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California's Pier of the Day

By lunchtime, there are more than a dozen onlookers, one of whom takes a snapshot of a friend posing next to a bin filled with fish.

"This is unusual," says the fisherman, as he looks at the photographer. He's been in commercial fishing for decades, but mostly in Washington state."The public doesn't usually get this close."

For a pier from the past, Harford Pier in Port San Luis, Calif., is still teeming with dockworkers from Olde Port Fisheries and their fresh catches of the day. (Robin Schoettler Fox)

Through a viewing window at the Olde Port Fisheries' processing room, I watch the fish cutters. Men and women, positioned at long tables, slice fish this way and that. Filets go in individual buckets. The rest -- bony carcasses with full-size fish heads -- is trash. All the while, water flows from each workstation's faucet, over the fish and across the table then down to the floor to . . . hmmm. Where?

The answer is down the nearby stairs: Just below the processing room, sea lions frolic in a shower of fishy runoff.

There's a "wholesale to the public" window at the end of the fish-cutter room, but no way am I cooking fish in my hotel suite. So I head to the end of the pier to the Olde Port Inn, a two-story restaurant with formal, patio and bar seating. Family-owned, it's been a fixture on Harford Pier for more than three decades. Here, I find the closest thing to a museum on the pier: old-time photos of the days when the train tracks ran from San Luis Obispo all the way to the end of the pier. I expect the restaurant's commanding views of the bay and beyond, but the one through our glass-topped table is a surprise. It's a mirror-tunneled peek at the water below the pier.

Olde Port feels more crowded than the pier, and I see the fisherman eating at the bar. The dinner menu offers a wide selection of fresh seafood dishes, with complete dinners priced from about $19 to almost $36. I order off the lunch menu, where more casual entrees like fresh fish tacos are closer to $10. The food tastes good, but I fight buyer remorse: What about those seafood chunks at Pete's? There you eat outside, picnic-style. (For a diner with an all-day breakfast menu, Fat Cat's Cafe, in the Port San Luis parking lot, is also a good bet.)

After lunch, I walk to the very edge of the pier and look down. An orange starfish the size of a Little League baseball mitt lounges in a shallow puddle left by the tide in the hollow of an old pier piling. Right away, I want to know more -- about starfish, how they move and how long one could live like that.

But there is no one to ask. Do-it-yourself tours are like that. What you see is what you get, and sometimes what you get leaves you wanting more.

-- Robin Schoettler Fox

To get to Harford Pier, take Avila Beach Road off California Highway 101, between Pismo Beach and San Luis Obispo, to the Port San Luis parking lot. Parking is free. Fish operations are year-round, but hours vary. Details: Olde Port Fisheries, 805-595-9456. General info: Port San Luis Harbor District, 805-595-5400, www.portsanluis.com.

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