10 Great Waterside Restaurants
Blame it on the intoxicating salt air. Or the way the light bounces as the sun sets. Or the pure pleasure of digging into a shore dinner of fresh lobster and buttery sweet corn while gazing out on white-capped waves. No matter the reason, one thing is for sure: waterside dining is one of summer’s greatest pastimes. Come July and August, it often doesn’t matter where you are, as long as there’s an ocean, lake, or river nearby.
Countless restaurateurs have leaned on Mother Nature to ensure success, enticing diners with a winsome combination of appetite-spurring menus and heartbreakingly scenic locations on the water’s edge. Some places—like the 30-year-old Beachcomber on a dune-filled stretch of Cape Cod and the only restaurant inside a designated National Heritage Beach—are emblazoned in our minds, and stomachs. Summer just isn’t complete without a visit.
“They have a great beer selection, incredible raw bar, and the steamers and lobsters are a must. As a kid (when I wasn’t leapfrogging down the sand dunes), I always ordered the fried clam bellies and summer corn on the cob,” says Corey Kane, 36, who lives on Boston’s South Shore and makes a pilgrimage to the Beachcomber every year. “I’m planning to go this weekend. It’s still the highlight of my summer.”
According to a U.S. government statistic, there are some 60,000 bodies of water in the New York–New Jersey–Pennsylvania region alone, which is proof that waterside dining opportunities around the country are potentially endless. So Travelandleisure.com assembled a list of some of the greats—restaurants that celebrate a sense of place, perfectly set on oceans, lakes, and rivers. And the food isn’t bad either.
The unfussy French restaurant Bartolotta’s Lake Park Bistro in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, might as well be on the ocean; it overlooks the sapphire waters of massive Lake Michigan and enjoys an amazing location inside Frederick Law Olmsted-designed Lake Park; its executive chef, Adam Siegel, just won the prestigious 2008 James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Midwest. And on New York City’s East River, the ultraclassic River Café—housed on an elegantly retrofitted barge—is moored just feet from one of Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson’s Waterfalls—the city’s new, and much publicized, public art installation.
This summer at the restaurant at Andre Balazs’s sceney Sunset Beach hotel on Long Island’s Shelter Island, diners can sample the star hotelier’s brand-new private label wine, an ultrasummery blend called—what else—Sunset Beach. And at Cantler’s Riverside Inn in Annapolis, locals are happy to share their tried-and-true techniques for eating the area’s Chesapeake blue crabs. Expect great Tex-Mex and margaritas at The Oasis in Austin, but be prepared to jockey for space on one of the beloved restaurant’s 40 tiered decks for a clear view of the fiery sunset over serpentine Lake Travis.
Maybe it’s because human beings are made of 65 percent water that we feel a natural affinity for H2O? In the end, perhaps we should blame biology for one simple truth: everything tastes better with a water view
The Beachcomber, Wellfleet, Massachusetts
What It’s Like: The “Combah,” as it’s affectionately called by Cape locals, earned its spot in the annals of destination dining when it opened back in 1978 in what is arguably one of the greatest restaurant locations ever—atop colossal sand dunes that line much of Wellfleet’s coast. But this 100-year-old building that once housed a U.S. Lifesaving station and is now the ultimate-beach-hangout is no fancy affair; summertime here means flip-flops, picnic tables, fresh and fried seafood, salt air breezes, free-flowing beer, and lines of kids at the pinball machine. Instead of letting the big happy crowd get to you, just sit back and enjoy the party.
What to Order: Anything and everything from the raw bar: oysters and clams—littlenecks, cherrystones, and Nauset steamers. For non-seafoodies, the killer Buffalo wings. And you can’t go wrong with one of its serious frozen mudslides or vicious Bloody Marys.
Best Seat in the House: Find a stool at the popular outdoor bar for a perch above the steep Cape dunes; you’ll also be just steps away from the raw bar and shuckers freeing—what else—sweet Wellfleet oysters!
Insider Tip: Beyond its flapping fresh seafood, fun bar scene, and views, the “Combah” is also renowned for its live music; Squirrel Nut Zippers and reggae great Eek-A-Mouse are both on this summer’s lineup.
More Info: The Beachcomber.
River Café, New York City
What It’s Like: As classic as a string of pearls, this New York jewel—in a perfect setting on the East River under the Brooklyn Bridge—has romanced diners since it opened its doors in 1977. The intimate flower-filled restaurant—on a magically retrofitted barge moored in Brooklyn’s DUMBO neighborhood—has had its fair share of hit-or-miss chefs over the years, but its most recent top toques have turned that trend around, producing superb seasonal American dishes, garnished with the gentle sway of the East River.
What to Order: The menu changes with the seasons, but right now you can’t go wrong with Taylor Bay scallop ceviche with coriander; Hudson Valley foie gras two ways; and Branzino filet with smoked tomato petals. The always-available chocolate marquise “Brooklyn Bridge” is a must for dessert—it’s edible art.
