A tourist steps foot onto the Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey. The first things he sees are the candy stores and the gift shops. A little bit further and he’s reached the restaurants, and this is where it gets interesting.
All along Fisherman’s Wharf are restaurants, and in front of nearly each restaurant are dutiful employees standing beside carts, offering samples of their clam chowder to all those who dare walk past.
With each restaurant’s chowder comes the promise of a new consistency or a free appetizer, something, anything to differentiate this bisque of sorts from the last. The “chowder wars” of the Fisherman’s Wharf have become a staple to tourists and locals alike, be it a fun way to choose a restaurant at which to dine or a free meal, as it tends to be for the locals.
The culture of free chowder samples began with the Old Fisherman’s Grotto, the oldest restaurant on the wharf, established in 1950. Since then, other, newer restaurants have sprung up, competing for the best chowder west of Alvarado Street.
“The original founder started us off,” Grotto employee and chowder guru Freddy Ruelas explains, “and his son continued the business, and I feel like that’s why we’re the best. This is the same chowder since 1950. We make it from scratch and fresh.”
Coast Weekly’s annual poll has voted the Old Fisherman’s Grotto to have the best clam chowder on the wharf every year since 2004, although that hasn’t stopped other restaurants from doing their best to dethrone the Grotto.
Domenico’s, another classic wharf restaurant, has taken the approach of the family-owned, Italian-style restaurant to differentiate themselves. In its 35th year, Domenico’s markets to the true seafood lovers, featuring a large stuffed crab upon a bed of greens on the chowder cart, in addition to the free samples.
“I market a lot of my fish here that I catch from Alaska,” Domenico’s owner Sam Mercurio says. “I’m a fisherman, what can I do? We have fresh Monterey Shrimp, right off our family boat. Our clam chowder is old-school Italian style.”
With the homey Italian niche filled, other restaurants have distinguished themselves with special offers and discounts to entice the wharf visitors.
An unsuspecting couple and two children walk past the chowder sample cart at Crab Louie’s Bistro.
“Ten percent off! Free calamari, and a window seat right on the water!” Crab Louie’s employee and chowder deliverer Alfredo Solis calls out, handing the family a handful of discount business cards.
“Our chowder is the best chowder on the wharf,” Solis adds. “We use rosemary, thyme, sage and potato, and we don’t use bacon or pork, so it’s real tasty. It’s herby.”
Crabby Jim employee Meredith Schade entices passersby with free deep-fried artichoke appetizers and four-dollar margaritas in an attempt to draw chowder samplers past the cart and into the restaurant.
“There are people, especially teenagers,” Schade begins, “who just take the chowder and run, but there’s more people interested in actually dining than you might think.”
To the layman, it may seem that Fisherman’s Wharf is home to dozens of distinct restaurants, all competing with each other every day. But many of the restaurants share owners.
The owners of Domenico’s and Cafe Fina, another bistro on the wharf, are brothers. According to Grotto employee Jonathan Valleshe, the owner of Old Fisherman’s Grotto owns three of the restaurants on the wharf in addition to restaurants throughout Monterey, all serving the same award-winning chowder.