Fisherman’s Wharf is as much a San Francisco icon as the Golden Gate Bridge. For years locals and tourists alike have made their way down to the bay and attractions from trinket shops and galleries to the landmark buildings and restaurants at historic Ghirardelli Square and the Cannery. Fresh seafood, whether fresh crab served up along the wharf or in more upscale settings, is a big part of the scene.
One of the wharf’s first restaurants was No.9 Fisherman’s Grotto. Founded in 1935 by Michael Geraldi, an immigrant fisherman from Sicily, the restaurant started as a small fish stand until Geraldi transformed it into an almost 20,000-square-foot restaurant, the first full-service, family-owned restaurant at the wharf with city views from its dining room and bay views from its patio. Fisherman’s Grotto has been passed down through three generations of Geraldis, but a need for expensive retrofitting that sparked a feud between family members who wanted to renovate and continue and others who wanted to sell forced the Geraldi family to put the restaurant on the market.
Enter Sausalito native Chris Henry, a specialist in real estate finance who has purchased and updated several local classics including Tommy’s Joynt on Geary and Van Ness Avenues and Barrel House Tavern in Sausalito. Henry, along with restaurant broker Steve Zimmerman, set the wheels in motion to purchase Fisherman’s Grotto from the Geraldi family in 2016.
Last September, Henry took over the restaurant, modernizing it and refreshing the menu while still keeping its overall feel, including the historic Fisherman’s Grotto sign added to the façade in the 1950s, and the long, curved wooden bar. He renamed the spot The Grotto and the updated bar The Sinatra Bar.
“I grew up salmon fishing on the bay with my dad, and going to the wharf for fresh seafood,” said Henry. “When I bought The Grotto my goal was to keep it a local favorite. Getting to know the Geraldi family, I knew it was important to continue the tradition of serving iconic seafood dishes such as clam chowder and cioppino, and Dungeness crab.” The Grotto still operates the famous crab stand out front.
Henry says while he’s worked to keep the restaurant’s original “vibe,” he has refurbished the kitchen, furniture, and lighting, and the upstairs bar with its working fireplace. He plans to add a Sunday jazz brunch and a Tuesday piano bar.
Entering The Grotto’s cavernous space is almost intimidating. There’s a wide lobby and grand staircase to the spacious lounge (bar) and even larger long dining room. Tables run down the length of the room on either side, evoking an almost cruise ship feel. The raw bar stands out, and most seats offer downtown, bay, and Golden Gate Bridge views. There’s a rooftop herb garden, beehive, and living wall lending the spot an au current atmosphere.
The Grotto’s menu features every possible classic seafood dish and then some. Chef Paul Bruno (most recently at the Lark Creek Group) has upgraded old standbys like baked oysters (($18) and a whole or cracked crab at market price. Starters include salt and pepper calamari with red Fresno chilies, green onions, and Old Bay with house-made cocktail sauce ($14); Dungeness crab deviled eggs with salmon roe ($12); and the chef’s signature appetizer: crab doughnuts with sweet pepper jelly, crispy kale, lemon, and powdered sugar ($18). I had my doubts about these, but they were actually crab croquettes on a bed of kale, and the sweet and savory flavors melded perfectly.
Raw bar and seafood platters run the gamut with everything from a giant Golden Gate plateau featuring six oysters, four shrimp, six mussels, and two rock crab claws served with three different sauces for $75, to a classic shrimp cocktail for $16. There is traditional New England-style clam chowder ($9/cup, $11/bowl, and $13/bread bowl), a seafood cobb salad with salmon ($23); and linguine and clam pasta ($23). Crab, or grilled chicken, prawns or salmon can be added to any pasta or salad.
Mains are generous and include a delicious semolina-crusted petrale sole served with creamy mashed red potatoes, Meyer lemon-caper sauce, and Bloomsdale spinach ($25); seared scallops with saffron risotto, basil oil, and tomato and pickled basil salad; and of course, cioppino ($24), and fish and chips ($19). The Grotto serves several desserts, and the cocktail, wine, and beer menus are extensive. A selection of wines is served by the glass, the half carafe, and carafe; a nice touch.
The Grotto is a great place to take visitors and family from out of town. But I predict it will soon be a sought-after destination for locals and tourists alike.
The Grotto: 2847 Taylor Street, 415-673-7025, thegrottosf.com; Monday–Friday 11:30 a.m.–9 p.m., Saturday–Sunday 11 a.m.–9 p.m.