Best Seat in the House: Angle for one of the handful of coveted window seats that overlook the busy East River and the twinkling Gotham skyline.
Insider Tip: This summer, be sure to check out NYC’s latest public art works project—the Waterfalls, one of which is within spray shot of the restaurant. Created by Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, the four dramatic cascades of H2O placed along the lower East River are best viewed at night, thanks to dramatic under-lighting.
More Info: River Café.
Ray’s Boathouse, Seattle, Washington
What It’s Like: In Seattle’s hip Ballard neighborhood, this longtime leader in locavore cuisine dishes up only the freshest Northwest fare before unbeatable views of Shilshole Bay and the Olympic Mountains. Executive chef Peter Birk brings the region’s natural flavors front and center with a simple, straightforward approach to a menu of classics, pairing them with vegetables from local purveyors like the Ballard farmers’ market.
What to Order: Don’t miss the grilled Alaskan King Salmon and the Chatham Street Strait Sablefish in Sake Kasu. Cult classics at the more casual Ray’s Café upstairs include salmon burgers, clam chowder, and Dungeness crab and rock shrimp cakes.
Best Seat in the House: Take advantage of the Pacific Northwest’s warm, breezy summers from Ray’s Café’s seasonal outdoor deck. Get a little more intimate in the Boathouse’s cozy, clam shell–shaped booths that face the water.
Insider Tip: You can’t reserve deck seating, but come between 2:30 and 4:30 p.m. and you’re likely to snag a table outside.
More Info: Ray’s Boathouse.
Angèle, Napa, California
What It’s Like: On the banks of the Napa River in a 100-year-old white-and-blue-painted (former) boathouse, this family-run bistro is loved by locals throughout the valley for its French-inspired menu and cheery ambience—think oversize bouquets of loosely bundled meadow flowers, weathered wood interiors, and a warm and welcoming staff. The elegant outdoor patio is framed by arbors, with vineyards in the distance. If you squint and ignore all signs in English, it’s not hard to imagine yourself in Provence.
What to Order: Any one of chef Aaron Meneghelli’s French classics, like assiette de charcuterie (assorted cured meats and house-made pâté) with country toast; roast chicken with mustard seed gnocchi; summer berry clafoutis.
Best Seat in the House: On the patio under the shady trellis, laced, appropriately, with grapevines, and overlooking the glassy Napa River.
Insider Tip: The Rouas family prides itself on a strong relationship with the surrounding vineyards, and as a result carries some hard-to-find boutique wines. Some, like the Sauvignon Blanc from Huge Bear (which produces only 100 cases annually), are even poured by the glass. When in Napa…
Cantler’s Riverside Inn, Annapolis, Maryland
What It’s Like: Just over the Severn River from Maryland’s capital, Annapolis, Jimmy Cantler’s Riverside Inn sits on Mill Creek, which empties into Chesapeake Bay, the source of the restaurant’s famous blue crabs. The main dining room and bar are all one could hope for from a watermen’s haunt: communal tables in a wood-paneled room decorated with marine memorabilia and photos of the Chesapeake Bay spanning the more than 30 years that the Riverside Inn has been operating.
Best Seat in the House: During the summer, the most coveted tables are on the screened-in porch overlooking the creek, each covered in brown paper upon which pots of steamed crabs are poured in front of diners.
What to Order: Blue crabs cooked in Old Bay seasoning are the restaurant’s specialty; order them along with a basket of hush puppies and corn on the cob when it’s in season.
Insider Tip: First, arrive early. On summer weekends, the outdoor tables fill up quickly. Second, while you’ll be handed a mallet to help you get to the meat inside your steamed crabs, ask a local for the secrets to opening up the shell of the crab. Most are eager to share their techniques with visitors.
More Info: Cantler’s.
Bartolotta’s Lake Park Bistro, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
What It’s Like: On a bluff high above Lake Michigan, Lake Park Bistro serves sophisticated but unfussy French fare under the guidance of executive chef Adam Siegel, winner of the prestigious 2008 James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Midwest. While the elegant back dining room offers breathtaking views of Lake Michigan, the Bistro's high-energy bar in the middle of the restaurant offers the full menu and lively discussions. The restaurant sits in the Frederick Law Olmsted-designed Lake Park, where summer concerts take place in the evenings.
What to Order: For beautifully executed I-must-be-in-France staples, try the sole meunière poêlée (Dover sole), which is sautéed in brown butter and filleted tableside, or the garlicky escargots appetizer served in puff pastry. But the real draw is the Bistro’s sensational three-course Sunday brunch—the best in town. Be sure to start brunch with the excellent champagne-poached oysters.
Best Seat in the House: Tables in the Lake Room offer spectacular views of sapphire Lake Michigan waters.
Insider Tip: Tables with a view are the luck of the draw, but arriving early for dinner or brunch greatly boosts your chances. Ask nicely, and you can substitute a Bloody Mary for the complimentary mimosa at brunch.
