Floating just offshore in the coastal waters between San Pedro and Long Beach, there is a barge. Obscured by passing trucks, the clatter of port noise, and an overhead train, the bobbing rig promises precisely one thing to unsure newcomers and longtime regulars alike: a lot of clam chowder. This is the Chowder Barge in Wilmington, Greater LA’s only floating restaurant and home to some of the most inventive uses of clam chowder possible. There are bowls of it, of course, but you’ll also find burgers covered in it, plus sides of the stuff used as a dipping sauce for french fries.
The truth is, the Chowder Barge wasn’t meant to be a restaurant at all, let alone one of the harbor area’s most enduring small businesses. In its decades of service, the floating facility is said to have been used to traffic lumber from the ports and to move equipment and people during the filming of the 1935 classic Mutiny on the Bounty starring Clark Gable. At some point during the Mutiny filming, the interior was renovated and turned into a working restaurant, acting as a cafeteria for film crew — or so the various legends go. The truth is, formal documentation is hard to come by at the Chowder Barge, which may (or may not) have just celebrated its 100th birthday.
Despite the barge’s storied and potentially apocryphal past, one thing remains clear: Although the floating restaurant’s charm is at least partially tied up in all of that speculative history, the real beauty of the place lies in the fact that it still exists at all. For decades, the barge has faced, well, mutiny from the wheels of time and the port’s ever-changing facade (including new technologies at the ports and multimillion-dollar waterside redevelopment), to say nothing of the hyperlimited space and aging infrastructure.
The resilience of the Chowder Barge is not lost on current owner Nyla Olsen, who was a customer long before she ran the joint. “It used to sit within the city limits of Long Beach, and then it was in limbo for years,” says Olsen, “likely around Terminal Island or San Pedro. Leeward Marina owner [Bob Perel] moved it permanently here in 1988.”
“When I got here as a customer [in the ’90s], it was horrible,” she adds. “You couldn’t even drink the iced tea. It smelled god awful; people were still smoking in here. And the food was horrible.”
In a flow of serendipitous events, Zack Connor and Susie Richman (friends of Olsen, and longtime customers themselves) scooped up the place in 2010 on a kind of pre-retirement whim. Bored with her job prospects at the time, Olsen asked if she could help run the Chowder Barge, despite never having worked in hospitality before. Three years later, she went from manager to owner. “They really got the Barge to where it is now,” says Olsen, “but it just exhausted them.”
That’s not to say the former owners were willing to just give the place away. “Zack really wanted my custom motorcycle in exchange,” says Olsen, laughing as she describes the Harley-Davidson, painted with a root beer float-hued metallic finish, that she built by hand herself. So did she really trade the bike for the barge? “We’ll leave that to the unsolved mysteries of history,” says Olsen, who doesn’t mind adding a little more lore to the storied space. “Ultimately, I felt honored that he trusted me. I was born in Wilmington, raised in San Pedro, my family is filled with longshoremen. It just felt like it was meant to be.”
Olsen has taken to the ship and its funky ways, helping the business to flourish in recent years. She — along with her eldest son Kraig, whose nickname is “The Rev” — has put in countless hours of maintenance and upkeep, scrubbing the beast from bow to stern. The Chowder Barge has cleaned up its menu, too, crafting a fine balance of flavor and novelty. The namesake original recipe has been tweaked and tightened, and now diners show up just for dishes like the double clam chowder, a chowder-filled bowl with fried clams on top. The restaurant hand-presses its burger patties and has switched from frozen to fresh fish as part of a series of small and labor-intensive changes meant to draw more attention to the tiny, odd restaurant in the water.
Some dishes have earned a cultlike following. The Rev’s Special is a burger that comes slathered in chowder, making for a messy but surprisingly enjoyable meal. It’s a port worker’s take on surf and turf, but without the pretense.
“We’re really what I would call the definition of a small, family-run business,” says Olsen, “and we face difficulties that other restaurants don’t.” Occasionally the ballast gets out of whack, for example, and customers have to wait on the dock instead of in the restaurant. The kitchen may not be able to handle a weekend rush as deftly as a restaurant on shore, either, and the busy port area does not always emanate the most floral smells. “You know, the sign telling people to throw their paper towels in the bin and not down the toilet isn’t us being funny,” says Olsen. “You’re on a ship.”
Most folks understand. The usual customer comes from a blended group of locals, port and refinery workers, and seniors who have in some cases been frequenting the Barge for decades. Others come just to take photos of the table where Benicio del Toro sat for a scene in Inherent Vice, or to try (and boast on social media about) the Rev’s Special. And then there are the families who come from all over just for the novelty, to share a place with their kids that is distinctly, weirdly, wonderfully SoCal.
“It hasn’t been easy,” says Olsen. “It never is, and I know every business owner has the same story, but living on the water is different. I am on the water 99.9 percent of my life, walking from my cruiser over there in the marina to the Barge right here. We are an old, old barge with a one-cook kitchen and a two-server staff because we can’t accommodate any more. If you come here, come for the Barge, but understand that with the Barge comes the challenges.”
“Hell, the Dominguez Channel ends right there,” she adds, waving to the water. “There’s a reason they call this marina ‘Where the sewer meets the sea’ — because that’s the truth, no hiding it.”
The crew members, who have been listening in on the chat with Olsen, crack up. “Preach, Nyla!” someone calls from the tiny kitchen. This is where the Barge shines the most: Maxing out at 60 people total, the rig runs as a tight ship that’s built on trust, patience, and a presumed common sense about what it’s like to work, live, and dine directly on the water. They also have a lot of fun.
That small-but-mighty appeal may not stay so small forever, though. Kraig is the newest generation to become enamored with the Barge, and he wants to take the flavors of the place to the mainland by way of a food truck. “Nothing complicated, keep it the same,” says Kraig. “My mom refuses to advertise and I understand why, but the reality is that our time on the water isn’t guaranteed.”
Both the Port of Long Beach and the Port of Los Angeles limit leases on marinas, including Leeward Bay Marina, home of the Chowder Barge. With what Olsen describes as a “continual encroachment from the transportation and commercial onto the recreational spaces” looming, she acknowledges that the Barge’s lease, last renewed for five years, will end in less than 24 months. Her son Kraig isn’t just trying to branch out, he’s trying to keep another potential economic mutiny at bay.
“We can only hope that the port doesn’t want to use our space for their operations, but there’s no guarantee,” says Olsen. For now, she’s just enjoying the ebb and flow of life on the water, running plates of chowder to hundreds of hungry customers. “While I am up for retirement soon, this is too good a ride to give up on now.”
The Chowder Barge is open daily, with lunch through dinner hours most days and early service starting at 9 a.m. on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. The floating restaurant sits inside Leeward Bay Marina at 611 N. Henry Ford Avenue, Los Angeles, California.