Ask a dozen San Francisco natives where to eat in the city, and you’re likely to be told to visit the Swan Oyster Depot more than any other eatery in the city. The restaurant has been open for over 100 years and only has about 15 seats at its counter, but it’s full of charm, and the seafood sold there is as fresh as it gets.
I arrived about 20 minutes before it opened at 10:30 a.m. during a recent visit to the city, and the line was already about 40 people deep. About an hour and a half later I finally snagged a seat at the counter. The menu is hand-lettered on the wall opposite the counter, and diners have their choice of seafood cocktails and salads (atop iceberg lettuce); lobster, clams and oysters on the half shell; half-cracked crab; a “crab back” that’s essentially the innards, and is far more delicious than it looks); smoked trout, whitefish, or salmon; and Boston clam chowder that just about everyone agrees isn’t worth the stomach space.
I ordered a half-dozen Pacific oysters to start, which were shucked to order by one of the countermen, who all look right out of central casting. These guys are insanely knowledgeable and far friendlier than they have any right to be, and aren’t in a hurry to rush you out even though there’s a perpetual line to get in. I ordered an Anchor Steam, and got three small and salty Kumamoto and three different varieties of Miyagi oysters in varying sizes — the combination of location and quality made these among the tastiest oysters I’ve ever had.
I also ordered the mixed seafood cocktail, which came heaping with freshly picked Dungeness crab, tiny sweet shrimp, a big prawn, and a giant oyster. Even though the cocktail sauce doesn’t have much in the way of discernible flavor — it’s a little like thinned-down ketchup — something about it served as a perfect complement to the extremely fresh seafood, especially when mixed with a little horseradish and a squeeze of lemon, both of which are kept within arm’s reach (alongside mignonette and hot sauce). You don’t encounter too many foods that are an absolute joy to eat, but while working my way through this little cup of unadulterated seafood, I was having a grand old time.
There’s not too much I can say that hasn’t already been said about Swan: It’s a must-visit, the lines are long, the seafood is delicious and incredibly fresh, the countermen are legendary, it’s certainly not cheap, and it’s brimming with history. Yes, you can get seafood that’s just as good at a handful of other restaurants in town, but you go to Swan to claim your spot in the century-old continuum of diners who have sat on these ancient stools and ordered from a menu that hasn’t changed in decades. Dining here is like stepping into a storybook of San Francisco history, and it’s an experience that every visitor to the city should have.