It’s not every day that I look forward to eating at a cheeseball tourist trap.
The Fishermen’s Grotto in San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, however, holds special meaning. Thirty years ago, when the sous chef was an undergrad at Stanford University, his father would breeze into town from their Iowa homestead and whisk him away to San Francisco.
There, the man would regale his son with stories of his own youth in 1950s San Francisco — and invariably, these trips would land the pair at a little place in the wharf. The old man would order a Shrimp Louis, remarking with prickly nostalgia that the pricey platter of creamy shrimp “used to cost just $3.50 back in the ’50s.” And over heaping plates of shrimp and fish, he would share the colorful stories of his bygone years.
So when the sous chef and I found ourselves in San Francisco last week, a visit to the old hangout became a must.
Battling sidewalks jammed with tourists and street artists offering to sketch our portraits, we wended our way along the breezy waterfront and found it: Fishermen’s Grotto, the very first restaurant in Fisherman’s Wharf …
The restaurant doesn’t look like much from the outside …
… but on the inside, its overwhelming kitsch was incredibly charming. Not to mention its terrific view of the water. (See above.) It wasn’t hard to see why Mike Geraldi, an Italian immigrant fisherman who first made his living selling his catches of the day in the wharf, saw the potential for a restaurant there, opening one in 1935.
Because we were in San Francisco, clam chowder seemed to be in order. Feeling just a bit too self-conscious to get the chowder in a touristy sourdough bowl ($9.95), we ordered the regular bowl ($8.50) instead.
It wasn’t the best chowder we’d had — some spoonfuls were so starchy and clumpy it felt a little as if we were spooning warm glue into our mouths. Tasty glue yes, but glue nonetheless. But then again, it wasn’t the worst chowder we’d had either.
Among the fish options, the filet of sole seemed to be the thing to have — so I ordered the special of the day, in which the sole came stuffed with dungeness crab and coated in a tangy cream sauce ($26.95).
Each bite was so rich — and quite packed with salt — I did not want to think of how many calories I was putting away.
The piece de resistance, of course, was the Shrimp Louis ($25.95). This platter was a sight to behold — it was basically a mound of lettuce topped with a massive amount of chilled baby shrimp (we counted at least 50), sprinkled with onions, olives, wedges of hardboiled egg, tomato and absolutely drowned in a thick cream sauce that in tasted something like a cross between ranch and Thousand Island dressing.
I won’t lie — this was tasty. And oddly satisfying — as long as you were able to not dwell on how much fat was in all that cream sauce.
And the beets cut out into darling little stars were a lovely surprise.
The sous chef polished off just about the entire plate.
Was it the best meal we’d had in San Francisco? Foodwise — certainly not.
But sitting at our little table, looking out at the water and watching the sous chef’s clear delight as he slowly demolished his father’s favorite Shrimp Louis, I realized how memorable the meal itself had been.
And as we made our way out after, the grotto’s dark and mysterious naugahyde-filled bar beckoned.
For the moment, however, the city awaited.
Another time, perhaps. We resolved to be back.
Fishermen’s Grotto, 9 Fisherman’s Wharf, San Francisco; 415.673.7025; http://www.fishermensgrotto.com/