Don’t make the mistake of confusing Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey, Calif., with its famous namesake in San Francisco, two hours’ drive north.
And don’t make the blunder of visiting the Monterey wharf without getting to know the Shake brothers.
Unlike its big-city counterpart, which extends for half a mile alongside San Francisco Bay, the Monterey version occupies a single pier about two blocks long. It is located across a busy plaza from the Old Custom House, a national historic landmark built in 1827 when California was still a province of Mexico.
The original Fisherman’s Wharf was constructed in 1845. Monterey was then a major Pacific port and San Francisco was still a tiny village called Yerba Buena. The early whaling industry was supplanted by a sardine fishery that for many decades supported the local economy.
“When I was a kid growing up here,” said restaurateur Chris Shake, “the fishing industry was bustling. And it wasn’t just sardines—there was calamari, cod, tuna, salmon, crab, LOTS of fish.
“My mom and dad settled here in 1950,” he said. “My father was Pakistani. But because my mother was Italian, he became an Italian chef. Then Dad bought a 40-seat chowder house. Today it’s my restaurant, the Old Fisherman’s Grotto, and we seat 235.”
Shake, 55, said he watched as the catches of fish grew progressively smaller. The establishment in 1992 of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary “forced fishermen to look into other businesses to survive. The old fishing businesses started turning into food establishments and gift shops.”
The Monterey Bay Aquarium, arguably the finest aquarium on the west coast of North America, had opened in 1984 and was drawing throngs of new tourists to the Cannery Row section of Monterey, one mile west of Fisherman’s Wharf.
“The aquarium gave Monterey a year-round tourist business,” Shakes said. “Before that, we had visitors just three months a year.”
He and his brothers have done well. Most of them remain on the Wharf. Besides the Grotto, Chris owns Kocomo’s Fish Market and the Pirate’s Cove gift shop. Tini has Isabella’s Italian Seafood. Angelo operates Glass Bottom Boat Tours. And Benji runs Monterey Bay Whale Watch. “People came from all over the world last year just to see the blue whales offshore,” Chris said.
Another brother, Sabu Jr., operates The Fish Hopper (www.fishhopper.com) on Cannery Row. And all three family restaurants proudly serve their father’s original clam-chowder recipe. Served in a sourdough bread bowl, it’s a wonderfully creamy potage, rich in clams and potatoes, and for several years now it’s won the “best clam chowder” award in the annual Monterey Wine Festival competition.
At the Grotto (www.oldfishermansgrotto.com), I supped on a seafood appetizer sampler (crab cake, prawns, calamari, sesame-crusted ahi and a grilled half artichoke) and a delicious macadamia-crusted halibut entrée.
All Shakes restaurants subscribe to the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s “Seafood Watch” code. Designed to dissuade restaurants from serving overfished or endangered species, this program has been adopted by seafood lovers across the nation. For more, see http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/cr/seafoodwatch.aspx