Aug. 22 (Bloomberg) -- Initiation into the joys of Le Dauphin, a waterfront restaurant in Algiers, starts with a barrel filled with whole fish that is rolled up to your table.

It's a bit awkward. Diners are asked to pick through the barrel looking for the size and type of fish they want to eat, getting their hands sea-smelly in the process.

The unconventional start is worth it. It is hard to find as fresh a selection of fish in North Africa, and maybe the whole Mediterranean. Not only does Le Dauphin's owner Mohamed Zerolani purchase his stock every morning, he buys the fish right off the boats that rock lazily on the harbor just below the restaurant.

"Why bother with the market when I can get it from the fishermen?'' he asked, as if the fish market was on some different planet. In fact, it's right across the street.

You can have the fish prepared anyway you like: grilled, fried, sauteed. For me, the best is possibly sea bream baked in salt. If fish isn't to your liking, there is lightly fried or grilled shrimp as well as langoustines and paella. A baked fish for two and a couple of bottles of Algeria's Tango beer cost about $60.

Zerolani ran three Algiers couscous houses for many years until 2002, when he bid on an old port building put up for long-term lease by the government. The neoclassical structure dated from 1837, seven years after France began its 125-colonial rule.

The place was once a fisherman's hospital. If someone got a hook stuck into his arm, he simply cruised right up to the clinic to get it fixed. "This is the kind of history Algeria must preserve,'' said Zerolani, who is also an avid fisherman.

From the windows on three sides of the building, diners can gaze on the comings and going of trawlers, watch the fishermen repair nets and, after sunset, bundle themselves into blankets on deck. It's a scene all the more precious because such small working ports are fast disappearing from Europe and the U.S.

Besides being one of the few upscale eateries outside of hotels in Algiers, Le Dauphin is a vanguard for a new, emerging Algeria. The country is coming out of 15 years of terrorist civil conflict, along with a period of socialism in which private enterprise of the kind represented by Le Dauphin was rare.

Indeed, Algiers, whose whitewashed colonial buildings climb gracefully up hills directly from the sea, is a town where things go quiet at about 9 p.m., a time when places like Tunis or Alexandria are just beginning to jump. It is hard to get a taxi. Grumpy drivers seem to specialize in turning down fares. (Le Dauphin arranges a taxi for you if needed.)

"Algiers is a government town,'' Zerolani said. "People go to work in the morning and get home by eight at night. And then there was a long time when people were afraid to go out.''

Algeria is beginning to encourage private enterprise and Zerolani, 54, places himself at the forefront of change. "Algeria is creating a new life,'' he said in an interview. "We lost a lot in the past years. No cinemas, no restaurant culture. I think this is the beginning of normality.''

The only thing that detracts from Le Dauphin's idyllic atmosphere is a four-screen television hanging from the ceiling in the middle of the dining room. It's mostly for soccer matches.

Most of Zerolani's customers are foreign travelers, among them French who once lived in Algiers. For all the bitter years of independence warfare that took hundreds of thousands of lives, Zerolani has no reluctance to serve the French visitors.

"All countries have histories and all make mistakes,'' he said without emotion. "Anyway, we're in a new century now. The time for crying is over.''

Le Dauphin
Rue d'Angkor,
Pêcherie d'Alger,
Algiers

Tel. +213-21-716-862

The Bloomberg questions

Cost? About $30 a head. Sound level? Soccer from the TV. Date place? Yes. Inside tip? Ask for a table by the window. Special feature? Very fresh fish. Private room? No. Will I be back? Yes, next time in Algiers.