A handful of almost century-old restaurants in San Francisco are a culinary testament to the city's rich past.
Slurping a lunch of briny Tomales Bay oysters and tucked in tight at the counter, cheek to cheek with locals and tourists, I wondered what had taken me so long to get to Swan Oyster Depot. The tiny San Francisco spot came highly recommended, with an endorsement from author/chef/Travel Channel star Anthony Bourdain at a book-signing a few years back.
I was living near San Francisco then, so I had no good excuse for waiting until now to belly up to the bar. Ordering another round, I regretted years of lost opportunities for oysters and crab cocktail.
Swan Oyster Depot is perennially named one of the best seafood restaurants in the city, receiving top seafood honors in Zagat’s 2012 Bay Area survey. But this isn’t a place that takes its cues from restaurant surveys. For 100 years, Swan has been serving up essentially the same menu, at the same marble counter, in the same narrow shop on Polk Street.
The San Francisco of a century ago was still remaking itself after the 1906 earthquake and fire. Some restaurants that were incinerated found a way to revive and thrive. Others opened for the first time in the heady years just after the quake, when buildings rose on top of charred debris as fast as lumber could arrive from the Pacific Northwest.
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Today, a handful of restaurants like Swan are still around. Where countless old San Francisco restaurants have fallen victim to changing tastes or economic woes, a few continue to serve customers in the buildings where they set up shop after the quake, offering food with a direct link to a century-old past.
Inspired by my oyster lunch, I set out to find the stories behind some of the survivors — and enjoy a taste of old San Francisco.
Swan Oyster Depot
Swan Oyster Depot, on the west edge of Nob Hill, has been owned by just two families since it opened in 1912. The core of the menu hasn’t really changed: oysters, bay shrimp, prawns, crab in season. All fresh, offered simply with cocktail sauce, lemon, bread and butter.
“We still do the same things we always have,” said Steve Sancimino, one of five brothers who now own the restaurant. Some San Francisco families have been eating at Swan for six generations, he said.
A Danish family named Lausten originally opened Swan after their first oyster shop, Cable Oyster, was destroyed in the quake. When the Danes were ready to retire in 1946, Steve’s father, Sal Sancimino, partnered with cousins who worked in fishing and seafood distribution to buy the shop. Swan still gets most of its seafood from businesses run by extended family, and family members work the busy counter.
Steve Sancimino said there have been few menu changes over the years. During his family’s tenure, his dad added clam chowder, salads and beer and wine in the early 1960s, and Swan still uses Sal’s chowder recipe.
All these years later, Steve Sancimino shrugs and smiles while cutting up sole when asked about the latest Zagat rating. (Swan was also named the best seafood restaurant in Zagat’s first Bay Area survey 25 years ago.) It’s all due to the family’s commitment, Sancimino said: “One of us is here every day.”
When I asked the fellows at Swan what restaurants I should visit, they lobbied hard for Liguria Bakery in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood.
“You have to get the focaccia,” said Brian Dwyer as he shucked a mountain of oysters, “and you have to eat it right there, warm, in the park.” He grew up eating the Italian-style flatbread. “Get the pizza one.”
Liguria Bakery has held its corner on Stockton Street across from Washington Square park since 1911. Founder Ambrogio Soracco emigrated from Genoa, Italy, in the year or so after the quake and worked in neighborhood bakeries before opening his own.
Soracco’s descendants aren’t sure what drew him to San Francisco, but historians say North Beach recovered relatively quickly from the quake and continued to attract immigrants.
Soracco’s son and grandsons still fire up the original brick oven Monday through Saturday, making golden focaccia in flavors such as onion, raisin, jalapeño with cheese — and yes, pizza, topped with a perfect tomato sauce and green onions.
Michael Soracco, Ambrogio’s grandson, said the bakery originally made several Italian breads and panettone, but decided around 1960 to focus on focaccia. “It got hard for them to compete with the big bakeries,” he said.
His sister and mother work the front counter, where they sell 8-by-10 inch sheets of focaccia wrapped in plain white paper and tied up with twine, stacked for takeout orders, looking like gifts. “People love it because everything here is done by hand,” Soracco said. “We don’t cut corners.”
Liguria closes early if it sells out. So go early, bring cash (my focaccia was $5, including tax, and Liguria is cash-only), and do as Brian says: Eat it warm, in the park.
While North Beach recovered quickly after the quake, it’s remarkable that neighboring Chinatown recovered at all. In spring 1906, it was “a heap of smoking ruins,” reported the Oakland Tribune.
