So far from the ocean, an oyster parlor operating in the heart of old Fresno may seem out of place. But what Martin Barisich served in the early 1900s at The Oyster Grotto and Chop House was anything but unusual for the day.
The Oyster Grotto typified restaurants in small towns and major cities across the country, often called oyster parlors, saloons, houses and taverns. One of Fresno’s earliest eateries, dating to the mid-1880’s, was Rockaway Oyster House, located in the Pioneer Block on H Street.
Largely appealing to the working class, the tasty bivalve mollusks were cheap, (50 cents could buy you a bucket and a half loaf of bread), easy to prepare by steaming, roasting or in stews, and plentiful. They were packed in ice and shipped by the thousands from San Francisco.
The earliest oyster parlor on record was in a cellar in New York City, established in 1763. By 1874, 850 oyster establishments were in New York City alone. They were so popular that oysters were over-harvested in many parts of the East Coast.
In 1875, the Eastern oyster was introduced to California waters, and by the late 1880’s, the Bay’s oyster population was said to number in the billions. Barisich was a native of the island of Hvar, a province of Dalmatia, part of today’s Croatia. Barisich, like many immigrants to San Francisco, brought with him a long heritage of fishing.
The two-story Masonic Temple Block building on I Street (now Broadway) near Tulare Street housed The Oyster Grotto. The building was razed in the early 1960’s, and replaced with the single-story building we see today, next to Chukchansi Park. Now it’s home to businesses such as pawn shops and restaurants.