Food & Drink

A Love Letter to Dylan’s Oyster Cellar

Who knew that an oyster house in Hampden would become my favorite place in Baltimore City?
—Illustration by Noemi Fabra

The World Is My Oyster

A love letter to Dylan’s Oyster Cellar.

It wasn’t until my late 20s that I tasted my first oyster. In fact, until then, I don’t think I even knew that people ate raw oysters. When I was a kid, the most suspect seafood I grudgingly consumed was gefilte fish, top-heavy with an almost iridescent red horseradish and served at the end of a toothpick every Passover.

Finally, when I graduated college—and I was free to make my own choices as a full-fledged adult with my own income—I began to realize there was so much more seafood out there just waiting for me. And while I can’t recall the exact first time that someone pried open a half-shell for me to slurp down, I do remember traveling to New Orleans in 2002 with my sister, who was interviewing at Tulane.

Over that long weekend, we ate all the things (read: stuff our parents never ate), including far too many oysters the night before we flew home. I’m not sure how I made it back, I was so sick from those mollusks. And understandably, there was a long hiatus after that, though I wasn’t ready to completely swear them off. (Food is the one place in my life where I’m completely forgiving.)

My first good oysters were eaten a decade later, at a temporary pop-up space in Mt. Vernon called Dylan’s Oyster Cellar. It really was a cellar, with a short flight of steps down the subterranean sidewalk of Madison Street, now home to the lovely Sugarvale.

There, I worked up the courage to slurp again, and this time was a revelation. Not only were they delicious, but I marveled at the different flavor profiles (salty, briny, meaty, sweet), as well as the accoutrements (lemon juice, cocktail sauce, mignonette). It was a whole new world for me.

So, when Dylan’s moved permanently to the corner of 36th and Chestnut in Hampden, I dutifully followed. I have since eaten coddies, smoked trout, scallops, and anchovies perched on a baguette with butter and a squirt of lemon, washed down with cold, white wine—sometimes all in the same night.

I’ve also consumed heirloom tomato salad, crispy, potato skins with a huge dollop of chive-y sour cream sauce, and stick-to-your-ribs bowls of beans, best eaten on a cold winter night.

It’s where I had my first meal out in August 2020, as we emerged from COVID restrictions. I’ve celebrated birthdays and anniversaries there. And many times, I’ve gone in for no reason at all. (Okay, it was for the cheeseburger.) Who knew that an oyster house would become my favorite place in Baltimore City?

But it’s more than just that. I love knowing that co-owner Irene Salmon (yes, salmon) is working the host stand in her no-nonsense way. I love knowing that her husband, Dylan Salmon, is going to wander out of the kitchen to pop by our table with a sense of ease. I love the space’s special coziness, with its original brick walls and penny tile, and its simplicity, with old-school desk chairs and bud vases on the tables—probably made by Irene, a part-time ceramicist.

And now, after all these years, I love working my way through a plate of oysters, trying to remember which ones are which, savoring the flavors, and flipping those ice-cold shells over one at a time, triumphantly.

This is one of five deeply personal Love Letters—reflections on restaurants that hold a special spot in our hearts—from our 2024 Best Restaurants list. View more of our picks, here.