Monday, February 7, 2011

Confessions of a California Seafood Lover

by Tom Knight

You can get fish in the middle of Nebraska, but there’s something lacking: THE SEA. When your restaurant is on pilings over thirty feet of water with fishing boats parked outside, it’s reassuring that your catch of the day might actually have been caught THAT day. Not to mention the ambiance accompanying the food: salty fresh air, screaming seagulls and diving pelicans… I call it the “ocean entertainment” factor which somehow just seems to make the food taste better.

My wife and I have carried on an old family tradition for many years: The SUNDAY DRIVE. Often we do not have any destination in mind, just a direction to point the car as we head out on the highway. Somewhere along the way our appetite kicks in and the hunt is on: fresh seafood on the water’s edge! Over the years we have had terrific fun discovering great seafood restaurants in the Bay Area and beyond. Lately we had the idea to make a list. Here goes…

Seascape Café, Trinidad. It’s a long ways out there, but the fresh crab omlette breakfast makes it worth the drive. The wharf is right at the café. Walk out a ways after your meal. What did you notice that’s different from other coastal stops? The ocean is crystal clear. Purple and orange starfish are abundant.

Arena Cove Restaurant, Pt. Arena. We recommend a stay at the Coast Guard Inn B&B where we once rode out a hurricane. Great clam chowder and excellent sunny views from the second floor dining room. This place has the feel of a small fishing village which is little changed over decades.

River’s End, Jenner. One of the most spectacular views of any coastal eatery, this place has a commanding view of the mighty Russian River entering the sea. Check it out in the winter after a series of storms. And check out the food. My wife says “best scallops ever!” This is definitely an upscale seafood restaurant, so plan to spend some time savoring the cuisine. It’s a dining experience.

Tony’s Seafood, Marshall. Your guaranteed attitude adjustment on Tomales Bay. It’s small and they don’t take cards, so bring cash and a good appetite. This is the real deal for local oysters. Give me a crab salad, a bunch of sourdough bread and a carafe of white wine… whatever my troubles were, I’m leaving this joint happy. Come early, it can get crowded.

The Point, Rio Vista. The Delta is a place which time has passed by. We have searched for years to find some fresh seafood right on the water, and this place is definitely hard to locate, but worth the effort. Some of the best crab cakes at very reasonable prices. No tourists here, only locals who know the score.

Nantucket, Crockett. This is the best place I have ever found which combines my two passions: train-watching and seafood. Be careful crossing the tracks, 49 AMTRAK trains a day roll by the back door. There a couple of tables on the outside deck where you can see ships passing on one side and trains on the other. Does it get any better than this? Under the Carquinez Bridge, just south of the C&H Sugar Refinery. Nothing fancy, just grab a beer and some fried calamari with a friend… you’re set!

Seafood Peddler, San Rafael. My grandson Dominic thinks this place has the best fish and chips ever, and it’s hard to disagree. We keep coming back to this place and enjoy it every time. Good food, good service, good location (try lunch on the outside deck if it’s sunny) and a very satisfying Bay Area fresh fish experience. Your dependable Marin County seafood eatery on the canal, with boats passing by.

The Ramp, San Francisco. This is the “anti-tourist” on-the-water spot to eat in the City, just off Third Street in the Potrero Hill neighborhood. Ships in drydock, an industrial area, it’s not what you would expect for such a fun place. It’s a favorite local hangout with great drinks, warm here when it’s cold elsewhere in the City. Good food and lots of laughter. Just describing it makes me want to be there again. Perhaps this is where Otis Redding composed “Dock By the Bay.” A terrific S.F. secret!

Crow’s Nest, Santa Cruz. This well known popular hangout at the Santa Cruz Yacht Harbor can be a little noisy and rowdy on Friday nights, but that’s part of the fun isn’t it? If you can get an outside table at sunset you are in for a treat. The splashing waves on the breakwater and sailboats gliding in and out can be mesmerizing. A giant prawn cocktail and a chilled Boony Doon white wine and you’re set.

Nepenthe, Big Sur. Perched high a cliff hundreds of feet above the sea, no place has more drama than Nepenthe. Folks, it’s SPECTACULAR. Sit yourself down at the south facing outside bar, get one of the special menu drinks and gaze down the coast. You may find yourself mingling with the rich and famous who frequent this place, and it’s not cheap. Coastal atmospherics are more than worth it.

Olde Port, San Luis Pier. When the schools of mackerel are swimming, this place at the end of the San Luis Bay Pier just past Avila Beach provides a ringside seat to the most amazing feeding frenzy we have ever seen: hundreds of pelicans diving into the water, packs of hungry sea lions lurching out of the water like dolphins, thousands of screaming gulls fighting for scraps. It’s a watery chaos in all directions. Drive slowly out on the creaky wharf. The seafood is a fresh as you can find and a great local wine list.

I missed a lot of places, but I gave you our favorites. Others where we have enjoyed dining include The Dead Fish in Crockett, Yankee Pier in Larkspur and Lafayette (neither on the water, but great food), Skates in Berkeley, Trader Vics in Emeryville (where the Mai Tai was invented, really), The Tides in Bodega Bay, and the Moss Beach Distillery near Half Moon Bay.

Maybe you have a favorite not on our list. If so, please let me know, We are always on the prowl for the next new culinary adventure. Happy Dining!

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