A seasonal seafood oasis in the heart of Lunenburg

Martin and Sylvie Ruiz-Salvador landed in Lunenburg in 2004 to open their seasonal fine-dining gem Fleur de Sel, helping earn Lunenburg a well-deserved reputation as a culinary destination with more than just deep-fried seafood. Ten years later, everything came full circle when the couple opened The South Shore Fish Shack — a full-on fish ’n’ chip shop. Is that what they call irony? Located on Lunenburg’s popular, multi-coloured Montague Street, the Fish Shack offers visitors and locals a fast-casual experience with absolutely zero compromise on food quality.

“We just didn’t see a place like it anywhere,” says Martin of launching the Fish Shack concept in Lunenburg. As a well-celebrated chef and native Nova Scotian, Martin’s classic French technique and impressive culinary background put Fleur de Sel on the map both in the province and in the country. Yet he and Sylvie saw opportunities to continue to grow their portfolio in Lunenburg by offering experiences outside of the high-end dining realm.

Sylvie and Martin Ruiz Salvador

 Their second restaurant, Salt Shaker Deli, opened in 2007 as a mid-range, year-round operation. The Fish Shack opened in July 2014 with a seasonal, counter-service approach where the purpose was to grab the attention of those who want to sit outside with a perfectly unobstructed view of the harbour (and Bluenose II when she’s berthed) and enjoy the freshest haddock, scallops, lobster and clams in the least pretentious way — from baskets, using plastic cutlery.

I stroll up to the Fish Shack on a cloudy weekday morning to chat with Martin and Sylvie about how it’s going and what to expect this season. They are busy getting things in order to re-open The Half Shell Oysters & Seafood within a few days. This restaurant (their fourth) opened in 2016 directly across from the Fish Shack’s outdoor patio space. Initially meant to just be an oyster bar, it quickly evolved into much more. “With your creative mind, you feel like you’re selling yourself short, you know?” says Martin of expanding the offering at The Half Shell. “It’s changed into its own restaurant. We’ve got eight beers on tap there and we’ve got cocktails. We’ve got Nova Scotia sparkling and Nova Scotia white [wine].” A great complement to the Fish Shack, which closes at 8 pm, The Half Shell stays open until midnight. Its offering is more sophisticated, with raw items like shrimp ceviche and tuna tartare in addition to the selection of both fresh and broiled oysters.

Okay, but now can we stick to the Fish Shack? (I haven’t even mentioned their fifth restaurant yet.) I grab a seat in the lower indoor level, now up to 40 seats after a building expansion last spring. There are windows facing the water, but it’s hard to get people to sit indoors, they tell me. “It’s quite weather dependent, to be honest,” says Martin. “It’s certainly an outdoor food kinda place.”

And that makes sense, given what they’re serving. The menu has a very specific focus on six core items: haddock, lobster, scallops, clams, lobster and fries. Basically, what most people come to Lunenburg to eat — and what you can get at almost every restaurant. So why is the Fish Shack so busy? “We try to keep it simple, fresh and not too serious,” says Sylvie. The scallops come from Adams & Knickle, which is literally right down the street, and the haddock from Lunenburg Fish Company, delivered fresh daily from a thermal refrigeration unit on the water, where the fish is stored on ice. Clams are delivered three times per week from Digby. “There’s not a freezer in the house,” says Sylvie.

“When it’s busy, it’s easy to use fresh stuff,” says Martin, who adds that their record for most pieces of haddock served on a day is about 580. That was a peak summer day, he says, when the orders just keep rolling in from cruise ship passengers, other tourists and locals. With the quick-service concept, food comes out fast and tables turn over promptly. In the summer, the Fish Shack will go through about 600 pounds of potatoes every day.

After our chat I head upstairs to order from the friendly faces behind the counter. Behind them is a chalkboard menu, and above them, covering the entire ceiling is fishermen’s netting (it’s on brand, but not over the top). I notice there are a couple local wines on offer and two Nova Scotia craft beers on tap, which Sylvie says are extremely popular. From the order counter, you can see into the kitchen, which Martin is so happy to have expanded last spring, adding windows that overlook the harbour.

Once you have placed an order at the Fish Shack, you are handed a plastic lobster, which lights up red and starts vibrating once your food is ready. I head outside with my plastic lobster and grab a seat at a picnic table on the huge wooden deck, with its magnificent view of Lunenburg’s famous and scenic waterfront. The sun is now bright enough to burn through the clouds, bringing light to the early afternoon. Across the street are shops and galleries located in brightly coloured historic homes, and I can hear the horse-drawn carriage clip-clopping one block down on Bluenose Drive. It’s all-around Lunenburg goodness, which, even having grown up on the South Shore myself, I can still appreciate.

My lobster starts buzzing, so I head to the pick-up window, which directly faces the deck, meaning no need to go back inside. A collection of vintage buoys is pinned to the siding around the window; all the needed utensils and condiments sit on a cart beside it. It’s a pretty efficient set-up. I try both the fish and chips, and the lobster bun. The fries, cut slightly smaller around than you typically see, are fantastic. Crispy. Perfect. And so fresh. The haddock is unbelievable; the beer batter is light, not heavy, greasy or hard in any way. The fish easily falls out of the batter, and it tastes so … fresh. That word comes up a lot at the Fish Shack. The lobster bun is a winner too: a soft, white burger bun filled with peppery arugula and a generous portion of lobster meat tossed with mayo and herbs.

 Martin and Sylvie recently announced the purchase of Magnolia’s Grill, a quaint little local favourite next door to their Salt Shaker Deli. They are rebranding it as the Beach Pea, and it will open in June (it will also be a seasonal restaurant). We talked a little bit about the new spot, and it sounds like something that will complement their other concepts.

Despite all these successes, the pair is totally humble. I ask Martin and Sylvie if they think their collection of dining experiences has helped shape Lunenburg into the culinary destination it is. “I think it would’ve happened whether or not we came here,” says Sylvie. I’m not so sure.