1. The crab cooker
Newport Beach, Tustin; 949-673-0100, 714-573-1077; crabcooker.com
The Crab Cooker has been through tumultuous times in recent years, including the 2018 demolition of its original location in Newport Beach due to earthquake damage from nearby construction and then the pandemic.
However, the popular family seafood restaurant, which modestly proclaims “the best in the world” for its seafood and chowder, is back with a bang, landing at number one on our annual list.
Founded in 1951 and focused solely on seafood, through its restaurants and fish market, the Crab Cooker is a hotspot for the best of the Brackish Deeps.
Originally a funky spot known to Newport Beach locals, it now has two locations.
The restaurant offers fresh Pacific-caught Dungeness crab, Alaskan red king crab legs and claws, king salmon, scallops, oysters and lobster. Don’t forget the catch of the day, which may include white bass, halibut. swordfish and mahi mahi among the offerings.
The fish is usually grilled in mesquite with a light seasoning to let the flavors of the fish shine through.
The service and ambience is casual, old fashioned fish house. Meals are served on paper plates, there are no reservations and seats are allocated in order of arrival. The seats are functional and the decor is uniquely fish-kitsch.
The adjoining fish market is open seven days a week.
As owner Jim Wasko once told the Register, “The whole point is to change as little as possible when you have a family restaurant that’s been successful for 70 years.”
2. King’s Fish House
Huntington Beach, Laguna Hills, Orange; kingsfishhouse.com
King’s Fish House remains royalty among Orange County readers and diners. Based in Costa Mesa, the chain has expanded over the years to three locations in Orange County, plus eight more in other parts of Southern California, as well as Arizona and Nevada.
With its motto, “The house the seafood built,” it’s easy to guess where the emphasis is.
As the owner of its own distributor, King’s Seafood Distribution, the restaurants are assured of the cream of the peach.
Kings offers seasonal menus on which there may be surprising discoveries, such as the Australian lobster that King’s was able to ship live to the United States. There is also salmon and halibut from Alaska in season and a whole fish of red seabream from New Zealand.
King’s buys more than four million oysters a year, 10 varieties of which can be found at Raw Bar, along with other chilled shellfish.
3. The black marlin
560 El Camino Real, Tustin; 714-929-7427; blackmarlinrestaurant.com
The Black Marlin prides itself on being a small neighborhood restaurant that can compete with the big boys and offer unique service, meals and tastes you won’t find elsewhere.
The restaurant’s location in the historic Tustin Garage is apt because the owners say they offer “full-service” dining.
The title of the restaurant tells you that seafood is the main focus, but you can also try steaks, ribs and chicken.
However, the stars of the show are the signature seafood dishes prepared with the recipes of longtime executive chef Alfonso Gonzales, who is constantly experimenting with flavor combinations.
Recipes for dishes such as halibut and sea bass can change every two to three days, and diners are encouraged to ask the waiter for the dish of the day.
The restaurant also offers seasonal menus for lunch and Sunday brunch.
The bar offers a wide range of craft cocktails and live music is held on Sunday afternoons.