Well into its second century on the Berkeley waterfront, Spenger’s Fresh Fish Grotto remains an 800-capacity fish house where generations of students, stevedores, and socialites have scarfed generous helpings of seafood at a minimal stipend; a grandiose, ticky-tacky temple to seadog memorabilia, antique firearms, and a proudly displayed 34-carat diamond ring that once belonged to Hawaii’s queen; a throwback to the era of shrimp Louis and the deep fryer; an elderly enclave preserved in teak-paneled aspic.
Spenger’s has been Spenger’s for a very long time, since the 1880s, when one Johan Spenger opened an outlet for the seafood his fishing fleet was plucking from the bay, the ocean, and Lake Merritt. Over the course of a century the place evolved into a piscatorial legend where a million pounds of fish were served on an annual basis to the likes of Clark Gable, Errol Flynn, Cary Grant, and Ernest Hemingway. It was said that Spenger’s sold more meals than any other American restaurant — not a factoid to inspire confidence in culinary subtlety and attentive service, but an impressive statistic nonetheless. Meanwhile, its location — originally along a stretch of waterfront-industrial no-man’s-land — evolved into a trendy hunk of Berkeley real estate.
A decade ago, the McCormick & Schmick’s restaurant chain bought Spenger’s, retro neon and all, and poured several million ducats into sprucing up the place, employing masons, boatwrights, and gunsmiths to restore the venue’s 22,000 square feet of accumulated memorabilia. The anchors, riggings, ships’ wheels, photographs, firearms, paintings, and teakwood paneling that seem to inhabit every cubic centimeter give the eye plenty to consider, but the overall effect is vaguely familiar — reminiscent of not only the Fisherman’s Wharf standbys the family would troop to on a given subspecial occasion, but of the wood-polished brass look endemic to many McCormick-Schmick’s outlets across the country, with a whiff of Trader Vic venerabilia thrown in.
The weight of all this pedigreed tradition allows little opportunity for gustatory invention; seared ahi and mango salsa notwithstanding, there’s barely an acknowledgment that three or four decades of culinary evolution, much of it accomplished in this very city, has taken place at all. Such culinary conservatism isn’t necessarily a detriment — Sam’s and the Tadich Grill, two prominent examples of rockbound kitchencraft, prepare and serve an exemplary array of fresh, simple seafood dishes. But aside from a few bright spots here and there, Spenger’s’ offerings tend to the dull and perfunctory.
The coconut shrimp appetizer, for instance, is a leaden example of heavy breading with barely a hint of shrimp or coconut flavor to recommend it. The ponderous, overly salty crab and shrimp cakes are similarly taste-challenged victims of the deep fryer. Burbling oil and gloppy breading also threaten the integrity of the lobster and shrimp spring roll, an otherwise fresh, vibrant, salt-sprayed meal-opener accompanied by a delectable cashew-laced dipping sauce. And the chowder — thick, gummy texture notwithstanding — brims with meaty clams and shards of pepper and onion, and is spicy and comforting to boot.
One would think that cioppino, with its local lineage and rustic, seafaring character, would be made to order for a place like Spenger’s. Sadly, its broth is tepid and watery and its crab legs, crawfish, clams, mussels, calamari, and whitefish, plentiful though they are, are overcooked and stringy. The Pacific salmon, cedar-planked and served with a yummy sweet-tart berry sauce, retains a measure of moist flakiness. Unfortunately, the fish’s wild, lush flavor has gone missing. Costa Rica swordfish, grilled simply with sun-dried tomato butter, is equally unmemorable. But the spicy barbecue shrimp entrée features huge, luscious skewered prawns draped in a buttery barbecue sauce, a bed of spicy, oniony, habit-forming steamed rice, and snap peas for roughage (though we were hoping for the advertised okra succotash).
The best stuff served at Spenger’s comes off of the dessert tray. The almond basket is a big, crispy, marzipan-laced “tulip” filled with three kinds of gelati — a bright, brisk raspberry; a rich, spicy cinnamon; and a chocolate that’s positively noirish in its earthy, bittersweet allure. The upside-down apple pie features luscious chunks of fruit topped with a crumbly, buttery crust and a blissful blanket of brickly caramel. The cheesecake is nothing special, but the chocolate bag is a marvelous production number of a dessert: a rectangular satchel of dark, creamy Ghirardelli filled with a lemony mousse and a healthy assortment of sweet and juicy blackberries, blueberries, and strawberries. It’s an ideal meal-closer for two.
Another good reason to visit Spenger’s is its handsome cocktail lounge. (There are actually two of them, but the larger lounge — the one with the diamond — was closed during our two visits.) Here professionals shake or stir up perfectly crafted concoctions out of the classic repertoire, including a bracing Pisco Sour of Peruvian brandy, lemon, sugar, and egg white; a tall, refreshing Singapore Sling (gin, Benedictine, Cherry Heering, lemon, pineapple, and soda); and an honest-to-God mint julep made with Woodford Reserve bourbon. An array of vittles (soft tacos, gumbo, shrimp scatter, and the like) are available at $1.95 apiece during Happy Hour, but beware: “All burgers are prepared medium well.” The wine list, meanwhile, is fairly eclectic, somewhat exorbitantly priced, and heavy on the locals. There are also an impressive 31 wines by the glass and half-glass ranging from $6-$18. With that kind of selection, Spenger’s could last another century or two.