Forget the frills and go for flavor. Grilled, broiled, fried, raw―however you like it, these places represent the highest standards in lowbrow dining.

By Steve Millburg
March 31, 2008
Jean Allsopp

Island Grill
Islamorada, Florida

The food almost disqualified the Island Grill from our annual list. It tasted more like fare you'd get at a five-star establishment than at a bright green beach shack. Thankfully, the "divey" atmosphere―with life rings, tiki torches, and a ship's anchor―saved it. Among the highfalutin offerings, the delectable tuna nachos feature sushi-grade ahi heaped on won ton crisps with sesame-flavor seaweed, drizzled with a wasabi mayonnaise. And that's just for starters. 85501 Overseas Highway (U.S. 1, Mile Marker 85.5); 305/664-8400 or

The Giggling Mackerel Seafood Grille
Ocean Isle Beach, North Carolina

It's everything you'd expect in a seafood dive―boisterous atmosphere and loads of menu choices featuring the ubiquitous fried-with-fries basket. For healthier fare, try a local fish, lightly seasoned and grilled, and substitute a baked potato. Don't let a line intimidate you―prompt service means tables turn quickly. If there's a wait list, you'll be directed to the bar, where the menu includes concoctions with names anyone but a drunken fraternity boy would blush crimson to utter. 65 Causeway Drive (under the bridge); 910/575-0902 or

Mudcat Charlie's
Brunswick, Georgia

Ask what's fresh. On our visit, it was sweet, flavorful grilled shrimp. Perfect. Mudcat Charlie's resides just south of Darien at the Two-Way Fish Camp marina, where the Altamaha River starts broadening into Altamaha Sound. An enclosed porch and a deck along the docks supply water views. 250 Ricefield Way; 912/261-0055

Schooner's Seafood House
St. Augustine, Florida

Tomato-based Minorcan clam chowder (reflecting the area's immigrant population from the Mediterranean island of Minorca) starts a meal splendidly. The lightly fried seafood―especially the flounder and the shrimp―keeps it going deliciously. Superfriendly service makes the experience well-nigh perfect. 3560 North Ponce De Leon Boulevard; 904/826-0233 or

Mickey's Family Crabhouse
Bethany Beach, Delaware

You can enjoy a great meal on the picnic-style tables at Mickey's without using the F-word ("fried"). Indulge in the oysters Chesapeake appetizer: baked oysters topped with applewood-smoked bacon and an extravagant mound of jumbo lump crabmeat. Order the plump crab cakes broiled instead of … well, you know. Tear into a pile of steamed crabs, crab legs, shrimp, clams, or oysters. 222 Jefferson Bridge Road; 302/539-5384 or

Stoney's Solomons Pier
Solomons, Maryland

Marylanders know their crab cakes. So this thriving dive, part of a four-restaurant chain, is clearly doing something right. The appeal? Softball-size cakes, light on filling, with meat so fresh it tastes like a whole new food group. You can also get crab on nachos, in sandwiches, in chowder, stuffed in fish, and even on a soft pretzel. Rockfish bites, another local specialty, come lightly fried and served with buffalo wing sauce and blue-cheese dip. Wow! If the fish had been available in Buffalo, nobody would have bothered with chicken wings. 14575 Solomons Island Road; 410/326-2424

The Great Machipongo Clam Shack
Nassawadox, Virginia

The name alone forces you to check it out. Fortunately, this seafood market and restaurant on Virginia's Eastern Shore backs up its claim to greatness with seafood dishes, sandwiches, and soups―all "healthy" (meaning not fried). We especially like the crab soup, made with "Peggy's best tomato base," and the stuffed flounder sandwich (broiled flounder wrapped around your choice of spinach and Cheddar cheese, broccoli and mozzarella cheese, or scallops and crabmeat). 6468 Lankford Highway (U.S. 13); 757/442-3800 or

The Castine Variety
Castine, Maine

This little general store prepares an enormous lobster roll, gently kissed with mayonnaise. It won a statewide poll a few years ago as Maine's best. We won't argue―especially with our mouths full of lobster. 1 Main Street; 207/326-8625 or