More Info: Bartolotta’s Lake Park Bistro.
The Studio Restaurant, Laguna, California
What It’s Like: Since 2003, this wood-and-glass Arts and Crafts–style restaurant has gained in popularity among those serious about food, drawing diners as much for its thoughtful California-French cuisine as for its awesome setting—on a bluff with panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean. Chef James Boyce uses farm-raised meats and seasonal produce, plays with textures and temperatures, and serves plates with as many colors of the edible rainbow as possible. A custom wine vault holds more than 2,000 bottles, and the restaurant even employs a staff forager to seek out culinary goods along the coast.
What to Order: While there’s plenty available for meat-lovers, the seasonal vegetable tasting menu best showcases the produce California is famous for, with dishes like Meyer lemon and polenta cakes with Périgord truffle and arugula pesto. Also try the slow-cured Alaskan salmon with crème fraîche panna cotta; Moro blood orange and Hawaiian pineapple cobbler with sea salt crust and tarragon ice cream; and a flight of vintage port.
Best Seat in the House: Any one of the corner window tables or tables positioned in front of doors that open, for clear ocean views. For a more convivial experience, ask to sit at the communal table.
Insider Tip: If it’s available, book the Chef’s Table, located in a private room with stone fireplace off the kitchen, and enjoy a front-row seat to chef Boyce’s masterful knife and conducting skills.
More Info: The Studio Restaurant.
Sunset Beach, Shelter Island, Long Island, New York
What It’s Like: Celeb hotelier Andre Balasz changed sleepy Shelter Island in the late-1990’s when he converted a 60’s motel into a chic beachside hideaway—and Long Island alternative to the Hamptons. But his open-air bar and Mediterranean restaurant—with Poitoux rattan café chairs, strings of wicker lights, kitschy oilcloth-covered tables, white leather banquettes, red-and-white-striped awnings—are the real places to be seen, and are especially enjoyable at sunset. Reservations are essential Friday–Sunday, when preeny weekenders in glittery gladiator sandals and skinny white jeans are on parade.
What to Order: While the menu wends its way from Andalucia to Morocco via the French Riviera, there are some not-to-be-missed standards: cooling gazpacho, salade niçoise; the Sunset Beach Burger topped with Gruyère and cornichons; a hot fudge sundae.
Best Seat in the House: Request a table on the top deck by the railing for great views.
Insider Tip: This summer, at all of his hotels, the ever-entrepreneurial Balazs will debut his new, ultrasummery private label wine: Reserve Sunset Beach Rosé, a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Chardonnay.
More Info: Sunset Beach.
Lobsterman’s Wharf, East Boothbay, Maine
What It’s Like: Overlooking the Damariscotta River where it feeds into the Atlantic, this unpretentious spot—decked out with antique lobster buoys, hurricane lamps, and nautical paraphernalia—is a local favorite for its hit parade of seafood greats, and for its busy bar on the water’s edge. New owners took over in 2008 and made updates to its interiors (new coat of deck paint on its floors and wooden booths) and its menu (tuna sashimi), but most regulars will tell you it’s the Maine comfort food they want, and they’re just happy to get a seat.
What to Order: Many argue the merits of what makes a good New England clam “chowdah,” and here they hit all the right notes—creamy, smoky, and satisfying. The grilled haddock sandwich and freshly picked crab roll are also sure bets. For dessert, try the not-too-sweet homemade three berry pie ala mode.
Best Seat in the House: If the weather is good, nab a picnic table on the outside deck off the main dining room for the great views of the small working harbor, and your best chance of inhaling Maine’s intoxicating salt air.
Insider Tip: Visit for lunch during the week and you’ll be rewarded with a glimpse inside Hodgdon Yachts just across the water; if you’re lucky you may see one of its incredible multimillion-dollar vessels being assembled on the dry dock.
More Info: Lobsterman’s Wharf.
The Oasis, Austin, Texas
What It’s Like: The layout of this Austin favorite is a marvel in itself: 40 tiered decks—that can hold up to 2,200 people—jut out from a 450-foot-high cliff over Travis Lake. Literally thousands flock here nightly for casual American, Tex-Mex, and Creole food, drinks, and a chance to watch the sun disappear onto the city’s famous serpentine lake. Lightning destroyed some 80 percent of the restaurant's outdoor space in 2005, but the restaurant re-opened a day later. Within two years of the fire, the restaurant added more lake-side view seating and a cool new indoor-outdoor music space.
What to Order: Nachos with the works and other well-done Tex-Mex dishes, like enchiladas, pair perfectly with the house margarita.
Best Seat in the House: Call ahead and request seating at one of two tables in the semi-private high-perched Crow’s Nest. A statue of a diver (recovered from the original pre-fire Oasis) watches over the Nest.
Insider Tip: Arriving two hours before the sun sets is a good rule of thumb for securing a seat for the fiery show.
More Info: The Oasis.