If you want to get really genealogical about it, you can trace the lineage of Sam's Grill all the way back to 1867 and the last days of San Francisco's wind-swept, argonautic beginnings, so by all means let's get really genealogical about it. Imagine if you will the wickedest port between Algiers and Shanghai, an already legendary city drunk on gold and only halfway through its second decade. The sort of a place where you could sip a friendly drink in a waterfront bar and wake up on a schooner bound for Cathay, never to be seen again. The earthquakes and opium dens and white slavery and vigilance mobs were nothing to turn your back on, either. No wonder Mark Twain settled down here. It was in 1867 that Michael Moraghan opened an oyster bar in a produce mart downtown. (This is where the genealogical part comes in.) Within 25 years the joint had evolved (along with San Francisco) into a far grander thing, a top-flight fish restaurant that also supplied fresh seafood to its competitors, much of it from the old man's oyster beds near Burlingame. This piscatorial empire was purchased in 1922 by Yugoslav emigre Samuel Zenovich, from whom we get -- finally -- the name "Sam's."
Frank Seput bought the restaurant in 1937, keeping the moniker and its address at 561 California St., then moving it two blocks south to its present location after World War II. Seput's heirs operate Sam's to this day. I've gone into such (excruciating?) detail about the history of the place because much of it has a bearing on what Sam's is today. In a city surrounded on three sides by water, where geographical isolation (ocean on one side, mountains on the other) resulted in such exorbitant victual tariffs that a fresh egg could cost 100 1849 pennies, the natural thing to fill up on was seafood, something Mr. Moraghan knew all about. The Yugoslavian heritage personified in Mr. Zenovich, while not as integral to the city as its Chinese and Italian accents, is nevertheless an important component in San Francisco's culinary evolution, particularly when it comes to the simple grilling of fresh (even if non-Adriatic) fish. And the restaurant's very longevity -- dating back, if you embrace the genealogy, to the (Andrew) Johnson administration -- is Sam's greatest donative: the historical resonances it nurtures and celebrates. (Note the retroactively cool telephone-exchange number above.) It is the quintessential old-time San Francisco restaurant, perfectly preserved in an aspic of polished brass coat hooks, vintage-1928 house specialties, and gimlet-eyed waiters in tuxedos. There's a sense of cumulative, old-money power at work here, the same sort of Financial District sinew you can feel at Schroeder's, Tadich's, John's, and other downtown venues so venerably there they can afford to be on a first-name basis. The interiors are as similar as the menus: the curtained booths, the dark wood paneling, the polished, well-stocked bar. The clientele is almost exclusively middle-aged males in pinstripes. It's the ideal place for a power lunch, so I rounded up three highly ranked co-workers: three of us in dark suits and red ties, the fourth a representative of the vanguard, the new wave in San Francisco dining -- not only a woman, but a European woman and a vegetarian to boot. Actually, as any in-the-know vegetarian will tell you, these centenarian establishments are great places to enjoy a meal: The menus are rife with salads and pastas and sides of vegetables.
We began our lunch with a dish that exemplifies both the power and the vegetarianism of Sam's: a round of martinis, served ice cold and on the stem at 11:45 in the morning. The historical aspect came into play as well, considering the fact that Professor Jerry Thomas invented the libation not far from here, at the old Occidental Hotel, about the same time Moraghan opened his oyster stand. In any case the martinis were good, very good, with none of the peach schnapps and candied ginger that try to pass themselves off as martini ingredients nowadays, just good gin, a whisper of vermouth, and a single, salty olive to pull it all together. This simplicity, this dedication to tradition exemplifies the Sam's experience.
Our martinis were succeeded by a parade of unpretentious (if richly rendered) foodstuffs: startlingly verdant asparagus spears with a wonderfully pungent mustard sauce ($5.25); creamed spinach as unhealthy and delicious as any vegetable can be ($3.25); long branch (thickly cut) fried potatoes, hot and fragrant from the oil ($3); fried calamari so crisp and greaseless you could sense the hundred years of fish-cooking know-how emanating from the kitchen ($10 for two).
Since we'd stepped into the way-back machine, it seemed like a good idea to try a couple of the city's misty classics. Celery Victor ($9.50) was invented at the St. Francis Hotel seven decades ago; the titular veggie is braised to the tasteless and yielding point, dressed in sauce vinaigrette, and draped with anchovies. It's not great, but it is, on a purely anthropological level, interesting. The anchovy salad ($9.50) is a whole lot more anchovies on a bed of greens, not bad if you like anchovies, and I do, I do.
At entree time, we knew enough to embrace tradition and go for the fish, avoiding the meat, chicken, and sweetbreads, although I've always wanted to try chicken Elizabeth ($12) -- chicken with artichoke hearts -- but it takes a half-hour or so to prepare, and as powerful lunchers, we had places to go, damn it.
No matter. The sauteed crab legs ($24) are the sort of thing Diamond Jim Brady would've ordered if he'd ever made it west; they're rich and supple, dripping with briny succulence and all the nouveau riche of a freshly erected Nob Hill mansion. Sand dabs are the great West Coast fish, and the sand dabs a la Sam ($12) -- so knighted for their elaborately multilayered presentation -- preserve all of the creatures' sweet and delicate essence. Top of the line, though, is the beautifully textured petrale ($15), broiled, as Zenovich intended, over charcoal until perfectly, mouthwateringly moist and flaky. (The vegetarian got the fettuccine with marinara and basil [$9] -- a nicely al dente though perfunctory dish.)
We stuck with local tradition in the ordering of desserts: rice pudding ($3.50), overly sweet but predictably comforting, and French pancakes ($3.50), one of the stars of the afternoon -- delicate, moist, and seductively bland with a bracing hint of lemon and the merest dusting of sugar. Related, somehow, is Sam's house bread -- sourdough, naturally, the chewy, crusty, lusty sort of sourdough that renders other cities so uninteresting to visit. A final S.F. touch is the wine list; you won't find a single foreign vintage anywhere on the premises. It's all California, ranging from a Beringerchenin blanc ($15) to a Jordan Vineyards cab ($68). Steering us here and there was our waiter (who worked at another Financial District institution, Jack's, until it went in for portobello pesto and the like), the sort of professional who exudes such an air of affable experience that you put your culinary future into his hands without question.
Taken all together, the freshness and the opulence and the simplicity and the tradition, Sam's is a local landmark well worth celebrating. Its menu is a compendium of tried-and-true classics rendered with the native intelligence of an experienced old gastronome confronting the great Golden State cornucopia. What we have here, in other words, is the original California cuisine.