"In nineteen hundred ten plus two, Bernstein opened San Francisco's Fish Grotto." I admittedly confess this intended poetic verse is not an exact rhyme, but for a rationale about to be revealed, it will suffice. Now, as to the anomalous opening and its relevance, you will shortly comprehend my forgivable attempt to employ a humorous play on the opening words of a very famous poem, but first I will answer the glaring question: Who was Bernstein and what was the Fish Grotto?
Maurice Bernstein was an Oakland fish merchant who ran a number of eateries in the Bay Area and the Fish Grotto at 123 Powell Street was one of them. Called "The Ship That Never Goes To Sea," the restaurant was a popular and unique tourist attraction from 1912 to 1981. Serving dishes found nowhere else in the city, such as abalone steaks, mussels bordelaise and coo-coo clams from Coo-Coo Cove, one could unequivocally argue its menu was what made it unique, but historically, its claim to fame was its one-of-a-kind street entrance.
Intended to be a reproduction of Christopher Columbus' ship Niña, the restaurant was built with a ship's bow jutting out into the sidewalk. Inside, the marine theme continued. Bernstein's had seven dining rooms styled to look like ship's cabins: the Fisherman's Cave, the Pilot Room, the Sun Deck, the Main Salon, the Cabin Nooks, the Upper Deck, and the Porthole Counter. The eatery was also known for a wooden mermaid, which was positioned at its entrance.
Although, I do not recall a mermaid being mentioned in the famous poem written about Columbus' first voyage into the unknown, I do clearly remember its opening words, "In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue." Now, that is a better rhyme. The poem continues, "He had three ships and left from Spain; He sailed through sunshine, wind and rain." Niña, the inspiration for Bernstein's restaurant, was one of the three Spanish ships (the other two were Pinta and Santa Maria).
Niña, also called Santa Clara, was a standard caravel-type vessel built in the Ribera de Moguer estuary of the Rio Tinto--a river in southwestern Spain. Commissioned to sail the Mediterranean Sea and originally rigged with triangular sails, she was re-rigged as a caravela redonda at Las Palmas in the Canary Islands with square sails for ocean sailing. Niña and the other two ships left Palos de la Frontera on August 3rd and made landfall in the Bahamas at dawn on October 12 ,1492.
Niña made the entire First Voyage, bringing Columbus safely home from the Bahamas. She accompanied the grand fleet of the Second Voyage to Hispaniola and Columbus selected her out of seventeen ships for his flagship on an exploratory voyage to Cuba, and purchased a half share in her. She was the only vessel of the seventeen in West Indian waters to survive the hurricane of 1495, and then brought back the Admiral and 120 passengers to Spain in 1496.
Niña was then chartered for an unauthorized voyage to Rome, and was captured by a corsair when leaving the port of Cagliari, and brought to an anchor at Cape Pula, Sardinia where she was stripped of her arms and crew. The Captain, Alonso Medel, escaped with a few men, stole a boat, rowed back to Niña, cut her cables and made sail.
Niña returned to Cadiz in time to sail for Hispaniola early in 1498, as advance guard of Columbus' Third Voyage. She was lying in Santo Domingo in 1500, and last heard of making a trading voyage to the Pearl Coast in 1501. No further log of her is found in historic archives. The Niña logged a extraordinary 25,000 miles under Columbus' command.
Replicas of the three ships were built in 1893 by the Spanish government for the Columbian Naval Review, but the most well-known 4-masted replica of Niña was built by American engineer and maritime historian, John Patrick Sarsfield, beginning 1988 in Valenca, Brazil. And, it will be visiting Charleston, joined by a replica of the Pinta, beginning April 28th.
Considered the most historically correct replica, Sarsfield and a group of master shipbuilders from Bahia, Brazil, who were still using design and construction techniques dating back to the 15th Century, constructed the replica Niña out of naturally-shaped timbers taken from local forests using only adzes, axes, hand saws, and chisels.
In December 1991, the Niña left Brazil and sailed to Costa Rica on a 4000 mile unescorted maiden voyage to take part in the filming of 1492: Conquest of Paradise. Since then, the ship has visited over 300 ports in the U.S. The caravels are operated by the Columbus Foundation of the British Virgin Islands--an educational group.
The Niña and Pinta will be moored at the Charleston Harbor Resort and Marina in Mount Pleasant until a morning departure on May 9th. Walk-aboard guided tours will be available 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Fees are $8 adults, $7 senior citizens and $6 for students to age 16. Children under age 4 are free. Pinta is available for private parties and charters.
As you walk Niña's deck, let your imagination take sail. Picture yourself a crew member on that fateful voyage and reflect on what life would have been like with only a compass to guide you, working while others slept, sleeping while others worked, day after day watching for land, dreaming of trees and rocks and sand, and slurping on coo-coo clams from Coo-Coo Cove.
Unfortunately, coo-coo clams is a west coast thing--not on any Charleston menu that I am aware of. After your tour of the Niña, if you want the best clams in Charleston, try The Fig on Meeting Street. Its Razor Clam Ceviche is considered by many to be the best.