Watching the Sancimino brothers in action behind the counter at Swan Oyster Depot is one of my favorite food experiences, a must every time I visit San Francisco. I’ve waited upwards of an hour for a stool along the cramped 18-seat counter, but the instant I slurp down that first oyster none of that matters. Crabs and jokes are cracked at roughly the same pace, with fresh seafood and family vibes capturing your attention as as it all unfolds at the open bar in front of you. I imagine this is how it’s always been since the family took over in 1946, a fact that makes the dining experience all that much sweeter. Swan is a throwback in every sense, eschewing technology for simplicity (the Anchor Steam on draft is probably the most recent “advancement”), and judging by the way their phone can ring unanswered for minutes on end, the group of guys working the counter wouldn’t have it any other way.
Daily Mixed Dozen | Drake’s Bay, Miyagi, Kumamoto, Blue Point
In my excited state, I plowed through four or five oysters without bothering to take note of their distinctive characteristics, other than that they were all cold, crisp, and absolutely delicious. I’m usually very diligent about paying attention to the details of what I’m eating, but in this case I got caught up in the moment and didn’t regret it at all. Needless to say, I finished the rest of the dozen with the same reckless abandon.
I couldn’t pass up ordering one of the handful of sea urchin available on this particular day. The spiny-shelled sea creatures were from nearby Fort Bragg in Mendocino County, about a four-hour drive north from San Francisco. Though unmistakably fresh, the flavors of the urchin just didn’t “pop” as much as I anticipated them to, lacking the intensely cool, ocean taste that I enjoy so much. Aesthetically, the roe was placed a bit haphazardly back into the shell, but then again Swan isn’t a restaurant that gives much thought to plating and presentation.
Sashimi plate | Scallop (East Coast), Salmon (local), Halibut (local), Albacore (local), Ahi (Hawaii)
Swan generally seems to serve their sashimi “Italian” style, with capers, diced red onion, cracked black pepper, and olive oil. This time I kept it simple with a drizzle of olive oil, salt, and a squeeze of lemon, in order to fully appreciate the flavors of the fish. Scallops, always a favorite of mine, were particularly soft and sweet here, and the halibut had an enjoyable meatiness to go along with its mild-tasting flesh. The duo of tuna were also stand outs, while the local salmon seemed to be a bit muted under the olive oil but still altogether tasty.
Combination salad [$20.00] | prawns, bay shrimp, crab
If I was limited to ordering only one item at Swan, this combination salad would be it. The seafood is the obvious focal point, with sweet crab meat, snappy prawns, and delectable little bay shrimp comprising the “combo” portion of the salad. The shredded iceberg lettuce base added a refreshing crispness, while the creamy Louie dressing (I prefer it on the side) really brought each element together. Again, the success here lies is in the straightforward presentation of the seafood ensuring that it remains the highlight of the plate.
My affinity for Swan Oyster Depot is kind of funny because I don’t necessarily consider them to have the best seafood in SF. At Hog Island Oyster Co., for example, I found the selection of oysters to be more varied and shucked and plated with more finesse. Still, what keeps me coming back to SOD every time is the familial atmosphere and storied history on Polk St. In many ways it reminds me of LA’s famous french dip eatery Philippe, another longstanding city institution that has maintained the same consistent experience and food for decades. I get just as excited as anyone for new restaurant openings and inspired chefs whose visions will alter the culinary landscape, but sometimes I want to eat at a place knowing that someone who sat in this seat ten, twenty, or even fifty years ago had a reasonably similar experience to the one I had. As often as we look ahead at the future, it can be nice to remember the past, especially when it involves a dozen oysters, a seafood salad, and a cold beer.
Swan Oyster Depot
1517 Polk St
San Francisco, CA 94109
Dine date: Thu 8.22.13, 11:00p