Fresh seafood in the Valley is pretty difficult to come by, but The Salt Cellar in South Scottsdale has long considered itself a spot where seafood can thrive. And it has since its 1971 opening.
The restaurant is unlike any other in the area. Driving by, it’s not much to look at. In fact, when I drove by on my way to our office every morning, I thought “That must be the smallest restaurant ever. They have to have, like, one table!”
I had to pass by a few times before the name began to make sense. (“It’s The Salt Cellar, Anna. Get it together.”) The restaurant is actually underground, much like a cellar. Go figure!
The concept behind this decades-old Scottsdale landmark piqued my interest, so I made an 8 p.m. reservation on a weekend. I’m certainly not the type to be a stickler about a reservation. I know things happen that get in the way of an exact reservation seating time—some tables stay way too long after their meal, some orders are misplaced and in turn, come out late. I get it. I’ve served my fair share of tables. But we waited 45 minutes in total. I was beginning to wonder what the point was in making a reservation at all.
But hey, they remedied the situation with a drink for me and my dining companion, and an empty stomach buzz always hits you quicker. So I unwisely filled up on ultra-dense sourdough bread when we got to the table, since I hadn’t had anything to eat since around noon.
It was smooth sailing once we were at our small two person table. The Salt Cellar is a cramped dining experience, but makes up for small quarters with an upscale white tablecloth-and-candle ambiance and great service.
First up, we ordered the crab cakes special as an appetizer. I’m not entirely sure what makes crab cakes special at a seafood restaurant, but they were yummy. Crispy on the outside, fresh (real!) crab on the inside with a creamy tartar sauce on the side. While they were fresh, they definitely weren’t anything unique. (Beaver Choice in Mesa still has a hold on my vote for “best crab cakes.”)
I ordered the crab stuffed shrimp while my dining partner, who prefers land beasts, went for the beef wellington. Both dishes came with a starter house salad and a choice of side—rice pilaf or a baked potato. We both opted for the loaded potato, which for my dining partner, was the highlight of his plate. The beef wellington was certainly not foul tasting. It was perfectly adequate with savory beef and a slightly crispy pastry shell. It just, again, wasn’t anything special. Unfortunately that seemed to be the running theme of the night.
My crab stuffed shrimp were pretty excellent, though. With a squeeze of lemon juice on top, the herby flavors in the crab really danced. The shrimp weren’t as juicy as I’d like them to be, but really, they played second fiddle to the crab. The dish should really be called “yummy crab stuffed into shrimp.” I think that would be more accurate. Even my fish-hating companion agreed that my dish was the better of the two. And that’s really saying something.
We finished off the meal with a slice of Snickers cheesecake. It wasn’t the most refined dessert they had (sea salt caramel gelato and key lime pie were also up for grabs,) but we needed to satisfy our primal urges with something sweet, fatty and salty after a mediocre (and expensive!) meal like that.
The Salt Cellar is more about atmosphere than it is about the food. You come here for more of a cultural experience than a culinary one, but if you have a real hankering for fresh seafood, they do it right.
The Salt Cellar
550 N Hayden Rd, Scottsdale
(480) 947-1963 or www.saltcellarrestaurant.com