The Palo Alto Weekly last sent a reviewer to The Fish Market in 1994. The restaurant was a local institution even then. Founders Fred Duckett and Robert Wilson fired up their famous mesquite grill during the Gerald Ford administration, when the term "Silicon Valley" was barely in the lexicon and a gallon of gas cost about 60 cents.
Today, with four other Bay Area locations and two in southern California, as well as its own seafood processing and distribution company, the Palo Alto Fish Market — still in its original location — is one of the true grande dames of the local restaurant scene. Duckett died in 2006; Wilson continues to be involved in the operations.
The shiny and new tend to occupy the attention of critics, but what of those rare places that have managed to transcend trends and withstand the enormous pressures, economic and otherwise, of the industry? I made a few visits to the El Camino Real mainstay for a little nostalgia and to get a sense of how The Fish Market has managed to stay relevant while its hometown barely resembles the sleepy college town it was on opening day in 1976.
The culinary ethos here has always been as no-nonsense as the restaurant's name: a focus on fresh, lightly seasoned, charbroiled fish served with simple sides and no pretense. The menu changes slightly every day depending on the catch. One thing that hasn't changed is the basket of pre-dinner Boudin sourdough bread and butter.
"Many restaurants no longer provide bread as a standard offering, but it is one of our hallmarks," Vice President of Operations Dwight Colton said in a phone interview. "I think our customers would revolt if we changed that practice."
Complimentary bread or not, fans of trendy fusion or complex sauces might be feeling a yawn about now. But The Fish Market's focus on classic, quality seafood has proven an enduring recipe for success. They also have made some smart menu tweaks over the years, such as adding a small sushi menu about a decade ago and, more recently, ahi poke.
Everything about this poke was on point: shimmering cubes of ruby-red yellowfin tuna delicately bathed in sesame oil and soy and served atop a crunchy seaweed salad. A wasabi kick heated things up on the back end. Airy wonton chips, served alongside the generous mound of glistening fish, were light and crunchy. Poke perfection.
The Baja-style crunchy fish tacos ($14.75 for two) also showcase The Fish Market's more modern side. Corn tortillas enveloped a huge hunk of moist, grilled swordfish, topped with cabbage, cheese, chipotle ranch and pico de gallo. A delicious mesquite grilled artichoke ($9.95), served with a zingy garlic-lemon aioli, rounded out our appetizers.
The linguine with Manila clams ($19.50) has stood the test of time with its classic wine-and-garlic sauce, just a touch of heat from red pepper and a generous serving of sweet, plump clams. The cioppino ($25 small, $36 large), on the menu since the restaurant's earliest days and described therein as "famous," is still a solid choice, with two large crab legs, shrimp, mussels, calamari and rockfish in a slightly peppery stew made extra chunky with tomatoes. This signature dish didn't quite feel "famous" to me (and I daresay Sam's Chowder House now has the rightful claim to the best cioppino in the area). This one tasted a little flat and was too heavy on the tomato chunks, suggesting a hearty pomodoro pasta sauce more than a seafood stew.
The Ecuadoran seabass ($28.95) initially looked somewhat plain and disappointing, an unadorned piece of fish, a tad on the paltry side with a ho-hum scoop of vegetables and a side of French fries. But one bite erased any doubt and made clear why The Fish Market still has a lobby full of people waiting for tables on weekend nights. Simple, delicate, moist and smoky, the perfectly grilled piece of fish was a testament to the primordial exquisiteness of open-flame cooking. And those plain-looking, lightly seasoned vegetables turned out to be fresh, crunchy and delicious.
Desserts are old school and comforting, along the lines of key lime pie ($8.50) and warm apple crisp a la mode ($9.50). I happily tucked into a dessert special on offer over Fathers' Day weekend, a warm upside-down apple pie ($9.50) with a caramelized walnut crust and cinnamon ice cream.
My visits to the restaurant came at peak weekend dinner times and the servers had to move at warp speed through the large dining room. Yet no one missed a beat. Service was always efficient, friendly and well-timed. Cocktails like the "Mandarin Mule" ($11) were generous and expertly mixed, like in, well, the good old days. No trendy, oversized ice cubes in Lilliputian glasses here.
Still, time marches on, and eventually it is almost always deemed that changes must be made. Colton told me they are planning significant renovations to the restaurant in 2020 to give the place a more modern look. I can't decide yet if I like that idea, but I suppose you have to trust a restaurant group that seems to have been making smart decisions for more than four decades.
The Fish Market
3150 El Camino Real, Palo Alto
Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Sunday, noon to 9 p.m. Happy hour: Monday-Friday, 3-6 p.m.; Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 4 p.m.
Credit cards: Yes
Outdoor seating: Yes
Alcohol: Full bar
Noise level: Moderate