• May 2013

Want a Great View + Great Food on Fisherman's Wharf?

Restaurants that Shine: Castagnola’s Seafood & Chophouse Since 1916

This restaurant on Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco is a seafood and chophouse that Thomas Castagnola opened in 1916 soon after he created the Dungeness Crab Cocktail for the San Francisco World’s Fair the year before.

The former fisherman knew he was on to something big. And indeed, his crab stand on the Wharf quickly gained a reputation as the perfect place for locals and travelers alike to find the catch of the day and delicious cooked crab.

Realizing that not everyone loved seafood—including his fellow fisherman who had just spent the day at sea—Castagnola also served up hearty portions of steak and chops.

“Thomas’ was one of eight families that had come over from the same part of Italy to make a life in California,” explains Kathy Higdon, the restaurant’s current owner, who graciously agreed to sit down with us in the banquet room for a podcast interview. Click here to listen to our chat on the Inkandescent Radio Network.

It turns out that her family has been running the seaside bistro since her stepfather, Major General Andrew Lolli, bought the place in the 1960s.

“We are actually sitting on the dry-dock yard of the original restaurant, and back then the place was just packed with locals,” Hidgon explains. “There were three-hour waits, from what I hear, as this was a very popular place with the fisherman. A seat at Castagnola’s was the best, and the hardest one to get. They served the fresh seafood and their servers spoke all kinds of different languages. They made it a real fun and happening place for people to come to.”

Lolli was determined to keep up the popularity of the place—and knew exactly how to do it. He had retired from the military service, where he worked for Howard Hughes and Ronald Reagan, and his men were eager to visit with him.

“Castagnola’s soon became a makeshift officers club, which was just busy, busy, busy for years and years,” Higdon shares, noting that Lolli worked in the restaurant seven days a week until he was 92. “He always took good care of customers, seating them and helping people, and having a really good time.”

Higdon, her sister, and husband continue the tradition today, with a few 21st century twists.

“We gave the place a facelift a few years back when we redecorated a little,” she says, noting that the upgrade also forced her to close the crab stand outside due to city ordinances. “It was a shame, but now we have a great stand that sells clothes and souvenirs. We also now have a giant bar and a porch where our guests can sit, relax, and celebrate being on vacation on Fisherman’s Wharf.”

A large upstairs banquet room with a breathtaking view of the Bay frequently hosts large parties, weddings, and other receptions.

“Our ultimate goal is to help everyone who comes in to have a really good time when they are on vacation and want to experience the best of Fisherman’s Wharf,” Higdon insists, noting that the view from the restaurant just can’t be beat.

“The fabulous fishing boats are still out here, and you can practically touch them from our downstairs and upstairs dining rooms,” she says. “And we do our best to provide dishes that appeal to any taste. Plus, we have added live music on most nights, so there is a nice night-time atmosphere in the bar where our patrons can have fun, sing, laugh, and meet people from all over the world.

“Honestly, we just have a lot of fun—and that was the goal of my stepfather, as well as Thomas Castagnola. We’re proud of keeping their legacies alive.”

Click here to listen to our podcast interview with Kathy Higdon on the Inkandescent Radio Network.

The Inkandescent Spotlight is on: Castagnola’s on Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, CA

1. The atmosphere: Simple and down to earth, what sets this restaurant apart is the view of San Francisco Bay’s fishing boats—which is divine. While Fisherman’s Wharf is packed with similar seafood restaurants, Castagnola’s has a unique charm that calls to you from the street. The bar is perfectly placed for people-watching, making a new friend, and celebrating being on vacation.

2. The food: Tasty and affordable, especially considering the crazy Wharf prices. Appetizers range from $8 to $17, and the savory offerings include Garlic Cheese Baguette Seared Scallops ($8), Bluepoint Oysters ($14), and Filet Mignon Wellington ($17).

Our favorite salad was the Louie with shrimp for $15. Try the crab version for $19 or a shrimp/crab combo for $17. Add in a hunk of sourdough bread and a glass of the house wine—it doesn’t get better than this.

Other lunch specials and sandwiches (until 4 p.m.) offer are sizable portions, including a hearty American Kobe Cheddar Burger or a Shrimp Po’ Boy, both $14. For $17, try the Crab Melt Foccacia, which includes Dungeness crab salad, arugula, tomatoes, lemon, and tarragon vinaigrette.

The dinner menu features Pasta, Land, and Sea options, which range in price from $15 to $40—and include Spinach Lasagna ($15) or the meat version ($18); Lobster Ravioli ($21), Grilled New York Strip steak or Seared Filet Mignon ($24 for 12 oz., $30 for 16 oz., and $40 for 20 oz.), and $22 for Smoked Pork Baby Back Ribs.

If you fancy seafood, choices include Crab Cakes ($20), Seared Mahi Mahi, or Grilled Wild Salmon ($25), Shellfish Cioppino ($35), and Maine Lobster Tail ($40).

3. The booze: In addition to the full bar that often features live music and sits in the front of the house, there are a select variety of wine to choose from. A massive wine list isn’t what Higdon thinks her customers want, so instead, Castagnola’s prides itself on serving wine by a local winery, Sycamore Lane, which has been produced in Napa Valley by the same family since 1947.

4. The extras: In addition to the wine, Higdon is dedicated to buying from as many local companies as possible. Castagnola’s serves sourdough bread that is made by the local Wedemeyer Bakery. Coffee is provided by America’s Best, which is made in Oakland, CA.

5. The service: Friendly is the only word to describe the team that greets you at the door, waits on you in the dining room and bar, and clears the table. This is a family restaurant, and everyone who works at Castagnola’s takes pride in that fact.

6. The price: Anything you buy in Fisherman’s Wharf is priced for tourists. (I actually had a cup of soup for $10 at another restaurant—but I was paying for the astonishing view of San Francisco Bay. The view was great, but the soup was mediocre.) That’s not the case at Castagnola’s—the view is lovely, the food is delicious, and eating there is affordable.

7. The bottom line: So when on vacation in expensive San Fran, balance out the cost and the experience. For our money, Castagnola’s is a family-focused hotspot that’s great for a romantic rendezvous, business meetings, and lunches with the entire family. It’s definitely worth a stop!

Inkandescent rating: Three and a half boats, out of 4.

Want to learn more? Click here to listen to our podcast interview with Kathy Higdon on the Inkandescent Radio Network. And click here for more details about Castagnola’s.