Get close to the water at the Sandbar & Grill

Sure, the bayside cities of Monterey, Pacific Grove and Carmel host some of the best (and costliest) seafood restaurants in Northern California, but you don’t have to follow the tourist trail and pay $32 for a piece of halibut with yellow squash as the side.

There are a bunch of places where in-the-know diners congregate, including the Sandbar & Grill (”Where locals meet to eat”) on Monterey’s Municipal Wharf No. 2, next to another locals’ spot, LouLou’s Griddle In the Middle (”Good eats and crazy waitresses”).

Wharf No. 2 is a “working” wharf, built in 1926 and home to wholesale fish companies, a commercial abalone-farming operation and the Monterey Peninsula Yacht Club. It’s not to be confused with nearby Old Fisherman’s Wharf, a honkytonk of souvenir shops, fishing and whale-watching charters, and restaurants (the best are Cafe Fina and Domenico’s).

We took a left just past LouLou’s and climbed down a stairway to the near-water-level Sandbar, rang a ship’s bell to announce ourselves, and went inside. Narrow room, big bar, nautical decor. We scored a table by a window overlooking the marina. Stand-up paddleboarders cruised by, mere feet away from where we sat. Boats motored past, close enough to hail. A few sea otters looked our way. We watched a sailboating school in session, with one daring kid more interested in turning his boat over than in keeping it afloat. Apparently, it was more fun to be in the the water than out.

We ordered an appetizer plate of grilled sand dabs with lemon and tartar sauce ($9) and a Dungeness crab Louis ($19), piled with more crab than we’ve seen on most versions of the classic dish. As good as lunch was, the real draw was the harbor view, where the close-up passing scene was pure entertainment.