On a Saturday night, Cherry Crest Seafood is all business. The menu for this small strip-mall restaurant and fish market lists twenty entrees, not counting pastas or salads, as well as a spread of house specialties and a long board of apps; the chalkboards and dry-erase boards are full of more daily specials; and the kitchen where all these dishes are created is tiny — an open hot line arranged in a tight, cramped square with three guys banging around inside. They're slinging sizzle platters, saucing, topping and arranging a dozen different fish, pulling live lobsters from the tank with the calm coolness of veteran executioners while the waitresses do assembly-line salads and the busboys break like wings of Stukka dive-bombers every time a group leaves — grabbing plates, stacking glasses, wiping down and turning tables with the speed and practiced efficiency of an Indy pit crew.
Cherry Crest is not a hip restaurant. It is, in fact, the least hip restaurant in the city — possessing neither the honest retro credentials of an old place like Bastien's nor the bought-and-paid-for faux-retro slickness of a new-old joint like Steuben's, with no claim to the foodie-chic-ethnic-weirdness that keeps unusual spots like India's or Domo in the green. It isn't in a hot neighborhood, or even a neighborhood that has ever been hot or ever will be. And though many of the cars in the parking lot are expensive and German or enormous SUVs, they are driven almost exclusively by ladies of a certain age or men older than their teeth. Cherry Crest is not a place where anyone goes to be seen. Innovation is anathema here, chased out of the kitchen like a disease. With its cramped floor, upholstered booths, aging posters of the Detroit Red Wings, higgledy-piggledy arrangement of tables and chairs crammed in as tightly as possible and style of plating that harks back to the two-dimensional days before Portale, before ring molds, before every entree had to come stacked high as if the plate were incredibly valuable real estate and the chef had bought only one small parcel, Cherry Crest is not going to win any awards for design.
And yet, it is busy. At 6:30 on a Saturday night, the wait at the door is an hour, easy. I don't know how many people the restaurant can seat, but I do know the floor is completely committed — at 100 percent capacity and then some, with the dining room and covered patio full. The waiters and waitresses are moving along pre-cut grooves in the floor, following the same path that some have been following for more than two decades, since the day the place opened back in 1985. The hostess stand is unmanned most of the time, with the list working on a sort of honor system: You step in, pick up the little notebook, write in your name and the number in your party, then step back. A regular in the parking lot offers a helpful warning while I wait my turn at the book: write your name close to the one before you, because there are assholes in the world, jerks who will try to cram their names in between two other names, thereby bumping themselves up in the batting order. So when I pick up the pen, I leave no room for such shenanigans. I'm taking no chances at all.
I've been here on a busy Tuesday afternoon when the patio was full and people were pressed up against the market cold cases (Cherry Crest is also a wholesaler of truly excellent fish delivered daily), but I managed to slide in, get my order — a lobster roll that was heavy on the red onion and celery, which I don't care for but some people do — and slip out again with no fuss, no muss. I've been in on a busy Thursday evening when I only had to wait seconds for a table, and not much longer for Little Necks dunked in warm, drawn butter, greenlip mussels in garlic-shot beurre blanc and a plate of peel-and-eat 18-20s mounded on a plain white plate with no more elaborate garnish than a lemon wedge and a leaf of wilted lettuce, no more extravagance than the shrimp themselves (perfectly boiled in court bouillon, chilled, lovely) and a tin soufflé cup of excellent, horseradish-heavy cocktail sauce.
But Saturday is crazy busy. Out in the parking lot, the conversation is all about fish, about piscine fantasies and memories of great meals had just on the other side of the glass, at this table or that one. Everyone has a favorite plate. I hear recommendations for the salmon, the salmon, the salmon again. For the sword, for the crab legs, for the Great Lakes walleye — a seasonal taste you rarely get to indulge in Colorado. One woman swears by the Thai noodle salad with grilled salmon. "I'm hooked," she says, with no trace of irony. "I'm going to have it tonight. Or maybe the lobster salad. Or the lobster and crab enchiladas..." Her voice goes all rough and husky, like Homer Simpson dreaming of doughnuts. "They are soooo good."