The quintessential contrast between cost and quality. The trick to this phenomenon isn’t always in the new discovery of a hole in the wall, but sometimes in an old favorite. You just need to know what to order.
A seat at Swan Oyster Depot is possibly one of the most sought after in the U.S. and most definitely in San Francisco. Lines can last as long as three hours and drape all the way down Polk Street. I recommend getting there early, going alone, and on a rainy day, but even those layers of precaution aren’t foolproof. But if you’re lucky enough to clinch a place at the approximately 20-person bar in the near future, here is how you do it on a dime.
Swan’s menu can be a little scary. It’s handwritten with different kinds of oysters, clams, lobster, and all sorts of fish with prices changing daily. The beginner’s play is to order one of their delicious Louie salads. Boiled bay shrimp, plump prawns, Dungeness crab meat, or a combination of the three are piled atop a nest of shredded iceberg lettuce and slathered in their velvety, zesty homemade dressing (all ranging between $20-$30). These minimal salads are as authentically San Francisco as it gets. But for the returning visitor to Swan, take a deeper dive into their menu and explore some items that aren’t even on it.
Tomalley, crab back, or crab fat as it’s sometimes called, is a delicacy at Swan. Served in the Dungeness crab’s gaping carapace, the yellow, soupy blend of fat and guts is a buttery pâté of the sea. Accompanied with fresh, warm, pillowy sourdough bread for spreading, this appetizer is a charcuterie lover’s delight. The crab fat has the briny character of an oyster, the funkiness of the ocean, and the creamy richness of uni. As recommended by the burly bartenders, dash in some red wine vinegar to create a wonderful tangy crab dip. At only eight bucks, this humble dish is a valiant seafood snack.
If the Louie salads are a “must try,” then this next course is an obligation. Sicilian sashimi is a dish that Swan has sealed as one of San Francisco’s most iconic dishes. Thinly sliced tuna, halibut, yellowfin, scallop, and salmon are stippled onto a plate and drizzled with olive oil, sea salt, and cracked black pepper. The delicate, silken texture of the fish is escorted by pungent and pickley garnishes of shallots and capers, creating one of the most wonderful sensations any tongue will ever encounter. At only $20 for a small, the sashimi is a tiny, elegant quilt of perfectly cut fish that will forever change the way you approach sushi.
I like to finish off the meal with a nice hot bowl of chowder. Thinner and starchier than most New England- style clam chowders, it is just one more thing that Swan does their own way. At only $3 a cup, it’s the perfect bookend to a fresh, raw fish lunch.
I understand how intimidating a restaurant that runs an average $100 lunch bill can be, especially when that restaurant only accepts cash. Even when you’ve been curious for years, places like that are easy to avoid.
I’m here to say you don’t have to anymore. If you just navigate the menu a little, you can easily be in and out for under $30. So go celebrate the end of summer with a little seafood, you deserve it!
And I’m telling you, go alone.
Swan Oyster Depot
1517 Polk St. 415-673-1101
In a class-action lawsuit, workers alleged the Burmese food empire violated labor laws.