“The locals figure out how to time it right,” assures Kevin Sancimino, a third-generation employee of the family-run Swan Oyster Depot in San Francisco’s Nob Hill neighborhood, referring to the line that begins to form on Polk Street at 10:15am. It’s not unheard of for wait times to reach 2 1/2 hours, rivaling those of Austin’s Franklin Barbecue.
For natives and tourists alike, navigating the ins and outs of the century-plus old seafood establishment can require the patience usually reserved for last-call BART. Even though the restaurant is only a 10-minute Uber ride to Twitter HQ, you won’t find status updates broadcasting specials. (That some ten-year-old tech prodigy hasn’t finagled a line-holding system is all the more surprising). Nor can you trust their website—sfswanoysterdepot.com—which is an unauthorized, user-generated knockoff. Fact is, they don’t have an official domain. “Some guy in Cambodia is making money off that,” says Darren Samuel, a 27-year-old with eight years of experience behind the counter. “It’s the perfect crime since no one here uses it.”
But such inconveniences haven’t hampered Swan’s legacy, nor slowed the appeal of serving fresh miyagis and littleneck clams on the half shell, smoked salmon, or crab legs. If anything, these anachronisms have only made Swan Oyster all the more endearing to food-world insiders. Lucky Peach editor-in-chief Chris Ying dubbed it the “best meal in America.” Anthony Bourdain admitted that part of his reasoning for filming a second episode in San Francisco was to sit down at its counter, chug a cold Anchor Steam, and down some oysters and crab back (the liver and innards, comparable to lobster tomalley). Bon Appétit restaurant editor Andrew Knowlton wrote, “It might be my favorite restaurant on the planet.”
“It’s completely democratic. There are few restaurants that appeal to everyone, and Swan is one of those,” says SF Chronicle food editor Paolo Lucchesi, whose Twitter banner features the interior of Swan.
A co-sign of Swan Oyster is more than just an acknowledgment of an institution: For many, it is a quiet resistance to the hype-mongering that persists in the food world, and an opportunity to revel in an experience that’s direct and simple. It bucks Silicon Valley “disruptor” norms now embedded deep within the city’s culture. The only code it relies on is crusty sourdough, fresh crab legs, and oysters—it is an infallible formula.
But as anyone who has walked through its doors will admit, you brave the long lines at Swan Oyster just as much for the people behind the counter as you do the food. “There’s no gap between the GM and the chef, no disconnect between ownership and management,” says Kevin, whose grandfather, Sal Sancimino, took over the business in 1946 with Pat LaRocca, a cousin who was a seafood wholesaler, after purchasing it from four Danish brothers, the Laustens. It helps that Swan’s set-up, unlike its genteel kin Tadich Grill, allows customers a full display of the shenanigans, wise-cracks, and camaraderie on display directly in front of them. Stories amongst employees are shared openly, only to be refuted by a guy at the far end of the counter. Zingers are thrown left and right. It is egoless.
“We do whatever we’re told, and on command. I hope Tom’s listening,” said Samuel with smirk.
“At Tadich or Sam’s, they rely on cooks. Cooks are going to change jobs, and the dining experience evolves,” says Lucchesi. “At Swan, you sit at a counter, eat fish, and if you keep getting good fish, there’s less room for error. It’s like that old car that takes care of itself.”
“The only code it relies on is crusty sourdough, fresh crab legs, and oysters—it is an infallible formula.”
Other than the 1906 earthquake that required the city to dynamite the area of Swan’s original storefront, little has changed since its relocation to its current address in 1912. Beer and wine were introduced in the ’60s. Sicilian sashimi—an off-menu item—showed up 20 years ago. And for 15 uninterrupted years, all of Sal’s offspring—Steve, Tom, Vince, Phillip, John, and Jimmy—worked together side by side. Even division of labor is lax. When I asked Tom Sancimino for his title, he didn’t skip a beat: “Co-owner, dishwasher, toilet scrubber.”
“We’re all harping on each other and messing around,” says Kevin. “But I really did give it an honest thought—what do I want to do with my life? Why would I want to miss out on this? What kind of crazy bastard would walk out?”
We caught up with seven employees—brothers, sons, family-friends—about life at San Francisco’s historic seafood counter, from notable celebrity moments (Nick Cage was apparently a good scrubber), to the secrets of making chowder.
