By Molly Gore
By Lou Bustamante
By Anna Roth
By Anna Roth
By Anna Roth
By Anna Roth
I haven't the faintest idea why I found Art's Crab Shak so alluring whenever I drove past the place, located on a singularly unpromising strip of Broadway in not-quite-downtown Oakland. Maybe it was just the incongruity of it being the only restaurant for blocks around, with a somewhat opaque facade (windowless bricks, a purple swinging door) and a sign giving almost equal weight to a hefty cocktail glass as it did the legend "LUNCHES DINNERS." (Some enterprising collector of means, or a museum of neon art, should snare the iconic '50s Dave's Coffee Shop sign, complete with chef, still fronting a site several blocks north that's been closed for quite a while.) The quasi-folksy spelling of "Shak" always drew my eye; I wondered why the owners hadn't gone all the way and called it Art's Krab Shak, helplessly in thrall as I am to the Krusty Krab, where SpongeBob is the fry cook.
I was so intrigued that I said, "Let's go!," before Greil had even finished telling me, almost out of the blue during one of your standard restaurant conversations, that he'd been there and it was good. "It's not cheap," he cautioned in reply. Despite my enthusiasm and his willingness, it was quite some time before we got around to trying the place, with Jenny and Emily, on a Thursday night after an early movie.
Art's Crab Shak, which has been in business for some 60 years and under the current owners for a dozen, is the picture of a dive. You have to blink to adjust your eyes to the dim interior even if it's dark outside. Art's is about one-third bar (complete with TVs tuned to sports events) and two-thirds booths, lined with beer signs and remarkably convincing fake ferns; a spot that specializes in, as its name suggests, crab -- "sections of crab in the shell sautéed in our own recipe of fresh mushrooms, garlic and herbs," as the menu has it. There's a lot more on the menu, mostly fish and shellfish, mostly fried. But the crab gets pride of place, offered in quantities whose descriptions and prices resist logical deconstruction (if the large bucket, 83 ounces, serves three people at $54.05, why is the family bucket, at 165 ounces nearly twice as big, described as being for four people and priced at $115? Perhaps arithmetic has changed quite a bit since my youth).
Piedmont, CA 94611
Garlic crab (35 ounces for one) $25.95
The Old Clam House
Clambake special $19.95
Fried seafood combination $19.95
Angel hair pasta with seafood $10.50
Crème brûlée $4
Art's Crab Shak, 4031 Broadway (at 40th Street), Oakland, (510) 654-2864. Open Monday through Thursday from 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., Friday from 11:30 a.m. to midnight, Saturday from noon to midnight, and Sunday from 1 to 11 p.m. No reservations. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: easy. Noise level: moderate.
The Old Clam House, 299 Bayshore (at Oakdale), 826-4880. Open Monday through Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday from noon to 9 p.m. Reservations accepted. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: moderately easy. Muni: 9, 23. Noise level: moderate.
In the event, the four of us squeezed into one of Art's perplexingly small booths and ordered the medium bucket (53 ounces, $40.25), fried cod, fried oysters, french fries, a large dinner salad with prawns, and a side of coleslaw. (Jenny accurately foretold that we'd be grateful for something green and crisp and cool.) The table was already crowded with a variety of condiments, among them several hot sauces, including Tabasco and Crystal. Eventually (service not being a hot item that night; Greil and Jenny assured me that paradoxically, on the weekends, when the place is much more crowded, service is more efficient), it became even more crowded, what with drinks, which Greil fetched from the bar, and our food and its accouterments, which included crackers for the crab, but, curiously, no knives. (Even curiouser, we had to pay for our meal before it was served.)
The crab, artlessly piled in a big bowl, was messy and delightful. The shells were thin enough that they could almost be cracked with your hands alone. Our fingers grew slippery with butter and gritty with spices, and we enjoyed eating the unexpected slices of mushroom (cooking them with crab being a truly labor-intensive and elaborate method of improving the hell out of button mushrooms). The cod was snowy and sweet under its crisp crust, and the oysters were moist and saline under theirs -- somebody back in the kitchen knows how to fry. The pale, tails-on shrimp piled on the salad greens were slightly soggy, but a dip in Italian dressing improved them a bit. Only I seemed to enjoy the mildly garlicked, thin toasted buns. And none of us needed to order any peach cobbler, the only dessert on the menu, after we'd eaten all the fish, all the oysters, all the potatoes, and almost all the crab. (One three-legged section remained, probably out of politeness. I took it home.) It was a fine meal. There was a timeless quality about it, like the décor, like the sign.
A day later and I was ready to take myself out to lunch to another timeless and eccentric seafood shack of sorts, Swan Oyster Depot; it had been too long since I'd sat at its shabby counter, and I was reading Frank Norris' McTeague, set mostly on Polk Street only a couple of blocks away. But a timely tip sent me farther afield, to the Old Clam House on Bayshore, which I realized, as I sat waiting for my clambake special, was much more appropriate. McTeague, who enjoys a Sunday dinner of "thick gray soup; heavy, underdone meat, very hot, on a cold plate; two kinds of vegetables; and a sort of suet pudding, full of strong butter and sugar" at a "coffee-joint" on Polk in the very first paragraph of the novel, set in the late 1890s, couldn't have eaten at Swan's, which opened in 1912 ("The same year as the Titanic," a counterman once told me cheerfully), whereas he could have taken his new wife, Trina, over to the Old Clam House with ease: It's been open since 1861.