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Crab Cooker is no-frills relic of Newport’s past

The Crab Cooker is caught in a charming 1950’s time warp, full of nostalgia, kitsch and incredible classic seafood.

The nautical no-frills diner and fish market is a Newport Beach institution. Locals, celebrities and tourists from all over the world pine for the delicious fish served at this candy-apple red corner eatery with its trademark green and white awnings wrapped above its windows.

The restaurant began when owner Bob Roubian (a carpenter in the late ‘40s) helped remodel the fish market on the corner of 28th Street and Marina (its original location) in Newport Beach. When the market’s owner asked Roubian if he’d like to take over the business in 1951, he accepted. Roubian was also a fishing enthusiast and enjoyed working in the seafood business.

In the early 1950s, Roubian worked 12 to 15 hours a day, with not much to show for it.

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“Our gross sales were $14 to $18 a day up until the mid-'50s,” Roubian added. “There were some very lean years. We were behind on our bills, we owed everyone: the IRS, abalone divers, sword fishermen and utilities.”

Luckily for the Crab Cooker’s fate, Roubian was also moonlighting as a musician. In the mid-1950s he sold a hit song to Capitol Records, and “The Popcorn Song” saved the Crab Cooker from closing down.

“The good Lord came in and let the song go; he wanted me to stay in business,” Roubian said. “It brought in big money [at the time] about $12,000 in 1956.”

Roubian traveled and performed with the likes of Abbott and Costello, but he preferred working at the Crab Cooker and returned home.

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The restaurant has evolved into a Newport Beach institution, where hungry loyalists can wait for hours for a chance to eat here on weekends, and in the summer. The waits are bearable and worth it to customers, who know that a seafood treat is around the corner.

Its trademark is premier seafood -- yet it never smells fishy. The reason is that they’re extremely selective about fish. They catch fish by hook and line only, never with nets, to preserve the reproductive cycles of fish.

“And fish has to be eviscerated while it is flopping on the deck,” Roubian said.

He added that proper preservation and cooling fish right away are key to premium seafood. Roubian says fish doesn’t always have to be fresh. Through trial and error he’s discovered that some fish are just as tasty frozen, including swordfish, salmon and lobster. Whereas mackerel, bass, grouper and halibut lose moisture and weight through thawing, and can taste like cardboard.

“The biggest trick to this is to know there are no tricks,” Roubian said. “People are not stupid.”

Roubian scours the world for the best fish he can find. He buys lobster from Australia and locally when it’s in season; scallops come from Venezuela, Canada, and Maine; and albacore tuna is caught in the Midway Islands.

“I pay premium prices, and I’ve had the same purveyors for 50 years.” Roubian said. He added that they’d be foolish to trick him with lesser quality fish, “It would be a double bubble of trouble for them,” Roubian said, adding that part of his job it to taste fish himself all week long. “And, I’m very critical.”

He lives within walking distance of the restaurant, just so he can be at work quickly.

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In the kitchen, the fanciest spice sprinkled on fish is Lawry’s Seasoned salt.

“I don’t know anything about gourmet cooking,” Roubian said. “But, good food doesn’t need a lot of seasoning.”

Fish is steamed, smoked and grilled. They also bake Fisherman’s bread, cracker balls and bread sticks that go perfectly with a bowl of clam chowder ($1.95) or any of the seafood plates.

All meals come with a choice of Romano potatoes or rice pilaf, and freshly made cole slaw and tomatoes. Try the delicious crab cakes, an old Maryland-style recipe, with no fillers, just whole Dungeness crab, and a touch of mustard, deep fried. ($13.95).

Sample some great fish by ordering the combination plate; it’s shrimp, scallops, and choice of cuts of fish on a skewer ($13.50). The Blue Plate special is a simple bowl of chowder, a fish salad and cup of coffee, makes a great light meal ($6.75).

Oysters are in season through April: Try them grilled on a skewer with bacon $10.25 at lunch, or $14.95 at dinner.

The finest halibut is broiled and delicious $10.50 at lunch, or $13.95 at dinner.

Inside the restaurant, nothing matches and everything goes together perfectly. You couldn’t duplicate the interior. It’s a collection of one-of-a-kind treasures: Broadway theater chandeliers, pots and pans, a wrought-iron gate entrance from a San Marino mansion, famous artists’ paintings, a giant shark and even a few of its owner’s Aunt Phoebe’s dining room chairs.

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Roubian has watched Newport Beach change from a barren beach town for vacationers to a sophisticated town with including luxury homes, award-wining dining, recreational activities, entertainment and cultural events.

In the early years, “I’d look out the window [at Newport Boulevard] and a car wouldn’t pass by for six minutes.”

The Crab Cooker hasn’t changed in half-a-century; it’s just as committed to treating customers like family, and serving the best fish they can find.

IF YOU GO

* WHAT: The Crab Cooker

* WHERE: 2200 Newport Blvd., Newport Beach

* WHEN: The fish market opens daily at 10 a.m. The restaurant is open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday to Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

* INFO: (949) 673-0100 or www.crabcooker.com

* BEST BITES runs every Friday. Greer Wylder can be reached at greerwylder@yahoo.com; at 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626; or by fax at (714) 966-4679.

20060106isn8ggnc(LA)Crab Cooker owner Bob Roubian, right, stands with his nephew and general manager, Steven Bolton.


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