1517 Polk St, SF, CA 94109 | 415.673.1101 | Mon-Sat 8 am – 5:30 pm; Closed Sun | cash only
Mr. K and I have a well documented fondness for oysters on the half-shell, but despite living here for several decades, neither of us have never been to Swan Oyster Depot. We have a few excuses, the hours to begin with -they’re not open for dinner and close at 5:30. Their location on Polk Street has never been very convenient for either of us and the legendary lines have all worked to dissuade us from ever visting. We both took some time off from work last week and decided it was time for us to join the acolytes making the pilgrimage to this venerable institution of seafood worship. There was a gorgeous spread in the front display window piled with succulent mounds of squishies from the sea.
We got there for an early lunch, arriving just before 11:00 and were psyched to snag two of the 18 stools at the long counter, which comprises the entire dining area of the restaurant. It was bustling and crowded but we were served by a solicitous crew of burly boys who were always checking in to make sure your every seafood desire was met. We ordered two Stella’s which were poured icy cold from the draft.
The menu features extremely fresh seafood, simply prepared at very reasonable prices. There are seafood cocktails, seafood salads made of shredded iceberg drizzled with creamy Louis dressing and topped with mounds of fresh shrimp, crabs, calamari, smoked fish, cracked crab, even served sashimi style. There is a distinct familiarity about the place, the camraderie and banter behind the counter, most of the customers are greeted by name, we almost felt like we’d been coming here for years…
Each setting offers a well stocked selection of every classic condiment that you could ask for: an enormous bowl of oyster crackers, a fresh tub of cocktail sauce, a jar of kickass horseradish sauce that brought tears to our eyes, lemon wedges, a classic mignonette, a garlicky lime habanero sauce and a bottle of tabasco sauce.
We began with a dozen Kumamoto oysters on the half shell ($26), which were plump and briney, leaving the mellow flavor of the sea on my tongue. The classic mignonette was my favorite, the bits of savory shallot and acidity from the red wine vinegar create a lovely complex combination of flavors.
The kumamoto is especially lovely to behold with its delicate frills and blue gray hues of the sea.
This shrimp salad was a simple pile of bay shrimp with seasoned with salt and pepper, a drizzle of olive oil and a squeeze of lemon.
I asked our attentive server if we could get an assortment of smoked fish (which wasn’t specifically listed on the menu) and he brought over a platter piled with buttery slices of cured salmon (gravlox), meaty chunks of rich smoked salmon, a tender filet of smoked whitefish and a generous pile of seafood louis, which included big prawns, chunks of fresh cracked crab and succulent bay shrimp on a bed of chopped iceberg that had been drizzled with thousand island dressing ($19.50). We loved eating from the retro platter at the Carrera marble counter and devoured every single crumb, using every possible combination of condiment. Everything was fresh and flavorful.
Another classic side are thick slices of crusty sourdough bread with pats of butter.
We sampled a cup of the Boston Clam Chowder ($2.75), which was the only disappointing dish of the meal. It was broken, curdled and kind of foul smelling. One of the burly boys tried to downplay this when he saw our expressions, proposing that it was because they add clam juice to the chowder, which adds flavor. Hmmm…. well, I’m not ordering this again unless I can take a look at it with mine own peepers first and see that it is creamy, not curdled and smells good.
I asked our man if there were any dishes with scallops, which looked very good in the window display. He nodded and enthusiastically suggested Scallop Sashimi. We were game, and off he went after plucking up a couple from the case. He returned with this very exciting dish, a Mediterranean kind of sashimi. Thin slices of the sweet tasting scallops, drizzled with fruity olive oil and sprinkled with minced red onion and briny capers. We were spellbound by the bright fresh flavors.
We had another dozen oysters for dessert and he gave us a little sample of the Calamari Salad, the tender pieces of calamari were infused with the flavors of fennel and sweet red peppers. I’d order this next time.
Prominently displayed amongst the crowded walls is the prestigious James Beard award that Swan Oyster Depot received in 2000 for being aclassic regional restaurant. At the end of our meal, our server helped us recount all the dishes we devoured then rang us up on an old fashioned cash register. Oh and by the way, bring lots of cash because they don’t accept credit cards and our bill (including quite a few Stellas) totalled up to $90+ some change. It was worth it though, and we’re planning a return trip soon for a quintessential San Francisco treat.
While we were gorging, people came and went and a line began to form at the door. Glad we got there early…