Every now and again, you get a really good feeling about a restaurant just by walking past it. In our first week in San Francisco, we walked past The Swan Oyster Depot on our way home after a boozy night out. Even through our alcoholic haze we could tell we were going to like it. It had this really lovely old-school feel to it, so the next day we decided to give it a go. As you can probably conclude from this post, we weren’t disappointed, and we’ve been back a few times since.
But before we get down to the nitty gritty, a short history lesson. The Swan has been around since around 1912, and by the look of the place not much has changed since. The original oyster bar was bought out by a guy called Sal Sancimino and his three cousins (Al, Pat and Frank LaRocca) in 1946, and in turn their kids took it over in the ’70’s, and it not surprisingly has a really friendly, authentic family feel to it.
It’s a ‘hole in the wall’ style place, with a long marble bar, original tiles, wood paneling etc and it only sits around 20 people at a time. So if you’re going to pay it a visit, prepare yourself for a wait. Possibly quite a long one. But don’t let this put you off, you can have a drink in the queue, and with a bit of banter from the owners, the time passes pretty quickly. And once you’re sat down eating, all is forgotten.
Now the fact that they serve oysters, and they’re good, local and fresh is kind of a given. So I’m not going to waste time talking about them. But what I will tell you about is their famous Boston style Clam Chowder. Less creamy and heavy than others we’ve tasted (we’re guessing the use milk instead of cream), powered by a really good stock and chock full of clams. The only thing that improves it is a few drops of Tabasco. Winning.
On our last visit we also had the most amazing plate of the Swan’s take on Sashimi. Absolutely beautiful hand cut slices of salmon, scallops, albacore and red tuna, all drizzled with olive oil, capers, shallots, and a little bit of salt and pepper. So delicate and fresh. Bloody delicious.
Once you’ve got the taste for it, it’s kind of hard to stop so we also ordered a plate of their smoked salmon and trout. The salmon came just as I like it, mounted on some buttered brown bread with a bit of black pepper and a couple of generous lemon wedges. The Yanks definitely go in for a heavier smoke than the Scottish style that I’m used to, but it makes a nice change, and if I’ve got a plate of smoked fish in front of me, I’m usually pretty happy. Which brings me to the smoked trout. Served as a fillet with a bit of shredded iceberg and some prawns, a fitting end to our meal, and all washed down with the house ice cold Sauvignon Blanc (I’m not sure what it is is).
The only real downsides of The Swan Oyster Bar are the queue (or ‘line’ as they’d say over here), and the fact that it’s a bit expensive. But for the heritage, atmosphere, banter and the fresh as you like seafood, I’m more than happy to overlook these things.
I hope that it’s still going in another 100 years and being run by the next generation of LaRoccas and Sanciminios.