News and Reviews: San Francisco Chronicle Bar Bites

San Francisco Chronicle

Bar Bites
Lynne Char Bennett
Thursday, January 3, 2008

When you drive along the coast, hunger often turns to thoughts of seafood. If you're within shouting distance of Half Moon Bay, you're in luck. Paul Shenkman, the former owner of Cetrella in Half Moon Bay, opened Sam's Chowder House, drawing on memories of his time on the East Coast. Executive chef Lewis Rossman, who was Cetrella's chef for six years, took over the stoves six months ago, adding his flair to the seafood-centric menu.

Visitors can stop by the bar for a drink, or, in warmer weather, sit on the deck and watch the sun set. Locals gather on game days to cheer their favorite teams while sipping their chosen libation.

The vibe: Prime beachfront views without pretension or kitschy net-and-starfish decor. The gray-blue accented walls echo the ocean's winter color, while the serviceable wooden deck and casual dining room accents hint at seaside inspiration.

The crowd: The laid-back atmosphere and down-to-earth food appeal to all ages. There are families, groups of young women celebrating around a fire pit on the deck and middle-aged couples reconnecting.


Sam's Chowder House Bar Negroni at Sam's Chowder House

Best seat: Most of the bar tables have an unobstructed view of the beach (during a daytime visit) and the rest of the dining room. Snag a bar table close to the open kitchen to catch some of the cooking action. There are also prime seats at the bar to converse with the bartenders or at the oyster bar to watch the shucking. Several fire pits on the deck are surrounded by low benches, which provide cozy comfort on cool evenings.

Killer app: Fried calamari - highly recommended by the server - was tender and plentiful, but the must-have is Sam's New England clam chowder ($5.95 cup, $9.50 bowl), thick with clams, smoky bacon and potatoes, served with oyster crackers. The full menu, which features plenty of grilled fish and landlubber meat entrees, is also available in the bar.

Clam chowder at Sam's Chowder House Sonya Jason plays saxophone at Sam's Chowder House

Signature drink: With the beach access, the classic frozen margarita, daiquiri and colada (all $8, various fruit flavors) are high on the list and featured on the outdoor bar's cocktail signage. "Brain freeze" options (also $8) include Italian Ice (lemonade, vodka and amaretto) and Devil's Slide (Bailey's Irish Cream, Kahlua, vodka and ice cream).

Also on tap: Eleven bottled beers ($3.50-$4) and if you're feeling traditional, well-made classic favorites like the Negroni, sidecar and Manhattan. More fanciful concoctions include the Half Moon Shaker - apple vodka, Chambord and sweetened lemon juice (all $7.50).

Bonus: Every Friday from 7-10 p.m., jazz trios provide easy-listening entertainment. If you haven't eaten enough and want to take a fish home to grill, Sam's Seafood Market is open 4-7 p.m. Wed.-Fri.; and noon-7 p.m. Sat.-Sun.

Vitals: 4210 North Cabrillo Hwy. (Hwy. 1, between Capistrano Road and Coronado St., just south of Pillar Point Harbor), Half Moon Bay; (650) 712-0245. Lunch, dinner daily. Bar remains opens until restaurant closes, about 9:30 or 10 p.m.