What’s one of the best ways to get to know a new location? Find the area’s best seafood dive and start eating like a local. Here’s a roundup of some of our favorite spots.
1. Dirty Al’s Seafood Restaurant – South Padre Island, Texas
Hanging out on a gorgeous barrier island with tropical breezes and crystal-clear waters can build up an appetite — that’s why for years beachgoers in South Padre have flocked to Dirty Al’s. Fresh gulf shrimp in all its glory is one of the biggest draws, and it comes in many guises, from baskets of boiled peel and eat shrimp to shrimp cocktail to shrimp quesadillas to shrimp-and-oyster po’ boys. If none of that appeals, opt instead for fried crab fingers, whole blackened red snapper, or fried fish baskets heaped with onion rings and fries. Oh, and did we mention the chilled Lone Stars and frozen margaritas?
2. Boss Oyster – Apalachicola, Florida
Locals’ opinions may differ about whether this landmark spot is past its prime or better than ever, but there’s one thing everyone agrees on: You need to stop by to check it out for yourself and form your own opinion. Tucked away in a bungalow with river and bridge views, you can spend the better part of a day working your way through the menu. There’s gumbo, soft shell crabs, fresh gulf grouper and oysters—lots and lots of oysters. They’re available raw, to be sure, but better yet, go for one of the over-the-top combos for which Boss is famous. How about baked oysters topped with capers, asparagus, bacon and artichokes? Or topped with blue crab, sherry and Monterey jack cheese? The options are almost endless. It may take you a few delicious visits to form an opinion.
3. Ed’s Seafood Shed – Spanish Fort, Alabama
This family-owned, beachfront joint on Mobile Bay frequently has live music and is such a rollicking good time that it would probably be a draw even if the food weren’t any good. But luckily, the food is awesome. You can dig into everything from crawfish and crab claws to platters of local oysters and soft shell crabs. The crab bisque is to die for, and the fantastic downhome side dishes just make everything more delectable — turnip greens, garlic cheese grits, Vidalia onion rings, red beans and rice. You can even polish off your meal with a slice of house-made Key lime pie. Mullet Mondays are just what they sound like — an all-you-can-eat feast of local mullet filets to kick each week off right.
4. Hogfish Bar & Grill – Stock Island, Florida
Wondering if the colorful, supremely laid-back vibe of the old Florida Keys still exists? Look no further than Hogfish Bar & Grill. Set on a lively yet somehow still snoozy marina, with plenty of outdoor tables and usually some patrons’ adorable canine buddies milling about, this is the type of insiders’ secret, where all that’s required of you is to relax and enjoy being in the best spot in town. And oh, how much there is to enjoy — local delicacies like conch fritters, coconut Keys shrimp and Cuban sandwiches; and glorious new-fangled concoctions such as the grouper reuben, crabmeat-stuffed hogfish and crispy hogfish fingers. Don’t worry if you don’t get to try everything on the menu — you’ll be back.
5. Provision Company – Southport, North Carolina
Set along the Southport Yacht Basin, on the Intracoastal Waterway and the mouth of the Cape Fear River, Provision is the type of trim, cheerful place to which boaters just naturally gravitate. But you might need to wait through a short line after you tie up your dinghy at the dock — plenty of landlubbers have cottoned onto this special spot too. Order at the counter inside — crab cakes, steamed shrimp, steamed clams, seafood chowder — then grab a beer from the cooler and find a place to sit on the deck out back. Everything’s paid on the honor system, which just adds to the low-key, unbuttoned vibe. Hint: Hit Provision for sunset if you can, you won’t regret it.
6. Sue Island Grill & Crab House – Essex, Maryland
We love a comeback story. After being a locals’ favorite for many years, Sue Island Grill & Crab House hit a bit of a slump — but new management has recently brought it roaring back to life. New in July 2016 they opened a boat bar (boat turned bar). Set on the Chesapeake Bay’s pretty Sue Island Creek, this Orioles- and Ravens-regalia festooned joint is a celebration of all the things Maryland does best, chief among them blue crabs. There’s crab soup, warm pretzels with crab dip, crab balls. The jumbo lump crab cake is achingly tender, one of the best you’ll ever have. And then there are the steamed crabs, glorious heaps of them, ready to be washed down with an icy cold Natty Boh.
