Hooked on Menu at Walt’s Wharf

<i> Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for The Times Orange County Edition. </i>

We have plenty of seafood restaurants in Orange County, especially in the beach towns. Agreeable, upscale seafood restaurants, though, are in fairly short supply--especially in the beach towns.

That makes Walt’s Wharf all the more special. This lively Seal Beach haunt has been packing customers in for several years now, mostly because it has remained serious about the food coming out of its copper-and-glass kitchen.

Like many restaurants that can afford the luxury, Walt’s Wharf has a no-reservation policy. On weekends, especially in the summer months, expect to see a line of locals and out-of-towners spilling well outside the restaurant’s lobby onto Main Street, waiting for tables. Mostly they’ll be casually dressed fish lovers sipping glasses of white wine.


The lines over Mother’s Day weekend were so long, in fact, that we decided to take in a movie before dinner, rather than wait out the 1 1/2 hours the hostess predicted for us. Amazingly, the restaurant was still full at 10 p.m. when we returned for a late dinner.

It’s really the subtleties that give Walt’s this mad appeal. There’s nothing, for example, about its modest appointments that make it stand out from the crowd.

You pass a huge wine cooler as you enter and advance to the hostess stand, where you will no doubt put your name on a list.

Just adjacent to the stand is a small case stuffed with goodies bearing Walt’s logo--T-shirts, sweats, hats and beer mugs. This phenomenon is usually restricted to chain restaurants, but owner Walter Babcock, who owns Babcock Vineyards, is into gear. He already produces T-shirts and the like for his Santa Barbara County winery.

The seating options here are mildly complex. You can choose the cozy, quieter upstairs dining area, but you’ll need either patience or a bit of luck to get seated. There’s also the bar area, a lively oyster bar, where the comforts are less seductive than the fresh Washington State oysters and tangy seafood cocktails it serves.

But most people get shunted downstairs into a rustic, high-ceilinged room dominated by a few harbor lights and a silly nautical wall mural depicting pelicans and tugboats. The moss-green polyester tablecloths detract somewhat from the overall effect, but by and large, this is a pleasant place to dine. When you finally get seated, the waitress brings you a basket of crusty, fresh-baked sourdough that I regard as the area’s best. Walt’s Wharf actually buys partially baked loaves from a Los Angeles establishment called Gold Coast Bakery, then finishes them up in the restaurant. Too bad more places don’t follow this lead.


Much of the rest of what you eat here has the same surprising freshness, though the kitchen has the annoying fault of overcooking the fish. The action in this kitchen centers on a huge oak pit, where various fresh fish, steaks and chops absorb good, smoky flavors by the millisecond.

Oddly, my favorite thing to eat here isn’t a protein at all, but sensational oak-grilled artichokes served with a Worcestershire-mayonnaise dip. Between these, the bread and Babcock’s wines, I would consider moving in.

This is the right time to point out that Babcock, who makes excellent Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in his own right, has put together a wine freak’s list. You can pay handsomely for rare, big-ticket reserve Cabs or esoteric Chardonnays at this restaurant, but there are also several well-chosen mid-priced wines.

The huge menu is equally well chosen--to say nothing of innovative and diverse (a new menu is printed up daily). Try the freshly shucked Totten Inlet oysters broiled with basil pesto and Reggiano parmigiana cheese, a swooningly rich appetizer. The artichokes I’ve already raved about can also be had on an oak-grilled vegetable platter that includes Maui onions, crookneck squash, red and green peppers and thinly sliced eggplant.

I would suggest avoiding the smoked fish platter of dried out albacore and king salmon. A better seafood starter would be blackened ahi sashimi, made of top grade tuna and served with wasabi horseradish, soy and good pickled ginger.

Chunky clam chowders, with a generous allotment of chopped clams and available in both red and white styles, accompany all the main dishes. For a mere dollar extra (a bargain) you can even have a sumptuous Caesar salad with dinners.


Now for the fish, which can be had baked, steamed, sauteed or--the obvious choice--grilled. One possibility is trout laced with rosemary and basil, then topped with roasted garlic. I’m not always convinced by the fish dishes--the Mexican sea bass has no flavor under its roasted macadamia nut sauce and the yellowtail with a sticky sweet Sichuan and sesame sauce is too fishy--but generally you’re in safe waters here, as long as you don’t wander too far from the familiar.

The oak grill, by the way, is ideal for meat as well as fish. There are terrific 12-ounce double-rib pork chops.

I’d also save room for the fine homemade desserts: a sexy New York-style cheesecake made with rich mascarpone cheese; a satisfying, if basically workmanlike, creme brulee, and a crusty strawberry pie, finished with too much whipped cream.

Walt’s Wharf is moderately expensive. Appetizers are $5.25 to $10.95. Today’s Catch is $12.95 to $17.95. Oak Grill Specialties are $10.95 to $28.95.


* 201 Main St., Seal Beach.

* (310) 598-4433.

* Open 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily (closing time varies on weekends).

* All major cards accepted.