.Whole Hog

Venerable Tony’s Seafood reopens to thunderous sublimity

It’s busy and cool early evening at Tony’s Seafood in Marshall on a recent Thursday. The heat lamps are ablaze in the foggy twilight and a throng of people wait outside for a seat, but the wait won’t be too long at this welcoming, two-room saloon slung along Tomales Bay.

Inside, soup bowls appear to fly out of the kitchen and Manila clam shells pile up on the tables. The chowder’s a perfectly creamy and hearty dish for a perfectly micro-weather moment. The sun’s shining nearby as it often is in West Marin, but for tonight the star of the show is the food. Diners perch along a window counter and peer out into the bay and at the old dockworks that are part of the winsome landscape here.

Tonight it’s locals night and the crowd is heavy on flannel shirts, kindly eyes and worldly beards. Glasses clink, the waitstaff zips between the tables with plates akimbo and the locals just keep pouring in through the door and out of the fog. They’re here to revel in chef Matt Shapiro’s creations at this recently re-opened joint, now operating under the cosmic snout and ownership of nearby Hog Island Oyster Company.

Perched at the edge of the bay, Tony’s manages to simultaneously feel like both the center of the universe and the most far-flung place on earth—no mean feat. After a nearly two-year shutdown and renovation, the iconic saloon reopened earlier this year and by all accounts—my own, especially—this place rocks.

I visited earlier in May and met with Brenna Schlagenhauf, who handles public relations for Hog Island and who insisted I try the halibut crudo. More on that dish in a moment—it’s worth the wait. Schlagenhauf’s story of how she came to Hog Island is pretty simple: She stopped in for a beer and some oysters one day, and now she’s been with the company 10 years.

The “newest baby,” as she calls Tony’s, was a dream of John Finger and Terry Sawyer, the founders and partners at Hog Island, which now fields five culinary outposts in the Bay Area—from Napa to San Francisco. Entering the restaurant, there’s an immediate work-hard, play-hard feel to the place, and as Schlagenhauf notes, many of the staff stayed on after Hog Island bought the place in 2016. The fact that they waited out a two-year renovation to return speaks volumes about the generous corporate ethic at Hog Island, a Certified B corporation that’s been farming oysters since 1983.

The grilled oysters are legendary and were reportedly first offered by Anton “Tony” Konatich, a Croatian fisherman from the Isle of Iz who located to West Marin with his wife and daughter after World War II and opened Tony’s in 1948. The family approached Hog Island a few years ago “to see if they’d like to buy the family business,” recounts Schlagenhauf. “They jumped at the chance,” she adds, but went into the business “with eyes wide open,” given there was a bit of deferred maintenance to address before the joint could reopen under new ownership.

Chef Shapiro stops by the table while Schlagenhauf talks history and sustainability over a glass of wine for her and a Coke for me. The new owners embarked on a renovation that clearly hewed to maintaining the classic seaside “joint” feel of the original Tony’s. They kept the signature grilled oysters and Shapiro, who started with the company at its location at the Ferry Landing in San Francisco, set out to put some saloon classics alongside the ever-present oysters.

The menu is simple and doesn’t go overboard bragging about the locally sourced ingredients. There’s no superfluous information about where the produce or fish is sourced from, which Shapiro says is part of the deal here: There has to be a degree of trust in the chef, he says, and the chef goes out of his way to make sure his sourcing can be trusted.

Shapiro, 35, is a Queens native who’s lived in the Bay Area for a decade and calls himself a “wandering culinary soul,” he says with a laugh before turning serious again. In this business, he says, it’s all about trust. He says it a few times, but it’s not for show. His menu features those grilled oysters (they call them barbecued but they’re not) served with house-made barbecue sauce and garlic butter and are offered, he says, “as a nod toward what Tony’s used to have. People come here just to have that dish.”

The dinner hour’s in high gear as Garrett Hamner comes by the table with a big smile and a greeting. Garrett is off to seminary school in Pennsylvania this fall but first he has to refill a keg, says Schlagenhauf with a laugh. Hamner’s been working at Tony’s since he was a kid; now he’s about to study to become an Eastern Orthodox priest. He explains he’s headed east this summer with his wife and three kids—but first, that keg. Schlagenhauf departs for the night and I take some time to absorb the surroundings and décor. The light fixtures hanging over the open-kitchen counter look trés bizarre until I realize they’re actually kelp sculptures created by Inverness kelp sculptor Lina Jane Prairie.

The place smells of oysters and white wine; on locals’ night, expect to hear some tasty licks from the old-time corner-men playing American tunes. A kind of Garcia-Grisman conceit prevails that will have you tapping your toe as you scarf down some Hog Island Sweetwaters. The tables are all from the original Tony’s and the chairs are a mix of old and new—and again, the locals’ touch pervades; the furniture is wrought from cypress and produced by Marshall’s own Evan Shively. The open kitchen is clean and bustling, and the blue-and-white color scheme is so nautical, you’ll cry in your mizzenmast. And look, there’s Blue Slide’s own Gordon Bryant sitting at a neighboring table—he provided all the new tilework. The concrete countertops are also worth a lingering glance. As Sawyer explains (he’s hanging out with a beer and a lopsided grin), the countertops have the signature Hog Island oyster shells poured into them.

I’m keen on a fried oyster po’boy—hang in there, Louisiana!—and a Mexican Coke, and Schlagenhauf had insisted I try the halibut crudo. I wondered why she was so insistent. Well, I first visited Tony’s in late May and, with Gaia as my witness, I swear there’s not a day gone by since where I have not reflected, in one way or another, on that outstanding halibut crudo.

No, really: As much as I’ve held a crashing sea–into­-rocks mantra over these decades of seaside reflection, I do believe I’ve found a new mantra. The small plate ($15) features rugged fingers of fleshy halibut laid over a flower-like array of paper-thin granny apple slices, topped off with purple chive blossoms, all macerated in lime juice. If Tony’s grilled, er, barbecued, oysters were the signature dish to drive for miles to enjoy, that halibut crudo will surely become the next generation must-have dish here.

The fried oyster po’boy ($18) was crunchy-mushy, and the coleslaw, aka Hogwash Slaw, is all you need as a side to that overstuffed sammy besides the essential Crystal hot sauce. On a separate visit I wolfed down a solid platter of fish and chips with another one of those delicious $4 Cokes. I’ll save round two of the crudo for another time, and there will be another time.

I’m not sure how the rest of your summer’s playing out, but I’ll be headed to Tony’s every chance I get for some of those McEvoy olive oil-enhanced warm olives ($6), the steamed mussels ($15), and a shot of those wild Gulf shrimp with smoked paprika ($9)—and I’ll definitely head back for a $16 bowl of that signature HIOC chowder when the weather turns.

That could be, like, tomorrow. The chowder comes with a big side bowl of drop-yer-own Manila clams, and the broth features vegetables that are indeed aromatic even a table or two away (though the culprit might be the bacon). A Stemple Ranch burger whizzes by on a platter and appears to be a ruddy and worthwhile non-fish dish ($17), though it does come with house-made tartar (and Pt. Reyes Toma cheese). The back of the menu finds two-dozen wines by the glass or bottle, with a few regionals thrown into the worldly mix of whites, reds, rosés and sparkling wines. On the sudsy front, Santa Rosa’s Henhouse brewery holds up the local end of a beer wagon that also includes a Lost Coast Belgian and a Sudwerks’ Pilsner.

Yes, but did I mention the halibut crudo?

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