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Catch of the Bay

[whitespace] Marina Seafood Grotto
Christopher Gardner

Winning Grotto Number: The far-from-stuffy Marina Seafood Grotto provides enough history and character to make it worth repeated return visits.

Any lover of unpretentious seafood diners will feel like a fish in water at Alviso's Marina Seafood Grotto

By Joseph Izzo Jr.

I LEARNED A LONG TIME AGO, if you want to know what people really think about a restaurant, or a dish they ate, don't ask if they like it. Ask if they'll go back, or order that dish again. Walking under the shredding, salt-eaten canopy of the Marina Seafood Grotto in Alviso, I had to ask myself this very question.

Before I explain why the Grotto is worth a visit, I must first explain why some would not want to come here. The condition of the interior is so old and beaten, my companion and I found ourselves stuck between laughter and grief.

Big pieces of plaster have dropped from the ceiling, leaving Rorschach designs in both the bar and dining room. The carpeting needs to be replaced immediately. An aquarium filled with oversized koi provided some relief, but not enough, especially when the fish appeared to become agitated from lack of space in the murky water.

Except for the prices, the menu hasn't been changed in a long time. Most of the seafood comes straight from the freezer. Don't expect fresh-catch announcements and grandiose descriptions of sauces and culinary methodology.

The Grotto harks back to another time, another era, which is precisely why I'd come back and have come back over the years. The Grotto is an experience, and we can all use something like this to snap us out of our lethargy. This place oozes with history, with a character that looks you straight in the eye and slaps you on the back. You can smell the salt here, the fish, hear the seagulls and the trains clanking over the rails.

Count on plenty of local action. The kindly residents of this historic enclave fill the stools and the tables like the water did during the great flood of '83. Get them going and they'll tell stories about wayward skippers and wild-eyed duck hunters slurping chowder with gunpowder burns on their fingers. To quote a few locals: "It's not as stuffy as Vahl's," said Todd, referring to Alviso's other landmark dining establishment. "It's the only place where I can escape the rat race of Silicon Valley," claimed a worker from Cisco. When asked what his secret was for preserving his youthful appearance, the bartender said, "I've been pickled in brandy."

The Marina Seafood Grotto is a blue-collar fish house, pure and simple, a Steinbeck sort of place where you can come as you are, have fun and not feel pressured. It's not stuffy, that's for sure. As for the food, you won't be disappointed if you select carefully and ask a lot of questions. We did, and the waitress guided us to the best items on the menu.

We opened with cups of clam chowder, abundant with clams and potatoes in a rich, milky bisque. Order a bowl ($3) if chowder is all you want. We followed up with a local favorite of the house, Hangtown Fry ($8.50), an open-faced omelet constructed with breaded oysters, bacon and tomato. We split it as an appetizer, but because of its filling nature, it could suffice as an entree in itself. We also had a prawn cocktail ($5.50), not the best we've had, but the prawns--medium-sized--were certainly fresh-tasting and ample in number. The cocktail sauce was predominantly ketchup and required fresh lemon and Tabasco to enhance flavor.

The best item that evening was the poached salmon filet ($10.25). In addition to the sea bass ($10.25) and the filet of sole ($9.25), we were told, the salmon is the only other fish that is fresh and not fresh frozen. We received a generous portion delicately poached and served in a simple state without heavy garnish or sauce. A squeeze of lemon provided the finishing touch. The tartar sauce, besides being flat and overcome with mayonnaise, was unnecessary and actually detracted from the flavor of the fish. If anything, order more lemon and some melted butter. The green beans on the side were forgettable, the fries big, fat and crispy.

Next time, I'll skip the Seafood Galaxy ($9.50)--fresh and fresh-frozen fish and shellfish deep fried in a leaden batter--and order the clams Bordelaise ($6), still a house specialty, brimming with clams and garlic in a good broth worth the effort to soak with bread.

When the sun sets, the Grotto takes on a whole new character. The music starts--usually blues--and the voices from the bar drift through the dining room without pause. Everybody seemed to be having a pretty good time. What more could you ask? We had to laugh--not at the place (we forgot those glaring flaws), but at what Todd had said: "It's not as stuffy as Vahl's." I never found Vahl's all that stuffy, but now I understand what he means.

Marina Seafood Grotto
Address: 995 Elizabeth St., Alviso
Phone: 408/262-2562
Hours: Lunch Mon.-Fri. from 11:30am. Dinner Mon.-Sat. from 5pm, Sunday from 4pm
Cuisine: Blue-collar fish house
Entrees: $7-$20, most entrees under $10

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From the June 24-30, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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