The Old Clam House: Time-Worn Gem Turned Into Just Another Tourist Trap

When the Old Clam House was built in 1861, Mission Bay was a real bay, Hunter's Point jutted out spikily into the water, and Bayshore was a wood-plank road cutting through the salt marshes. Fishing boats pulled sardines, oysters, and shrimp out of the waters just behind what was then called the Oakdale Bar and Clam House, Ambrose and Anna Zurfluh's restaurant. Now it is San Francisco's oldest restaurant to be continually operated on a single site.

Needless to say, the neighborhood has changed.

A century and a half into its existence, the tiny, wood-frame building in San Francisco's industrial zone, now a mile from the bay, had turned to a bit of a dive — the good kind — that still had a reputation for serving one of the best cioppinos in town. Last year, Lingan Chua and his family, who had run the Old Clam House for 17 years, sold the business to the Dal Bozzos, who own the Stinking Rose, Calzone's, the Franciscan, and the Crab House at Pier 39.

The Dal Bozzos have done some remodeling, first restoring the exterior to resemble photos of the 19th-century clam house, its faux-faded sign advertising North Star and Milwaukee steam beers. If you weren't attached to the car hood above the bar, or the dust that grimed the license plates and gewgaws on the walls, you might walk into the newly redecorated restaurant and find the place a little shiny for its age but still charming. The main dining room at the entrance, often empty, is covered in pressed tin and scenes of Olde Frisco. The real action is in the building's other half, the original 1861 structure. Its bar is now stocked with wine and craft spirits, the tables are covered in red checkered tablecloths, but the wood walls and old pictures show off the building's age without hinting at decrepitude. (Outside, a few souls sit in the Old Clam House's new glassed-in patio.)

Meals at the new Old Clam House still begin with a shot glass of hot clam juice — flecks of clams lurking at the bottom of the broth, though the flavor's more chicken bouillon than seafood broth — and sourdough for dipping. You can still find steamed clams, chowder, cioppino, and fish and chips on the menu. With North Star and Milwaukee out of circulation, a pint of Anchor Steam Beer seems almost obligatory.

The rest of the new menu bears the same fingerprints as the other Dal Bozzo restaurants. Many of its dishes appear on their other menus, and there are now salads with raspberry vinaigrette, basa with a seaweed soy ginger glaze, and a tiramisu (not made in-house, the waiter told us, so I didn't bother to try it.)

The iron skillet mussels (small for $9.95, $24.95 for a large) are on every Dal Bozzo menu for good reason. A bouquet of opened mussels comes to the table steaming on a black platter that sizzles anew when the waiter pours soy sauce over it. The bivalves come up a little smoky from the pan, not in the slightest bit chewy; you scrub each one against the surface of the plate to pick up some of the glaze, then dip one end in potent garlic butter.

Another dish that's good: the clams escargot ($9.95/dozen), Manila clams on the half-shell basted in butter, lemon, and garlic and broiled until bubbling, the meat firming up under the flames just enough to taste cooked. So are the sand dabs ($19.95), a heap of tiny, boned fillets so delicate they could almost melt away, napped in a brown butter and lemon sauce spiked with pickled capers.

That's about it, as far as the high points go. The Old Clam House's new cioppino ($19.95) is packed with seafood — a couple of Dungeness legs, squid rings, clams, mussels, shrimp, all tender — that the cook has dumped a half-jar of chunky marinara sauce over. The clam chowder ($4.95 cup, $6.95 bowl) tastes primarily of flour and potatoes, the fishwich ($9.95) of old fryer oil.

For its clam linguini with white sauce ($17.95), the kitchen tosses al dente pasta and creamy Manila clams in too much oil and garlic. For the crab louie salad ($18.95), the cooks heap sweet, chunks of picked Dungeness on a pile of butter lettuce, surrounding it with all the proper fixings — pink and gold beets, a few red onions, some canned olives, a hard-boiled egg — and the proper sweet, coral-colored mayonnaise. But there's no lemon to bring everything together, and the butter lettuce wilts under the gloopy dressing; this is a salad for iceberg. And the clams paella acini ($19.95) is mystifying: It's not a paella at all, but tiny pasta nubbins floating in a loose, sweet tomato sauce with cheap chorizo, green olives, and clams. What is the inspiration here? SpaghettiOs? Leftovers night at the frat house?

I've eaten better at Outback Steak House, and for less money. What is most puzzling about the restaurant is that classic American seafood dishes are as straightforward as they are popular. Someone in the kitchen knows how to cook clams and other seafood, so why force them to indulge in unnecessary gourmet-ifying?

Tadich Grill, the Old Clam House's rival for seniority, isn't a time capsule or a tourist destination; it's still one of the city's great restaurants because it does what it's always done. But the Dal Bozzos have turned a well-loved, if slightly decrepit, local place into Fisherman's Wharf South. The 150-year-old restaurant will survive its current owners. Heck, it'll survive us all, unless climate change brings the bay back to Bayshore Boulevard. But that doesn't mean it's aging as well as it could.

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