Sam Clayton grew up around fish. For three generations, members of his family have been the proprietors of Woy Woy Fishermen’s Wharf, a Central Coast seafood co-op that serves local fish to local people. “I was the smelly kid in school,” he explains, with what might be construed as a hint of pride. “I was into it until I was a teenager, then when you’re a teenager, you’re not really into anything your parents are into.”
But, after decamping to film school and working in TV for a decade, Clayton decided being the smelly kid was the life for him. “I realised that the actual lifestyle I was after, to be on my feet everyday, and to be interacting with people, it wasn’t really feasible in film and television,” he admits. “And I love seafood.”
So Clayton returned to Wharf, with a plan to help overhaul one of Australia’s seafood institutions. With the help of designer Xanthe Highfield, the family refitted the waterfront restaurant, using scavenged seats from the CWA, timber booths built by local craftsmen, and upholstery from Mambo alum Bruce Gould. A take-away kiosk is also housed in the same building for a more casual affair.
Meanwhile, Sam’s sister Michaela Clayton, former Sommelier of the Year and manager of Tony Bilson’s Bilson’s, contributed an intriguing wine list, melding local wines with offbeat offerings from France, Austria and Italy.
But if the fitout’s changed, the Claytons knew not to mess with what ain’t broken: the seafood. Using locally-caught seafood that arrives direct from the trawlers to their kitchen, Woy Woy Fishermen’s Wharf concentrates on straightforward produce. A couple of guys on the floor even man the boats, selling the fish they caught that morning. “We have a maxim here that my grandfather started many years ago,” says Clayton. “To serve the best seafood as simply as possible.”
Traditional dishes get a regional overhaul, favouring sustainable species over safe favourites: chilli crab uses locally caught blue swimmer rather than mud; and ceviche eschews imported snapper for line-caught trevally. Pushing lesser-eaten species is important too; “We’ve got things like mullet and blackfish and leatherjacket, things that are in massive abundance in this area but are scoffed at most of the time,” explains Clayton. “But they’re great eating fish.”