San Francisco Dispatch: Oysters As They Were in 1912

A dozen at Swan, and we ain't sharing!

SAN FRANCISCO–Edible Manhattan made oysters one of our seven ingredients of Eat Drink Local Week for good reason: Harvested by the hundreds up and down the waters of Long Island (as they once were right here in the city, according to Edible Brooklyn), they’re a truly sustainable local food, one whose terroir is totally a taste of place (the Eastern species is crassostrea virginica, so briny and bracing!) and whose production (as outlined in Edible East End) is just as positive to the environment as it is to local commerce and community development.

But also because we all love them. And when we travel to a place that has great specimens, we’re going to partake. Aka Northern California, home to multiple amazing varieties, all of which possess a mild Pacific Ocean creaminess so unlike the ones that grow along our Eastern shores. (In fact we’ve been hearing for years the best oyster ever is actually a crassostrea virginica grown on the left coast. Perhaps we’ll find proof in the next few days.)

One of the most talked about shuckers of late in San Francisco is of course Hog Island, the oyster company with a stall at the famed Ferry Terminal Market on the Embarcadero. (They also have a little stand at the Saturday farmers’ market, from which we slurped four for $2 per this past weekend, in between eating a bag of peas and a quarter-pound of kumquats.)

But the place we wanted to visit on this particular trip was Swan Oyster Depot, at 1517 Polk Street in Nob Hill. It’s a tiny sliver of a place that we like to imagine looks much the same since it was opened by Scandinavian immigrants in 1912, even though it’s been run by the Sancimino family since 1946. There’s a line, usually of tourists, but that’s okay: Like Grand Central Oyster Bar or Nathan’s at Coney Island, it’s worth it.

Swan is essentially a long marble counter with stools, an old scuffed tile floor and a long bar helmed by a slew of servers that all know their stuff: The hand-sliced smoked salmon and white herring, a vestige of the original owners; the cups and bowls of butter slicked chowder; the cold seafood salads in little metal bowls over iceberg with pink Louie dressing; a pile of Dungeness crab legs; sliced chewy white sourdough served sliced with tiny square pats of butter on waxed paper; pints of locally made Anchor Steam beer, and of course those bivalves.

Lining up down the 1912 bar in San Francisco's Nob Hill.

Those can be creamy Olympias and cucumbery Miyagis, their shells as fluttery as a lacy ruffle or barely briny Tomales Bay from just across the water, served with a variety of condiments depending on your waitperson (we scored a killer habanero chili mignonette) and a tiny cocktail glass of tomato sauce that you season yourself with lemon wedges and the Swan-made horseradish puree (available to-go). It’s practically a meal itself when eaten with the outstandingly salty oyster crackers that lounge in a metal bowl between every few diners.

Happily, you can get a dozen mixed of whatever oysters they have on offer each day for $26, and that’s exactly what we did, eating every single one with a smile that we suspect has been witnessed at Swan for the past 99 years.

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Rachel Wharton is the former deputy editor of Edible Brooklyn and Edible Manhattan. She won a 2010 James Beard food journalism award, holds a master’s degree in Food Studies from New York University, and has more than 15 years of experience as a writer, editor and reporter. A North Carolina native and a former features food reporter for the New York Daily News, she edited the Edible Brooklyn cookbook and was the co-author of both Handheld Pies and DiPalo's Guide to the Essential Foods of Italy. Her work also appears in publications such as The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and Saveur.