The 60-year-old Pier 15 Restaurant & Bar is like a dining mirage nestled in the square-block grid of San Rafael where a waterway breaks up the otherwise nondescript, commercial-dominated Canal neighborhood. It’s a locals-driven institution characterized by a casual, nautical-inspired ambiance.
The dimly lit bar area is warmed by checkered tablecloths on high top tables, red lantern ceiling lights and a large electric stone fireplace. Even without a crowd, it comes alive with visions of spirited tales and rowdy camaraderie told over stiff cocktails at the belly-up-and-stay-a while bar.
It’s noticeably brighter in the main dining room where the red-checkered covered tables bask in the natural light of windows on two sides. But the rear deck overlooking boats moored in the tightly set harbor is the place to be for the deepest dose of salty marine vibes.
Although the menu fits the decor and correlates with an East Coast, seafood shack, it doesn’t rest solely on traditional American fare. Owner and San Rafael resident Adriano Orsi, who took ownership in 2006, has a strong Italian restaurant pedigree. There are a few pasta dishes, including delicate, crepe-wrapped seafood cannelloni ($17.50) in a nod to Orsi’s father, the late restaurateur Oreste Orsi who is credited for introducing cannelloni to San Francisco back in his heyday.
Guatemalan chef Rubio Zarcarias has been at Pier 15 for 20 years and adds zesty touches, including huevos rancheros with Spanish rice ($14.50) and spicy seafood soup ($15).
New England clam chowder ($8.50), like most of the soups and sauces, is house-made. The thick, creamy broth is smooth and contains a good helping of clams and potatoes, and is accented with diced celery, onions and parsley. But the addition of green bell pepper bits belies the Eastern seaboard version that relies more on the flavors of bay leaves and bacon. Nonetheless, this one does grow on the traditionalist with each spoonful.
The appetizer menu is predominately classic finger foods involving beer battering and deep frying as well as reliable items such as shrimp cocktail ($12), mini pizzettas ($11.50) and quesadillas ($10.50 to $12). Limiting our intake from this category to save room for what was to come, we went with spicy chicken wings with Louisiana hot barbecue sauce, celery sticks and ranch dressing ($12). Although these weren’t deep-fried to crispy, which can make a wing utterly devourable, the thin, spicy sauce adheres well to the wing and has enough kick to please most palettes.
The timeless wedge salad ($8.50, $12.50) is an American stalwart we couldn’t turn down. Appropriately, it’s served with a steak knife to cut through a sturdy iceberg lettuce base scattered with hardboiled egg, fanned avocado, cucumber discs and blue cheese dressing and crumbles. It combines chilly, crunchy freshness with soft, piquant cheese and smoky bacon and, like the chowder, speaks tradition.
We went with our server’s recommendation of Alaskan cod fish and chips ($16). Two breaded and deep-fried flaky fillets are fresh but could use a flavor boost beyond the accompanying tartar sauce. The minimally salted shoestring fries and a couple of lemon wedges result in a visually pale plate that needs some zip.
The bar burger ($13.50) didn’t have the juicy heft to make it stand out but it’s hard to judge this menu mainstay based on one visit. The patty topped with a thick slab of semi-melted cheddar (or Monterey Jack, Swiss or blue cheese) comes between a Bordenave’s bakery sesame seed bun spread with mustard and mayonnaise. Lettuce leaves, sliced tomato, raw onion rings and a pickle come on the side along with a choice of coleslaw, grilled potatoes, French fries, house salad or a scoop of house-made, eggy potato salad with a touch of onion.
Breakfast is big at Pier 15 and luckily is served until 3 p.m. so there’s no threat of a later slumber pushing your egg-seeking appetite into the salad and sandwich realm. The menu isn’t diner-length but covers the bases — a few omelets ($13 to $14.50), three types of Benedicts ($12.50 to $13.50), sweet offerings like cinnamon French toast ($10) and pancakes with toppings ($9 to $12.50), and signature dishes like Robert’s corned beef hash with eggs and beefsteak tomatoes ($14.50) and Guatemalan huevos rancheros with eggs, corn tortilla, black beans, avocado, provolone cheese, pico de gallo salsa sour cream and Spanish rice ($14.50).
Weekends are an opportunity to hit the bloody Mary and mimosa bar ($10). Servers bring a shot of vodka in a glass or a split of champagne leaving you ready to add accouterments from the display of juices, fruits and veggie fixings.
Service is relaxed, warm and accommodating, and servings are well portioned. Pricing is commensurate with similar casual Marin restaurants.
While the waterway on which Pier 15 resides isn’t the most pristine of Marin seaside visions, the oversized plant-dotted deck atop the canal is surprisingly peaceful with the lulling background din of quiet conversation. Rotating fans do a decent job of keeping this area temperate in hot weather (the deck is closed in the off-season) and also blurs the distant hum of vehicles on Highway 101. Well-spaced, varnished picnic tables are protected under a roof of large triangular sails overlaying red umbrellas, and Plexiglas siding keeps the wind away.
Live jazz takes place every Sunday on the deck from 5 to 8 p.m. and once a month, there’s a Motown band and deck barbecue with chicken, ribs, beans coleslaw and corn on the cob.
Creative cocktails combine brand-label infused vodkas, pureed fruit and herby add-ins ($10). Happy hour is from 3 to 7 p.m. daily with $5 appetizers, well drinks and select beers ($4 to $7 for drafts). Wine ($6.50 to $11 glass, $24 to $48 bottle) and champagne ($8 to $10 for a split, $30 to $38 bottle) selections are limited.
Orsi has seen three generation of customers come through Pier 15, some of whom have been coming for six decades.
“It’s a unique place that doesn’t go after one clientele,” he says.
Leanne Battelle is a freelance food writer. Send her an email at email@example.com with your comments or restaurant recommendations. Or you can follow the Marin dining scene at instagram.com/therealdealmarin.
Pier 15 Restaurant & Bar
Address: 15 Harbor St., San Rafael
Cuisine: Classic American fare
Noise level: Medium to high
Liquor selection: Full bar
Vegan dishes: Limited
Gluten-free selections: Limited
Organic offerings: Limited
Dog friendly: No
Parking: Street, free valet at lunch
Hours: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. weekdays, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. weekends
Prices: $10 to $18
Summary: Pier 15 takes its harbor setting seriously, relying on the charming, nautical accouterments of the genre to invite bar and deckside dining from a menu that is elevated by house-made items and a bloody Mary and mimosa bar on weekends.