Is Sam’s Tavern, the Sporty Sister of Sam’s Grill, Worth the Hype?
OFF MENU IS SPONSORED BY BENDER’S BECAUSE THEY ARE BADASS. DROP BY AND MAKE SOME BAD DECISIONS WITH SOME GOOD PEOPLE!
Worth the Hype? is a column by longtime food and drink writer Geri Koeppel, who will check out bars and restaurants (some new, others popular or exceptional in some way) on her own dime and tell you whether she thinks they’re worth the hype or not. The deciding factor: Whether she’d go back and spend money again. She might not be exactly broke-ass, but she’s definitely cheap-ass and doesn’t put up with a rip-off.
Where is it?: Sam’s Tavern is at 368 Bush St. east of Kearny St., adjacent to Sam’s Grill.
What is it?: A lively watering hole/sports bar with eight big screens, full menu of pub staples and a friendly vibe from staff and fellow patrons alike.
How much is it?: Less than most places in the FiDi. Breakfast is $7-$12 (only three items), appetizers are $4-$13, soups and salads are $8-$39 (the priciest is the Dungeness crab Louie), baskets—things like sandwiches, burgers and chili dogs, with salad or fries—are $11-$15.
Hours: 9 a.m. to close Monday–Friday, 10 a.m. to close Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.
Worth the hype?: Yes, although strangely, there hasn’t been much press on it since its opening on December 12, 2018. Word-of-mouth has been enough for business to boom.
Why? First off, most people actually put down their phones here and talk to each other. I’ve been to so many bars lately where everyone—bartenders included—are gaping at their screens instead of interacting IRL. It’s refreshing to go to a place where people actually like to meet and talk.
The tavern is next door to the venerable Sam’s Grill, which its website claims is the nation’s fifth-oldest restaurant, having opened in 1867. Owner Peter Quartaroli, who took over Sam’s Grill in 2014 along with other regulars and brought it back from the brink of extinction, now has another hit that complements its seafood sister with lower prices and a more casual vibe.
Though this spot opened only a few months ago, it feels like it’s been around longer—not since the Gold Rush, but a while. Could be due to the exposed brick wall behind the bar charred in the 1906 fires after the earthquake.
Or perhaps it’s the chummy feel and how everyone—younger and older, locals and visitors alike—are welcomed and brought into the fold as if they’re old pals no matter if it’s their first or only time there. All of the bartenders I’ve met here are genuine, attentive, friendly and skilled, but particularly Paulie, a veteran who truly knows how to cultivate regulars, and Clay, an ebullient, entertaining extrovert. That’s the way good bar staff should be, but too often, it seems like employees exert great effort to ignore people.
Also, it’s already cemented itself as one of downtown’s great sports bars, and I don’t even really like watching sports, but I do here. With eight big screens, you can catch everything from the latest playoffs to college games to golf tournaments.
None of this would matter if the food and drink weren’t up to speed. Sam’s Tavern isn’t going win a James Beard award anytime soon, but that’s not its mission. Chef David Gingrass offers a solid menu of competently executed classic bar food at reasonable prices.
So what’s good here? I’ve liked everything I’ve tried, with one exception, which you’ll read about below.
The trio of dips—smoked salmon, French onion and cucumber yogurt—with warm house-made chips ($8) is great for snacking, as is the crispy fried local smelt with house tartar sauce ($9). Wings ($13) are above average, deep-fried to extra crispy, hot and juicy inside, and served with the sauce on the side for those who can’t handle too much heat. The house-made ranch dip is exceptional, full of tangy buttermilk and lots of herbs.
The clam chowder ($8) has copious amounts of clams and smoky bacon, and I could have downed a trough of it. The Caesar salad ($9 small, $12 large) got points for the tower of crunchy Romaine leaves and actual anchovies—though next time I’ll ask for more—but I detracted from the score due to the dried Parmesan. Still, the house-made dressing made up for it and put it in the “win” column overall.
Fish tacos ($13) come grilled or fried; we tried them grilled and the fish was firm and flaky, and topped with a spicy tomatillo salsa. The burger ($15) … well, I’m not a fan, but maybe that’s because I’m not keen on the Flannery dry-aged beef, which I think tastes funky. Those who like it, though, really like it. It comes with sharp cheddar or Saint Agur bleu cheese and a side salad or killer shoestring fries that I damn to hell for being so irresistible. They also have a vegan Beyond Burger ($14).
As noted above, drink prices are reasonable for this downtown neighborhood; 10 of the 15 wines by the glass are $9, hearty mixed drinks are about $9 and fancy cocktails run about $13. Beers are $5-7 for bottles, $8-9 for drafts, including 10 on tap with something for everyone, from citrusy IPAs to porters and stouts. Its liquor selection will satisfy your snobby friends, too, with upper-end whiskies and vodkas.
In case you want to pop in early after a long night, they also serve a few breakfast items, including berries and yogurt ($7), corned beef hash with poached eggs ($12) and a classic plate of two eggs, hash browns and bacon ($9).
To sum up: fair prices, honest drinks, decent food, friendly people and a fun ambiance. Seems like an obvious recipe for success, but in today’s world of $17 and up cocktails and precocious $14 share plates with three bites, it’s nice to have a place that’s back to the basics—particularly without too many screen zombies.