Only a handful of Santa Barbara restaurants can claim oceanfront dining. Fewer still can say they’re truly over the water. Farthest out to sea, though, is an authentic little crab shack with some of the best views — and best fresh seafood — in town.
Located near the end of Stearns Wharf, the Santa Barbara Shellfish Company started out in 1980 as a buying and selling station for regional fish and shellfish. Over the years, owner Tom White built his menu with recipes from hometown and traveling fishermen, highlighting both year-round and fluctuating favorites. (White’s restaurant empire now also includes the FisHouse, Boathouse, and Casa Blanca.)
Inside at the bar or outside at one of the coveted booths, patrons can crack rock crab all year, while seasonally enjoying California spiny lobster (October-March), California king crab (spring and summer), and ridgeback shrimp (November-May). Another favorite comes from neighbors to the north — Morro Bay’s Dungeness crab — while Maine lobster tacos and cioppino mixed with Mediterranean mussels and manila clams rounds out a fairly substantial menu, all of which can be washed down with half a dozen beers on tap or a bouquet of local and imported wines.
As for atmosphere?
“I feel like I’m at sea on an old galleon, drinking beer and cracking crab,” says Kirk Schmidt, who typically grabs a meal at Shellfish whenever he’s in town visiting his folks. While Schmidt favors an outside seat with harbor views and an ocean breeze, those inside can enjoy the “organized chaos” of the open kitchen, says General Manager Sean Johnson. “Patrons feel like they are really part of it all,” he explained, as they watch cooks pluck live crab, lobster, and locally farmed red abalone from a wall of saltwater tanks before prepping, cooking, and plating their meals in full view.
Restaurant fare doesn’t get much fresher than that.