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The Splash Café  - The World’ Best “Homemade From Scratch” Clam Chowder, Honest!!!

by Nick Anis

Believe it or not, there are actually times when the phrase “The World’s Best” actually lives up to its billing, such is the case at the Splash Café, a Pismo Beach culinary landmark.

Poster / Postcard Courtesy of The Splash Cafe - click to enlarge
Poster / Postcard Courtesy of The Splash Cafe

You can identify the Splash Café easily because it’s the eatery on Pomeroy Street (a few hundred yards from the ocean and pier), with the “soup line” wrapping around the block.  That's right, during the summer there is a line of soup seekers (tourists and locals) waiting anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour or more for a cup or bowl of what is arguably the greatest New England Clam Chowder in the entire world.  Hundreds, and often times, thousands of bowls are served daily of this luscious creamy homemade delight. 

The Splash Café has racked up dozens of awards for the best clam chowder and there’s a plaque outside proudly proclaiming they have “The World’s Best Clam Chowder”, but just the same I wasn’t yet convinced.  I suppose I was in the same camp as a man I overheard; George Wetsel, from St. Louis Missouri, who told his wife, Lillian, “come on honey, just because there is a sign on the wall, and a line of people, doesn’t mean it’s true.” 

“You are correct George,” I thought to myself.  I wasn’t going to rely solely on the sign and the line; so being a travel and restaurant writer, I decided I was going to get to the bottom of this clam chowder near hysteria, and personally perform a taste test.

Pismo Beach from the Air - click to enlarge - Photo Courtesy of Pismo Beach Conference & Visitors Bureau
Pismo Beach and the Pier from the Air
click to enlarge
Photo Courtesy of Pismo Beach Conference & Visitors Bureau

Horseback Riders at Pismo Beach - click to enlarge - Photo Courtesy of Pismo Beach Conference & Visitors Bureau
Horseback Riders at Pismo Beach
click to enlarge
Photo Courtesy of Pismo Beach Conference & Visitors Bureau

But my wife and kids (who were my companions at the time) preferred instead to walk on the beach and pier, watch the surfers, kayakers, horseback riders, people fishing, and maybe see some of the whales, sea otters, and sea lions frolicking in the kelp beds, which the area is also known for.  So I relented, and trotted along with the family on its trek.  But as luck would have it on our stroll back, they (or should I say we) were hungry, and the soup line wasn’t that long.  So we quickly joined it.  We were especially lucky, because as soon as we did, the queue grew again and started snaking around the block.

Pismo Beach - click to enlarge - Photo Courtesy of Pismo Beach Conference & Visitors Bureau
Pismo Beach
click to enlarge
Photo Courtesy of Pismo Beach Conference & Visitors Bureau

I remember thinking, “what did I get myself into”?  With a long line like this, and being so close to the beach, this place is probably overpriced, and the clam chowder is probably totally overrated, in other words, maybe George was right.

George and I were wrong on both accounts.  The Splash Café may have simple beach fare, but there is quite a selection, it’s all very reasonably priced, and the food is absolutely terrific.  The clam chowder is homemade on premises, with fresh sautéed vegetables (NO bacon), and fresh clams.  In fact, the clams are so fresh that are arriving all the time and kept live until they cook up the next batch (usually two steam kettles continuously cooking 20 gallons batches each every two hours).  This is nothing short of amazing when one considers nothing on the menu is over $5.70 except for a few seafood specialties shrimp, fish, or oysters and chips $6.50, sea scallops and chips $7.70, and bulk items (a bucket of steamers $9.95, and the most popular carry out item,1 quart of hot or flash frozen clam chowder $9.49) that you can obtain for carrying-on the plane or taking back home with you in the car.  The main specialty of the house for dining in is the luscious bread bowl, a steal at a mere $5.70.  A freshly baked sourdough bowl of piping hot soup with fresh clams, rich creamy broth delicately prepared to exacting standards that one would expect from a world renowned five star restaurant, not a café, in a cute little seaside tourist town.

The bread bowl is an excellent compliment to their soup and sure beats Styrofoam, plastic, and Melmac.  Sourdough is believed to be the earliest form of leavened bread. Its oldest recorded use is from the ancient Egyptians over 6000 years ago.  It is said that sourdough bread was fed to the miners (as well as their mules and horses) in the Alaskan Klondike and the Californian Sierras during the gold rush era.  Sourdough may very well have been discovered by accident when ground grain was mixed with water or milk, and natural yeast, and set idle in an open air room.  The yeast eats the natural sugars and convert them into lactic (and other) acids giving them a distinctive sour flavor.  Other byproducts of this concoction includes alcohol and carbon dioxide, giving the bread flavor, and causing it to rise.  As the mixture is kneaded into bread dough the bubbles are trapped into the structure of the bread, which are the little holes you see interspaced throughout it after it is baked and served to you.

More aptly described sourdough is actually Artesian bread, meaning hand made with pride with all natural ingredients.  Unfortunately, many bakeries these days rely on frozen doughs, chemical additives, and regrettably they turnout schlock.  That’s definitely not the case with The Splash Café’s Artesian Bakery, which also sells retail, and is located in San Luis Obispo.  Because of the volume of loaves they prepare there each day, The Splash’s bakers do rely on machinery for mixing and needing the dough, but they still use high quality, pure and all natural ingredients.  The only additive they use is liquid levain, a sourdough ferment used to achieve the complex flavor that makes for truly distinctive sourdough bread.  You can actually watch Splash’s bakers shape the loves and load them into a revolving rack over from a large observation window that lets you see the entire bakery’s production area while it’s in operation.

