By Trevor Felch
Raise a Glass (and an Oyster) to Two Newly Renovated North Bay Waterfront Classics
By Trevor Felch
With a combined 170 years of history, it’s remarkable that a certain pair of North Bay waterfront eating and drinking staples underwent major renovations for the past few months almost simultaneously and reopened within a month and a half of each other. So many diners, so many plates of oysters, so many cold beers, so many decades since both opened — and yet, Tony’s Seafood in Marshall and Sam’s Anchor Cafe in Tiburon just happened to decide to renovate and rejuvenate themselves under new ownerships at virtually the exact same time.
Amidst the flurry of standbys closing and fast-casual mini-chains opening, there can be good restaurant news as well! Sam’s Anchor Cafe will celebrate its 100th birthday next year. Tony’s Seafood has anchored its home on pilings on Tomales Bay since a Croatian fisherman, Anton ‘Tony’ Konatich, founded it in 1948. Sure, with new ownership at both institutions, things have changed a bit since the first half of the 20th century. Change can be good, though, and both restaurants have simply been freshened up without losing their core personality and purpose. This is how restaurant evolution should be and yet so rarely happens.
For Tony’s Seafood, the new owners are Hog Island Oyster Co., the Bay Area’s preeminent producer for sustainable shellfish since it was founded by John Finger and Terry Sawyer in 1983. Of course, Hog Island’s flagship oyster “farm” and al fresco restaurant (celebrating its 30th birthday this year) is essentially Tony’s next-door neighbor along Tomales Bay’s eastern shore. It’s such a natural growth for Tony’s baton to be handed to Hog Island that some diners almost seem puzzled that the two haven’t always been connected.
Even with Tony’s Seafood now in the group’s portfolio, Hog Island’s farm on Tomales Bay remains one of the great pilgrimages of Bay Area food, perched at the highest level with elite legends like Zuni Cafe, The French Laundry, Swan Oyster Depot, Chez Panisse and La Taqueria. Sitting outside with chilled rosé, dozens of oysters fresh out of the bay in front of you, salt water-tinged wind blowing around, and bright sunshine is an essential “This is Northern California” experience. But, here’s the big difference between the farm, Hog Island’s two oyster bar/restaurants at Napa’s Oxbow Market and SF’s Ferry Building, and Tony’s — the latter is a bonafide brick-and-mortar restaurant. There is no sharing the space with coffee bars, grocery kiosks, and The Slanted Door or The Kitchen Door.
Finger reached out to the Konatich family a few years ago and mentioned that he would be interested in Tony’s if they ever wanted to sell. “Tony’s has been special to us since we were starting our farm and families and working so hard that it was hard to take it all in,” Finger says, “We’d go down the road for a beer at Tony’s and all the special beauty of the area would hit us—it reminded us of how absolutely lucky we were.”
After closing in January of 2018, Tony’s reopened after just over a year of renovations, or “TLC” as Finger likes to say in terms of how the restaurant had slipped towards a slight decline in various areas. It’s as fresh feeling as ever now across its 96 seats in the two indoor dining areas (the southern room has a few side-by-side seats at a counter directly looking at the water for a stunning meal with a view) and outdoors on the patio (in good weather). The kitchen was substantially upgraded, the dining areas boast a cabin-like feel from wood planks for the ceiling and floor, and the sleek blue tiled oyster bar resides by the kitchen.
That latter point was a particularly big decision by the Hog Island crew because the oyster bar is, naturally, at the center of attention for the three other locations. At Tony’s, they want diners to acknowledge oysters but also know that they aren’t totally the focus this time around.
Sam’s Anchor Cafe was sold to Conor Flaherty and James Tate in 2017 and is operated by one of the powerhouse Northern California restaurant groups, Moana (Lark Creek, Joinery in Sausalito, Piatti among a dozen or so of their restaurants). Flaherty is a Tiburon native and, according to the staff, it seems like he is the Mayor of Tiburon when he strolls around the patio any given day since all the locals know him and he knows them. For the quaint village, Sam’s really is their centerpiece, and it’s great to have it still in local hands.
Unlike Tony’s year-long renovation, the changes at Sam’s only took a matter of weeks. Sisters Hannah and Emily Collins of the in-demand design firm ROY (a Mano, Magnolia Dogpatch, the stunning new Velvet 48 in Burlingame) created a distinct maritime theme that reaches back in time with an early 20th century aesthetic to honor Sam’s early days under original owner Sam Vella (the Hawaiian shirts that servers wear are another nod to Sam since he apparently wore them frequently). The design is much more Queen Mary than lobster shack — no nets and buoys here.
