Our Favorite Seafood Dives

We take our annual plunge into the world of casual coastal joints, and find some keepers.
By Steve Millburg

NORTH ATLANTIC

The Clam Shack
2 Western Avenue
Kennebunkport, Maine
207/967-3321

High-toned Kennebunkport dearly loves this dowdy little hut at the bridge in the center of town. Try the fried clams or the lobster roll and you'll see why. The closest thing you'll find to a table is the nearby railing along the Kennebunk River-which makes a nice place to enjoy your lunch while watching the boat traffic.

Capt'n Frosty's
210 Route 6A
Dennis, Massachusetts
508/385-8548

Capt'n Frosty's, grafted onto the back of a 1950s-era Cape Cod dairy bar, serves wonderful fried clams-juicy but not greasy. Locals also rave about the fish sandwiches and pretty much all the fried seafood. You can sit inside or on the patio out back, shaded by a blue-and-white awning or a sturdy oak. For dessert, walk around to the front and order some soft-serve from the ice cream stand.

Evelyn's Drive-In
2335 Main Road
Tiverton, Rhode Island
401/624-3100
evelynsdrivein.com

When you enter the little red building on Nanaquaket Pond, you travel back several decades to an era when this kind of lunch counter thrived in every small town. Time seems to relax. Veteran waitresses will get to you when they get to you. You don't mind the wait; you're too busy soaking up the atmosphere. When the lobster roll does arrive … ah, bliss! For an even more transcendentally coastal experience, eat at one of the shaded picnic tables along the water.

MID-ATLANTIC

Harpoon Henry's
91 Beach Drive
North Cape May, New Jersey
609/886-5529

When the frozen-drink menu dwarfs the food menu, you get a pretty good idea that people have fun here. The list of slushy cocktails at this rambling, open-air beach party spot includes the Caribbean Kangaroo, Cowhead Cocktail, Pablo's Picasso, Evil Emil, and Delightful Danielle-plus 245 more. Otherwise, we can recommend the clam chowder and the glorious sunsets over Delaware Bay.

Price's Seafood
654 Water Street
Havre de Grace, Maryland
410/939-2782

Do what the locals have done here since 1944: Dig into a pile of steamed crabs dumped onto your butcher paper-covered table. But don't neglect the steamed shrimp, the lump crab cake, or Dad's Crab Chowder-a milky, buttery variation of oyster stew that features lumps of crabmeat and bits of veggies. This comfy old tavern is set in its ways, so bring cash (not checks or credit cards).

Sneaky Pete's
12913 Ocean Gateway
Ocean City, Maryland
410/213-1771

hooperscrabhouse.com
Sitting in an open-wall bar, perched on pilings above Assawoman Bay, you're tearing into an all-you-can-eat serving of boiled blue crabs. Recorded reggae music floats lazily on the breeze. You're thinking summer on Maryland's Eastern Shore couldn't get more perfect. You're right. Well, unless you're feeling too lazy to wrestle crabmeat from the shell. In that case, order the crab cake.

SOUTH ATLANTIC

Jordan's House of Seafood and Oyster Bar
8106 Emerald Drive
Emerald Isle, North Carolina
252/354-5722

This plain concrete-block building turns out wonderful broiled items, especially shrimp and scallops. Don't miss the skinny, delicious hush puppies hidden among the mounds of seafood.

Pepper's Porch
1255 May River Road
Bluffton, South Carolina
843/757-2295

A barn built of old timbers and tin provides the setting for wonderful Lowcountry meals. The smell of oysters frying and cornbread baking makes you feel as though you're sitting at a warm kitchen table with family. Start with the "can't choose platter" of bacon-wrapped scallops, deviled eggs, fried pickles, and fried green tomatoes. Then sample the shrimp and grits cooked in brown bacon gravy. If you still have room, indulge in made-from-scratch desserts. The only way to work off this down-home feast: Step outside for a little summertime shag dancing. - Sarah Brueggemann

Rustic Inn Crabhouse
4331 Ravenswood Road
Fort Lauderdale, Florida
954/584-1637
rusticinn.com