Years at SOD: 40
On upholding a legacy: “It’s a lot of work. We do things the way they were done 100 years ago—picking fresh crab meat by hand, opening clams everyday. Some tiny things have changed. Beer and wine were introduced in the 1960s. We now serve seafood salads and nonna’s calamari.”
On his favorite celebrity sighting: “Nick Cage used to wash dishes here in the late ’70s. He’d wash them by hand, standing on a box.”
On why the Sicilian Sashimi is an off-menu item: “It’s only been around for 20 years. We put things up up after 25. We hate to rush into anything, so we’ll wait until it catches on.”
On the key to making good chowder: “Clams are hearty, so the longer they cook, the better it tastes. During the day we open clams on half shell, and we keep the juice to throw inside the chowder.”
Years at SOD: 44
Go-to order: Half dozen mixed oysters, combo salad
On lack of hierarchy: “There’s no division of labor. We don’t call out to the back and say, ‘Hey Pepino, get me some oysters!'”
On initiation rituals for new-time employees: “It’s limitless. There is no mercy.”
On shucking oysters: “Most people think you have to really force the knife, but you’re really guiding it to the soft spot. And always make sure the cup is on bottom so the juice doesn’t fall out.”
Years working at SOD: 50
Go-to order: Combo salad, combo cocktail, chowder, smoked trout
On Swan Oyster’s survival: “It’s recession-proof. It’s immune to economic upturns and downturns. Twenty-five years ago during the ’79 recession, the place was packed. A customer turned to my dad and said, ‘No recession here, huh Sal?'”
On the rising popularity of the crab back: “No one knew about it until Anthony Bourdain. Now it’s a feeding frenzy.”
Years at SOD: 12
Career oyster-shucking stats: Per day: 100. Per week: 500. Total: 288,000
Go-to order: Combo salad, oysters on half shell, littleneck clams on the half shell, smoked salmon
On operations: “It’s very personal here. There are no secret decisions being made in the back. There’s no closed-off wall. You might need technological gadgets if you weren’t going to spend all your time at the restaurant. That’s why you have a POS system—to keep track of what’s selling, to track the money. But my dad and uncle are there all the time. We don’t need to pay anyone to care for our restaurant. It’s unnecessary.”
On Vince’s knife skills: “Out of all of us, he’s really the master with the blade. He has the dexterity of a surgeon, steady hands. He’s almost blind, so it’s more by feel.”
Years at SOD: 8
On taking orders: “We do whatever we’re told, and on command. I hope Tom’s listening.”
Favorite celebrity moment: “I told Bono I didn’t like his music to his face.”
On Swan Oyster’s fake website: “The one you find on Google is a user-generated ad site. Some guy in Cambodia is making money off that. It’s almost the perfect crime since no one here uses it.”
Years at SOD: 2
Go-to order: Chowder, smoked salmon
On being the youngest in the clan: “I’m the baby here. I’m still fine-tuning my skills, learning to trim the salmon and slice it paper thin. Watching the other guys, you realize there’s a way to talk to the customers. People come here because they like the interaction. They know it’s not fake.”
On the SOD workhorse: “Kevin basically does all the work, while Tom watches.”
On keeping up with technology: “Check out our advanced POS system [points to register].”
Brian “Byron” Dwyer
Years at SOD: 10½
Go-to order: Combination salad
Family connection: Dates Steve’s daughter. “Tell him the grim truth,” yells Steve. “It’s only awkward if you make it awkward,” laughs Dwyer. “Her dad still breaks my balls once in a while.”
Clam and Oyster Primer
A trip to Swan Oyster Depot is incomplete without an order of clams and oysters on the half shell. Here, Kevin Sancimino gives us a quick breakdown of flavor profiles.
Kevin says: “They’re like the Kumamotos of clams—small and sweet with a pronounced flavor. There’s a nice balance of salty and creamy. It’s a native West Coast clam, but they’re becoming rare since they don’t reproduce the same way as oysters.”
Kevin says: “Compared to the cherrystones, they’re larger and more mild in flavor. They’re also the more popular of the two because most people who eat clams are from the East Coast, and these bivalves hail from that region.”