One of my oldest memories as a kid was piling the family into our dad’s Volkswagen bus and driving from Sacramento to Bodega Bay every December to load up on Dungeness crab. We would set up camp at Doran Regional Park, then spend the next couple of days feasting on fresh crab, cioppino, clam chowder, fish-n-chips, and as much salt water taffy as we could choke down. Now older and saner, I usually opt for a warm and cozy suite at the Bodega Bay Lodge, but the holiday tradition continues: When crab season opens in December, we head to the Sonoma Coast.
CRABBING—YES, EVEN YOU CAN DO IT
Now there are two ways to do Bodega Bay right, depending on your skill set, budget, and willingness to get your hands dirty. The old-school way (and highly recommended for adventurous families) is to establish a campsite at Doran Beach, drive to Diekmann’s Bay Store and buy a crab net, then head to the west side of the bay to Spud Point Harbor (because this is a federal fishing pier, you don’t need a fishing license). Walk to the end of the cement pier, tie some raw chicken parts to the bottom of the crab net with string (necks and backs work best—other options are fish carcasses and cat food), and plop ‘er in the bay.
While you’re waiting for the crabs to fight over your chicken parts, head across the street to the Spud Point Crab Company, a tiny take-out stand where everything’s made on-premises, including their smoked salmon, crab cakes, and crab sandwiches. I’m going to start an argument here and claim that they make the best clam chowder in California (and people, I’ve tasted a lot of clam chowders). After your seafood feast, walk back over to the pier and pull up the nylon rope to see what’s for dinner. You’ll want to bring an ice-filled cooler to keep your catch in, and some camping chairs as well (crab fishing involves a lot of waiting).
To learn more about crab fishing, log onto Crab-O-Licious.com, which covers everything you need to know about how to catch, keep, and cook Dungeness crab.
CLAMMING—YOU’LL DIG IT
Since you’re already up to your elbows in chicken parts and live crabs, you might as well get down and dirty at the beach hunting for clams, which you can do year-round at Bodega Bay. The only skill required is digging (kids LOVE doing this), and the only equipment is a shovel and a sturdy bag. The rest is pretty straightforward: find a good spot (hint: try the western side of Bodega Bay); wait for low tide; search the sand closest to the water for a small, bubbling siphon hole; then dig like heck with whatever’s handy (a narrow clammer’s shovel works best). What you’ll discover is a long “neck” leading to a horseneck clam, the most abundant type of clam in Bodega Bay. A fishing license is required for anyone over 16, but you can get a single-day license at most sporting-goods stores and bait shops.
HONEY I LOVE YOU BUT GIVE ME PARK AVENUE
Okay, so camping, crabbing, and clamming in December isn’t for everyone, so for those of you who prefer their crab pre-caught, pre-cooked, pre-cracked, and served on a platter in a warm restaurant with drawn butter, cocktail sauce, and a flute of champagne—not a problem. In the center of Bodega Bay are two large seafood restaurants, Tides Wharf and Lucas Wharf, that serve Dungeness crab in all the classic variations: cakes, cocktails, cracked, hot sandwiches, salads, chowders, cioppinos, etcetera. Tides Wharf is also hosting its 19th-annual Crab Feeds on December 17th and January 14th. For only $40 they’re offering all the chilled Dungeness crab you can eat, plus pasta, salad, and French bread. Be sure to ask for a table overlooking the ocean.
MATT’S SECRET SEAFOOD SPOTS
To be honest, my favorites seafood spots in Bodega Bay aren’t the big restaurants, but the little roadside shacks that most tourists overlook, such as Spud Point Crab Company (see above) and Island Style Deli, which is located next to the Lucas Wharf Restaurant. It’s gone through several names changes over the past two decades, but that little deli still cranks out the best fish-n-chips I’ve ever had, made from caught-that-day fish brought in straight from the wharf.
My other top seafood dining secrets on the Sonoma Coast are River’s End and Cape Fear Cafe. Established in 1927, River’s End is a romantic little seaside restaurant in Jenner that has sunset views to swoon over. It’s owned and operated by Bert Rangel, whose passion for locally harvested seafood is only equaled by his desire to make sure all of his guests are having a wonderful dining experience (you’ll love this guy). Bert’s eclectic menu offers everything from filet mignon to wild halibut and seared duck, but it’s his ultra-fresh Dungeness crab dishes that you’ll want to order. And his wine list is so comprehensive it’s a recipient of Wine Spectators’ “Award of Excellence”.
Cape Fear Cafe is in a town you’ve never heard of called Duncans Mills, located a few miles inland from Highway 1 near Jenner. It’s so damn cute and the service so friendly that it almost seems fake, like a movie set from On Golden Pond. I discovered the Cape Fear Cafe on a motorcycle trip about 10 years ago and having been making regular day-trips there from Mill Valley just for breakfast—it’s that good (their Hangtown Fry and Poor Boys made with fresh Tomales Bay oysters are wonderful). The cafe is open for dinner and brunch as well.
For contact info to all of the places mentioned above, log on to LocalGetaways.com. And for more information about restaurants, hotels, wineries, and outdoor adventures in Sonoma County, visit SonomaCounty.com.