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We’ve all been told, in times of discombobulating transition, that when one door closes, another opens. It’s rarely comforting in the moment, but if you lack faith in the well-worn homily, just look to chef Adam Pechal for inspiration.
In a move that shocked and dismayed local food lovers, Pechal shuttered both of his restaurants, Tuli Bistro and Restaurant Thir13en, in early 2014. The reason? According to Pechal, Thir13en didn’t work financially. “We could never get traction with it, and it brought the whole ship down,” said Pechal.
While Pechal was still reeling from the closures, local nightclub impresario Trevor Shults was taking over the seasonal riverfront restaurant Crawdads River Cantina. The owner of popular watering holes Barwest, Social Nightclub, Vanguard and Pour House, Shults persuaded Pechal to come on board as a partner in the new venture, which they renamed Crawdads on the River. Before reopening, Shults focused his attention on an interior update, while Pechal scrambled to assemble a kitchen staff and put his spin on the casual, Cajun-inspired cuisine. His goal was to keep Crawdads’ classic waterfront cuisine while slowly retooling and personalizing the dishes. Specials such as crawfish etouffee may eventually make their way onto the menu, but Pechal has already added one signature item that fans will recognize: the Capitol Burger, a Thir13en staple that’s served with housemade pickles.
Pechal and Shults made the ambitious decision to keep Crawdads open year-round. Diners will really have a chance to taste Pechal’s influence on the food in the fall, when he launches a full menu. “Everyone wants calamari and fish tacos right now,” he says. “It’s just a big party on the river during the summer.” But come fall, the focus will shift to making Crawdads a destination restaurant. “We’re going to take it to the next level with nicer food and a little more service,” Pechal promises.
In the meantime, now’s the season to enjoy Crawdads’ quintessential river-dining experience. The interior may be attractively spruced up, but the restaurant’s trademark raucous revelry and noise level remain endearingly the same. Loud boats packed with sunburned, flip-flopped partiers regularly pull up to the restaurant’s deck, where people sip mojitos and whiskey coladas. Even the customers inside can share in the upbeat environment: Newly installed roll-up garage doors blur the line between indoors and out. One of the best dishes on Pechal’s evolving menu is the gumbo, a fragrant broth filled with fat shrimp, andouille sausage and blackened chicken. Mahi-mahi tacos, made with flour tortillas and bristling with crunchy cabbage, are ravishingly fresh. I also enjoyed the calamari; instead of the usual crusty tangle of tentacles and bodies, the deep-fried squid is cut into finger-length strips that you can easily dunk in chipotle cocktail sauce (though I didn’t care for the overly sweet honey-citrus aioli that also came with the dish). And the New England clam chowder, garnished with sourdough croutons, is hands-down one of the tastiest in the region. Soon, Pechal plans to begin offering buckets of crawfish on the weekends. “People are asking for them,” he says. “I’ve been developing recipes, and I’ve got it down. You just need to pinch the tails and suck the heads.”
Pechal is still processing the changes in his life and work. “Crawdads is a beast,” he says. “These river restaurants, they are just machines.” In the summer, he notes, there’s no break between 2 and 5 p.m. “We’re going from the second we open to the second we close.” That, coupled with a small, complicated barge kitchen, keeps him busy. Especially so because the door that opened so fortuitously for him was actually two doors: Pechal has also taken over the food program at Pour House and is currently dividing his time between the two businesses. “I tell people I am kind of the deadbeat dad at Crawdads right now,” he says.
Pechal’s transition—rapid and serendipitous—has catapulted him to an unexpected new realm. He’s still wrapping his head around the challenges he faces, but he’s clearly grateful for the opportunities.CRAWDADS ON THE RIVER 1375 Garden Highway BEST DISHES: Clam chowder, beer-steamed mussels, fish tacos, gumbo DRINKS: Full bar with a focus on specialty cocktails; modest wine list ATMOSPHERE: Lively and party-centric NOISE LEVEL: Loud during peak hours PRICES: $$ HOURS: Sunday–Thursday 11 a.m.– midnight, Friday–Saturday 11 a.m.– 2 a.m. CONTACT: (916) 929-2268; saccrawdads.com