Mayes Oyster House has catered to the great and near-great from all over the world since it was established 69 years ago," restaurant critic Ruth Thompson wrote ... 73 years ago. That's a ripe cumulative age for any public institution, especially a restaurant, but then again Mayes isn't the stolid old Tadich Grill–style fish house it used to be. After a confusing period when there were two Mayeses on the same block of Polk Street, and a decade or so when Mayes wasn't Mayes at all but an Ethiopian restaurant, an Irish restaurant, and a loungey sort of pickup joint, the place has been resurrected under its original moniker, albeit with a decidedly 21st-century vibe and menu. Happily, the joys of fresh shellfish abide, even (especially?) when crème fraîche and tobiko enter the equation.
It's located on that proletariat stretch of Polk Gulch where the Tenderloin begins to assert itself. The towering neon sign that has dominated the block for several generations beckons diners Mayes-ward, where aesthetic reminders of previous tenant O'Reilly's Holy Grail — publike lanterns, a rather Celtic vestibule — endure. Inside, it's a different story.
The establishment is divided into three areas, the first an eye-filling lounge with a copper-topped oyster-and-booze bar (currently the scene of a nightly $1-per-mollusk happy hour) and an Etruscan-looking gas fireplace ringed with cocktail tables and chairs in faux giraffe hide.
Beyond is the more stately dining room, a softly lit, high-ceilinged chamber with heavy burgundy drapes, small potted trees, and mirrors hung at various angles; tables, banquettes, and encompassing booths; and a dazzling pressed-tin ceiling, perhaps the sole decorative remnant of the days when Mayor Sunny Jim Rolph and his cronies would gather here for a bit of whiskey and chicanery. Just beyond the dining room is a parquet dancefloor and curtained private lounge where weekend hipsters toss their hair, puff their plumage, and cavort to the sounds of the DJ.
The menu, as noted, has pretty much left the deviled crab, oyster roast, and Hangtown Fry days behind. One exception is the Dungeness crab cocktail ($11), a disappointingly watery and tasteless desecration of our favorite crustacean served with an equally tame Louis dressing. Begin instead with the kamikaze oyster shooter (two for $5), mollusks bathed in sake and mirin, accented with tobiko and a pickled carrot, and served in what can only be described as space-age sherry glasses. Toss a couple back and you'll find the combination of sweet, puckery, and mildly briny positively refreshing. Another kind of yummy: the salmon carpaccio ($9), cured Scandinavian style and served on a rectangle of frosted glass with a light onion-herb salad and Yukon Gold potato gaufrettes. The shaved red onion adds a sweet little bite to the lush, creamy fish, and the freshly fried waffle-cut potatoes are crunchy and irresistible.
Rather than cook up a predictably winter-in-S.F. old-school cioppino, the kitchen tackles another great seafood stew, bouillabaisse ($8), with creditable results. The broth is light yet richly flavored with the clams, mussels, prawns, and snapper that make up the bulk of the dish, and unlike many a bouillabaisse or cioppino (or paella, for that matter), the seafood reaches the table moist, tender, and distinctly tasty.
The seared Canadian salmon ($17) isn't as successful. It's nice and rare in the middle and perfectly filleted, but the only memorable aspects of the dish are its platemates, a bed of chunky buttermilk mashed potatoes and baby spinach sautéed in olive oil. Despite half a dozen slices of chewy, overcooked Masami Farms Kobe-style sirloin, the surf 'n' turf ($22) is worth ordering for its buttery diver scallops, lightly glazed roasted carrots, and whipped potatoes laced with horseradish. No caveats about the scampi ($15), though: The prawns are crunchy on the outside, juicy on the inside, and tender angel-hair pasta makes a fine support system for all that garlic, basil, and chopped tomato. It's a simple, satisfying dish.
For dessert, there's fruit crisp ($7), a big ramekin of cranberries, pineapple, and caramelized apples, all of them juicy and bursting with flavor and crowned with a cinnamon-laced crumble. Or there's the chocolate-lovin' spoon cake ($7), vertiginous layers of chewy fudge, creamy mousse, and a light-textured torte; it's dark, rich, earthy, and endorphic. Best of all are Anthony's cookies ($7), a platter of warm-from-the-oven full-sized cookies in three flavors: gooey butter-toffee macadamia nut, melt-in-your-mouth chocolate chip, and a Proustian oatmeal fragrant with brown sugar and vanilla.
Although Mayes features a 50-item wine list and several exemplary draft beers, it's really more of a cocktail kind of a place, and the bar shakes up several imaginative house libations. The Russian Hill ($9) combines Ketel Citroen with fresh peach pulp and a hint of lime, but this being the dead of winter, the peach was puckery and even the sugared rim couldn't help. Camila's Tang ($9), on the other hand, was pleasant and refreshing, with mint, basil, and rosemary adding herbaceous notes to a nicely balanced mixup of Tanqueray, agave nectar, and fresh lemon. But at a place with the sheer culinary heritage of Mayes Oyster House, you can't go wrong with a revered classic (and wintertime staple) like the house Manhattan ($9) — Maker's Mark bourbon, sweet vermouth, a brandied cherry ... and a sprinkle of cinnamon.