Monday, April 05, 2010

The San Francisco Classic that is Swan Oyster Depot

I decided that the 11 o’clock hour is magic time at Swan Oyster Depot. One minute later and you’ll find yourself in the back of a lunch crowd forming a line around the tiny entrance to the equally tiny and narrow San Francisco seafood institution.

But one minute earlier and you’ll easily step up to the long marble counter and grab a seat like a regular.

A boisterous group of men behind the counter welcomes you. Several generations at work, they look like walk-ons for “The Deadliest Catch” or a group of friends at some Irish pub. Their casual and friendly demeanor makes you want to buy fresh fish from them every weekend, getting their advice on the season’s best.

Everything about Swan Oyster lacks any pretension, despite the fact that this 98-year-old seafood counter has garnered worldwide attention and in 2000 was named an American classic by the James Beard Foundation. People travel as far away as Europe to eat here, along with the neighborhood regulars who drop by for a to-go cup of clam chowder.

Its atmosphere is Fisherman’s Wharf but without the tourists or the barking sea lions (yes, they’re back). You still feel like you’re near the bay even though you’re blocks away in the Polk Street area that’s known more for its funky restaurants and transients spilling over from the Tenderloin.

Sitting on one of the roughly 20 rickety stools at the counter last Friday (I took the day off just to come here), I absorbed my surroundings. Mounted sea turtles and marlins. Framed photos and commendations. Signed football jerseys and other sports paraphernalia. Swan Oyster is a dive that remains a dive, unwilling to give up on the past. It’s a place where you’ll feel ashamed to tweet or use a cell phone. Workers cheerfully answer a tarnished black rotary phone that was probably there when the place opened.

Part fish store, part counter restaurant, Swan Oyster lists the day’s menu on the wall, with the items hardly changing from day to day. It’s simply fresh oysters, crab, clams, Maine lobster, shrimp and some smoked salmon. They’re prepared raw and served on crushed ice, as cocktails or salads, or in the Boston-style clam chowder.

I started with a dozen oysters on the half shell, shucked by the guys in the back corner. A round tray arrived with an assortment — from kumamoto to miyagi to Blue Point— that gave me a taste of the sea. Some were sweet and mild, others were tasteless but plump and meaty. A couple was salty like seawater.

You can get the raw oysters with a simple mignonette of shallots and red vinegar or a cocktail sauce. A bowl of cut lemon wedges and jar of horseradish are within arm’s reach on the counter if you like.

After slurping up my oysters, dousing each one down with a gulp of Anchor Steam, I got the Crab Louie salad.

A full bed of iceberg lettuce topped with freshly cracked Dungeness crab meat, the salad is one of the more expensive items on the menu at $19.50. But the fact that I didn’t have to crack the crab myself to get to the sweet tender flesh was well worth the price. And really, the amount of crab meat looks like it came from two crabs.

The thick Louie dressing, reminiscent of Thousand Island, brings a tangy twist to the sweet crab. In between bites of the crab and lettuce, I chewed on slices of sourdough bread. The combination is nothing fancy, and that’s the whole point. The food is simple and familiar, like something served up on a bench at the wharf for dock workers unloading the fresh seafood that just came in that morning.

As I ate, the crowd at the door grew larger and the people at the front of the line flowed past the door, watching everyone eat to see which seats will open up next. When I was done, I asked one of the guys to add up my total. There’s no tab at Swan Oyster; you just tell them what you ate and they add it up in their century-old-looking register.

A word of advice: bring lots of cash. In this place that’s like a Luddite’s kitchen, you can’t expect them to take plastic. Cash only.

As I gathered my things and walked past the gauntlet of hungry diners, I felt rejuvenated and satisfied that I can check another food destination off my list of must-eat spots in San Francisco.

Anyone who’ve tried this place will probably agree that the oysters and crab are all fresh and of the highest quality, but it’s not like you can’t find similar spots without the lines elsewhere (Hog Island, for example). And it’s not like the prices are incredibly low that it’s bargain dining.

What Swan Oyster offers is a bit of the past. A friendly stool to sit on, to forget about the worries outside, and to appreciate the camaraderie. I think about the thousands of others who sat in the same seat, had the same meal, and I feel a connection to history. Even though I ate by myself, I never felt alone. I had generations of happy diners around me.

Swan Oyster Depot, 1517 Polk St. (at California), San Francisco. Open Mon.–Sat., 8 a.m.–5:30 p.m. PH: 415.673.1101. No reservations. Cash only.

Swan Oyster Depot on Urbanspoon

More seafood catch:
Shuck a Buck for Oysters
Bar Crudo: “A Night of Eating Light”
Thang Long: “Celebrating the Dungeness Crab”


foodhoe said...

I've always wanted to try this place, but didn't think it was worth taking a day off work for it... I'd do it to go up to Tomales bay tho! Everything looks good, that crab louie especially. Mr. K and I recently enjoyed oysters with a simple mignonette, I can't make up my mind which I prefer - hogwash or mignonette...

Kim said...

This does look delicious and it's walking distance. It is pricey, though. Overall, do you think it's worth it?

Mrs. L said...

As a recent convert to oysters on the half shell I was reminded on Easter, when my MIL served them for appetizers, that maybe I need to search out more places that offer them. I've been to Hog Island at the Ferry Building so I'll have to put this place on my list.

Carolyn Jung said...

I LOVE this place. They make a mean plate of fresh sashimi, too, if you ask them to. There's always a line, but it's always worth the wait.

Single Guy Ben said...

Kim, I did splurge with the crab louie salad, but if you were to just get a dozen oysters and a clam chowder, that'll probably make you happy and it's comparable to other places. But for me, it's really the ambiance. And it is true about how these guys are the friendliest guys in town!

Carolyn, oh, that sounds so good to get sashimi, bet it'll be soooo fresh!

Nate @ House of Annie said...

Waaah! How cruel it is to be halfway around the world, wishing I could be sitting at that counter enjoying all that seafood.

Cookie said...

I've passed by this place a dozen times but never thought of checking it out. That Crab Salad looks so good! I guess I've been spoiled going to Hog Island since it's so close to work!