The fish house
The carcass of the Nantucket Restaurant lies at water’s edge on the northwest corner of Crockett.
The Nantucket was a local seafood joint, one of those simple, honest, unpretentious places that offered an easy atmosphere, neighborly service and a good meal at a fair price. The best thing on the menu was the battered, deep fried captains platter with French fries and the common veggie medley of broccoli, cauliflower and carrots.
The platter included prawns, scallops, calamari, clam strips and cod, and plenty of it. The fries were pedestrian but the chef managed to get the veggie medley just right, firm and full of color.
Back in the day, a veggie medley was ladled out of an icky smelling vat. The vegetables had lost their color, unless you consider gray a vegetable color, and the texture was somewhere between mealy and mush. At some point in culinary time cooks learned that vegetables were best cooked to a sort of al dente, that broccoli should be bright green and, like other things in life, cauliflower can be more satisfying when it’s stiff rather than limp.
If deep fried wasn’t your deal there was always grilled fish or steak, or one of a variety of seafood pasta dishes. And don’t forget the chowder with a little packet of oyster crackers on the side.
The Nantucket was unpretentious, the everybody knows the waitresses and bartender place, appointed with the maritime kitsch that’s mandatory for a fish house. The dining room was decorated with paintings of ships and ocean scenes and depictions of old salt, seafarers; wizened ancients wearing watch caps or slickers and invariably sucking on a pipe.
We’d sit on the outdoor deck, at picnic tables painted a bright white, and covered with blue and white checked tablecloths. From here we’d watch the ship traffic, oil tankers mostly. The inbound ships headed east to the refineries on Suisun Bay were empty and rode high in the water. Once laden, the ships would lowride back through the Carquinez Strait, through the San Pablo and San Francisco Bays and finally out to sea.
The bright, fresh air of the outside dining deck was interrupted by the smell of frying fish and filled with the sounds of squawking gulls and the slooshing of fishing boats bobbing at the adjacent pier. The restaurant was located yards from the railroad tracks and the occasional freight would shake the restaurant and disturb the peace. But that was okay, it was part of the ambience.
It’s been years since I’ve been at that waterfront. I guess the last time was when I stopped on the way back home from somewhere east of home, to have a martini and a plate of fried calamari.
“We are sad to inform our loyal customers but the Nantucket Restaurant will be closing permanently Sunday, February 17, 2019,” read the restaurant’s farewell message. “Thank you for your continued patronage.”
The lease was up, the owner was 81 and I guess he’d had enough of the restaurant biz.
The site had been home to a restaurant since 1928, the first one named Dowrelio’s. Ninety-one years later there were no takers. The location was a mixture of good and bad; the good being a spot right on the water’s edge, decorated with piers and fishing boats. The bad was that the place wasn’t easy to find; down a dark winding road, past a graveyard of old shipping containers and into a cratered, dirt and graveled parking lot. For the newcomer it could look downright sketchy.
There’s not much left of that section of waterfront that’s worth anything. Even the bright view has vacated the place. In August of 2020 a fire took out the restaurant and most of the piers. What was left of the restaurant has been covered over with a sarcophagus of blue stucco and plywood, graffiti scarred and forlorn.
The umbrella shaded white picnic tables are gone and the once cheery deck is littered with broken glass, coils of rusted out cable and mounds of trash. All that remains of one pier is a stretch of charred tatters. A few lonely pilings are all that remain of the other pier.
One boat remains, half submerged, and a few feet away a mysterious looking old hulk of something sits bogged in the shallows.
For those of us who enjoyed going for a casual seaside lunch, the scene seems like a desecration.
Crockett is small town, slow paced America, incongruously planted in the busy, plugged-in San Francisco Bay Area. Downtown consists of a few streets, lined with small storefronts that house little ventures powered by big dreams. Folks trying to turn their passions into profits.
Some of the storefronts are empty, littered with the left behind remnants of American Dreams that never came true.
Scattered among empty storefronts are a pet shop, an antique shop, cafes and a sandwich joint. Two taverns have been COVID closed. Toots Tavern, served drinks, snacks and Friday night music. The other, Club Tac, nearly a century old, is your basic small town dive.
Crockett’s relative affordability, has turned the town into something of an artists community, attracting sculptors, woodworkers, oil painters, ceramicists, photographers, jewelers, writers and poets.
Crockett is built on hills. The homes are an eclectic architectural jumble, perched on the slopes that rise up from the Carquinez Strait. The streets are narrow, and they rise, fall and curve, sometimes sharply, through the hills like a concrete roller coaster. There’s no tract housing here. Ornate Victorians sit next to split levels down the block from simple boxes. It’s the clear lack of a clear plan that gives the hillside neighborhood its charm.
Farther up in the heights that were grassland when the town was new are the tract homes. From here the residents enjoy spectacular views of the waterways, the bridges and the old town. Looking down from these heights is like looking down into the past.
Crockett can appear gritty and rough, but a walk through the streets reveals a place that’s easy, modest and unassuming. Residents don’t offer any apologies for the empty storefronts and the lack of many of what we consider essential services. For those you have to go up the interstate to the next towns and that seems perfectly fine for them. For me part of the appeal is the friendly, small, Midwest town feel without the stricture of conservatism. It’s one of those rare places where you can enjoy a slow pace yet be able to take a short drive to the vibrant city when the mood strikes.