The Bite
Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts

Try the amazing fried clams at this small, blue-and-gray shack on the side of the road. Though The Bite is known for hearty quahog clam chowder, it's impossible to stop at soup. Favorites, ranging from fried squid to fish-and-chips, cost about $12. Everything is fried, including the macaroni and cheese bites (which we highly recommend). Seating consists of two umbrella-shaded benches, but the beach is steps away. 29 Basin Road, Menemsha; 508/645-9239 or

Pacific Oyster
Bay City, Oregon

The café at this waterfront seafood-processing plant supplies great food and live entertainment. Big windows let diners watch oysters being shucked (with incredible speed) and packed. Not surprisingly, the menu emphasizes oyster dishes, including a wonderful rich stew, plus several variations of fish-and-chips. 5150 Oyster Drive; 503/377-233 or

Sunfish Seafood
Seattle, Washington

Sunfish, a cash-only fish-and-chips stand on Alki Beach, provides a choice of Alaskan halibut, cod, or salmon. Like the rest of the fresh seafood (including prawns and oysters), it comes lightly breaded and not greasy. Also worth a taste: nicely flavored clam chowder. 2800 Alki Avenue Southwest; 206/938-4112

Spud Point Crab Company
Bodega Bay, California

This tiny take-out shop at the Spud Point Marina serves the world's best clam chowder. Don't believe us? Feel free to state your case, but first do yourself a favor: Sample a pint of the creamy, savory broth, full of potatoes and clams. Also try the smoked salmon and the crab sandwich, made with a Thousand Island dressing-based sauce. 1860 Bay Flat Road; 707/875-9472 or

Nick's Cove
Marshall, California

Nick's, closed for nearly a decade, is back―and truly better than ever. Last year, famed San Francisco restaurateur Pat Kuleto and partner Mark Franz reopened this 1930s-era restaurant and its cluster of rental cottages on Tomales Bay. White tablecloths and other ritzy touches fancy up the building. But mostly it retains the feel of an authentic Northern California waterfront saloon. Sit at the marble-top oyster bar, and don't miss the buttery clam chowder. 23240 Highway 1; 866/636-4257 or

Aldo's Harbor Restaurant
Santa Cruz, California

Aldo's sits on the water in Santa Cruz. It's a plain little box of a place with excellent calamari and great harbor and lighthouse views. A huge outdoor deck and lots of windows take full advantage of the setting. 616 Atlantic Avenue; 831/426-3736 or

Enterprise Fish Co.
Santa Monica, California

Mesquite-fired flames dance against the exhibition kitchen's copper hood, while an aquarium displays tropical fish and a weekend DJ spins tunes on the heated patio. Yes, Enterprise Fish Co. reflects L.A.'s showy side, but also its multicultural love of seafood. For more than a quarter-century, diners have thronged the airy brick building, a former trolley station just steps from the beach. The menu includes live lobsters and raw shellfish, but the focus is on fresh Pacific fish, prepared with a range of influences from Cajun to Asian, Italian, and all-American "golden fried." 174 Kinney Street; 310/392-8366 or

Duke's Malibu
Malibu, California

Look past the touristy kitsch visible from the entrance: the black-and-white Hawaiian photos, the palm fronds over the doorway, the signage. Concentrate instead on what stretches out in front of you: unobstructed views of the Pacific, and dish after dish of delicious island-inspired fare. From the chicken spring rolls to the coconut shrimp, the spicy Asian slaw, and the crisp, flavorful Baja fish tacos, Duke's has freshness down pat. Order a tall Stella or one of the other beers on tap and enjoy one of the prettiest spots we've found for gorgeous sunset dining. 21150 Pacific Coast Highway; 310/317-0777 or

New Pass Grill
Sarasota, Florida

Add fantastic fish-and-chips to the list of Sarasota attractions. The New Pass Grill serves the favorite "Old English style," with three pieces of plump, battered cod over crisp fries. New Pass also offers award-winning burgers, shrimp baskets, beer, and wine. The 1929-vintage establishment on City Island, across the causeway from downtown, has a walk-up window and outdoor seating. 1505 Ken Thompson Parkway; 941/388-3050 or

