Decor? Doesn't matter. Ambience? Forget it. Great food? Ah, now you're talking. For an authentic coastal experience and great food, here are our favorite dives for 2013.
Pismo Beach, California
Can such a clean, pleasant, family-oriented place really be a dive? Well, we think any establishment that dumps its house specialty dinner right onto the tabletop qualifies. That would be the steamed seafood bucket: messy but fabulous. Don't overlook the sherry-accented, spicy crab bisque, and the inexpensive regional wine list; crackedcrab.com.
Poppy's Crab Shack
Half Moon Bay, California
Crab lovers, man your smartphones: This crustacean-wheeling food truck travels around the Half Moon Bay area and can be tracked via Twitter (@poppyscrabshack), Facebook (facebook.com/poppyscrabshack), and its Web site. Once they've set up shop (usually near the beach), be prepared for some of the freshest seafood around—everything is local and seasonal and/or organic; poppyscrabshack.com.
Blue Plate Oysterette
Santa Monica, California
While prettier than your average dive, with wicker chairs and tufted banquettes in pearl-colored leather, Blue Plate Oysterette tends to be packed with fans of its almost-all-seafood menu. You definitely do notice the hearty, heavenly lobster macaroni and cheese (Maine lobster, Parmesan cheese, herbs, truffle oil), the melts-in-your-mouth ahi tuna crudo (on grilled crostini), and, if you like cilantro, the fish tacos; blueplatesantamonica.com.
Bowpicker Fish & Chips
What better place to get fish-and-chips than a fishing boat? Even if it's high and dry on a boat across from the Columbia River Maritime Museum. The "restaurant" really is a retired bowpicker. You climb a set of stairs alongside the boat, order from the cabin (your choice of three or five perfectly fried pieces of beer-battered albacore tuna on steak fries), pay (cash only), and fish out a can of soda or bottle of water from a cooler; 503/791-2942 or bowpicker.com.
Pike Street Fish Fry
You'll find menu options scrawled in chalk on the blackboard above the counter where you order in this trendy Capitol Hill gem. The cod fish sticks are the star: Each piece is hearty and tender and served with creamy tartar sauce. French fries are dunked in the more adventurous chili mayo or curry ketchup, and specials such as $2 fish tacos are posted on the restaurant's Facebook page; 206/329-7453.