The Crab Cooker
The no-fills Crab Cooker holds onto its colorful heritage
Nobody goes to the Crab Cooker for its eccentric charm. Not only, anyway. You go for the fresh fish, cooked on open rotating charcoal grills visible to anyone who wants to watch: oysters, Alaskan king crab, king crab killer claws, Maryland-style crab cakes, soft-shell crab, chilled cracked Dungeness crab, Australian lobster and Atlantic salmon filets.
“Fresh-caught eviscerated fish doesn’t have a fishy smell,” says 89-year-old founder Bob Roubian. “They smell like watermelon.”
The skewered entrees include shrimp, scallops and a mixed grill. There are seafood cocktails and a stout clam chowder that’ll hold you through a Mahler symphony or a night in Russia, whichever lasts longer. The side dishes are simple: tomato, rice pilaf, coleslaw, a browned potato ball. There are beer and wine but no other booze. Coffee. Tea. Soft drinks. But no dessert. The paper plates and plastic dining utensils are simpler. The drill since it opened in 1951, basically, is eat and get out; odds are someone will be waiting for your table (though no one pressures you).
The food is succulent, but it’s also the cluttered ambiance that hooks you, so to speak. The big shark hanging overhead in the front dining room, with bandsaw teeth ready for the kill, is eye-catching enough. There’s the wall-mounted wooden sea nymph whose firm breasts once braved the elements from the prow of a sailing ship. The handsome grandfather clock in the corner slowly ticks out stately, pre-digital time.
Purloined Los Angeles street signs hang in the back dining room; a painted glass door that doesn’t open announces LONDON. The walls are jammed with paintings, old black-and-white prizefight photos (one shows Rocky Marciano knocking down Jersey Joe Walcott). Life magazine covers, from when the price was 40 cents an issue, feature Ava Gardner, Jackie Gleason and Barbra Streisand in their prime – the 1959 Gleason cover has a story titled, “Why Medical Care Costs So Much.”
The Newport Beach Crab Cooker (there’s another in Tustin) is a throwback to a heartier, grainier, more raffish and idiosyncratic period of beach culture, when the beach itself was more a mix of getaway and last frontier. (Further down the peninsula, Christian’s Hut once invited such hard-drinking celebs as Errol Flynn and Humphrey Bogart to step off their yachts at the waterline entrance, walk right in and stagger back onboard a few hours later.)
Like most great joints, the Crab Cooker is basically the creation of one single-minded person. You get a taste of Roubian’s impishness before you even enter the caboose-colored eatery, with its puffy lettering designed after the Popeye logo. By the front door is a sign that reads, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” Overhead is a sign that says, “Don’t look up here.”
The haphazard interior is deceptive; a lot of it is made up of artifacts from Roubian’s life. The Manzanita street sign is from the Pasadena site where he grew up, a neighborhood where he picked up the blues and pop music that helped him later as a songwriter.
The charcoal grills in the kitchen and the kebab entrees evoke the time when the Roubians were so poor, the gas company cut them off and they had to barbecue dinner outdoors. It was a hard life for a long time. Not long ago Roubian sat down at the restaurant with his nephew and the current manager, Steve Bolton, to recall it through eyelids drooped at half-mast and a soft voice telling good-natured tales of hardship and triumph.
“I was a Seabee stationed in the Philippines during World War II,” he said. “I’ve always loved the sea and had a hankering to open a fish market. My family used to drive down here, before there was the freeway, so when I got back I bought a little home for $2,500 and opened a place further up Newport Boulevard.”
Competition was fierce. There were seven other markets in the same small area. Roubian put out a few dining tables. He got to the fishing boats first. He undersold his rivals. He tried to buck what he called “a monopoly of Irishmen that stretched Orange County and LA.” One day a man in a gray, soft-brimmed hat and camel coat showed up and offered his card. “ ‘The Irish won’t let you have fish,’ he said. ‘I’ll fix everything. You’ll get respect. I have the black book.’ I wasn’t sure what to do. I asked my mother.”
Roubian’s mother was Sicilian. “ ‘We’re in America now,’ she said. ‘Don’t deal
with those goombahs. They’ll own you for life.’ ” He added a wonderfully characteristic Sicilian phrase that translates to “He who places his hope in others dies desperately.” “He owed everybody,” said Bolton, a rangy, loose-limbed 63-year-old. “Once we had to split a hamburger.”
Bolton grew up with the business, left for a 13-year stint with the Alaska railroad, and came back to stay in 1975. “I’m not a good restaurant guy, but I’m a good Crab Cooker guy.”
Luckily, Roubian was able to sell some of his songs. His “Popcorn Song” was a hit. He paid off all his creditors and was left with $35. It was enough. He worked his way along and moved the Crab Cooker to its current site at 2200 Newport Blvd. in 1961.
Neighboring businesses complained about its color and design. Now it’s an icon. Nobody’s complaining any more. “I have a loyal staff. Some of my girls have been with me over 30 years. I owe them too much back pay.”
“He tells people I was in prison,” says a waitress named DJ. “Working here is part of my parole.” They were joking, of course. “Ever since I opened this place,” Roubian said, “I’ve been on honeymoon.”