'Tis the season to grab a chilled beverage and some sublime seafood: Here's our annual batch of casual restaurants that care plenty about fresh fish, fried sides, and seaside locale. The decor? Not so much.
Orange Beach, Alabama
Who needs walls and floors when you have palm trees, sand, and the Gulf of Mexico? Order at the artfully designed assemblage of repurposed shipping containers where the chalkboard menu lists a handful of ever-changing choices—usually a burger and a Grouper sandwich (deliciously local and served blackened or fried), soup or pasta, and maybe something a bit more conceptual, like shrimp or mahi tacos stuffed with jicama slaw. You dine at an open-air table—or lounge in a chair right on the sand; 251-424-1800, facebook.com/thegulfal.
Half Moon Bay, California
The Flying Fish's whimsical retro-tropical feel survived the restaurant's 2011 move down the block to much larger quarters. So did the high quality of the food, including locally renowned fish tacos (try the grilled mahi version, with cabbage, white sauce, and a spicy-sweet mango salsa you'll want to lick off your fingers) and crabby-cheesy bread (which is exactly what it sounds like). The bar specializes in such playful and colorful cocktails as blood orange margaritas and mint-cucumber mojitos; 650-712-1125, flyingfishgrill.net.
Photo: Dandelion Dreams Photography
The food here lives up to the restaurant's moniker: Sustainable lobster arrives via overnight delivery each day and is the star of the menu. The Connecticut-style lobster roll is served warm—you'll need extra napkins to sop up the drawn-butter goodness. Or try the cold Maine-style roll, which overflows with tender chunks of seafood touched oh-so-lightly by mayo, lemon butter, and a spice blend. The shrimp rolls and blue crab rolls are also served on squishy, toasted, split-top buns and served with Cape Cod potato chips and a house-made, vinegar-based slaw. Bonus: Local beers and California wines are recent additions to the menu; lobsterwest.com.
Old Saybrook, Connecticut
Johnny Ad's remains a roadside seafood shack at heart. Patrons still use the order and pickup windows of the old takeout stand, thought it's been augmented over the years by the addition of a sheltered waiting area and a dining room. You can also enjoy your lobster roll or hot-from-the-kitchen fried seafood at the outdoor picnic tables. While you wait (because Johnny Ad's cooks to order), check out the vintage photographs that go all the way back to the restaurant's founding in 1957; johnnyads.com.
Photo: Jeff Greenberg/Alamy
The fun starts before you even order here. First, give the person behind the window your thoughts on the question of the day (maybe your favorite television show or your favorite superhero). But remember your answer, because it will be the name of your order when it's bellowed over the loudspeaker. You'll claim a cafeteria-style tray filled with a trove of possibilities: stone crab soup, conch fritters, and other fresh catches from the Gulf and Florida Bay. And while you may not think seafood and sauerkraut are a perfect match, the "famous" lobster Reuben is sweet and tangy bliss; keysfisheries.com. 866-743-4353
Photo: Chris M. Rogers
Giant open windows provide expansive views of white sand and emerald green water. The Back Porch takes pride in popularizing amberjack, a firm white fish seldom found on menus before the restaurant began featuring it in sandwiches. (We like the "angry" version, with spicy mayo.) Also check out the fish-, shrimp-, and crabmeat-filled gumbo, and the tart Key lime pie; 850-837-2022, theback-porch.com.
This corner spot in Lakeview is very local-fisherman-meets-beach-chic. The protein on the plate—from the cod in the fish tacos to the raw oysters—is sustainable, wild-caught, or responsibly farmed. Distressed wood covers the walls, and mismatched stools surround the bar, which is topped with various sauces and communal paper towel rolls. But the satchmo po' boys are where it's at: shrimp and crawfish with a potent roasted garlic aïoli and semisweet bread-and-butter pickles; fishbarchicago.com, 773-687-8177
New Orleans, Louisiana
Keep calm and eat po' boys, suggests the sign above the pickup window. Great advice, especially at this classic neighborhood joint. The true culinary heart of New Orleans is that simple submarine sandwich on crusty-on-the-outside, fluffy-on-the-inside French bread, typically dressed with lettuce, tomato, pickles, and mayo. Parkway's fresh fried-shrimp po' boys are always fabulous, but try to visit on Mondays or Wednesdays, when the fried-oyster version is on the menu; parkwaypoorboys.com.
Photo: Kindra Clineff
Billy's overlooks Perkins Cove, one of the loveliest little harbors in Maine, which makes the outside tables highly coveted real estate. Here, you order at the counter; for table service and a wider menu, visit Barnacle Billy's, Etc., right next door. We love the clam-filled chowder and the lobster roll, both dusted with paprika; barnbilly.com, 207-646-5575
There's a steady stream of people in the two lines at this small, window-only restaurant. The left lane is for hot, grilled, and fried seafood specialties; the right lane, for hand-scooped, big-as-your-face gourmet ice cream cones. Under the covered eating area, plastic benches are filled with families sharing baskets of fried clams coated in just enough batter to be addictive. And then there's the New England--style lobster roll: monstrous hunks of tender meat served cold with crisp celery—the way it's been done at Cobie's for almost 30 years. Open seasonally, mid-May through mid-October; 508-896-7021, cobies.com.
