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SLO County couple celebrates 40 years of owning seaside restaurant: ‘We’re one big family’

A longtime San Luis Obispo County restaurant is participating in two special events this Memorial Day weekend.

On Saturday night, Sea Shanty in Cayucos will supply food for a May Madness fundraiser dinner to support the North Coast community’s annual Fourth of July fireworks display.

The fundraiser, held in the Cayucos Elementary School gym, includes a raffle, reverse drawing and barbecue dinner with top sirloin, chicken, salad and more. Tickets are $200 per couple.

On Sunday, Sea Shanty proprietors Bill Shea and Carol Kramer celebrate their 40-year anniversary of owning the eatery with an expanded version of their Tacos and Tunes event. The event runs 2 to 8 p.m. at the restaurant, 296 Ocean Ave. in Cayucos.

Jill Knight, joined by Eric Williams, Rob Espinosa and Daryl Van Druff, will provide the music, and the eatery’s longtime staffers will dish up the meal.

“We’ve never celebrated the anniversary before — it’s on Memorial Day weekend!” Kramer said. “But it’s our 40th. We have to take time for it.”

Sea Shanty in Cayucos is celebrating its 40th anniversary under the ownership of married couple Bill Shea and Carol Kramer.
Sea Shanty in Cayucos is celebrating its 40th anniversary under the ownership of married couple Bill Shea and Carol Kramer.

How did couple end up owning SLO County restaurant?

The rustic building that now houses Sea Shanty was probably built in the 1940s, Kramer said. It began as a butcher shop and meat market, then morphed into a restaurant named, consecutively, Ruth’s Café and The Spanish Dolphin.

In 1983, when Shea and Kramer bought the restaurant, it was a pirate-themed eatery called Sea Shanty.

The married couple had checked out the Ocean Avenue spot earlier, Kramer said.

“It was just a little wooden shack, just awful, so we went home,” she said. “Two weeks later, we decided if we were going to make a move into our own business, we needed to do it.”

They quit their longtime jobs at Chuck’s Steak House of Hawaii in Newport Beach, sold their house and arrived in Cayucos 12 days before Memorial Day weekend began.

“We weren’t very sophisticated,” Kramer said. “We didn’t know much about business yet.”

For a while, with no time or money for house hunting, the couple slept in the restaurant.

With Kramer and Shea down to their last $500, the couple and family members cleaned the ramshackle eatery and fixed what they could.

“We opened for the holiday weekend with just two tables and the dining room chairs we brought from our home down south,” she said, because the restaurant’s booths were still being redone.

Despite the seating and other limitations, business was good that holiday weekend.

“We thought we were a big hit,” Kramer said. “Then Monday came. and everybody left. But by the time July 4 came, we knew we’d found a home.”

Hundreds of baseball caps decorate the ceiling of Sea Shanty in Cayucos, celebrating its 40th anniversary under owners Bill Shea and Carol Kramer.
Hundreds of baseball caps decorate the ceiling of Sea Shanty in Cayucos, celebrating its 40th anniversary under owners Bill Shea and Carol Kramer.

How has Sea Shanty changed over the decades?

Through the years, Shea and Kramer have branched out into catering, expanded the kitchen, enhanced the adjacent garden and added a covered, heated patio.

Meanwhile, locals and regular visitors have embraced the couple and their community café.

So have their employees, many of whom have worked for Sea Shanty for about three decades.

Adolpho Ruiz and Caesar Lopez have been there for about 30 years, Kramer said, while Carmen Mendoza has worked for the restaurant at least 25 years, and Ruben Garcia for 20.

Restaurant neighbor Connie Martell has been involved in Sea Shanty from the get-go. She currently helps prepare for catering gigs.

Sea Shanty trains lots of students.

“We hire them at 15, train them, get them through school and college and then onto their lives,” Kramer said.

In 2022, 18 past and current Sea Shanty employees graduated from high school.

“Just like Cayucos, we’re one big family,” Kramer said.

When customers dine at Sea Shanty, “We’re inviting you into our home,” Kramer said.

Sea Shanty décor is casual and comfy, from the revolving-top stools at the counter and classic diner-style booths to nostalgic signs and a ceiling densely packed with more than 2,000 tacked-on baseball caps. Most of them were donated by customers.

That tradition started with Shea’s habit of wearing a cap in lieu of a chef’s hat on the job in Newport Beach.

“Billy already had more than 100 hats” when he and Kramer moved to SLO County, she said. “We said ‘Great, they can go out of our bedroom and go on the ceiling.’ ”

The Billy Burger at Sea Shanty in Cayucos includes onions rings and avocado. The restaurant is celebrating its 40th anniversary under owners Bill Shea and Carol Kramer.
The Billy Burger at Sea Shanty in Cayucos includes onions rings and avocado. The restaurant is celebrating its 40th anniversary under owners Bill Shea and Carol Kramer.

What’s on the menu at Cayucos eatery?

Sea Shanty’s food is diverse, to say the least. It ranges from All-American classics such as ribs, steaks, fresh fish and burgers to California cuisine and localized Mexican specialties.

Swiss sausage and country-fried steak share menu space with crab hash, red-snapper ceviche and fish ‘n’ chips.

Other popular offerings include steamed artichokes, prime rib, clam chowder and ahi sandwiches.

Kramer lends her nickname, Carolini, to a long list of desserts and baked goods that includes housemade pies, cakes and shortcake as well as cinnamon rolls and biscuits.

One tempting option is an ice cream sandwich featuring pistachio gelato stuffed into white chocolate macadamia nut cookies.

“If you think pie is a food group, this is the place for you,” The Tribune reported in 2010.

Freshly-caught red snapper is served with rice at Sea Shanty restaurant in Cayucos, celebrating its 40th anniversary under owners Bill Shea and Carol Kramer.
Freshly-caught red snapper is served with rice at Sea Shanty restaurant in Cayucos, celebrating its 40th anniversary under owners Bill Shea and Carol Kramer.

What’s next for business?

As Kramer and Shea scale back their responsibilities at Sea Shanty, grandson Lucas Johns is phasing into a management role.

While attending Cal State University Channel Islands, Johns came home on weekends to help at the restaurant, his grandmother said.

“We’ve watched Lucas evolve into this person who has the passion,” she said.

“It was very obvious that this was real for him,” Kramer added. “He knows what he’s getting into. He’s prepared well.”

Johns is already contributing creatively to Sea Shanty — adding things to the menu such as a breakfast burrito packed with country-fried steak, eggs, potatoes, cheese and gravy.

He’s also “scheduling, doing the hiring and cooking,” Kramer said.

But his grandparents aren’t retiring yet.

“Billy still cuts the meat,” Kramer said. “I oversee the garden, coordinate the catering and baking.”

More about Sea Shanty

At Sea Shanty, breakfast is served from 8 to 11:30 a.m. The lunch-dinner menu is available from 11:30 a.m. to closing time, which can vary from 8:30 to 9:30 p.m.

For details, call 805-995-3272, go to billandcarolseashanty.com or follow the restaurant on Instagram or Facebook.