On Lost, The Swan was the outpost where Desmond had to punch in certain numbers every 108 minutes or else the entire island would supposedly explode. That’s a lot of pressure, even more than people experience when they want to eat at Swan Oyster Depot, see the line, then resign themselves to making other plans.
On the Monday after the July 4 weekend, the line was, at best, long-ish. SF Weekly angled for a spot ahead of first-timers and behind out-of-towners, who may not comprise overlapping circles in a Venn diagram. (Passing through the kitchen later on the way to the restroom, a woman mentioned to us that she knew where it was even though she didn’t live in San Francisco.)
Having been closed from June 30 until July 7 — the announcement taped to the wall ends with “Thank You, God Bless America” — the Nob Hill staple returned with gusto to doing what it does, namely serving incredibly fresh seafood along with Anchor Steam. If you weren’t sure, Swan Oyster Depot has no website of its own. A sign just above the analog vacation responder reads, in part, “Anything you see ONLine is UNauthorized!! We only deal person to person!!! NO WEBSITE!!” It’s cash-only, too.
This is the carapace of mystery that surrounds the core menu (as well as the secret menu). And the impossibly thick clam chowder still goes beautifully with the cold, fatty crab back, both of which require an extra order of bread to pick clean.
One of the best things about long-lasting institutions is the way the Americana just accrues. Displaying the politics of a classic-rock radio station — patriotic, irreverently devout, mindful of city history, big fans of George Carlin, with the tabloid world-weariness of a veteran cabbie — Swan Oyster also has scientific diagrams of various species of crustaceans, sports jerseys, and a signed photograph of President Ronald Reagan. Loaves of bread barely conceal Irish whisky bottles. Bobbleheads compete for space with taped-up bills from currencies that later folded into the euro, vintage signs from Barbary Coast-era chowder joints, a pic of the Carlson Brothers (that nerdy-looking trio of penalty-prone hockey players on whom Slap Shot was based), and more sports jerseys. Part of it looks more like a back office than a clean-it-before-and-after-every-shift food prep area. The soundtrack is where dad-rock and lite-rock collide.
You can order coffee; you can order milk. (Each costs $2.50.) You can get a crabsanthemum, which is just what it sounds like. While a half-dozen Kumamoto oysters ($18) is the right way to start off, it’s the crab back that’s obligatory. It’s as briny as the sea, as salty as a broth, and just buttery enough to knock it out of the nutritious column and into the fortifying category. Probably the only misstep Swan makes is the big bottles of Tabasco (the sorriest hot sauce after Frank’s), but you can chalk that one up to tradition. Squint at the non-linear menu — the one on the wall is the only one — and it could be Art Nouveau, advertising homemade tartar sauce and horseradish via drawings of life preservers plus the Swan Special (shrimp cocktail and a Bud for $13 — it’s “Swanderful”). There’s a five-dollar charge for melted butter. If you don’t like it, you’re out ten bucks, because there’s a five-dollar charge for whining, too.
The line is long at Swan Oyster Depot because the staff treat you warmly, deftly rearranging the lobster forks and little plates around the oyster crackers and the mignonette caddy when it’s time to drop that crab back. You will not feel rushed. In fact, Swan Oyster Depot is one big brilliant fakeout, a benign con. Between the decor and the we-don’t-take-anyone’s-shit attitude, you sit down expecting to be dealt with by an impatient guy whose default facial expression reads, “C’mon.” Instead, you feel looked after, babied. Nervous about what might be too much food and what’s not enough? Maybe they’ll encourage you to re-evaluate half-way through, then order more. They don’t want you out. They want you happy. And you will be. Welcome back, Swan Oyster Depot.
Swan Oyster Depot, 1517 Polk St., 415-673-1101, no website.
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