The Splash Cafe's Sourdough Claim Chowder Bread Bowl - click to enlarge - Photo Courtesy of Pismo Beach Conference & Visitors Bureau
The Splash Cafe's Sourdough Clam Chowder Bread Bowl
Click to enlarge
Photo Courtesy of Pismo Beach Conference & Visitors Bureau

Thousands of the sourdough bread bowls are baked there each day, they are whisked over to Café at the wee hours of the morning.  The top center is cut out just prior to serving, and that cutout becomes grilled garlic toast that’s served as a lid and accompaniment for the soup.  Although just the soup and lid of the bread bowl is a heaping portion for most people, many also eat some of the entire bread bowl itself, because it tastes so great coated with the incredibly delicious soup. With the help of some of the regulars I discovered the best technique is eat about 2/3’s of your soup, and then start to alternatively eat the sides of the bread bowl, while there is still lots of soup coating it and to dip into, it’s a little tricky to master, but think of all the fun you can have perfecting the technique.

The Splash’s menu also includes fresh steamed or fried clams, oysters, shrimp, calamari, cod, salmon, tuna, ahi, turkey, pastrami, sandwiches, salads, chili, tacos and seafood tacos, hot dogs, and burgers and French fries, homemade deserts, and more.  In fact, the steamers are also a “must-have” dish, but the Splash Café's clam chowder is so terrific, it would be culinary catastrophe to not devour one of the delicious bread bowls during your window of opportunity, therefore the also delectable steamers might have to wait for your next visit.  Of course, you can do what I did, go with a group and split an order or two, this way you can enjoy both.

After a relatively short wait on the line when we got inside we were pleasantly surprised at the modest prices and nice selection of food.  After placing our order at the register, and giving them our name, we lucked out and found one their highly coveted tables was our for the taking.  The walls were splash'ed with murals, surfing and seaside memorabilia, autographed photos of celebrities that have dined there, and lots of bright and cheery colors.  We served ourselves some soft drinks, (there’s a soda fountain in the dining area and soft drinks are a poultry 95 cents), and sat down to chat with one another and look around.  Within a relatively short time, we heard a server calling out “Nick” and presto, our food was ready and brought to our table with a smile.

I first heard of Pismo Beach when I was a little boy back in the 1960’s watching the 1957 animated film, “Ali Babba Bunny” directed by the legendary Chuck Jones in which Bugs, and Daffy are searching for Pismo Beach and have tunneled to (believe it or not) to Bagdad by mistake, where they found their nemesis, Hassan Chop.  I suppose from that day forward I have always been interested in one day visiting Pismo Beach.  Of course, I planned on taking the 101 freeway rather than tunneling there.  Now, because I will be visiting San Luis Obispo (the neighboring town) regularly, I finally had the opportunity to do so.  I am not alone – apparently, almost everyone eventually makes their way to Pismo Beach. 

Ali Babba Bunny - Image by Chuck Jones;
Still from Animated film

The Splash Café’s clientele consists of a mixture of vacationers from the San Joaquin Valley (who apparently prefer to vacation there), and locals, but people visit Pismo Beach and the Splash Café from every corner of the state and the globe.  One of the locals told me that the Splash Café’s award-winning clam chowder has been carried back to 60 of the world’s 191 countries.

For the past 70+ years there has always been some sort of eating establishment at this site.  In 1979 the Splash Café opened in what was previously a Mexican Restaurant named “Casa de Calderon” that operated for 20 years, and prior to that it was “The Rite Spot Café”, and prior to that it was a donut shop.  

When The Splash Café first opened there were only 21 seats in the front hall of the building and it took only 3 people to run the restaurant.  Over the years the dining area and staff have expanded, the kitchen is still small but has been modernized and including the addition of two 20 gallon steam kettles and two commercial grills to warm the bread, but every precious and delicious drop of the clam chowder is still homemade on site to the same exacting standards that they started with in 1979.

The Pismo Clam is not available for commercial use so 100% of the clams The Splash Café uses are ranch-raised.  Several hundred pounds of these fresh and delectable clams are flown in two or three times a week from New York, Oregon, and Washington.  They are cleaned and sustained until they are served fresh. 

Having taught at Cal Poly for many years, I recall someone once saying to me.  “Wow, you are so lucky you can get the world’s greatest clam chowder and steamers, right nearby the campus.”  I didn’t know what they were talking about, but I do now.  It turned out they meant that students and teachers at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo have the marvelous Splash Café nearby.  But although I taught at Cal Poly, it was not the San Luis Obispo campus, it was the Pomona one.  So now, finally after all these years, I have discovered what all the fuss was about.  You can too.  Next time you drive up the 101 from North to South, or from South to North, make a pit stop at the quaint seaside town of Pismo Beach, and there at 197 Pomeroy Street; a few doors down from the bowling alley, and a few hundred yards from the beach and pier, you won’t find Bugs or Daffy, or Hassan Chop, but you will find The Splash Café with the World’s Best Clam Chowder.

The Splash Café
197 Pomeroy
Pismo Beach, Ca.

Phone:  805-773-4653

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Nick Anis is a food, wine, and restaurant, travel, and technology writer with dozens of books in print.  Nick’s beats include snow and water sports, and vacation destinations. Nick can be reached by email at:

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