I'm a foodie, plain and simple. As a result, when I travel to big cities, I tend to think less about their famous landmarks or cultural icons and more about the foods for which they are famous. When I think of New York, I think of pastrami. With Boston, I think of clam chowder. When I'm in Memphis, all I can think about is BBQ. So when it comes to my hometown of San Francisco, there are two things that come to mind: sourdough and seafood. And as much as I love the sourdough, it's the seafood that makes me tingle inside.
Famous for its' Dungeness crab, Cioppino and local oysters, San Francisco or “The City by the Bay” as it is affectionately known, has some of the best seafood the West Coast has to offer. One of my favorite places to partake in this bounty from the Pacific is The Swan Oyster Depot at 1517 Polk Street. I'm hesitant to write anymore about this place for fear of it becoming even more popular, but I'm like a little kid who can't keep a secret. This place is old school San Francisco seafood at its' finest. No frills. No tables. Just a marble counter with eighteen stools and a line out the door. If you are lucky enough to get a seat, you will most likely be greeted by an extended member of the Sancimino family who has been running the place since the 1940's. I suggest starting with a pint of the local Anchor Steam beer and a little bread and butter (sourdough of course, and one of the best I've ever had). Most of the menu consists of cold items like shrimp, crab or oyster cocktails, seafood salads and thinly sliced smoked fish. You really can't go wrong with anything on the menu. It's all straight forward, unadulterated seafood, simply prepared so you can taste the freshness. But a couple of the standouts are the Oysters on the Half Shell, served with either traditional cocktail sauce or mignonette, the Clam Chowder, and the Combination Salad which consists of cold iceberg lettuce, fresh Dungeness crabmeat, bay shrimp and jumbo prawns topped with house made Louis dressing. If you want to experience what Fisherman's Wharf was like fifty years ago before it became a tourist trap, this is it.
On the other end of the dining spectrum is Aqua, the restaurant that launched Michael Mina into the celebrity chef stratosphere. It’s an elegant temple to all things from the sea located at 252 California Street in the Financial District. The restaurant has taken a little bit of a hit from the economy and Mina is no longer the chef, but it remains one of the best places to experience what a chef with a passion for seafood can do. This is sophisticated, labor intensive cooking that incorporates only the finest ingredients, and it shows. They continue to perpetuate the Ahi Tuna Tartare craze as there is always some version of it on the menu: currently you will find the diced raw tuna paired with Moroccan spices, lemon confit and fresh herbs. For something truly inspiring try the Maine Diver Scallop served on top of braised oxtails, with fava beans and a red wine reduction. For an entrée, you can’t go wrong with the Bacon Wrapped Lobster with porcini mushrooms. In actuality, you can’t go wrong with bacon wrapped anything for that matter, so you can imagine how good this is.
Just a few steps down the block from Aqua resides the oldest restaurant in San Francisco, The Tadich Grill at 240 California Street. It began as a coffee stand in 1849 to service those seeking their fortunes in the gold rush and soon became a local institution. Today it is still a favorite among traditionalists who like classic seafood dishes and a menu that is not overly laden with food trendy descriptions like “hydroponically grown infant spinach from greenhouse #3.” This is a manly kind of establishment with dark paneling, a mahogany bar that runs the length of the restaurant and get-to-the-point waiters who know their craft so well, you would think they have been there since it opened. Tadich features classics like Cioppono, Patrale of Sole with butter sauce and Shrimp à la Newburg. When was the last time you had Lobster Thermidor? 1950? Well you can have it here. The restaurant also claims to be the first to broil seafood over mesquite, which adds a wonderful flavor to fish and has become the preferred method of grilling in California. The Tadich Grill transports you to another time and place and with so many of the city's oldest institutions closing their doors, it's nice to have a place like this to go to when you want an honest drink, fresh seafood served without a fuss and a side order of history.
If oysters are your bailiwick and you don’t want to stand in line at Swan's, The Hog Island Oyster Company in the Ferry Building is another great choice. This is the first of two restaurants the company created to serve as an outlet for their oyster farm located 49 miles north in Tamales Bay. There are a few small tables but most of the seating is at the bar that surrounds the open kitchen. It's also quite a bit more upscale then Swan's, so feel free to bring a date. The focus of the menu is definitely on their delicious bivalves with several selections served on the half shell. My favorite is the Hog Island Sweetwater, which is the local Pacific oyster. They also farm Kumamotos and an Atlantic version of the Sweetwater, which they call the Hog Island Atlantic. They do some wonderful baked oysters as well. The Oysters Casino with butter, paprika, shallots, thyme and bacon are plump and delicious. The BBQ Oysters are also quite good and are served with roasted pluots from the farmers market, which is held at the Ferry Building twice a week. But my absolute favorite dish has to be the Oyster Stew. Made with Sweetwater oysters, their liqueur and lots of cream, it's a must with some crusty bread (again with the sourdough) to help soak up all that oyster goodness. There are also a few nice salads to help round out the meal, but it's the oysters that draw the crowds.
The last must see seafood restaurant in San Francisco has to be Farallon at 450 Post Street in Union Square. Let me be clear, the food is good, but it is not the main attraction. The interior of this restaurant is breathtaking. It must have been inspired by the Beatles’ song “Octopus’s Garden” because as you enter the restaurant, you feel like you’ve stepped into an aquarium. Named for the islands off the coast of San Francisco, Farallon was designed by Pat Kuleto, one of the most prolific restaurant designers in the Bay Area. The restaurant is divided into several rooms, all with aquatic names. You can hang out at the Jellybar with the octopus stools, kelp columns and jellyfish light fixtures or you can make your way to the Nautilus Room and sit in a booth that looks like a shell. There is also an enticing oyster bar that beautifully displays fresh shellfish from all over the country. Chef and owner Mark Franz cranks out his coastal cuisine with a lot of flair and flavor. His Sweet Corn Chowder with local Dungeness crab, pancetta and leeks is perfect with a crisp white wine from nearby Napa Valley. If you are in the mood for something cold, try the platter of Fruits de Mer. It can satisfy any seafood craving and still keep you light on your feet so you can climb the famous streets of San Francisco.
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