A hungry, panicked customer approached Edna Rivera, a server working on a tough day at the famous Race Street Seafood Kitchen near midtown San Jose.

"Is it true you're closing?" asked the woman in the middle of a recent lunch hour rush. "I can't believe that. Why would they close this place? I've been coming here for so long!"

Rivera wiped her brow and sighed -- for the umpteenth time.

"No, no, no!" Rivera said. "We're not closing on this side. This is the restaurant side. It's the other side that's closing. That's the wholesale side. ... I've been saying this all day long."

All week, a mad confusion has haunted throngs of seafood lovers throughout the Bay Area who heard their beloved "Race Street" was closing. Actually, the owners of two separate but related businesses -- the Race Street Fish and Poultry market and the retail Race Street Seafood Kitchen -- sold the market part to a corporation.

"People are still coming in thinking the restaurant is closing," Rivera said.

Before poor Edna loses her voice, let's get it straight: As you enter the popular establishment, the restaurant on the right, where people order food and sit at small, simple tables, will stay. But, on the left, the refrigerated counter, where fish cutters wrap raw seafood and poultry in white paper for customers to cook at home, will disappear after Oct. 14.


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Capische?

The confusion was inevitable because the walk-up restaurant and the walk-up fish counter have always shared the same busy space, separated by only a few yards. But after all these decades, who knew the difference? Who cared?

Not Maxine Thomas. She was but a mere sprite, 20-something customer back in 1947 when the Barsanti-Riparbelli clan started their wholesale fish business. They added the restaurant in 1969.

"I come here for lunch, and then I always buy some fish to cook at home for my husband," said Thomas, now 88 with stunning, platinum hair. And yes, she was walking out with some fresh trout and oysters for her husband that night. "I'm sorry to see this place go, but you know, that's what happens."

Lifestyle changes

The heirs of the family business showed up midweek to explain what happened, and why, in more detail.

"Bottom line, this is the result of changes in the American family," said co-owner Dan Barsanti. "It reflects today's lifestyle."

Back when his father Gino Barsanti and two uncles started the wholesale fish business, men brought home the bacon (or the fish) and women typically stayed at home, raised children and cooked dinner most nights. Every Friday during the Roman Catholic holy season of Lent, immigrant Italian families like theirs bought tons of fish.

Not anymore.

Standing near the famed 44-foot-long counter filled with 41 seafood items ranging from Dungeness crab to Komo Gway barbecue oysters, Barsanti continued his seafood business lecture.

"In those days, our fish market was busier than the restaurant," said the energetic and trim 62-year-old. "Now it's the other way around. Who has time to cook at home anymore?"

While he declares his current customers binge on seafood for only a few days during the holidays, they collectively bought 10,000 pounds of Dungeness crab last season.

"You need a lot of refrigerator space for 10,000 pounds of crab," he said. "But what about the rest of the year when you have to store only 400 pounds a week?"

With the restaurant side more profitable, he and his cousin Jim Riparbelli have decided to keep and expand it, adding new entrees to the menu and probably more employees. They could have sold the whole family enterprise for a nice lump sum, which is the Silicon Valley way.

"We thought about it for a long time," Barsanti said, "but you just don't throw away 65 years of history."

A bigger restaurant worried a few, loyal customers. Would the old-school, no-nonsense fish joint become trendy and pricey, a place where nobody eats crusted fish with their fingers?

"Do we look like yuppies to you?" cracked Riparbelli. "That would be the last thing to happen."

Bottom line

Even so, plenty of customers and employees were deeply sorry to see the fresh fish and poultry counter go.

Arthur Girard of Clayton, near Mount Diablo, has come down almost every week since 1971 since moving from Louisiana, where they know a thing or two about seafood.

"When we first saw this place, my wife said, 'This is 'Nuh AWE-luns' right here!'"

Delia Ornelas Cruz of Gilroy has come to eat and purchase seafood for 31 years. The mother of 10 is a grandmother many times over -- she lost count momentarily -- but she remembered exactly how much shrimp she buys for their family gatherings: $100 worth.

"It's for my traditional shrimp cocktail," she beamed. "Mexican style."

Perhaps no one will miss the fish counter more than Susan Koehler, who lives nearby, cooks a lot at home and drops by "several times at week" for seafood.

"You can always find something really good, and they'll help you on how to prepare it," she said on her way out with packages of jumbo shrimp and smoked salmon. "Now I'm depressed. Where am I going to go from now on?"

As much as Race Street fans were relieved the restaurant will stay, at least three employees are losing their jobs.

"The faces on this side of the counter are all glum," said Eric Conover, the manager and head fish cutter who's worked there eight years and is now 49.

Marcos Rodriguez, the youngest fish cutter at age 41, is a single father with a 5-year-old son. A 13-year employee, he said he might not have enough savings to keep their modest San Jose apartment.

"It's going to be pretty close," he said.

Bill Sue doesn't have that problem. Now 78, he officially retired from Race Street 11 years ago but decided to continue part-time. Still, he said, you get to know your co-workers and customers well in the fish-cutting trade.

"Oh, yeah, it's like home to me," the senior fish cutter said. "I'm going to miss this place."

They won't be slashing prices at all, Barsanti said, so anything left in the counter probably will be donated to local food kitchens. Imagine that day's menu! Clam chowder, Yellowfin sushi, wild salmon steak, fresh water shrimp, and don't forget the chipotle and lime tortilla-crusted tilapia!

Contact Joe Rodriguez at 408-920-5767.

Whither holiday crab?

Race Street typically sells about 10,000 pounds of Dungeness crab each holiday season. So the question for many families: What markets might fill our holiday seafood fix?

  • Lunardi's Markets
  • Zanotto's Family Markets
  • Ranch 99 Markets