7. Navy Beach Restaurant – Montauk, New York
Only in this neck of the woods would a chichi spot such as Navy Beach come close to qualifying as a dive, but after all, the Hamptons are right down the road. There’s a charming, sparkling indoor dining room, but grab one of the tables outside on the 200-foot private beach instead. You’ll look west over Fort Pond Bay and the notoriously stunning sunsets. Dig into such divine dishes as local fluke ceviche with pickled vegetables and house-made hot peppers and clam-and-corn chowder with basil oil and chives. There are killer cocktails like Painkillers and Dark and Stormies, and the extensive list of rose wines is not to be missed.
8. Seafood Sam’s – Sandwich, Massachusetts
Overlooking the Cape Cod Canal, this clean, bright spot is its own slice of Cape Cod heaven and has had an avid following since 1974. In Massachusetts they’re serious about their clams, and Seafood Sam’s respectfully upholds this tradition, offering top-notch clam chowder, fried whole-belly clams, fried clam strips and stuffed quahogs. But they don’t stop there. The fish fry for four is a bounteous spread of two pounds of fried haddock, mounds of French fries, a pint of coleslaw and tartar sauce and rolls. There’s also baked haddock with a crumbled Ritz-cracker topping and lobster Newburg sauce, hand-cut onion rings and a slew of local beers. No wonder folks return again and again and again.
9. Harraseeket Lunch & Lobster Company – Freeport, Maine
When you close your eyes and dream about the ideal lobster spot, this is probably what you envision. Set in a barn-like building right along the rocky Atlantic coast, Harraseeket has its own fleet of lobster boats and serves up the freshest, sweetest crustaceans you can imagine. If you’re a purist, you’ll want to order the whole steamed lobster without getting distracted by anything else. If you’re not quite as devout about your whole lobster, there are plenty of other delicious things on which to nosh. Clam cakes, fish chowder and fried scallops in “crumbs” or “batter” are all knockit-out-of-the-park bets, especially when accompanied by fried onion “middles” and followed by an enormous house-made whoopie pie.
10. Captain Lou’s – South Haven, Michigan
Patrons wash up at Captain Lou’s for many reasons — its raucous atmosphere and festive ramshackle cabin appearance, outdoor waterfront deck strung with twinkling lights. But when it comes to ordering some food to help line your stomach before pouring in countless rum runners and excellent craft beers, there’s really only one choice: perch. You can have it in a wrap, you can have it in a taco, but however you choose to have it prepared you won’t go wrong. Devouring the tasty local catch while listening to the live band and admiring the ducks skittering across the surface of the water, you’ll wonder what took you so long to find this place.
11. South Beach Bar & Grille – San Diego, California
If you’re in search of fish tacos in San Diego, their birthplace, your expectations are understandably high. Head straight to South Beach Bar & Grille to have them fulfilled. The Pacific Ocean views alone are worth the trip, not to mention the 22 tequilas and more than 40 beers — 20 of them on tap — but let’s be honest. It’s about the fish tacos. So after warming up with a ceviche or an octopus cocktail or perhaps some stuffed-shrimp jalapenos or baconwrapped swordfish medallions, get down to business with those tacos. You can have them with mahi, wahoo, albacore, shrimp, shark or lobster, all topped with shredded red cabbage and tangy salsa fresca. Ask the surfers bobbing in the waves outside the window — this is the life.
12. The Lockspot Café – Seattle, Washington
This funky, snug little spot has been in operation for more than 90 years. That in and of itself makes it a winner in our books. But add the location — next to the fascinating Ballard Locks, part of the Lake Washington Ship Canal — and the seafood-heavy menu, and it’s a shoo-in for a good time. They claim to have the best fish and chips around, made with cod, and that’s what many patrons go for. But we think any of the salmon dishes are more interesting options. After all, you’re in a city that considers salmon king. Try a bowl of the smoked salmon chowder, a blackened wild sockeye salmon Caesar salad or the teriyaki salmon platter. And why wait for lunch or dinner? Belly up to the bar in the morning for a plate of smoked salmon eggs Benedict (and a Bloody Mary, if you so choose).