I have to admit I've never been able to get a good grip on the dining scene in the Castro. For years, it was a scatter shot of unremarkable restaurants whose underlying motto seemed to be “Come for the scene, stay for the … scene.”
But then, a few years ago, the Castro began to emerge as an unlikely trendsetter. In among the street-front pit stops with names like Hot 'n' Hunky that made you doubt your qualifications for eating there, the establishments with dark interiors and noncommittal monikers that kept you guessing as to their preference for bar or restaurant, and the second-floor boîtes whose narrow stairs you were loath to climb because going back down if you changed your mind seemed socially awkward came classy comfort-food joints like Firewood, Home, and Blue. And fusion eateries like La Mooné and Tin Pan. And proper sit-down restaurants like 2223 and Catch.
Through it all, unfazed by the whims of décor, clientele, and culinary fashion, has been Anchor Oyster Bar (579 Castro, 431-3990) and its Boston clam chowder — a quiet, reliable, sure thing if I ever saw one.
The small storefront, a former clothing boutique, sits at the sleepy end of Castro Street, anchoring (sorry) a block that has seen boom, bust, and everything in between (remember Headlines?). Roseann Grimm opened it in 1977 when the neighborhood was just finding its identity — transitioning from Irish working-class holdout to gay mecca — but she never catered to any one crowd. Coming from a long line of Italian fishermen, with years of restaurant training under the tutelage of the Sancimino family (which owns Swan Oyster Depot), Grimm felt an oyster bar was the natural choice.
“My grandparents ran an oyster house in North Beach, across from Enrico's, and I have pictures of all my uncles in front of our house on Fair Oaks with an ocean's worth of sea bass strung up,” Grimm says. “The restaurant was, I suppose, a tribute to them.”
Anchor's no-fuss interior — a lunch counter and a handful of tables decorated with fishing photos of Grimm's Uncle Al — echoes the food. While it's augmented by more adventurous daily specials, the menu has as its core straightforward piles of fresh crab, prawns, and shrimp served cocktail-style or on salads, and a thick, creamy, not too fishy New England clam chowder that has yet to meet its match anywhere in town.
Sit down at the counter any day of the week and you'll bear witness to the soup's ability to bridge cultural, gender, age, and sexual preference gaps. Grimm says the chowder evolved through trial and error.
“We experimented with different bases and temperatures until we got it right. We try and stay true to what I think that dish should be; people don't want surprises. This is food 80-year-old Irish grandmothers and gay people alike can embrace.”
Anchor's recipe begins with a roux made with onions and pancetta, added into a base of chicken stock and seasoned with thyme. The thickness comes from both whole milk (not cream) and a combination of whole and cubed russet potatoes. Clams, clam juice, and more yellow onions go into the base, and then the soup is simmered for a while; celery comes near the end, so it doesn't lose color or texture. Served piping hot and with a requisite hunk of sourdough, pile of oyster crackers, and bottle of hot sauce, the chowder, like the restaurant, never fails to reassure me that no matter how stormy the seas in the Castro may get, I'll always find safe harbor here.