How the Atmosphere at a Costa Mesa Fish Shop Changes Dramatically During the Holidays

How the Atmosphere at a Costa Mesa Fish Shop Changes Dramatically During the Holidays
Illustration by Pete Ryan

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Illustration by Pete Ryan
Illustration by Pete Ryan

tanding in line.  It’s such a part of what we have to deal with living in Southern California that I’m not surprised when the standing-in-line itself  becomes the tradition.  There’s the See’s Candies chocolate line at the holidays, where I sometimes run into neighbors. There are the masa lines for celebratory tamales. There’s the line to get your photo taken with Santa at South Coast Plaza.

And there’s the fish market on Christmas Eve.

The fish: In truth, it’s just as fresh the day before. But that doesn’t stop hundreds of customers from lining up early on the morning before Christmas, out the door and into the parking lot at Santa Monica Seafood Market and Cafe on 17th Street in Costa Mesa. The phenomenon also occurs at other county fish markets, including Jon’s Fish Market at Dana Point Harbor, with halibut and salmon flying out the door, along with a surprising number of customers who show up for the legendary fish and chips.

“Everybody knows the fish stays fresh, but people actually love being here on Christmas Eve,” says Nicholas Gallyon, a former bartender at Santa Monica Seafood. “It’s a stock market atmosphere, a trading floor. People get to the front of the line: ‘That’s my number!’ ”

Santa Monica Seafood, which opened its flagship in Santa Monica in 1939 and its Costa Mesa location in July of 1997, is family owned, and Gallyon says many customers see themselves as part of a larger family because the place has become such a vital part of their tradition.

I’ve stood in the Christmas Eve line a half dozen times, clutching my little take-a-number slip that always seems impossibly higher than the number they’re calling.

“Sometimes because of the crowds, there might be a discussion here or there, but never to the point where it gets physical,” says store manager Javier Macias. “That’s because we intervene first. We watch the crowd, and we’re the peacemakers.  If we see something escalating, we step in.”

All 34 of the employees are expected to work that day, sometimes taking on more than one role. Macias wouldn’t discuss specific numbers, but he said the sales on Christmas Eve can be equal to average sales for a month.

Macias has the difficult task of trying to predict how much fish to order in advance. He usually bases it on the Christmas Eve sales from the previous year, because holiday tastes are different from any other time. Top sellers include salmon, halibut, ahi tuna, swordfish, clams, mussels, and shrimp.

“Sales on shellfish go through the roof,” Macias says, with some customers racking up a $400 bill.
“We drive from Ladera Ranch for the big shrimp cocktail,” says Patrick Mulvee. “Even by 10 a.m., it’s already packed in here. It gets crazy.”

The Western Australian Lobster Tail draws William Baxter down from Torrance annually, because his family has served it at Christmas for years. Baxter arrived from the South Bay shortly after 7 a.m. last Christmas Eve to find the parking lot full.

“It’s festive in here first thing in the morning,” he says. “I don’t know what it’s like after.”

Customers buy for religious and ethnic observances. Many Catholics observe family traditions of eating fish on Christmas Eve.

My family’s thing is lutefisk, a Scandinavian Christmas delicacy that makes my mother cry. It used to make me cry when I was a kid, but not out of fondness. Lutefisk is cod that has been hung on racks until it’s hard as jerky, then softened up again with lye (we never ate lutefisk with the family sterling, as it turns the metal), then soaked for a couple more days in water to get the lye out. The result is a gelatinous white glob of fish that stinks up the whole house when you’re cooking it. It’s served over boiled white potatoes and smothered in white sauce, and if you’re thinking white food, it doesn’t get much whiter.

I asked Macias how he celebrates Christmas Eve, after all the madness. He acknowledges he’s not much fun. He goes home and collapses.

“I have to tell everybody in my family, ‘I don’t want to see anyone for three hours.’ ”

Macias is exhausted from the crowds, but those crowds have found a holiday charge, a small brush with something called community. I love those places in Orange County where you can start a conversation with strangers and not have them determine you’re crazy.

For despite our legendary friendliness, our Midwestern roots, and our love for our neighborhoods, we often act like big-city strangers here when we get out in public.

It’s reassuring to feel like we’re all one big family once in a while—even if it’s in the middle of a fish market at 7 a.m. on Christmas Eve.

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