On the Dock of the Bay 

In which we discover Californians can't cook clam chowder.

Though the days are shrinking, Indian summer can send the temperature up past ninety, burning all the clouds out of the sky. These are days when lunching by the bay seems the coolest option. Between the refineries, the parks, the estates threatening to slip off the cliffs, and the docks, you can still find a couple places to eat a burger while you stare out at the water. Just don't order the clam chowder.

"I like to go to the Seabreeze Cafe for a burger and a Bud," wrote one reader when I asked for hole-in-the-wall tips last winter. A prefab trailer dwarfed by the warehouses that surround it, this Oakland Marina cafe is invisible unless you know where to look. Once you go up the narrow ramp and through a sliding glass door, you'll find a funky, dim interior cluttered with racks and crates. Every table comes with salt and pepper shakers and California lottery forms. Order and pay at the window to the kitchen (or if both members of the couple that own the restaurant are there, you might get brusque table service). Pass the drinks cooler and the shelves of scraggly potted plants to the back deck.

"Welcome to Oakland's best-kept secret," announces the menu, which describes its location as "Oakland's Riviera." Our Riviera is a lovely spot to get a tan, far from the Jackie O sunglasses and swollen bellies spilling over Speedos at the original Côte d'Azur. To your left are the Oakland hills; to your right, ancient warehouses and docked sailboats. On a warm, cloudless day my friends and I sip our sodas while squinting at the almost-vacant dock, where a mallard-decoy family bobs.

The older Chinese-American couple who run Seabreeze have added chow mein and pepper beef over rice to the burgers and melts you'd expect. I get a General Chicken, battered chicken chunks that have stuck together in the fryer. The mass is napped with a garlicky, sweet-tart glaze kicky with chiles. A green salad fills up the plate. My friend Cy looks over the menu and decides we need to order a bowl of clam chowder to eat on the water. After one bite of the jellied white muck, she declares that Campbell's is better. Redeeming the soup is a decent club sandwich, crisp and meaty, with OK fries. My anonymous reader's tip proves to be the best option. Our burger may show up well-done instead of medium, but it's not a bad one: well-seasoned, juicy, and stacked high with fixings.

There's no dockside dining at Oakland's Pier 29 Waterfront Restaurant, we discover after we arrive, only a glassed-in patio, which we share with fifteen empty tables and a couple silently splitting a bowl of clam chowder as they stare out the windows. Outside, the estuary between Oakland and Alameda glows jade-green in the sunlight, and cars speed across the Park Street Bridge above. A small tugboat is moored against the side of the restaurant. The violins dive into "Close to You" as our shrimp louie salad arrives.

I feel like I've stepped into one of the seafood restaurants to which my parents would take my sister and me on our family trips to the East Coast. In fact, the 35-year-old restaurant does date from that era. Pier 29 Restaurant's nautical theme greets you at the door when you pull at the ship's wheel to enter. On the wood-paneled walls over our heads, a shellacked marlin arcs down toward us. The long, low-ceilinged restaurant spans the waterfront, and all the tables along the bank of windows in the main room are occupied by two-martini business lunchers and people in their seventies.

Although our friendly server is much younger than the clientele, she's clearly used to serving an older crowd. She coos over the photos that my friend has brought of her brand-new niece and patiently returns several times before Julie and I finally turn our attention to the menu.

The lunch section alone includes a page of sandwiches, a page of seafood specials, and then a larger section for pastas and meats. On our shrimp louie salad, poached bay shrimp have been scattered across iceberg lettuce, sliced canned beets, pitted black olives, and pink tomatoes. A ramekin of equally pink Thousand Island dressing comes alongside, and we drizzle it sparingly over the salad, but it doesn't improve either the appearance or the taste. The Dungeness crab melt isn't much more than picked fresh crabmeat mixed with mayo and broiled with cheese on top (watch out for the bits of shell that escaped detection). I score with an admirable club sandwich -- crispy bacon, crisp lettuce, three layers of toasted bread -- with spiced, breaded potato wedges.

Near the end of the meal, a quartet of diners climbs down through a door onto a small ledge just below us, then hops into the tugboat. We finish our sandwiches as we watch the boat slowly maneuver under the arch of the Park Street Bridge before puttering upstream.

It's hard to think of one Seabreeze without conjuring up its other, more famous namesake in Berkeley. The Sea Breeze Market, which Bob Pickens built in 1979 out of trailers and shipping containers, is familiar to anyone who's ever driven on I-80 or Frontage Road. Two friends and I take a break from a Marina bike tour to stop at the market for sandwiches one breezy, clear Saturday afternoon. You can see San Francisco's skyline as you traverse the new bike bridge that arches over the freeway, but the bay disappears by the time you descend to the market. But sitting at one of the weathered wooden tables that surround the market and deli, you know the water isn't far away.


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