Wintzell's Oyster House
Mobile, Alabama

So rich and complex is the seafood gumbo, it's like tasting this city's entire 306-year history with each spoonful. Terrific, smoky grilled oysters follow, topped with seasoned mozzarella cheese. Finally comes a heavenly, cinnamony bread pudding. Pure bliss. Between courses, diners can peruse thousands of jokes covering the walls and reflecting the bygone-era humor of the restaurant's late founder, Oliver Wintzell. Wintzell's is now a five-outlet minichain, but purists prefer the downtown-Mobile original. 605 Dauphin Street (original location); 251/432-4605 or

Bozo's Seafood Market & Deli
Pascagoula, Mississippi

You give your order to a man at a back-corner table. He writes it on a white paper sack, which he plops on an adjacent counter. You help yourself to a soft drink from a cooler or the soda fountain and browse the seafood market in back or the shelves of spice mixes and locally made cane syrup. Then you pick up that same sack, now filled with superfresh fried seafood, or perhaps a po'boy, and eat at a paper-towels-equipped table against the opposite wall. It doesn't get any more down-home. Or delicious. 2012 Ingalls Avenue; 228/762-3322

R & O Restaurant
New Orleans, Louisiana

Hurricane Katrina demolished many of the seafood restaurants in the Bucktown area on Lake Pontchartrain. Fortunately, R & O survives and thrives, serving great po'boys, fried seafood, gumbo, pizza, and other delectables in an ultracasual, ultrafriendly atmosphere. 216 Metairie Hammond Highway; 504/831-1248

Esther's Cajun Seafood & Steaks
Port Arthur, Texas

Locals lunch here, which is always a good sign. The building arrived in the late 1980s by barge from Cameron, Louisiana. Now decorated with hunting trophies, it turns out solid, dependable seafood in a friendly atmosphere. 7237 Rainbow Lane (under the Rainbow Bridge); 409/962-6268 or

Da Conch Shack and RumBar
Providenciales, Turks & Caicos

Ask a local for Provo's best seafood joint and you'll end up at this waterfront, open-air shack for fresh conch―cracked, stir-fried, sautéed, or curried. Wait on the beach with a glass of Alicia's infamous rum punch in hand and your toes in the sand. If you're not swaying by dessert, the strong "world famous rum cake" will surely set you in motion. Blue Hills Road; 649/946-8877 or

Calumet Fisheries
Chicago, Illinois

Smoked fish and seafood rule at this little shed on the Calumet River, though the fried offerings aren't bad either. The bold flavor seems perfect for brawny Chicago. Calumet Fisheries takes cash only and provides no seating. The river isn't exactly scenic, but the 95th Street drawbridge may seem familiar. It's the one the Blues Brothers' car jumped in the 1980 movie. 3259 East 95th Street; 773/933-9855

Go Fish
Vancouver, British Columbia

At a blue, corrugated-steel shack at the public fish sales dock, something extraordinary is being served. Take a spot in the long line for crispy fish-and-chips, oyster po'boys, wild salmon burgers, and grilled albacore sandwiches―all using local-caught seafood and served on a no-frills waterfront patio. It's worth the wait. 1505 West First Avenue; 604/730-5040

Kona Tacos
Kailua-Kona, Hawaii

From this closet-size take-out hut in the Big Island's Lanihau Shopping Center come great Mexican-accented fish tacos―eventually. The first bite of the fresh ono (grilled or fried, with lettuce, Cheddar cheese, pico de gallo, and guacamole) banishes all memories of the sometimes scatterbrained service. 75-5595 Palani Road; 808/329-9049

Contributors: Larry Bleiberg, Jeff Book, Jacquelyne Froeber, Kay A. Fuston, Susan C. Kim, Steve Millburg, Julia Rutland, and James H. Schwartz

What's your favorite dive? Write to Larry Bleiberg, Coastal Living, 2100 Lakeshore Drive, Birmingham, AL 35209. Or e-mail