Travel : Morro Bay, CA

I sat to admire the narrow wooden slips of fishing boats, a lineup of 20-30 footers, weathered, jury-rigged, the kind that really catch fish. Seagulls stood guard for fallen trade as the docks unloaded, and two men in Motorhead t-shirts struck up a conversation while a group of pigeons eyed their calamari. Distantly and beneath the docks, the moans and meanderings of otters and sea lions, the true dons, who use the harbor as their own private dining club with an endless buffet of crab, abalone, and sea urchin.

Deciding it was time, I walked into Giovanni’s. It is one of those precious legacy operations you find only once every few hundred miles, a fully integrated fish business that owns the waterfront, the market, the restaurant, buying fish right off the docks. I walked to the counter as I figured out my order, casually guessing the exact weight of a fillet, an old fish market trick, to show I mean business. My game this year has been trying every kind of local fish, and I managed to cross a few more off my list, along with some old classics: ling cod, petrale sole, halibut, opah, a piece of each, and a little tub of Dungeness for the hotel room later. The local oyster, the Grassy Bar, is my favorite Pacific variety, with the perfect kelp sweetness, and I bagged a dozen to hold us over until dinner.

Towards the public water access, a few blocks down, is a small park with little camp grills and tables spaced out along the bay. Early evening is a changing of the guard, when family gatherings give way to the sunset strollers. We chose a table, catching the bay’s mirror finish, Morro rock, and the setting sun in one perfect frame over a couple low-key gin and tonics.

After cleansing the grill of ashes and leftover briquettes, I filled the chamber with oak charcoal and got a fire going. A group of retirees floated by on a skiff sipping white wine and listening to Fleetwood Mac. The captain winked at us, their good time contagious. I cracked open an oyster and smiled back. The coals had begun to settle, glowing the same shade of orange as the dissolving sun, and the ling cod and opah met the iron with that lovely sizzle.

I kept time while the grill sang with the slow parade of old men walking their old dogs, counting five of them before I flipped the fish. For a bit of variety I threw a couple oysters on as well, roasted just until they popped open. The sun, putting on its final show of deep red and violet, left just enough light to make sense of what was on our plate. Jaimie steamed some couscous and I peeled a bacon avocado from the farm we stopped at and sliced it over the grains. The opah was a real revelation, somewhere in the pantheon between tuna and swordfish, while the lingcod was a familiar delicacy, a flaky, complex white fish that takes well to the grill. Licking the last bit of fish-flecked couscous from my plate, we were left alone with the moon, the stars, and the flicker of lights from the old fishing boats.

When asked what my favorite restaurant is, I have started answering, “Morro Bay.”