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When Michael Ungaro worked out at the Orangetheory Fitness center in the Marina Shores shopping center, he would look at the Joe’s Crab Shack with desire. As chief executive officer of the San Pedro Fish Market, he was expanding his chain, and he just loved the location.

“I kept staring at it and thinking, there’s got to be a way,” Ungaro said. “I’ve lived in the area for 15 years, and I was always thinking, it would be a great place for a San Pedro Fish Market, but I couldn’t see a path to make that happen.”

San Pedro Fish Market John Ungaro, Henry Ungaro, Michael Ungaro
Pictured from left to right, brothers John, Henry and Michael Ungaro run the San Pedro Fish Market, a family business that was started by their grandfather in 1956. (Photograph by Brandon Richardson)

Ungaro has his wish. San Pedro Fish Market’s opening in Alamitos Bay, at the site of the former Joe’s Crab Shack, marks the fruition of a long wait and a long period of preparation for the establishment.

But it’s more than just a new restaurant in a city of restaurants. The Fish Market on Alamitos Bay, which began serving customers last week, is an expansion of the idea that has become a destination in the San Pedro area. The Fish Market there is an institution that attracts people from near and far, visitors who pack the thousands of seats on site and jam the highway exits leading to the market.

And it’s the latest sign of a rebirth in Alamitos Bay, an area that has experienced its share of ups and downs over the years, an area that always seems to have lacked an identity and one that failed to really capitalize on its potential.

“We could really see that there was a renaissance happening here,” Ungaro said. “The Ballast Point project made such a difference. It really put the area on the map.”

The opening of Ballast Point, a popular brewery/restaurant with spectacular views, was one of the key signs of a renewal in the Alamitos Bay area. And other restaurants, like Schooner Or Later, also offer a casual, waterfront-oriented dining experience, the embodiment of the laid-back Southern California beach lifestyle.

San Pedro Fish Market Alamitos Bay Patio
The outside patio on the second floor of the San Pedro Fish Market’s Long Beach location overlooks the Alamitos Bay Marina, facing its original location across the San Pedro Bay. (Photograph by Brandon Richardson)

It wasn’t always this way here. For years, the intersection of Pacific Coast Highway and Second Street was marked by a huge, slowly decaying hotel facility, and the retail establishments in the area struggled to keep up with the rapid changes in the industry.

“The biggest challenges were attracting services and retailers that were attractive today. We were unable to stay on top of consumer trends in that area,” said Long Beach Council member Suzie Price, who represents the district.

For Price, the establishment of the new retail center that has replaced the widely-disliked “pink hotel” was a major turning point in the revitalization of the area.

“I think the approval of the current 2ND & PCH was definitely a change for the whole area,” Price said. “It signified that a new shopping establishment was coming, with new retailers, a new, modern design, and it caused everyone around to step up and kind of start planning for that.”

San Pedro Fish Market Alamitos Bay Interior Shipping Container
In their redesign of the former Joe’s Crab Shack location, the San Pedro Fish Market team combined the buildings original look with new elements, by incorporating metal shipping containers with existing wooden structures. (Photograph by Brandon Richardson)

One of the elements of the new center was an orientation toward the water, something that had been lacking in establishments elsewhere along the bay. Indeed, that orientation toward the ocean is critical in establishing the identity and uniqueness of the center. “The beautiful water views are a great amenity there,” Price said.

Indeed, according to Jean Paul Wardy, president of CenterCal Properties, that element was one of the foundations upon which the project was based.

“The project really respects the beauty of the environment around it, in terms of opening up to the ocean, creating views, and really honoring our customer from the standpoint of common areas, amenities, opportunities for views, and taking in the quality of the existing surroundings,” Wardy said.

“We made sure to listen to what the community wanted. We really tried to cater to the way people live today. By grouping the best grocery store with the best boutique fitness, [and a] great assortment of restaurants, beauty, and apparel, we focused on creating an experience for our customers that would enable them to do a lot of different things as part of their weekly routine.”

San Pedro Fish Market Alamitos Bay Interior Dining Area
The San Pedro Fish Market’s Alamitos Bay menu features items familiar to visitors of the restaurant’s original location, like it’s “world-famous shrimp trays,” as well as a full bar and menu items from the company’s fast casual dining concept, San Pedro Fish Market Grille. (Photograph by Brandon Richardson)

The area has certain other advantages that help position it for long-term success. As urban cores develop greater density, the availability of parking at Alamitos Bay makes it more attractive as a destination for those who plan to come from a distance and spend the day there.

And for the local residents, Price said, “there aren’t a lot of places to shop and visit restaurants other than Second Street in Belmont Shore. To have that [at 2ND & PCH] . . . is a benefit. There’s a lot of excitement about what is happening there.”

For Ungaro, the new Fish Market ticks a lot of boxes on his personal satisfaction list. For a long time, he had dared only to hope to establish one of the smaller San Pedro Fish Market Grille operations in Alamitos Bay. Instead, with the help of real estate development advisor Scott Choppin, founder of the Urban Pacific Group, Ungaro has more than 10,000 square feet and seating for 400.

It closes a loop that started years ago: when Ungaro attended California State University, Long Beach, he worked at Joe’s Crab Shack. Now the location is his. And for years, he has admired the view of the sunset over Alamitos Bay. Now, as he said, “I’ve got my sunset view.”