Not all chains deserve a bad rap, and that’s especially true when it comes to seafood restaurants. If a spot cuts corners on the fish it serves, customers are going to know it, and it probably won’t stay in business very long. The chains that have stuck around and continue to garner good reviews are worth your money, but unfortunately many of them are small or regional. If we could magically make any seafood chains we wanted national, we’d choose these, from surfer fish taco spots to lobster-and-caviar splurges.
Legal Sea Foods is one of the most well known and waxed-poetic-about restaurants after a trip to the East Coast. The majority of its locations are in Massachusetts, with a smattering at malls and airports in states as far away as Virginia. The first location opened in 1968 as a casual spot complete with paper plates, but they’ve since graduated to real plates in a classier atmosphere. In 2013 they were voted best seafood restaurant by readers of USA Today thanks to classic menu favorites like creamy New England clam chowder, lobster rolls and crab cakes.
At their peak, McCormick & Schmick’s had around 100 locations, but have since scaled back to around 25 due to financial woes. But the upscale restaurant could be prime for a comeback, especially since it’s infamous for its inexpensive happy hour with lots of seafood, like poke bowls and calamari for $4-$10. Local ingredients are used as much as possible, Hawaiian seafood is overnighted, and fresh oysters come from their own oyster beds. It’s also a great place for people who aren’t into seafood, with a larger-than-usual selection of steaks.
The name Ocean Prime indicates its two focuses: seafood and steaks. The restaurants have that sleek, white tablecloth steakhouse feel, so any of its 16 locations make for a great date night or special occasion meal. Both sushi and chilled-on-ice seafood are featured on the menu, along with butter poached lobster bisque, Chilean sea bass with champagne sauce, and a 12-ounce bone-in filet broiled at 1,200 degrees. It’s the kind of indulgent place where you can add black truffle butter to your steak and lobster to your mashed potatoes.
California Fish Grill is a fast casual chain with a couple dozen locations in California and the Southwest. Unlike most fast food-like chains, their focus is on healthy grilled fish, with a large variety to choose from, including salmon, branzino and ahi tuna. Fried seafood is available, but based on reviews, it seems customers prefer items like Cajun shrimp tacos, paleo salmon bowls, and salads. A self-serve sauce and salsa bar allows customers to personalize their food, and signage explains the seafood’s origins. Between all that and the affordable prices, it’s no wonder there’s often lines during peak meal times.
Headquartered in California with about a dozen locations on the West Coast, King’s Fish House regularly receives 4+ stars on review sites. The chain is big on sourcing and sustainability, listing the origins of all the fish and oysters on their menu and emphasizing fish that’s in season. The menu is expansive, with a large oyster selection, sushi, appetizers like crab and avocado toast, grilled fish, and locally-influenced items like seafood cobb salad and cioppino. Cocktails have their own long menu, making it a great spot to hangout at the bar with some oysters casino.
Joe’s Crab Shack is a beach-themed, family-friendly seafood spot with around 45 locations. Most of them are located in Texas and Florida, so they’re ripe for an expansion to satisfy folks looking for a fun and economical seafood feast. The preferred way to order seafood here is in steam pots full of a few types of crab, shrimp, clams, potatoes, and corn, among other things, with your choice of seasonings, like Old Bay. The kitschy and bright decor matches well with the bib-required meals and cheesy appetizers, like crab nachos and crab and shrimp dip.
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The name Pappadeaux is a mashup of the restaurant group’s owners’ name, the Pappas family, and a French ending, signifying the restaurant’s Cajun influence. The majority of its 40ish locations are in Texas and the Southwest, and all serve an expansive menu of Louisiana- and Southern-inspired classics in a maritime-themed atmosphere that’s sophisticated and festive, complete with lobster tank. Crawfish is featured heavily on the menu, including fried and etouffee, along with gumbo, blackened catfish, shrimp and grits, and plenty of fried seafood. Desserts, like bread pudding and key lime pie, are not to be missed.
Inspired by fish tacos he had in Baja California during spring break, the owner of Rubio’s decided he needed to bring that specialty to San Diego in 1983. Now the fast casual chain has over 100 locations, all on the West Coast and Southwest, and many fans consider their fish tacos as some of the best. Locations range from minimal and beachy to bright and corporate-feeling. But all serve up inexpensive fried fish tacos full of fresh ingredients, along with shrimp, mahi mahi, and meatless options in bowl, burrito and nacho form, plus lots of fresh salsa options.
