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15 years in a row!
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2018 -
Monterey Herald

2013 - 2014 - Monterey County Weekly
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of the YEAR 2018
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Monterey County Herald Go! Magazine,

Wine Enthusiast Magazine,

Monterey County Tourism Category 2007,
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Monterey Bar Area Green Business Program,
for exceeding environmental regulatory requirements,
preventing pollution, and conserving natural resources.

Best Calamari in Monterey County 2013 Best Clam Chowder in Monterey County for the 10th Year in a Row 2013


Heart and sole Posted and Published on Thu, Feb. 8, 2007

The spirit of Sabu Shake Sr. lives on in venerable Old Fisherman's Grotto
Much has changed along Fisherman's Wharf over the last half century. Gone are the sardine boats, the abalone shell grinding company, the bait shops, the old diving bell. Standing the test of time, it seems, is Old Fisherman's Grotto (formerly The Chowder House), one of the first restaurants to usher in the Wharf's modern revival in the early 1950s. The Grotto has humble roots, started by Sabu and Isabella Shake; Sabu working his way up from dishwasher to restaurant owner in a study of hard work and perseverance. The couple had six sons, who have branched out into different ventures involving restaurants, whale watching and real estate. After Sabu's death in 1998, son Chris Shake took over the Grotto, by then a venerable institution attracting both tourists and locals who seemed to embrace Sabu's warm personality -- punctuated by his signature white cowboy hat. Today that white hat sits in a chair -- Sabu's chair -- just inside the 250-seat restaurant that sits mid-Wharf, windows facing the bay. And a statue of the smiling patriarch stands outside the front door, where Sabu used to pass out free glasses of wine to waiting customers (a tradition nixed by city officials, prompting Sabu to give away chowder samples instead). Chris Shake began making changes to the restaurant, but slowly and quietly, perhaps out of respect for his father. Alterations occurred most noticeably in the décor, but also were evident on the menu. Remaining was the old man's heart, with Chris Shake continuing the legacy of a warm handshake and a sincere smile from an on-site, working owner.

Shake works daily 12-hour shifts to keep this legacy alive, and relies on Chef Juan Ponce and a well-trained service staff to handle the rest. The menu is dominated by seafood. However, unlike years past, selections are sustainable, culled from the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch list. And ever present is the restaurant's famed clam chowder, a closely guarded recipe rumored only known by four people. HE SAID In the past I've railed against the cheesy, Brad-from-Omaha qualities of The Wharf, vowing to gnaw my own leg off if ever caught again in this cruelest of traps. So it was with great trepidation that I walked into the Grotto on a recent Saturday night, turning on my heels when told of the 40-minute wait. "Forty minutes on the Wharf is a lifetime!" I cried. We reluctantly took a pager from Mr. Shake himself, and I began what I hoped to be a long walk off a short pier. We stopped near the end and stared over the side into the blackness, drawn by a strange crunching sound. Then my daughter spotted it, in a beam of moonlight, a backstroking otter gobbling up a whole crab. My mood brightened, and I suddenly had a hankering for some fresh seafood. To my delight, the Grotto delivered. Similar restaurants over-dress their fish with heavy-handed sauces or encrust them with all manner of starches. There is some of that here, but a lighter touch allows the fresh fish to shine. The Grotto Seafood Sampler ($13.95) allowed, to my surprise, plenty of sampling. The large platter included half a grilled artichoke (slightly soggy but nicely sweetened with balsamic), a large crab cake (with crab the main ingredient) and a mound of calamari fritti (cooked quickly and expertly).

I chose as my entrée a special, crab-encrusted sea bass with grilled baby bok choy and chunks of fresh mango. This was an artful presentation, generously portioned and thoughtfully prepared. The crab meat magically clung to the fillet like a net and served to complement, not compete with, the moist and almost creamy white bass. A side of sweet pineapple/coconut risotto was almost dessert-like but never cloying. The famous clam chowder is best described as decadent, not chalky from flour, but using high-quality cream instead. Our server was efficient and ever-present, without hovering or being annoyingly overeager, and he knew the menu inside and out. Overall, I was surprised and humbled. And I will return. SHE SAID Remember when your parents took you along to a fancy restaurant? Your napkin was to remain in your lap, you weren't allowed to fidget, and you were reminded, under no uncertain terms, that you were to be seen and not heard. As I sit at our table in Old Fisherman's Grotto, this memory makes me smile (and stop fidgeting), for it isn't hard to imagine this was such a restaurant back in the old days. We spend an inordinate amount of time perusing the voluminous menu. There are additional pages of the night's specials, and an entire page dedicated to crab, prepared in what seems every conceivable way. I claim the large crab cake on the appetizer platter and find it just perfect -- lightly breaded and seared, all crab and no fillers. Next, I long for the Dungeness crab Louie ($18.95), but just to buck the system, I order the maple soy skirt steak ($19.95), which appears as a gorgeous, long, glazed ribbon cross-hatched with grill marks. It's so tender I don't need the heavy steak knife it comes with, and I can't possibly begin to finish this huge portion (but visions of a delectable steak sandwich for lunch tomorrow dance in my head). A bed of scalloped potatoes and bright steamed vegetables (julienned carrots, zucchini, broccoli florets and slender green beans -- I eat them all) serve as a backdrop for this dramatic entrée. A modestly priced bottle of Morgan Sauvignon Blanc ($22) paired nicely with this meal. I want to return and share the paella ($31.95) -- I've only seen it on one other Peninsula menu -- or save my allowance, don a bib and, like that otter just outside, crack up an entire crab ($27.95). The bill arrives with a rosebud, which I carry as we amble back along the walkway lined with fairy lights. We buy ice cream and caramel apples and stop to watch the quick-sketch artist and listen to the sea lions. Some things just never go out of style.

Mike Hale and Melissa Snyder approach their reviews from a couple's perspective. All visits are made anonymously. © Monterey County Herald Newspaper, A MediaNews Group publication.

Old Fisherman's Grotto . 39 Fisherman's Wharf . Monterey, California 93940 . Phone 831.375.4604 . Fax 831.375.0391
A Seafood, Steak and Pasta Restaurant on Fisherman's Wharf  in Monterey

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