A few San Francisco locals join the crowd of hungry tourists starting to queue around ten in the morning. After an expectant half hour, the door finally opens and uncompromisingly fresh, unadorned seafood is served up at the twelve-seat, no-frills countertop at Swann Oyster Depot.
This San Francisco institution has been dealing in some of the best seafood in the country at this same location (1517 Polk St.) for over a hundred years. Purchased in 1946 by Sal Sancimino, Swann remains a tiny time capsule even after being taken over in 1970 and transformed by Sal’s children into the restaurant it is today. Or at least the restaurant it was until the Food Network, Travel Channel, and Anthony Bourdain shared this locals haunt with the rest of the nation.
Up until the 2000’s, the antiquated barbershop ambiance lent to this no-nonsense-fish-joint an air of craggy authenticity. Now its unchanged decor feels more like kitsch than unapologetic neglect. The old-timers serving up front are as friendly and salty as ever, but the customers are now mostly out-of-towners hitting up Swann in between windy Lombard Street and Ghirardelli Square. The back kitchen has become another sign of the times, staffed with a pair of hardworking Chinese women shucking crab out of sight just to keep up with the demand.
We remember the posters of bikinied supermodels that were plastered around the walls in the back kitchen and bathroom throughout the 80’s and 90’s. As they have come down, the prices have gone up. A moderate mound of crab atop a pile of iceberg currently runs $27 and it's barely a meal.
Though the vibe may have changed, the fish is still the real deal. Instead of waiting in line for up to two hours, better off placing a to-go order before 10:30 AM, picking it up at the counter after opening, and taking your picnic elsewhere. We could recommend a few spots, but then we’d have to find a new place to picnic too.