Today’s culinary landscape is all about über-local ingredients and farm-to-table cooking. But America’s seafood restaurants were sourcing fish from their backyard long before it was popular.
For many of us, unfussy joints define seafood at its best. After all, what could be better than plump, juicy bivalves paired with a cold beer and views of bobbing boats? Or picking crabs on brown paper–covered communal tables, your hands a mess of clarified butter and Old Bay?
Our top picks include as many (if not more) down-and-dirty establishments—where no-frills décor meets the freshest grouper—as high-end restaurants helmed by top toques who marry French techniques and worldly ingredients with pristine bluefin, cobia, and escolar.
One thing is consistent: Each of these local favorites, in big cities and small towns, is a catch.
GT Fish & Oyster, Chicago, IL
This River North restaurant wows with its nautical good looks: Dutch Master–style oil paintings of stormy seas, fishermen’s-netting chandeliers, and a massive chalkboard drawing of a swordfish skeleton are cool rather than kitschy when paired with cane-backed chairs, gold-trimmed black tables, and plush banquettes. But the real reason to come is Giuseppe Tentori’s cooking: tuna poke with mangoes and cucumbers; taro chips with smoked haddock dip; and clam bake in a cauldron with corn, sausage and spicy seaweed in a white wine broth.
Mama's Fish House, Maui, HI
There’s nothing understated or outdated about this Maui classic, est. 1973. The setting—palm trees, tide pools, white sand beach—is beyond romantic, and the fish is as fresh as it gets. Menus, printed twice daily, credit fishermen by name, and may include local catches like opah, onaga, and ono, baked in a macadamia-nut crust, served up-country style with caramelized onions, avocado, and baby bok choy, or marinated in lime and coconut milk.
Hogfish Bar & Grill, Stock Island, FL
On Stock Island, Key West’s less rowdy neighbor, this low-key spot, tucked between a trailer park and the shrimp docks, is known for its pinks—Key West shrimp, distinguished by a pink dot in the center of its shell—and for its hogfish. The former come fried and barbecued, stuffed in tacos, or battered with coconut. But there’s really only one way to order hogfish. Ask for the Killer, which pairs fried, just-caught hogfish with melted Swiss cheese and mushrooms on Cuban bread.
Le Bernardin, New York, NY
This midtown power lunch go-to has gone from staid to stylish thanks to a recent renovation that ushered in twisted aluminum and undulating wood, a massive seascape triptych by Brooklyn artist Ran Ortner, and a sleek, new lounge for cocktails with seafood-centric small plates. But the transformation hasn’t altered the fact that Eric Ripert is New York’s reigning roi de poisson.
Red Fish Grill, New Orleans, LA
On Bourbon Street, amid jacket-and-tie establishments and strip clubs, this casual, family-friendly restaurant pairs colorful, funky décor (oyster-shaped mirrors, bar stools ornamented with alligators, and fish mobiles suspended from the ceiling) with creative interpretations of New Orleans seafood. The BBQ oysters—flash-fried, tossed in Crystal Hot Sauce, and served with blue cheese dressing—are a clever riff on Buffalo wings.
Cantler’s Riverside Inn, Annapolis, MD
You’ll find shrimp, scallops, oysters, and clams at this waterfront seafood shack, just over the Severn River from downtown Annapolis. And, of course, the house specialty of crab, specifically Maryland blue hard-shells, hauled in daily from the Chesapeake, steamed live, doused with J.O. Spice, and served on communal tables covered in brown paper.
Uchi + Uchiko, Austin, TX
When Tyson Cole opened his first restaurant in a refurbished bungalow just south of Town Lake, he introduced taco-obsessed Austinites to serious sushi with a Texan twist. At Uchiko, Uchi’s younger, sexier sibling, Top Chef winner Paul Qui draws on the same Japanese fusion flavors—and on inspiration from Thailand, Vietnam, and his native Philippines. At either restaurant, the omakase menu is the way to go; it might include maguro sashimi with goat cheese, Fuji apple, and pumpkin-seed oil, or maplewood-smoked baby yellowtail with yucca chips, marcona almonds, and garlic brittle.
The Walrus and the Carpenter, Seattle, WA
Named for a Lewis Carroll poem and located in a former shipping factory, this Ballard neighborhood newbie has become a fast favorite. Credit goes largely to the oysters (Samish Sweets, Hammersleys, Treasure Coves varieties), all from local waters, all expertly shucked and served in metal baskets with fresh lemon, shaved horseradish, and cheat sheets to let you identify one bivalve from the next. You could also make a meal here of small plates, like grilled sardines and house-smoked trout with lentils, walnuts, crème fraîche, and pickled onions.
The Optimist, Atlanta, GA
Whether you swing by the first-come, first-served oyster bar, which serves bivalves on the half shell and opens to a courtyard with a putt-putt course, or go for a full meal at the barrel-vaulted main restaurant, in the former headquarters of Talmadge Country Hams, it’s clear that chef Adam Evans knows seafood. One must-order dish: the peel-and-eat Georgia shrimp, with “come back” sauce (a souped-up Russian dressing) and duck fat–poached swordfish.
Son of a Gun, Los Angeles, CA
Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, the duo behind Animal, have followed up their paean to all things carnivorous with this tribute to their Florida roots. The place goes for a cavelike, maritime-man aesthetic: deer busts, life preservers, and knickknacks salvaged from Dotolo’s grandfather’s garage. Reservations are limited, so grab a seat at the bar and prepare to wait for your meal of small plates like peel-and-eat Santa Barbara prawns and two-bite lobster rolls with celery and lemon aioli.
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