Truluck’s is the kind of restaurant where you take business clients you want to impress on the company’s dime, or maybe you just want to celebrate your first time eating out in a restaurant since the pandemic lockdown. There’s only a dozen locations, with half in Texas, and almost all garner 4+ stars on sites like Yelp and Google. Start your meal with stone crab claws or caviar, then move on to king crab legs and lobster mashed potatoes, followed by a dramatic flaming baked Alaska and a 12-year Scotch for dessert. It’s the kind of place that lives up to its discerning reputation, even if it’s a chain.
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Considered by many to be a Seattle institution, Ivar’s opened its first location back in 1938. Now there’s about 20 locations around town, including a couple expansive full service restaurants and 19 takeout locations. The fast casual spots serve mostly fish and chips, sandwiches and chowder, while the sit down restaurants have a Pacific Northwest menu of Alaskan halibut, grilled salmon, and dungeness crab bisque. It’s such a beloved brand in the area that it’s got a number of outlets in local professional sports stadiums and arenas.
Asian-Cajun fusion seafood boils are soaring in popularity, and Angry Crab Shack is the place to go for it in Arizona. There’s a dozen locations there, plus one in Alabama and Nevada, so there’s plenty more room for growth. You get to customize your seafood, which is served juicy and messy in the bag it was steamed in, covered in various sauces at spice levels from wimpy to burn-your-face-off. The happy hour specials are good too, but chances are you’ll stay for dinner when you see everyone else tucking into their bags around you. This is a boisterous, paper-on-the-tables kind of place.
You might think conveyor belt sushi is just a gimmick, but it’s so popular in Japan that there are 400 locations of Kura Sushi there. Here in the U.S., there’s a couple dozen, mostly in California and Texas, along with 8 other states. The conveyor belt system is unique, fun and efficient, and is especially suited to business during a pandemic. If you toss enough empty plates down a chute, a game appears on your order screen and you can win little trinkets. But how’s the food? About as good as your favorite neighborhood sushi spot, with the hamachi and spicy popcorn shrimp roll as standouts.
Though it’s not a large chain at only three locations currently, Devon Seafood + Steak once was a larger chain and often got great reviews. It’s one of those restaurants you don’t realize is a chain at all, partially due to each location having leeway to bring in local ingredients and catering to local preferences, like Sunday brunch buffets and lobster happy hour specials. It’s this personalization that sets it apart from other chains, along with a wood-fired grill that turns out smoky cedar plank salmon, shrimp and steaks. Plus those slightly sweet fresh biscuits they give everyone instead of a bread basket are a top notch treat.
Though it only opened in 2015, Hook and Reel already has about 50 locations with dozens more planned. They have jumped on the Cajun-style seafood boil train, and it’s not hard to figure out why it’s so popular when you see customers wrist-deep in bags of sauce- and spice-filled crab legs, crawfish and lobster. Eating with your hands and making a bit of a mess is part of the celebratory and fun atmosphere here, but if you—or someone in your family — is not into that, they also have a good selection of other seafood dishes, like fried oyster and shrimp baskets and catfish po’boys.
Founded by James Beard Award-winning chef Roy Yamaguchi, Roy’s is a Hawaiian and Pacific rim fusion restaurant with seven locations in Arizona, California and Florida. It began in Honolulu in the late 80s, and at one point included locations in Japan and Guam. Yelp reviews are good for its rich decor and upscale eats, like shrimp tempura, tuna poke, sushi, macadamia nut-crusted mahi mahi, and retro desserts like chocolate lava cake. A trip to Hawaii isn’t in the cards for everyone, but this chain can deliver a little of its tropical food.
With its energetic surf and skate theme, Wahoo’s Fish Taco offers an inexpensive option for SoCal-style seafood. There are about 50 locations, with the majority in California and Colorado where the laid-back vibe is appreciated. There are Chinese and Brazilian influences on the menu thanks to the founding brothers’ heritage, and it’s all rolled into tacos, burritos, and bowls. The fish taco, made with wahoo or mahi-mahi, is the centerpiece with its citrus slaw and cilantro sauce, but huge burritos filled with salmon or shrimp and teriyaki impress reviewers too.