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Go Fish 

Buckets o' crab at Art's Crab Shak and overflowing bowls o' seafood at the Old Clam House

Wednesday, Jun 30 2004
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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).

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.

And the gathering hordes at Swan's wouldn't have been pleased if I'd lingered over my novel, whereas there was no problem in the sunny, large barroom of the Old Clam House, the original dining room of the now two-room restaurant. (The bay that Bayshore once skirted has been moved a mile away, through the magic of landfill.) There's a vintage tin ceiling, though the half a life-size red Jaguar XKE mounted over the bar is a reminder that time marches on (even the Jag is now a relic). The vast menu, largely seafood (at lunch there's a hamburger and a ham-and-cheese omelet, joined at night by a N.Y. steak), mixes classics (steamed cherrystone clams, blue point oysters, crab Louie, clam chowder) with more modern dishes (blackened catfish, popcorn shrimp) and the kitchen's own inventions (pasta con camarones -- prawns cooked with garlic, tomatoes, and cream on egg noodles; mescalanza -- scallops, prawns, mussels, crab legs, and oysters Rockefeller served with bordelaise sauce, a light collation).

I liked the old-fashioned touch of a little cup of piping hot clam broth with shreds of potato and onion that came unbidden; with the good French bread and butter, it could almost be a meal in itself (I was told I could have as much broth as I wanted). But it was soon supplanted by an enormous bowl heaped with clams, oysters, and mussels in the shell, a couple of big scallops, several plump shrimp in the shell, some crab legs, and half a waterlogged ear of corn. Alarmingly, it was on fire, or rather, there was some fresh rosemary burning in a mussel shell atop the dish, a refinement that's new to me (though perhaps old to the Clam House).

With the exception of the corn and one of the two oysters (aged and whiffy), everything was sweet, tender, and delicious. I was enjoying myself immensely. Perhaps again under the influence of Norris (McTeague buys a pitcher of steam beer on his way home from his Sunday dinner), I tried the Old Clam House's own pleasant pale ale. I had no room for the only dessert on offer (oddly, crème brûlée) and took quite a mess of clams and mussels with me. "They treat seafood with respect, if not genius," I thought as I drove away, replete.

My respect for the kitchen grew when I returned with Tom and Michelle for another lunch: Each of the three well-cooked dishes we ordered could easily have fed two. Tom surprised us by working through all of the prawns, scallops, crab claws, and mussels that topped a mountain of pasta and marinara sauce in his seafood Provençal (though not all of the pasta); I took home more than half of the amazingly tasty angel hair pasta topped with salmon, rock shrimp, and scallops in a white wine sauce that Michelle ordered, along with quite a bit of the massive combination fried seafood platter I got, a beautiful assortment of scallops, oysters, prawns, calamari, clams, and sole piled on top of fries and tricked out with lemon, cocktail sauce, and tartar sauce. This time we did order a crème brûlée, which was surprisingly tiny after the main courses fit for giants -- and surprisingly perfect.

Another pass at Art's yielded increased respect for the fry cook; I got fragile red snapper and prawns in a crisp batter crunchy with cornmeal, and crab cakes, a little too bready, formed into precise discs that looked curiously like the Krabby Patties served at the Krusty Krab. I wouldn't order the unremarkable peach cobbler again. But I'm looking forward to our next messy, buttery bucket o' garlic crab.

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Meredith Brody

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