On the cuisine-quality scale, few things are as apparent as seafood. When it’s bad, it’s repulsive, even physically sickening. But when it’s great — so clean and pristine that it snaps with a salty, savory sweetness — it’s also shockingly obvious, making every less-than-perfect bite of fish you’ve had until that point seem mediocre at best.
I first learned this lesson while reporting from the decks of commercial fishing boats: once, while sucking down freshly cracked red sea urchin that diver Harry Liquornik snagged from a reef somewhere along the Gaviota Coast; then again, while imbibing a fist-sized oyster that mussel farmer Bernard Friedman still had growing in one of his old nets off of Hope Ranch.
I wasn’t exactly sure if you could experience that sort of oceanic exhilaration on land until I got my first taste of Broad Street Oyster Company a few weeks ago. After slurps of briny oyster, crisp chews of stone crab claw, cocktail-sauce dips of taut shrimp, and addictive chomps of a chilled lobster roll topped with caviar and uni, I realized why there was so much hype about this Malibu-based outfit’s foray into the small kitchen behind Shaker Mill at 418 State Street.
“I wanted to open something up in Santa Barbara from the days I was doing a pop-up at Muni. It just so happened that Malibu happened when it did,” explains Broad Street founder Christopher Tompkins. “But Santa Barbara has always been in the vision of Broad Street’s future. This space is a great start to use as a launchpad for what we’d like to do here.”
As Tompkins indicates, this location is not Broad Street’s first Santa Barbara rodeo, and nor will it be the last. The Hudson Valley–raised New Yorker started selling seafood outside of the Funk Zone’s Municipal Winemakers back in 2017, almost three years before landing his brick-and-mortar Malibu spot.
We can thank the microburst of September 3, 2017, for that. Tompkins, who started as a pop-up purveyor in Los Angeles earlier that year, was on his way to Santa Barbara to serve oysters at a different winery when the skies erupted, ravaged the city with tornado-like chaos, and canceled the event. The winery wasn’t able to warn Tompkins in advance, so he was stuck in Santa Barbara with a bunch of shellfish that had nowhere to go.
He wound up at Elsie’s Bar on West De la Guerra Street and was soon trading oysters for pints. One patron suggested that her boss, Muni Wine’s Dave Potter, might be interested in hosting the Broad Street pop-up, so Tompkins returned a few weeks later with oysters and lobster rolls. Then it was every two weeks. Then it was every Saturday and Sunday. Meanwhile, he was still doing pop-ups around SoCal and had a Sunday stall at L.A.’s Smorgasburg market.
A few months later, he was invited to pop-up at a burger joint in Malibu. “That basically changed my life,” said Tompkins, who was soon invited to take over his own permanent space. “Fast-forward to today, two and a half years later, and I have 70-plus employees. We have a restaurant, coffee, and gelato in Malibu, and now this space in Santa Barbara. And we’re actually looking at another space in Santa Barbara now as well.”
Tompkins’s fascination with seafood goes back to his childhood in upstate New York, and intensified as he moved to Boston in his early twenties. “I made it a mission of mine to have a lobster roll literally every single day for either lunch or dinner,” laughed Tompkins, who recalled “heated conversations” with an ex-girlfriend over how much money he was spending on them. “It’s funny that, 10 years later, my life revolves around them.”
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After traveling around the world a bit more, Tompkins — whose blustery mane recalls a more stout version of Jason Momoa’s Aquaman — decided to move to L.A. and try selling seafood professionally. “I had nothing to begin with,” said Tompkins, who was 28 when he started Broad Street, its name a subtle nod to a historic oyster house in New York City. “I bought a $100 Coleman grill and a pop-up tent. I started in my old pickup truck and hit the road seven days a week, setting up wherever anyone would let me set up.”
Once a regular outside of Muni, Tompkins was introduced to urchin from the Santa Barbara Channel, as he’d only known of prepackaged uni on sushi menus. He added it to the Broad Street menu immediately. “Then I just started to introduce as many local products after that,” said Tompkins, who brought on box crab, spot prawns, mussels, and more. “I just built it around what we are so lucky to be next to.”
Those glories are best showcased on Broad Street’s seafood tower, a $150 stack of all the shellfish on the menu, plus caviar that is specially packaged for the restaurant by Regiis Ova, the company run by Thomas Keller of French Laundry fame. The tower is one of the stars in Malibu, where diners pick up their orders (sometimes after two hours in line if they haven’t ordered in advance) and eat at picnic tables.
“We’re all about high-brow/low-brow,” said Tompkins. “I love the idea of walking up to the window, ordering a $150 seafood tower, and then just hanging out and eating with friends. It doesn’t have to be within the dark booths of a steakhouse with servers. We’re just trying to make it all feel a bit more approachable.”
The entire menu in Santa Barbara, which is a streamlined version of the Malibu experience due a much smaller kitchen, is a bit like that: priced at the market levels you should expect for fresh, locally harvested seafood but served without pretense. “That’s another reason we offer caviar or uni on top of the lobster roll,” said Tompkins. “We have people who have never seen caviar or uni, but because we make it approachable and offer it on top of a lobster roll, it gets people hooked.”
Those looking for a less expensive bite have options, too. The lobster roll — either hot with butter or chilled with mayo — is $22, and there’s plenty under $20, like fish ’n’ chips, clam strips, clam chowder, and, the seafood counterpoint, a double burger with fries for $12. “That’s what I call the sleeper of the menu,” said Tompkins. “It’s my version of the McDonald’s double cheeseburger” — with Niman Ranch beef, of course.
We should all look forward to the day that Tompkins finds a larger space and big outdoor patio to bring the full Malibu experience to Santa Barbara, as items like sea urchin spaghetti with aleppo pepper, chorizo and clams with Calabrian butter, and Maryland-style crab cakes with Old Bay trigger all the drools. And that search is underway, as this small walk-up window between Shaker Mill and the just-closed Modern Times is only the beginning. “We just need more space,” said Tompkins, who plans to keep this outpost open even if he finds a bigger location.
He remains excited for the ride, which continues to move rather quickly, despite pandemic hurdles. “When I first started, I just wanted to be able to pay my rent,” said Tompkins. “Now I have to take a step back and plot the future of the company. It feels pretty incredible to know I have over 70 people part of my team and family. I just want to create a future for them and myself and for the brand.”
418 State St.; (424) 644-0131; broadstreetoyster.com