Tuesday, April 22, 2008


Last week we were invited to a special dinner at Spenger's Fresh Fish Grotto to celebrate the beginning of the Halibut season.

Spenger's got its start in Berkeley in 1890 as a crab stand and bar owned by Johann Spenger. The restaurant grew to be one of the San Francisco Bay Area's most popular restaurants. For many years, it had its own fishing fleet. When we arrived in the Bay Area in the 1970's, we quickly discovered Spenger's. At that time, reservations were not accepted. Many a Sunday, J and I would grab the Sunday newspaper and head over to Spenger's for a long wait to be seated. This was part of eating at Spenger's...we would hang out in the bar, reading our newspaper, sipping a beer or a glass of wine, and wait the hour or more to be seated. Once seated, often at a communal table, we were pretty much assured that within an hour, we'd have completed our meal and would be on our way home, having enjoyed the freshest seafood that any restaurant in the area served. In those "good old days," Spenger's did not serve desserts and might not have even served coffee. All I remember was that once I finished my main course, I got my check and was expected to not linger...someone else was patiently awaiting a table.

Over the years, the Fourth Street area of Berkeley, where Spenger's is located, just north of University Avenue, changed...it got redeveloped and gentrified. Spenger's carried on, always under family ownership, until 1998, when Johann's grandson, Frank "Bud" Spenger Jr., closed the family restaurant because it was losing money.

The good news is that, in 2000, McCormick & Schmick, a Portland, Oregon, chain of seafood restaurants, took over the ownership of Spenger's and reopened a slightly remodeled version of the original. Eight years later, Spenger's continues to thrive in Berkeley. The menu has been a bit updated, reservations are now accepted, and, yes, you can order dessert and coffee after your meal and are not rushed out as soon as you put your fork down. Part of the "deal" that McCormick & Schmick made in their acquisition of Spenger's was that Bud Spenger and his wife Millie could continue to live in their home above the restaurant. Bud Spenger passed away in 2003. I am not certain, but I think some Spenger family members still reside above the restaurant.

Now, back to the Halibut dinner. Our four-course meal was paired with a different Clos du Bois wine for each course.

The first course was a Halibut Medallion topped with Smoked Prawn Mousse.

It was garnished with the chef's special Lemon Garmalade, Vanilla Bean, and Pimento. The wine was a 2006 Sauvignon Blanc.

Next came a Roulade of Poached Halibut, Prosciutto, and Basil, which was served chilled.

Notice how incredibly white the poached Halibut is. The plate was garnished with a Baby Arugula salad dressed with a Cassis dressing. A Goat Cheese Crouton finished off the plate. We sipped the Clos du Bois 2005 Reserve Pinot Noir with this course.

Our final Halibut course was Halibut Cheek au Poivre Noir. Yes, this really is the cheek of the Halibut...it is a bit more stringy than the other cuts of Halibut, but, for my taste, this was the most flavorful of the three Halibut dishes. The addition of black pepper provided some added spice.

This dish was garnished with Grilled Portabella mushrooms, Fingerling potatoes, and Creamed Leeks. The wine selection was a 2004 Marlstone.

This delightful meal ended with a very traditional dessert: Cherries Jubilee served over Vanilla Bean Ice Cream. The chef flambéed an entire pan of Bourbon-Soaked Sun-Dried Cherries, enough for the 40 or 50 people who attended the dinner, in the center of the dining room...very impressive and a wonderful throwback to the time when most fancy "Continental Cuisine" restaurants featured this dessert on their menu. The wine to accompany dessert was the 2004 Briarcrest Cabernet Sauvignon.

I don't get to Spenger's as often as I used to when there were few restaurants that served truly fresh fish. I've never been to one of their special wine dinners until this Halibut dinner last week. After, this enjoyable meal, I know I will be returning soon.

The regular menu continues to feature many of the traditional dishes that made Spenger's the famous restaurant that it is..My old favorites, the Shrimp Scatter, Fried Shrimp with French Fries, Cole Slaw, and Tartar Sauce, and the Captain's Platter with its assortment of Fried Fish, along with the Cole Slaw, Fries, and Tartar Sauce, are still being served. As is the Griddled Calamari Steak "Dore Style." The menu, which changes daily, offers about half a dozen fresh Grilled seasonal fish, Oysters on the half shell, and an excellent Seafood Cobb Salad.

Through the Halibut Season, which lasts through October, I am betting than some of the dishes I sampled last week, will be featured on the menu.

And, about Halibut, given that Salmon fishing has been canceled this year in California, why not give fresh wild Halibut a try? Could wild Halibut be the "new" wild Salmon for 2008?

1 comment:

mary ann said...

We used to go to Spenger's at least once a month many, many years ago. I loved this review and I do plan to have some halibut someplace soon. Thanks, this post is filled with history and memories for me.