So this weekend Cheryl and I were in San Francisco for a trip she won to travel with the Detroit Lions to their game in Oakland (that’s a post for another day). She was very excited about it because she really loves the NFL, I was excited about it because we’d be in San Francisco. I’d never visited there but have always thought it is one of our great American cities. Lots of history, melting pot of immigrants, and a great food culture. One thing she was looking to eat on this trip was good seafood, oysters especially. I don’t know how she found Swan Oyster Depot in the Nob Hill area but she was optimistic about it. I was too, and since we had flown in with the Lions on Friday night we had an entirely free day on Saturday to explore the city. With no agenda or itinerary we set out for lunch at Swan. Upon arrival we found a bit of a line going down the block (lines seem to be part of life in San Francisco, walking around we found people queued up for a lot of things, restaurants, coffee, etc.). Swan is a very small counter service place that has been around for almost 100 years and is still family run. You can order to go, pick up seafood for home, or sit at the counter and eat. There were a lot of people stopping in to pick up orders. One woman asked when she needed to place her order of cioppino ingredients for Christmas Eve (they told her Thursday). Nice. Now that’s a local place. Everyone coming in to pick up orders said they had been doing it for years. Swan’ll even offer you a drink while you’re standing on line, so despite the fact we recognized we were in for an hour plus wait I knew I was going to like this place.
Another sign that this place was worth the wait was the fact locals were waiting in line and no one, and I mean no one ahead of us quit the line. I was waiting for people to give up but they didn’t (stubborn bastards!). And like I said, Swan offered drinks to help with the wait. We finally got in when two seats opened up by the door (this is how I know about all the walk-ins). We started off with some oysters and went with all Pacific coast ones. They had some Blue Points but I waived them off. Being from the Mid-Hudson Valley of New York I’m quite familiar with Blue Point oysters even though there really aren’t true Blue Points any more. The ones we ate were from British Columbia and Washington, kumamoto and miyagi. Since we ordered 10 oysters (2 each x 5) our server/fishmonger gave us a couple local clams to round out the dozen (he commented he knew east coasters liked to eat little necks raw). I didn’t find the Pacific oysters as briny as east coast (I like oysters that taste of the sea) but they were meatier and more tender. Delicious.
Next up was an order of their crab salad with a side of Louie sauce. Shredded lettuce topped with a few handfuls of crab. The crab was sweet and meaty and another hit with us. After that we each tried a bowl of their clam chowder. It’s a milk-based one (I’m a Manhattan style chowder guy, again the NYer in me) and was good. A little thin, and not enough potatoes or clams for my liking but it had really good flavor. You could tell it was clam chowder. Thinking back, to be honest I kind of like that it wasn’t a thick chowder; it’s supposed to be a soup, not a stew. We finished off with a prawn cocktail. When ordering I commented that we needed to have the one piece of seafood left we hadn’t tried yet and our fishmonger asked if we’d had the smoked salmon yet. I told him Cheryl didn’t like smoked salmon so we hadn’t ordered any. A minute later he reappeared with a slice of it on some bread for me to try. It was great! It had a deep smokiness to it, but was not overly salty or fishy. This is the kind of smoked salmon you wish you could have every Sunday morning on a bagel with some cream cheese, tomato, and red onion. Oh, so good.
Throughout our late lunch we were drinking Anchor Steam drafts. Even though we waited a long time before sitting down we were not pressured by anyone to eat fast and exit. It appears that once you have your seat you’re entitled to sit as long as you want as long as you’re eating. When we first sat down I started to give our entire order but the guy told me to hold on a sec while he transferred our beers from the plastic cups we were drinking outside to frosted glasses and topped them off. Once that was done he asked what we wanted and only took one order at a time. Oysters first then let us know if you want anything else, he said. The entire time we were there the staff was very courteous and would get you anything. One woman who was waiting on line stuck her head in and asked if they could reserve the last sea urchin they had since she didn’t get them in Texas. They wrote “sold” on a napkin and stuck it on the last one. This kind of friendly service at what is clearly a local place far from the tourist areas serving some fresh-off-the-boat seafood is what makes looking for good food while traveling so much fun! Sometimes there are clunkers but then there are the times you get rewarded like this.
When you go to San Francisco search out this place and stand in line. It’s so worth it. I may not have left my heart in San Francisco but I most definitely left my rumbling stomach at Swan Oyster Depot!
Swan Oyster Depot
1517 Polk Street
San Francisco, CA
Hours: Mon-Sat 8am-5:30pm