The Dead Fish is more than the sum of its parts

Clay Kallam

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Maggi Brown

The restaurant's name? “Whenever I would ask Nonna what kind of fish is this?” the chef comments on the website, “she would say ‘It’s a dead fish’.”

So on the menu, you can find the “Recently Demised Fish of the Day,” or “Other Dead Things,” just to make it clear what you’re eating.

And speaking of finding, it’s not like the Dead Fish is in the midst of a bustling scene with lots of foot traffic. In fact, it’s at the very northern end of San Pablo Avenue, next to I-80 and the Carquinez Bridge – and surrounded by, well, nothing. In other words, to get there you have to be going there because there’s no other reason to be in the vicinity.

Oh, and once you’ve arrived, good luck finding a place to park. Long ago, there was more parking but The Dead Fish expanded, which forced cars across the street into a small auxiliary lot or up a steep hill to park by the bushes that line the road.

So why is The Dead Fish so popular? Why were there people waiting 10 minutes just to get to the host’s table at 7 p.m. on a Saturday night? And then an old-timer comes in the door at 5:30 and says “I used to come here years ago and I could walk in, and now I need a reservation?”

Well, the views are pretty good, in an industrial sort of way. The big C&H Sugar refinery is just down the street, and though the rough-and-ready Carquinez Bridge has its charms, it isn’t exactly the Golden Gate. Oh, and there are some serious electrical wires and large PG&E towers looming over the water between Crockett and Vallejo, but still, from the right angle at the right time, it can be pretty stunning.

The drinks are good, and so is the food, but defining the attraction of The Dead Fish is defining the indefinable. Some places just have it, whatever “it” is, and The Dead Fish is one of those.

But I’ll try. There are kitschy decorations everywhere, that cheeky menu and most important, a feeling that you’re in a restaurant that knows exactly where it wants to be and knows precisely how to get there. The customers come casual or come for celebrations. Some love to sit outside and enjoy the scenery – which is a perfect way to spend a warm summer night – while others cluster around the busy bar, or find themselves tucked away in rooms they didn’t even know existed until they’re led there.

And yes, there’s seafood. The combination plates come on sizzling platters, filled with mussels, shrimp and crab. The pastas are fish-heavy, and of course there’s cioppino. (You can get chicken or prime rib, but at a place called The Dead Fish, why would you want to?)

We stumbled across a mention of The Dead Fish several years ago, and figured it would be a road trip to some out-of-the-way location – but it’s 20 minutes from Walnut Creek and ridiculously easy to get to from pretty much anywhere in the northern end of the East Bay. And once we discovered it, it’s become one of our favorites. It’s a low-key, fun night out, with lots of energy flowing thanks to a clientele that is just as happy to be there as we are.

If you want to discover The Dead Fish for yourself, reservations are a must, but the minor hassle of planning ahead in 2022 is well worth it. And once you get there, and the entrée arrives at the table, you’ll know exactly what you’re getting: a dead fish.

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Clay Kallam is a lifelong East Bay resident who spent several decades in local journalism -- and still writes for Diablo Magazine (among others). Over the years, he has covered just about every aspect of life in the Bay Area, from rock-and-roll to the arts to political coverage to food to sports. On the food front, he does not claim to be a critic, but rather someone who enjoys a good meal, a well-made drink and a nice red wine. As for sports, he has written for national publications (including Sports Illustrated and Slam) and covers girls' basketball across the nation for MaxPreps. He is a high school coach and a serious fan of the local teams -- and savored every minute of the Giants' and Warriors' championships. He graduated from Acalanes, UC Santa Barbara (ancient history) and Cal (philosophy). He lives in Walnut Creek with his wife Maggi, who takes many of the food photos. He appreciates his readers and is always happy to talk about anything he's written. His food experiences can be found at #dishdining on Instagram, and emails can be sent to claykallam@gmail.com.

Walnut Creek, CA
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