Diners who frequent Canal Café generally would prefer to keep it to themselves, according to owners and brothers Parker and Paul Hodges. “The same people are here five days a week,” Parker said.
Even so, the word has spread fast about this local hangout and more and more people come to have lunch or dinner every day, the brothers said, and patrons are afraid if the owners promote it too much, the café will become overcrowded.
Its location seems to help the patrons’ cause: Canal Café is well hidden behind Hampton Watercraft Marina, perched on the Shinnecock Canal.
The Hodges brothers were partners in Barefoot Contessa for more than a decade. Paul has also owned a restaurant in Florida and Parker has worked in restaurants in Seattle. The owners explained that the Canal Café building used to be used for boat painting until the marina turned it into a bar. Ten years later Parker was in contact with the marina, bought the building and opened Canal Café, which is now in its fourth year.
The owners don’t take reservations, so around 5 p.m. prospective diners can expect about an hour wait, because the place just starts to fill up, Parker said. Patrons typically fall in love with the relaxed atmosphere: “People bring dogs that sit under the table,” Paul said.
“Canal Café is never stuffy and always comfortable. We try to make it as un-Hamptons-like as possible,” Parker said, describing the atmosphere as “’70s Cape Cod.”
The Hodges brothers, who are also the chefs, say the Canal Café menu concentrates mostly on seafood and American cuisine, but there are hints of Thai, Spanish, Mexican and French styles throughout, according to Paul. He cited the lobster quesadillas that often show up on the specials board as one example.
On the menu, “To Start” features clam fritters, cornmeal dipped calamari, popcorn shrimp, chorizo spring rolls, fried oysters, beer battered shrimp, Maryland crab cakes, shrimp cocktail and the soup of the day. The starters range from $7 to $10.
Customer favorites include the lobster roll, made with crunchy bread stuffed with fresh lobster meat and served with French fries and coleslaw, for $22; clam fritters for $8; and others that rotate on the daily specials board, like sea scallops and seviche. Blackened cobia is also on the specials menu occasionally, a well-liked dish that isn’t offered at many other establishments, Parker said.
Entrées include, among others, fish and chips made with fresh codfish for $16; a grilled chicken sandwich with fresh mozzarella, tomato and pesto dressing for $13; the “fisherman’s platter,” consisting of battered codfish, shrimp and fried oysters for $20; and a fried shrimp hero made with fresh beer battered shrimp for $14. All entrées are served with fries and coleslaw, excluding the salads.
Salads include a Caesar with Canal Café’s own dressing and crunchy croutons, augmented with chicken for $12, shrimp or steak for $14. There is also a spinach and goat cheese salad with candied pecans, balsamic onions and dressing for $10, and the Canal house salad with mesclun greens, cherry tomatoes, cucumber, red onion and Canal Café’s own balsamic for $7.
Local beers and wines are offered as well, and all desserts at Canal Café are $7.
The café is closed only in January and February and the owners say that in the off-season the view and food are a lot different. The specials menu becomes heartier and features specials like chili. “The water freezes over on the canal, and you’ll see seals,” Parker said, “and it’s really pretty.”
As for the summer, the canal is a place for boats to get fuel, anglers to fish and captains to pull in for a bite to eat at Canal Café.
“This is one of the few places where you can watch a fish being cleaned on the dock and then cooked,” Paul said. On more than a few occasions, people have caught a fish in the canal, cleaned it themselves, and then asked one of the chefs to cook it up for them so they can enjoy a nice meal at the restaurant.
Canal Café features music on Friday and Sunday nights in July and August, weather permitting, with one- or two-person acoustic bands.
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