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.
Shrimp n Stuff
This Galveston institution, founded in 1976, still looks like the old-fashioned corner grocery that it used to be. Shrimp, not surprisingly, dominates the menu. The po' boys, with homemade tartar sauce, are especially good—and, at $5.99 to $7.99, a great deal; 409/763-2805 or shrimpnstuff.com.
Mahony's Po-Boy Shop
New Orleans, Louisiana
Lines form around the corner by the 11 a.m. opening, in a comfortable old house that harks back to the little neighborhood restaurants that once filled New Orleans. With extra-fresh ingredients and imaginative combinations, it updates the classic working-class po' boy sandwich on crusty-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside New Orleans French bread; 504/899-3374 or mahonyspoboys.com.
Gulf Shores, Alabama
Just two blocks from the beach, the Shrimp Basket goes about "grillin', steamin', and fryin'" a variety of seafood. We especially like the results of the steamin': juicy, nicely seasoned oysters, shrimp, white-fish, or catfish, served with buttery new potatoes and corn, plus "shrimp slaw"—coleslaw that's augmented by tiny steamed shrimp; 251/948-7687.
Hogfish Bar & Grill
Stock Island, Florida
Once you finally reach this open-to-the-breeze locals' hideaway on Stock Island (the next island up from Key West), you'll want to hang out all day—and night. The house specialty is, of course, the "killer" hogfish sandwich (despite the name, hogfish has a delicate flavor that's reminiscent of the crustaceans it consumes). Even in the laid-back Keys, it doesn't get more casual, welcoming, or delicious; 305/293-4041 or hogfishbar.com.
Timoti's Seafood Shack
Fernandina Beach, Amelia Island, Florida
In just one year of operation, Timoti's (pronounced TIM-oh-tees) has earned a fiercely loyal following for its local and wild-caught seafood—especially fried shrimp and fried clam strips. The restaurant nestles in the historic downtown area of Fernandina Beach on the northern end of Amelia Island, near the galleries and shops of Centre Street; 904/310-6550 or timotisfryshak.com.
Panama City Beach, Florida
Schooners's open-walled, right-on-the-sand, beach-party ambience and live music would ensure its popularity, but it also takes care with its Southern-flavored food—including excellent grits made with three cheeses (Parmesan, Cheddar, and American). The creamy, smoky, spicy seafood gumbo starts a meal superbly. Also available are such surprises as Thai shrimp wraps and grilled ahi tuna steak; 850/235-3555 or schooners.com.
Paradise Bar & Grill
Pensacola Beach, Florida
With your toes in the sand and your gaze out to the emerald green Gulf, you'll dive into the fried food here, served on paper dishes. The blackened grouper is coated in just the right amount of spice that lingers on your lips—cooled by the creamy, homemade coleslaw paired with each order; 850/916-5087 or paradisebar-grill.com.
Sunbury Crab Co.
When a restaurant's Web site includes both "directions by land" and "directions by sea," you know you're in for a treat. Sunbury Crab Co. sits near the end of a road on an offshoot of Dutchman Bay. Its multi-level decks overlook the docks where the family-owned restaurant hauls in its super fresh seafood; 912/884-8640 or sunburycrabco.com.
T.W. Graham & Co. Seafood Restaurant
McClellanville, South Carolina
Like an apparition from the 1950s, the restaurant rests under moss-shrouded live oaks in the fishing village of McClellanville. Unpretentious, it nevertheless turns out sophisticated Lowcountry cooking. You really should start with the creamy, buttery blue crab, shrimp, and corn chowder, and finish with a slice of one of Claudia's homemade pies—Key lime, if it's available; 843/887-4342.
Shuckin' Shack Oyster Bar
Carolina Beach and Wilmington, North Carolina
You know you're going to have a good time when the menu arrives printed on a piece of cardboard from a beer carton. The Carolina Beach location sticks mostly to steamed seafood, all of it excellent. Oh, there's also "Surf n' Turf (Our Way)"—oysters, shrimp, or crab legs with chicken wings. The newer downtown Wilmington spinoff faithfully reproduces the original, except that the bar's on the left as you enter, not the right; 910/833-8622 or shuckinshackoysterbar.com.
Flip Flops VB Grill
Virginia Beach, Virginia
Despite the shopping-mall location, you'll feel a relaxed, beachy vibe as soon as you walk in this colorful, cheery place. The Caribbean-accented menu features plenty of seafood, but we love the BBQ fish tacos—which come dressed in a savory mango sauce different than anything we'd consider "barbecue." At three for $13, they're a delicious bargain; 757/427-3547 or flipflopsvb.com.
Rock Hall, Maryland
Locals hang out here for the steamed crabs, the cream of crab soup, and the latest gossip. Don't skip the crab cake just because it's not "jumbo lump." It may use smaller bits of crabmeat (as was the Chesapeake Bay norm not so long ago), but it tastes terrific. The kitchen also turns out juicy, flaky fried fish. The restaurant consists of just 11 tables next to a seafood market, so go early. Or get your meal to go and picnic at Ferry Park; 410/639-2325.
Several locations, New York
The lobster dinner, served on a tin tray, features a steamed 1 ½-pound crustacean with excellent red potatoes, corn on the cob that (surprise!) is not overcooked, and coleslaw that's crunchy and tangy and not sloppy with mayo. The lemonade is homemade, and the burgers are delicious and juicy; 646/896-1110 or lobsterjoint.com.
Perched on the edge of Plymouth Harbor at the Town Pier, Wood's has been a seafood staple for more than 50 years. Locals know it as the go-to spot to buy just-caught delicacies such as live lobster and rock crabs, and also as the best place around to let the talented restaurant staff do the cooking: sweet lobster rolls (with little mayo), baked haddock, fried whole-belly clams, and creamy fish chowder are a few scrumptious options; 800/626-1011 or woodsseafoods.com.
First, you have to find the place. There's no sign; look for the house festooned with fish netting and surrounded by nautical bric-a-brac. Before you sit, you order from the chalkboard in the hall. Whatever you choose, it likely will come with lots of garlic and certainly will be served over pasta. You will think you cannot possibly eat that much food, but it will taste so wonderful that you will finish every morsel. Conte's serves dinner only (from about 5 p.m.—hours are at the owner's discretion) daily, and accepts cash only; 207/691-1550.
Giovanni's Original Shrimp Truck
Kahuku and Haleiwa, Oahu, Hawaii
The menu taped to the side of the truck isn't kidding about the shrimp scampi, on either count, when it promises "lots of garlic, the BEST!" You get lots of butter, too, plus two scoops of white rice. Those who prefer their food less assertive should try the lemon-and-butter shrimp. Both trucks park on the North Shore of Oahu from 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. (Haleiwa) or 6:30 p.m. (Kahuku). Bring wet wipes; 808/293-1839 or giovannisshrimptruck.com.
Goose Island Shrimp House
This one-counter, take-out-only culinary gem is tucked away on West Division Street in the industrial part of town. From the tiled menu overhead, the fried jumbo shrimp is everything the name promises and more: A savory batter creates a seal around the fresh shrimp so that they remain piping hot until the whole order is gone. Fried scallops are sublime—tender on the inside and the size of a fist—and fried frog legs are a delicious treat one wouldn't expect from this tiny hole in the wall; 312/642-3640.
Don't see your favorite dive here? Tell us about it!