Follow the "clunk-clunk" of wooden mallets to the Rustic Inn Crabhouse. You can sit inside, on a screened porch, or on the glassed-in patio overlooking the Dania Cutoff Canal. Whichever you choose, pull up to a newspaper-covered table, grab your claw-cracking tools, and dig in. The menu features the signature garlic crabs and (our choice) the crab sampler. Patrons routinely respond to loudspeaker announcements of birthdays and anniversaries by banging their mallets on the tables. - Lacey Howard

GULF

Marina Oyster Barn
505 Bayou Boulevard
Pensacola, Florida
850/433-0511

Barn? It's more like a box on stilts with lots of windows overlooking placid Bayou Tejar, just off Pensacola Bay. "Best steamed oysters anywhere, bar none," e-mails Texas reader Thom Driver. Pretty good shrimp and crab claws, too, and the gumbo features lots of shrimp in a spicy, savory roux. Linger over the view with a slice of smooth, tart Key lime pie.

Nan Seas Restaurant
4170 Bay Front Road
Mobile, Alabama
251/479-9132

Like many waterfront restaurants, Nan Seas does a fine job with fried seafood, notably shrimp and oysters. Soothing vistas of Mobile Bay, particularly at dusk, and solicitous service elevate it to the status of locals' favorite.

Harbor View Café
105 West Highway 90
Pass Christian, Mississippi
228/452-3901

"Great food, friendly service," the sign promises. This tiny place-with only 11 tables inside and a couple more out front-delivers on both counts. The seafood combination platter balances a huge mound of fried shrimp, oysters, and catfish, all excellent. The young servers bring filled plates and remove empties with cheerful efficiency. Asked about credit cards, one responds, "We don't take any plastic. We accept personal checks, traveler's checks, cash, and"-he adds with a grin-"manual labor."

Sid-Mar's of Bucktown
1824 Orpheum Avenue
Metairie, Louisiana
504/831-9541

sidmarsofbucktown.com
Contentedly rustic, Sid-Mar's sits right across the street from part of Lake Pontchartrain's fishing fleet. Two screened porches let you enjoy the lake breezes-though, to be honest, this isn't the most scenic part of the New Orleans area. Never mind; the seafood makes up for it. Try the fried oysters, shrimp, or catfish, the po'boys, or the not-too-spicy but seafood-packed gumbo. Savor the boiled crawfish while you can; their season ends as summer heats up.

The Spot
14th and Jefferson streets
Port O'Connor, Texas
361/983-2775

Can't find it? Look for the corrugated metal building off the alley behind the Shamrock station. Enjoy the grilled flounder, or bring your own catch. The Spot will fry it, grill it, or blacken it for you.

SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA

El Indio Mexican Restaurant
3695 India Street
San Diego, California
619/299-0333

el-indio.com
Messy, heavenly fish tacos come wrapped in two just-made corn tortillas. The combination plate (two tacos, beans, and rice) plus a soft drink adds up to a wonderful, plentiful meal for less than $10. In nice weather (which in San Diego means nearly all the time), some diners prefer the outdoor patio, where the whoosh of I-5 traffic provides background music.

Andria's Seafood Restaurant and Market
1449 Spinnaker Drive
Ventura, California
805/654-0546
andriasseafood.com

A big variety of seafood-almost all of it fresh from the market half of the business-comes fried, charbroiled, or stir-fried. We love the fish-and-chips, especially the halibut, which arrives as five big, moist pieces. (Andria's prides itself on generous portions.) The views show off the harbor and mountains.

CENTRAL CALIFORNIA

Zelda's Restaurant
203 Esplanade
Capitola, California
831/475-4900

OK, the service is slow. Amiable, but slow. Still, you're sitting outdoors, right on the beach, in a historic and charming resort town. You can people-watch, gaze at the pier and the Pacific Ocean, and admire the quaint, pastel-painted architecture of the Venetian Court apartments just across Soquel Creek. Fortunately, the clam chowder and fried calamari reveal a kitchen that lavishes some care on what could otherwise have been standard bar food.

