Farewell Tour: Sam’s Burgers, Swan Oyster Depot & Zuni’s Chicken
The list I had made was long and I was short on time and tight with money. The Tonga Room, Red’s Java, The Buena Vista, Farallon, The Old Clam House, Kokkari, Tony’s Cable Car, The Cliff House, Sinbad’s…all these joints skipped on in the assumption that both they and this writer would be haunting San Francisco till the sun exploded. Of course, both those assumptions are misplaced and fail to take into account, well, life. Not to mention the pitiless jungle that is San Francisco’s restaurant industry. The idea was to make amends for having taken those places for granted by patronizing all of them in the two months leading up to my departure. However, I procrastinated heavily and so in the end I made it to just three places.
Sam’s Burger’s came instantly to mind as an example of a venerable San Francisco institution that I had failed to patronize in the 14 years I had called the city home. What sealed the deal (which I admit without shame) was watching Anthony Bourdain on the telly slouched drunk on one of Sam’s battered leather stools at 2am, proclaiming Sam’s to be the best burger ever.
Is it the best? No. I strain to imagine the odes written on soiled napkins declaring it’s divinity. But, it’s a respectable handful of cow with a nice char on it, and the black pepper-dusted fries are delicious. Sam’s is one of many S.F. institutions whose je ne se quoi has less to do with its fare and more with a patina of old school authenticity. As you might have heard, perhaps from some hollow-cheeked chain smoker outside Caffe Trieste, San Francisco as we know it is quickly fading, like an old black train receding away from us, the tearful, veil-clad handkerchief wavers left on a dusty station platform in the sepia-colored late afternoon. Places like Sam’s are tattered, grease-stained flags representing a past that’s being rapidly cannibalized. San Francisco eats her young. It’s how she maintains her glowing complexion.
Second up is Swan Oyster Depot, famous for its fresh seafood and perpetual queue. I’m not alone in my disdain for lines but I believe myself to be especially averse to them. They’re the reason I’ve never gotten a morning bun at Tartine Bakery, or an opalescent scoop of Bi-rite ice cream right around the corner. So, when I idly glanced over at Swan Oyster Depot while biking up Polk Street on a Tuesday afternoon and noticed nary a soul out front, I felt as if Robert Mitchum had just shown me his vagina. 30 seconds later I was seated at the sole remaining stool, perusing the decades-old bill of fare covering the wall opposite the long counter. Another 30 seconds and a line had formed outside, thus restoring order to the universe, which I reckoned somewhat solipsistically must have been disrupted for my sake.
The Depot’s food is less incidental to its overall aura and mystique than Sam’s. They’ll give you upon request a crab back full of “the mustard” with as many slices of crusty French bread as you want to sop it up. There’s white fish and trout sliced raw, drizzled with olive oil and garnished with capers and red onion. The oysters were delicious and expertly-shucked, but my favorites were the plump, massive top neck clams. Beware, however: to conflate Swan’s un-pretentious mien and decor with bargain prices would be a mistake. They’re clearly aware of the strength of their bargaining position: demand puts constant pressure on supply, which means it’s fairly expensive and they might at any moment run at of your favorite thing.
I worked as a bartender at Zuni Cafe for three months. It wasn’t a good fit for either parties. However, in those three months I was constantly tortured by the sight of my customers tearing into heaps of poultry, crispy and blistered from the heat of a brick oven. They would stand at the dented old copper bar in groups of two or three, sipping glasses of sparkling wine or nursing Aperol Spritzes into the early evening when the light of Magic Hour would transform Zuni’s high-ceilinged front wedge (consisting of the bar, a piano, a few tables and a staircase leading to the second floor) into a glowing, burnt-umber Neverland perfumed with the briny scent of freshly shucked oysters and caramelizing chicken skin. It was painfully clear I was on the wrong side of the bar.
A few months later, I was there as a customer, right elbow propped against the bar as my left tipped a glass of dry white wine into my mouth. Two other friends had been convinced to meet me at 4pm. We were there primarily for the chicken, which I’d placed an order for 45 minutes previous. Oysters from the Pacific Northwest were ordered in addition to a dish of light fluffy gnocchi. Then, the chicken arrived expertly dismembered, its constituent parts neatly stacked on a bread salad slowly softening and giving way under its glistening burden. While undoubtedly some high quality fowl, the reverence with which it’s held in this town borders on the idolatrous. After dessert (chocolate something) and a couple of Italian bitter liqueurs, we paid up and headed for the exit. The acrid, lemony smell of fresh Market Street urine hit our nostrils like a dose of smelling salts as we stepped out into the dark. It was a welcomed reminder of how relatively un-scathed by gentrification that particular stretch of Market Street still is, especially when you compare it to the chilly, boutique hell that is Hayes Valley right around the corner.
The city isn’t the same now, and it wasn’t the same in the 90s or the 80s or the 70s. Sameness isn’t San Francisco’s strong suit. Hell, when my grandfather, a native son, was stepping onto a troop ship bound for the South Pacific during World War II, there was probably an old hobo propped against a wall nearby, sipping tokai wine and belligerently eulogizing the town he once made his bones in ‘round about 1895. The city belongs to no one and everyone. There have been thousands of would-be claimants but she eventually wriggles out of every one of their grasps.
I’ll not pretend to be completely sanguine about how the city has changed. But, even If I’m greeted upon my return by an unrecognizable Bosch-esque panorama of horrors, upon seeing her fog-shrouded undulations that familiar lump of affection will start to push against my uvula and my eyes will get all wet. Maybe that makes me a chump, but I don’t care cuz she’s my city, motherfucker. I’m a fool for that curvy old tart.
618 Broadway St.,
Swan Oyster Depot
1517 Polk St.,
1658 Market St.,