learned: none of the producers are strictly limited to the waters around their retail shop/processing location.

                      As for the Preston Point oysters, Hog Island's original farming location was pretty much right next to Preston Point where Walker Creek lets out. Unfortunately, none of us as consumers get to know precisely where the oysters come from when we buy a dozen.

                      I'm still pretty devoted to Hog Island. I get a much lower rate of mud-filled, spawning, deformed shell, or dead oysters from them than I experienced with TBOC or Drake's, and they typically give you a baker's dozen rather than a dozen if you're an easy customer when they're slammed (order quickly and clearly, have cash ready). The price premium for HI is worth it to me based on the end product.

                      All that said, a lot can change over time, and I probably owe TBOC another look.

                      1. re: SteveG

                        Keep in mind that for a time after the first heavy rain of the season, the oysters may be polluted from Walker Creek drainage. There used to be a ban on harvesting until several weeks had passed and the water could be tested. You might want to check with Hog Island about this.

                        1. re: OldTimer

                          In general, there's still definitely a ban on harvesting after rain storms above a certain size. Water quality is improving as ranchers leave better margins along creeks to filter the cow pies, but it's still an issue. Another reason I like Hog Island: they're the only area producer that holds the oysters in tanks for a few days before sale, which are continually flushed with bay water run through a UV filter that kills pathogens but otherwise leaves the bay water as-is. That allows the oysters to expel/eat any nasty bugs before we eat them in turn.

                          That said, there's probably too much "terroir" in the oysters right after a rain like this one for my taste!

                          1. re: SteveG

                            Thanx for the update. I've always waited at least two weeks after a heavy rain, but I agree Hog Island does try to flush the little buggers out before sale.

                            1. re: SteveG

                              Couldn't resist jumping in. My husband & I used to own & operate Bay Bottom Beds. Two of our leases were in the north end, right next to Preston Point & HI's leases, our third lease was in the south bay. When we were in business, the regulation was that if it rains half an inch in 24 hours, the bay is closed for harvesting for 5 days, 6 days if it's an inch in 24 hours. If it keeps raining at least that half inch then the closure keeps getting extended.

                              Todd Friend bought the larger of our northern leases. As he now owns TBOC, then yes of course, TBOC has beds in the north. Don't know about HI, but I imagine that by now, they must also have leases in the south.

                              According to research done by some oceanographer, In the summer time, the bay takes about 2 - 3 days to exchange all the water in the south end of the bay, whereas in the north, it's daily. I remember that the north bay water temperature stayed appreciably cooler in the summer than the south bay. TBOC used to have tanks (don't they, any more) & I remember Drew telling me that he saw oysters spawning in them, it got that warm.

                              1. re: UsedToBBB

                                Thanks for the notes on your experience. I can't find the post for the life of me, but at one point I made a plot of the water temperature vs. miles from the mouth of the bay, and the temperature in different sections of the bay is markedly different. I used this data set:

                                There's a more general discussion of it at this web site:

                                1. re: UsedToBBB

                                  I remember Bay Bottom Beds very well. I used to get my oysters only from BBB. They were the best oysters in all of Sonoma County (to me anyway). After I stopped working in the restaurants I would still go to BBB and get bags of 50 for me and my friends to enjoy, usually raw (love me some raw oysters) but there were a few that HAD to have them bbq'd. I still crave some BBB oysters from time to time and I have yet to find a good oyster here in Las Vegas.

                            2. re: SteveG

                              TBOC changed ownership in the spring of this year.

                        2. There is nothing like a Drake's Bay oyster. I once lived about an hour's drive from Tamales Bay. When I was a kid, my father and I would drop by Johnson's Oyster Farm during the salmon run in Papermill Creek. I remember they were $1.25 a dozen, and old Charlie Johnson would toss in a couple extra. "Some are fulla mud" he'd say. He gave me my first raw oyster, and I had a "Bourdain" moment, ie a major food revelation.

                          3 summers ago, I visited there for the first time in years. Bought 3 dozen, and amazed they were the best oysters I had since childhood. The flesh sparkled like the ocean, plump and sweet. My gosh I thought, you CAN go home.

                          1. I just went to both Hog Island and Tomales Bay Oyster Companies yesterday, bought a dozen small Sweetwaters at Hog Island for $12 (50 is $40) and a bag of 50 small oysters from Tomales Bay at $37. At around 3pm on a relatively nice Sunday, picnic tables were all full at each of the locations. For me, I would say that the Hog Island oysters do have a stronger and more distinctive taste, but the Tomales Bay ones were not far behind with a milder, but still sweet and plump feel. My boyfriend and I finished off about 64 oysters total in one sitting... they were just so good.

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