As San Francisco started to rebuild, newspapers embraced a movement to relocate Chinatown to the mud flats of Hunter’s Point, far from downtown. But after threatening to take their business to another West Coast city such as Seattle, Chinese politicians and businessmen won the fight to stay. Within a couple of years, the streets bustled again with businesses in bright, exotic buildings designed to attract tourists (introducing the pagoda-themed look the neighborhood still has).
Since that time, Sam Wo has been serving customers in its narrow building on Chinatown’s Washington Street.
Julie Ho-Chung, daughter of one of the current owners, said, “It’s always been Sam Wo, and it’s always served rice porridge, which is a Chinese breakfast food.”
Ho-Chung started in the restaurant at age 9, when her dad set her to chopping vegetables and answering phones because she complained she was bored. Her brother, mom and dad and other family members still work there, and her dad makes the handmade rice noodles for which the restaurant is known.
Sam Wo’s look hasn’t changed in decades. Enter through the kitchen, where you might find a woman stuffing tiny dumplings from a giant mound of ground pork, and take narrow steps up to the red-painted tables. Order anything with rice noodles. I enjoyed a lovely duck soup and chow fun — rice noodles with barbecued pork and bok choy.
Longtime customers know there’s a “secret menu,” too, Ho-Chung said. If you ask, you might get duck noodle rolls or shrimp noodle rolls. You can bring beer or wine — the restaurant only sells soda — but if you bring wine, also bring a corkscrew as the restaurant’s lone corkscrew is sometimes hard to find.
Sam Wo is cash-only, but you won’t need much. Most dishes are $4 to $7.
A dozen blocks and a world away from Chinatown, downtown’s Palace Hotel stands as a testament to moneyed San Francisco’s commitment to rebuilding after the 1906 quake, grander than before. The Palace opened at the corner of Market and New Montgomery in 1875, and although its structure survived the quake, it couldn’t withstand the fires. Rebuilt in three years, the splendor of its Garden Court restaurant — the marble columns, the soaring glass Beaux Arts ceiling — is the same grand space celebrated in front-page newspaper coverage marking the reopening in 1909.
Back then, this part of the hotel was a lounge called the Palm Court, which often hosted events open only to men, but today’s Garden Court is open to anyone who wants to splurge for lunch.
Hotel spokeswoman Renée Roberts said a 1991 renovation included structural repairs after the 1989 Loma Prieta quake, but the hotel restored the original features and chose décor that reflects the sensibility of the early 20th century. The Garden Court is now the only indoor historic landmark in the city.
You can even enjoy a lunch reminiscent of 1909: crab salad, steak Oscar and buttermilk biscuits have all been on the menu for more than 100 years.
In those days, fresh produce often wasn’t available and canned artichokes and other preserved vegetables were used in the salad. Of course, chef Jesse Llapitan now highlights fresh ingredients, but some longtime patrons still ask for canned artichokes.
Visitors can tour the hotel three days a week. Afterward, stop for a drink in the Pied Piper Bar & Grill, named for its Maxfield Parrish “Pied Piper of Hamelin” mural. Parrish himself is the face of the Pied Piper, Roberts said.
House of Shields
Across New Montgomery Street from the Palace, downtown’s House of Shields bar has an overlapping history — sometimes with a different spin.
Bar manager Eric Passetti said the House of Shields opened in 1908 on the ground floor of the Sharon Building while it was still under construction. The Sharon and the Palace were owned by Frederick Sharon, who hired the same architect to restore both properties.
Passetti said the House of Shields was named for Eddie Shields, who, as the story goes, was a prizefighter before opening the bar.
One local legend has it that the carved back bar at the House of Shields was originally made for the Palace Hotel, but that the Parrish mural didn’t leave room for it. Passetti said he’s inspected the bar and believes the story to be true.
Although the Palace Hotel can’t verify that this piece came from the hotel, they do say they have the front piece (where customers sit) of their original bar.
The House of Shields still looks the part of the “gentlemen’s club” that it was until 1972, with its original dark woodwork and warm, fluted-chandelier lighting.
Restored in 2010, on weekday evenings it’s packed with 20-somethings meeting up for drinks (no food here.) If you want a drink to evoke the bar’s early days, Passetti said to keep in mind that a men’s club in 1908 wouldn’t have fussed with cocktails. His suggestion: a shot of whiskey and a beer.
To a one, San Franciscans who learned of my food journey asked, “Are you going to Tadich?”
Downtown’s Tadich Grill has the double honor of being the oldest restaurant — opening in 1849, the boom year of the California Gold Rush — and of being “one of the most written-about restaurants in San Francisco history,” according to The San Francisco Chronicle. For both reasons, I saved it for a future visit when I can explore San Francisco’s Gold Rush history.
Denise Clifton is the director of visuals and news projects at The Seattle Times. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org