Always ask about the daily fish special. It changes according to what the local fishermen happen to be catching, and the friendly attendant at the counter will gladly tell you all about it. It's also a bargain at $6.95, including your choice of a half-cup of gumbo or crawfish étouffée, an order of fries or tater salad (go for the gently spicy seasoned fries), and a soft drink. If you get your order to go, waterfront dining at picnic tables along Back Bay or the Gulf of Mexico is just a few minutes away; desporteseafood.com.
North Hampton, New Hampshire
Clam chowder and a lobster roll for breakfast? Why not? Al's opens both its seafood market and its restaurant at 9 a.m., so you can certainly beat the lunch rush. Wooden floors, walls, and rafters make for rustic but comfortable surroundings in the spacious dining room. The menu covers all of the seafood bases, especially lobster, which is served in almost every way possible. We like the overflowing lobster roll, unadorned except for a bit of mayonnaise; 603-964-9591, alsseafoodnh.com.
Wilmington, North Carolina
Despite its resort-area location between the towns of Wilmington and Carolina Beach, Something Fishy doesn't try to lure tourists. It doesn't have a flashy sign or even a Web site. It simply goes about its business of turning out the reliably good seafood platters, fried or steamed, that keep local families coming back again and again. We especially like the milky, buttery New England clam chowder, but ask what's fresh that day; 910/395-0909.
In the course of more than 30 years spent presiding at the grill of this tiny old diner, chef Uriah Hulsey has carefully nurtured a reputation for crankiness. For a sure way to get on his good side, order the Chef's Seafood Mercy. That's whatever Hulsey is in the mood to make for himself from that day's supply of local vegetables and seafood. You do get to specify the degree of spiciness, but be warned: The chef loves seasonings so fiery that just cooking with them brings tears to the eyes of everyone in the place. Tasting what he creates will also move you to tears—of joy; columbianvoodoo.com/cafe.
Photo: Courtesy of Peter Hassel
Warkwick, Rhode Island
Here's a quick primer about some regional favorites on Iggy's menu: Clamcakes are deep-fried balls of clam and batter. Stuffed quahogs (stuffies) are quahog clam meat baked with bread stuffing in a clam shell. Doughboys are wickedly addictive rectangular sugared doughnuts without holes. (There're very filling. Start with a "small" order of three. You can always go back for more.) Oh, and "quahog" is pronounced either "kwa-hog" or "koh-hog." Whatever else you try from the menu, don't miss the flavorful New England clam chowder; iggysdoughboys.com.
Charleston, South Carolina
Exposed-brick walls and lots of dark wood make Pearlz a casually cozy hangout anytime, but especially if it's late at night and you're hungry. A big chalkboard displays the day's fresh fish, all available in various styles of preparation. We do mean fresh; the kitchen doesn't even have a freezer. Here's an even better bet: plump oysters, either fried or raw. They go perfectly with the excellent selection of beers, including Pearlz's own TBonz Homegrown Ales, brewed just up the South Carolina coast in Myrtle Beach; 843-577-5755, pearlzoysterbar.com
Everybody calls it "Pop's Place." The little red building on the Lamar side of the Rockport bridge is more bar than restaurant, but the kitchen truly does a nice job with seafood—especially oysters (in season), fried or on the half shell. The create-a-sampler combo is fun, too: best bets are scallops on the half shell with garlic butter sauce, crab-stuffed jalapeños with homemade honey-jalapeño sauce, and blackened gator; 361-729-2862
Virginia Beach, Virginia
Just a few miles south of the bustling resort area of Virginia Beach lies low-key, low-stress Sandbridge Beach. Margie & Ray's, in a rambling building behind a dirt parking lot, fits right in. The Back Bay Benedict, which substitutes crab cakes for the traditional Canadian bacon, gets the day off to a great start. For lunch or dinner, we especially like the fresh, flavorful shrimp and oysters. And definitely treat yourself to the rich she crab soup; margieandrays.com, 757-426-2397
Photo: Courtesy of Coastal Kitchen
Surrounded by mahogany, this neighborhood oyster bar and fish house is a cozy spot to hunker down with a bowl of tasty tomato-based Manhattan chowder (fish changes daily) and platters like a whole pound of clams dunked in white wine with bacon and crushed red pepper. We appreciate the "Don't Judge Me" happy hour from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. for its killer bloody Mary, which doesn't hold back on the spice. The regular happy hour is a hot spot for oysters, people-watching, and sipping a local brew; coastalkitchenseattle.com.