NORTHERN CALIFORNIA

Sushi Sam's Edomata
218 East Third Avenue
San Mateo, California
650/344-0888
sushisams.com

Surprisingly innovative nigiri (raw fish pressed onto a pad of rice) lies just a half-hour south of San Francisco. Grab a seat at the sushi bar, request the chef's choice, and watch Sam create his daily specials: an assortment of sublimely fresh fish highlighted with eye-opening sauces and topped with crunchy bits of almonds or garlic. Take this adventurous, yet pricier, route (approximately $50 for a 10-piece dinner, including tea and dessert); or simply order a couple of pieces from the specials board to supplement regular menu items. - Susan C. Kim

Pier 23 Café
Pier 23
On the Embarcadero
San Francisco, California
415/362-5125
pier23cafe.com

The food holds its own here. That's saying a lot-it competes with water views, live music, and party-hearty atmosphere. The crab cocktail gets down to basics: crabmeat accompanied only by hot sauce. Steamed mussels pair well with Anchor Steam beer.

Sharon's by the Sea
32096 North Harbor Drive
Fort Bragg, California
707/962-0680
sharonsbythesea.com

You'd expect a great dive in gritty Fort Bragg. You wouldn't expect a restaurant with produce so fresh you'd bet there was a farm next door. Sharon's surprises with its large wine list and filling seafood salads. Try the crab Louie, a seemingly bottomless bowl of asparagus spears, tomatoes, and cucumbers topped with mounds of sweet crab. Ask for a seat by the bay window or on the patio for a view of Noyo Harbor. - Sarah Brueggemann

PACIFIC NORTHWEST

Scampi's Fish Wagon
16333 Lower Harbor Road
Harbor, Oregon
541/412-9530

The sign says, "No shirt, no shoes, no problem." It also could have noted, "No restaurant." A trailer-turned-kitchen huddles in a corner of an insurance agency parking lot. A couple of tents and three picnic tables make up the "dining rooms." The fried fish, most of it caught that morning, comes lightly battered, nongreasy, and delicious. Fried mushrooms and fried zucchini add a nice touch. The menu also includes an excellent chowder and various seafood tacos. A small, furry dog acts as if he owns the place-which he more or less does. He's Scampi.

Ivar's Salmon House
401 Northeast Northlake Way
Seattle, Washington
206/632-0767
ivars.net

Taking in the grand vista of passing scullers, kayakers, seaplanes, and waterfowl kills time until the aromatic alder-smoked trio of king, sockeye, and keta salmon arrives. Among its salmon selections, this 35-year-old landmark serves only wild Pacific Northwest species-no farmed varieties. The menu includes an array of other fish choices, meats, salads, and desserts, and wine lovers will be pleased. Replicating an American Indian longhouse, the restaurant and its lobby showcase an extraordinary collection of historic black-and-white photos chronicling this region's Indian heritage. - Susan Haynes

ALASKA

The Hangar on the Wharf
2 Marine Way
Juneau, Alaska
907/586-5018
hangaronthewharf.com

Originally an actual hangar, the building still holds the spirit of brave bush pilots who brought commercial aviation to Alaska in the 1930s. The menu features "Hangar Wraps" encasing king crab and other fixin's; "Pre-flight Snacks" of steamers, crab dip, and the like; and "Water Landings" for halibut, salmon, and crab. The expansive view looks across Gastineau Channel to Douglas Island. "Occasionally we'll see an iceberg float by when a glacier breaks up," says bartender Todd Maclay. - Susan Haynes

HAWAII

Paia Fish Market and Restaurant
100 Hana Highway
Paia, Maui, Hawaii
808/579-8030

A sign on the door mandates shirts, but a bikini top apparently comes close enough-or sometimes, for guys at least, just a really good tan. Sea breezes through the screened sides provide the air-conditioning. Windsurfers dock here for the fresh fish (several varieties, several preparation choices), then grab a place at one of seven picnic tables. Nice touches include a light-on-the-dressing coleslaw and excellent dill tartar sauce.

GREAT LAKES

Jolly Roger Seafood Restaurant
1737 East Perry Street
Port Clinton, Ohio
419/732-3382

"Lake Erie's finest perch & walleye," claims a sign at this otherwise modest little place in the Lake Erie Islands summer resort area. We won't disagree. Locals line up out the door for tender, juicy fried perch and walleye, which come with excellent waffle-cut fries. In nice weather, skip the fast food-style booths in favor of the two outdoor patios or an impromptu seat alongside the lake itself, just a Frisbee's throw away.

What's your favorite dive? Write Steve Millburg, Coastal Living, 2100 Lakeshore Drive, Birmingham, AL 35209. Or e-mail steve_millburg@timeinc.com.