Instead, there are aged brass finishes, a distinct navy-blue and creamy white color scheme, an exposed old-growth redwood ceiling, and several art deco elements that immediately bring to mind glamorous cruise liners. One other exceedingly important addition for the patio where it isn’t always balmy: the wrap-around bench can now be heated like how car seats can be heated.
Flaherty’s day job is as Head of Operations at Preserve Partners, a private real estate investment firm, and Tate is Head of Development there, as well. By virtue of that corporate background, plus being run by a large restaurant operations firm like Moana, plus being in a very tourist-friendly location, it’s understandable that diners might be skeptical of Sam’s and think of it as another high volume waterfront property that focuses on margins and glittery views over the cuisine. Sure, the views of Angel Island and the San Francisco skyline in the horizon will always be the focus for Sam’s. Luckily, like at Tony’s, the food is a worthy supporting cast.
Not surprisingly, fish and seafood are the heart and soul of both menus. Sure, both restaurants have a burger (and Sam’s has a fried chicken sandwich and New York steak), but let’s not get carried away about what these restaurants are really all about.
Within that fish and seafood theme, there are a few differences between the two. Both serve a seafood stew ($26 at Tony’s; $34 at Sam’s), but only Sam’s explicitly considers theirs’ a “cioppino”. Sam’s has a tuna poke and fish ceviche (both $16) from the raw bar, while Tony’s has a marinated seafood plate ($14) and peel & eat Gulf shrimp ($18).
Sam’s certainly has a few playful items that reflect the laid-back, weekend-every day vibe of the outdoor deck. The $55 “Sunny and 70” is a drink bowl and a pile of Old Bay dusted fries that maybe can be considered a light meal. A $25 “hamburger and Champagne” combination isn’t necessarily a natural pairing but seems exactly like what the captains of the small yachts that tie up at Sam’s dock will want after a voyage.
Meanwhile, Tony’s has a few more ambitious plates that show the talent of chef Matt Shapiro. Prior to joining Hog Island in 2014, the Queens, New York native cooked at some of the Mission’s most acclaimed restaurants (Wise Sons, Walzwerk, the now-closed Schmidt’s) and it’s easy for diners to see how his careful touch subtly enhances classic waterfront preparations, like a puffy tempura-like batter for the cod and chips ($21) or a touch of anchovy to liven up linguine and clams ($22).
Sam’s traffics more in the sandwich realm (rock fish sandwich for $19; chilled Maine lobster roll for $27), while Tony’s boasts a fried oyster po’boy ($17). Meanwhile, Tony’s also has Hog Island’s beloved grilled oysters coated in BBQ sauce or a jalapeño butter (four for $16).
The biggest similarity food-wise between the two is that both sure love offering crab in various forms. At Sam’s, there’s a crab toast with smashed avocado ($21); a Sam’s Louie’s Louie salad ($30); and a crab cake starter ($19). Tony’s has an irresistible crab and Mornay gratinée ($19) and a Dungeness crab sandwich with housemade mayonnaise ($21).
Both restaurants also offer noteworthy fresh fish preparations, like sand dabs with mussels and sherry cream at Sam’s ($28) or halibut surrounded by grapefruit and endive spears or black cod with Pinot Noir-braised chicories at Tony’s (these daily specials change often but usually are $28.).
For dessert, Sam’s leans towards Americana classics like butterscotch pudding, fried banana splits and brownie sundaes (all $8). Dessert at Tony’s is all about swirls of Straus Family Creamery soft serve ($5) with various toppings like extra virgin olive oil and sea salt ($2), or aged balsamico ($3). Not only is the soft serve always a big hit, but the creamery’s founder/CEO, Albert Straus, always dines at Tony’s on Friday nights, so they better include the beloved product from one of their most influential regulars!
Amidst the sweeping Bay Area changes, it’s as refreshing as a San Francisco Bay breeze to see that this pair of local waterfront legends are in good hands with new, caring owners. Amidst all of the rent increases and grueling traffic jams, a road trip to Tomales Bay or a ferry ride to Tiburon are reminders of what a special place the Bay Area still is. Raise a glass — and an oyster — to another 170 years for Sam’s Anchor Cafe and Tony’s.
Tony's Seafood Restaurant
18863 Shoreline Hwy, Marshall
Hours: 5-8pm Thurs, 11:30am-8pm Fri-Sun
Sam's Anchor Cafe
27 Main St, Tiburon
Hours: 11:30am-10pm Mon-Wed, 11:30am-12am Thurs-Fri, 10am-12am Sat, 10am-10pm Sun