There is a certain lore that surrounds this San Francisco establishment. With an 18 seat dining room the Sancimino brothers, whose family has run the place since 1946 (It opened in 1912 ) serve “Fresh” Oysters, Shrimp, Smoked salmon, seafood cocktails and salads. I was excited, and eager to wait in the nearly 2 hour line.
I have never been one to believe in tradition for tradition’s sake. If something stands the test of time it should stand upon the legs of quality, and a refusal to compromise that standard against the waves of adulteration. Swan Oyster Depot is not that. The menu is ancient and lacks a certain modernity; though that isn’t the main issue with the establishment, nor is the complete disregard for the customer. Everyone working behind the counter could care less about your satisfaction, or even if you have a clean place to eat.
The first signs of distress for me where the gaping open mussels and clams in the window, sitting on a bed of insufficient ice. My mind started wandering to the 10 species of Listeria, Ciguatera, and the bain of pregnant women – Methylmercury.
We were offered a hunk of bread to start the meal with some rock hard, frozen, unspreadable butter.
We started with a few “cocktails” that were crudely assembled with no rhyme or reason, grossly coated with near fermented cocktail sauce. I will admit that most of the seafood tasted fresh and was actually quite good. I had to ignore the fact that our server assembled the entire thing with his visibly dirty unclean hands.
Seafood, unlike meat is a category responsible for more food-poisoning outbreaks than any other food group. Shellfish in particular, is an organism that survives by pumping water in and out of it’s body. If that water isn’t fresh, you run into problems. Given the conditions here it was a miracle anything was still living, and the bivalves that were existed in sordid conditions.
One of the more reasonably priced items on the menu was the smoked salmon, yet smoked fish is the most dangerous thing to eat in places of questionable cleanliness because the fish often sits around at room temperatures for considerable amounts of time harbouring microorganisms. The flavor wasn’t anything extraordinary, and the bread choice didn’t suit the fish. The roughly chopped onions and canned capers did about as much for the plate as the visibly turning iceberg lettuce. Disappointing.
We ordered the clam chowder, which was thin, slightly warm, and watered down tasting. It also looked like it had separated hours ago and seasoned with full sticks of margarine. What little clams we could find in the dish were the consistency of worn shoe leather, pressure cooked for all weather resistance.
As we took our extremely uncomfortable seats, elbow to elbow with the filthy dining spaces of our neighbors. It was quite obvious that the pace of service was snail, the kindly grandfather-like men shuffling along, tossing oysters and shrimp in their mouths in the process.
The service gives you the feeling that they are doing you a favor. Nothing is written down, and upon requesting the check we engaged in a conversation. “Let’s see, you had the cocktail, and something else.. what was it?’
I don’t think I even saw soap anywhere. The method of cleaning hands after using them bare for fishing around in a large vase of pre shucked oysters, (kept in a bowl of just below room temperature water) was to simply wipe your hands off on your filthy apron; something rendered a greyish red from oyster shells, fructose corn syrup rich horseradish, and stale crackers.
Our neighbor ordered a nice looking octopus cocktail, he was quite vocal about his love for the establishment. Quite often I notice customers are enchanted by the surface charm and old fashioned mannerisms of an establishment, yet I am not so easily persuaded when the product is not of the highest quality and purports to be. It appears that the emperor Poseidon clothes were quite alluring to the tourists.
We witnessed another man joining the crew behind the bar. He begin working by simply walking in off the street and putting on an unclean apron over his street clothes, and rinsing his hands off with water. No soap, no uniform. Highly appetizing.
I balked at the prices of oysters; I simply love oysters but I can’t justify paying that much for a bivalve. In all fairness, the oysters our neighbor ordered looked great.
While it was an experience, I doubt that I will ever return. The cleanliness issues alone make my stomach uneasy. Not worth the wait, service, or experience, at all.