8900 Main St., Clarence, NY 14031
Web: Hayes Seafood Market
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American Clarence Seafood
"Hayes Seafood House is a nice place to get an absolutely unpretentious but generally very good seafood meal - a place for solid, reasonably priced American-style fish."
To understand the appeal of Hayes Seafood House in Clarence, begin by letting your mind's eye conjure up the image of a seafood entree at your favorite fancy restaurant. Then remove the fancy restaurant and its fancy servers, replace its fancy plates with plain plastic ones, and swap its fancy side dishes for more humble fare. Expect to order from a counter, carry your drinks in cans or bottles to your table, and get your meal on blue trays. The one thing that hasn't changed here is the seafood, which is the same - in some cases better - than what you'd find at many restaurants that would charge higher prices. In other words, what Hayes offers is not seafood as an exalted, special occasion dinner, but rather as a commodity, the sort of matter-of-fact presentation one would expect in parts of New England or California where fish is common, affordable, and casual dining. For many people, particularly those who dislike either expensive seafood restaurants or chain places such as Red Lobster, a comfortable place with similar food is a good, arguably great thing.
The Hayes chain has been known around Western New York for 132 years, operating neighborhood fish shops in Buffalo, Amherst, and Kenmore, the former replaced by this location in Clarence. Unlike the Hayes Seafood Markets, which sell mostly uncooked fish for at-home preparation, Hayes Seafood House augments its glass display cases of refrigerated fish with a semi-open kitchen and a seating area with enough capacity for at least 100 people, possibly more. Checkered plastic tablecloths cover mostly indoor tables, along with a smaller but nice covered outdoor patio; apart from drinks and soups, which you're handed after you pay for your order at the register, young staffers carry items over to your table as they become ready. Importantly, and not something we take for granted having visited seafood markets-slash-restaurants of this type in other states, everything here may be plain, but it's brightly lit and clean - in California, places like this sometimes offer bench-like seating in darker, less well-scrubbed environs to keep their prices low.
To be clear, the appeal of Hayes is not that the meals are cheap - they're not - but that they're not overpriced, underportioned, or disguised with sauces in the way that chains so often treat seafood. As just one example, the Live Lobster Dinner was only $19 on our recent visit, part of the reason we saw these red, steamed beauties at so many tables. And where the prices aren't low in an absolute sense, there's typically value in either quantity or quality. An eight-piece, $8 Shrimp Cocktail comes out to $1 per piece, but unlike the cocktails served at so many places, these are relatively big, fresh-tasting shrimp, not tiny pieces dethawed from a bag. Tossed onto a disposable place and lettuce leaf with a thin slice of lemon and a plastic cup of cocktail sauce, the presentation might leave something to be desired, but no one eating at Hayes seems to care. The flavor's good, and that's enough.
Though there were small ups and downs throughout our meal, the good food, fair price maxim held true almost to the item. Hayes' half-pint bowls of Manhattan Clam Chowder and New England Clam Chowder ($3 each) weren't pretty, but they were pretty good: the New England version is an off-white mix of cream and butter, with lots of small chunks of clams mixed in with vegetables, while the Manhattan version is a rich red color thanks to chunks of tomatoes in its broth, and dotted with blocks of potato. While the New England Chowder had plenty of body, the Manhattan one was too thin, and far too light on clam meat, but otherwise generous in quantity for the price. Both come with the same packets of oyster crackers served all over the place these days, which came in handy to add a little something extra to the red soup.
Entrees were similarly light on frills but generous in portion sizes. Hayes offers the Western New York favorite "fish fry" as Fried Haddock ($10) - one of many types of fried fish options here - and bundles it with plastic cups of highly forgettable potato salad and coleslaw, plus a plain white roll. One bite into the light, moist, and perfectly golden-fried fish and the other items didn't matter; the large filet hung off the edges of the plate, guaranteeing that whoever ordered it hungry would leave stuffed or something close. By comparison, a single-serving Crab Cake ($4.75) arrived in a cardboard basket with paper wrapping and a cup of salmon-colored mayo dip; it too had been deep-fried with a fine cornmeal breading, but apparently hadn't been defrosted properly, as a portion of its center was still cold. There was nothing special about this cake in flavor, texture, or presentation, but again, it was on the large side.
At this point in the meal, the small disappointments pretty much ended, though the dishes continued to be presented with the utmost plainness. Two members of our group ordered the Blackened Tuna ($20 each), which arrived unceremoniously on plates with french fries atop filets of fish, alongside cobbed corn and more of the plain white rolls. Peeling away the fries, we found the tuna to be superb: the crispy pepper coating was more red than black, providing just the right level of spicy kick without overwhelming the palate or limiting our appreciation of the fish inside. One of us ordered the Tuna rare, the other medium, and both were perfectly cooked and delicious in their own ways; the rare version was completely tender and almost jelly-like inside, the medium filet fully cooked through but still succulent. Hayes served the Tuna with a plastic cup full of wasabi, a surprising little Japanese touch that was cute, though in no way necessary given the excellent flavor of the fish. Unlike the potato salad and coleslaw from the Haddock, the french fries and corn were both good additions to these plates.
Another entree, not included in our photographs, was a set of two Sauteed Soft-Shell Crabs ($21) that were a little pricey, but delicious enough that we didn't stop eating them once we had our first fork full. We've been enjoying soft-shells for decades, most often ordering them in Asian restaurants, but the lightly crispy Hayes version had comparatively little nuance and plenty of buttery flavor. Served complete with body and claws, the twin molting crabs were fully edible without cracking tools - one reason soft-shells are so popular - and surrounded by more of the fries, a corn cob, and another roll. On the opposite end of the spectrum, we also ordered a small portion of Chicken Fingers ($6) just to give them a shot, and found them to be plain but properly cooked, served without sauce of any kind. There were four big fingers in the cardboard container, which is more than we'd expected for the price.
Our group saved room for desserts, and went with two of the three available choices: the Bread Pudding and the Key Lime Pie ($4.50 each), skipping the $1.75 Ice Cream Bars. As contrasted with everything else we've ordered and seen at Hayes, the Bread Pudding arrived on a plate that looked as if someone cared during the assembly process: the cube of pudding was placed in a small, slightly artistic pool of lightly whiskey-flavored caramel syrup - light enough that one of the three people who tasted it couldn't detect the flavor of alcohol - then topped with whipped cream. It was soft but not delicate, moist but not wet, and sweet but not sugary: a good but not great dessert, helped by small golden raisins inside. The Key Lime Pie was less impressive in looks, but more impressive in flavor: the graham cracker crust was nice, and the dense filling had just enough tart lime essence to seem strong without pursing any lips. This might have tasted like a boxed pie, but it was good enough to conclude the dinner.
Ultimately, we would summarize Hayes Seafood House as a nice place to get an absolutely unpretentious but generally very good seafood meal - not a first date restaurant, but the sort of place where couples and families of all ages can come for dependably solid, reasonably priced American-style fish without flair. Those seeking frills have plenty of other local options, and should expect to pay commensurately for them.