There's a widely held belief that, in metropolitan areas at least, a restaurant's proximity to a large body of water has an inversely proportional relationship to the quality of its food. I assume that for restaurant owners, the logic goes something like this: People will come for the view lots of people, including tourists from Podunk who are only coming for the view so best to keep the menu a sort of mish-mash of lowest-common-denominator offerings rather than risk the exotic.
In the Bay Area, examples of this dazzling-view/ho-hum-food formula exist on every shoreline. Consider the majority of restaurants in the Monterey Harbor and Santa Cruz Wharf, or San Francisco's Beach Chalet and Cliff House (prior to the 2003-2004 renovation). In the East Bay, there are two such eateries, which happen to share an owner: Kincaid's in Jack London Square, and Skates on the Bay in the Berkeley Marina. Our recent visit to Skates supported our water-view prejudices, which is only to say: don't go for the food. But we're guessing you knew that already.
Skates was opened in 1984 by Seattle-based Restaurants Unlimited, Inc., the folks we have to thank for Cinnabons everywhere. That provides a little context for the menu: standard pub fare of soups, salads, and sandwiches; an array of classic seafood entrees; and a few poultry options. It's heavy on the meat roasts, steak, ribs, and the fascinating inclusion of bacon-wrapped Kobe meatloaf. Salads appear again on the weekend brunch menu, along with an array of egg dishes and a few surprises: chocolate French toast, smoked salmon crepes, and a lavender cosmo to wash it all down.
Pear lovers will enjoy the mixed greens with maple vinaigrette, which features a pear vinaigrette and pear slices, but others might find it a little overbearing. Other dishes typically reliant on their powerful flavors tend toward blandness: the crabcakes tasted more fried than anything else, while a pulled pork sandwich so enormous that it was difficult to eat tasted mainly of mild barbecue sauce. A side order of sweet potato fries was savory but noticeably limp.
It's important to note that "don't go for the food" doesn't mean "don't go." If you're looking for a unique and pleasantly surreal dining experience, do go to Skates for the location (on stilts in the bay, with views of the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance and the Berkeley fishing pier a stone's throw away); scale (a sprawling dining room, ample bar seating, cavernous ceilings); and kitsch (the resolutely un-chic, brown-and-navy plaid rug, the Chuck E. Cheese charm of eager servers). For optimum enjoyment, Skates simply requires a shrewd strategy. I suggest a four-pronged approach involving alcohol, clam chowder, chocolate cake, and the sun.
1. Alcohol. Skates has three enormous windows looking out at miles of the bay and its coastline. Roughly a third of its tables border these windows, but you can catch the view from any, as well as from the bar area which includes a twelve-foot counter, a couple of longer high tops, and some low tables on the restaurant's west side, near the fireplace. The interior is designed for maximum sunset appreciation, and there are few things that go as well with a sunset view on the water than a cold beer or a glass of wine. The wine list is thoughtful and extensive, with a strong Napa-Sonoma focus, and four pricey wine flights that add a little sophistication. Happy hour, held from 4 to 6 p.m. and after 10 p.m. on weekdays, is a steal: $3 for all draft beer, a glass of house wine, or a couple of cocktail options, as well as half off select appetizers.
2. Clam Chowder. If you do decide to venture past the bar and enjoy a meal at Skates, consider the clam chowder, which is sublime. Well spiced and sprinkled with fresh Italian parsley, it's also nicely brothy, steering clear of the gelatinous texture an overly thick chowder can sometimes succumb to. On a brisk fall day, after a walk down the 3,000-foot fishing pier, a cup of chowder with a Skates amber lager (courtesy of Pyramid Ale & Lagers, down the way on Gilman), and a view of the slanting afternoon light hitting the bay would make the world seem a lovely place indeed.
3. Chocolate Indulgence Cake. Have this after, or substitute it for, the chowder and swap that beer for a cup of hot coffee or a glass of Ridge 2004 Zinfandel from Geyserville. Skates is nothing if not family friendly, so if your kid, great-uncle, or even just a member of your tribe is having a birthday, let the waitstaff stick a candle in this delectable mass of goo. Don't be confused by the name this isn't the flourless chocolate cake so many upscale restaurants regard as a dessert staple these days. But even though a dense semi-sweet chocolate cake is one of my favorite things in life, I loved Skates' fluffy concoction think perfectly undercooked brownie, rich but not overly sweet.
4. Sun. See Berkeley Pier; clam chowder; amber lager. Simply walking the pier or roaming the marina's parks before your Skates visit requires the least preparation, but you can also fish, visit the Cal Sailing Club on an "open house" day to take a free sail or arrange a lesson, explore the Shorebird Park Nature Center, or bring your kids to the Adventure Playground. All of the above will make your drinks and meal that much more satisfying and if it happens to rain, a cup of chowder or French onion soup and the raw violence of the bay during a storm will ease your pain.
Design-conscious diners won't find much to love at Skates, but I found the sturdy dark-wood furnishings and plaid-patterned rug oddly soothing in a nostalgic, 1970s, wide-wale corduroy kind of way. What wasn't soothing was the vacuuming of said rug towards the end of a 1 p.m. lunch date immediately after a family with small children had left the next table. Couldn't it have waited until in between shifts? No matter, Skates' unflappable staff are surely a bit weary from pointing out Alcatraz and countless renditions of "Happy Birthday." Given those challenges, we're happy to cut them a break.
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