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Swan Oyster Depot

Swan Oyster Depot
At Swan Oyster Depot in San Francisco, there's almost always a line of patrons out the door. They're waiting to sit on one of the 19 rickety stools lining the marble counter that is cluttered with bowls of oyster crackers, fresh-cut lemons and Tabasco sauce. Once seated on a coveted stool, customers will be greeted by one of the six Sancimino brothers or their sister, who have run the store in their father's footsteps for collectively more than 60 years. From behind the counter, the Sanciminos keep up a fast-paced banter among themselves and with the customers. Their congeniality permeates the place. It's more than just good business–this is a family operation, and it shows.

This unassuming fish shop and oyster bar on Polk Street has stood in the same spot since 1912. Swan sells oysters, of course, plus whatever is freshest from the local boats, artfully displayed in the front window. Depending on the season, you might find sand dabs, shrimp, swordfish, salmon, delta crawfish, ling cod or Dungeness crab. Whether local regulars or tourists who've just discovered the place, no one disagrees about the addictive magic of a prawn cocktail or a crab Louie salad, served with a hunk of sourdough bread and a cold Anchor Steam draft.

The story of Swan Oyster Depot mirrors that of the city in which it thrives. The store was originally opened by some Danish brothers who had worked down the street at the Cable Oyster Depot. After the 1906 earthquake leveled all of Polk Street (including the Cable Oyster Depot), the brothers saw the opportunity to build their own place.

Then, during the 1930s, Salvatore Sancimino was delivering seafood to Swan Oyster Depot for his uncle. In 1946, after the war, Sal and a cousin bought the shop, and the family has run it ever since. For years, it was one of the many meat and seafood markets serving the neighborhoods that straddle Van Ness, the north-south artery through San Francisco. But today, Swan is the only fish shop left in the neighborhood, a testament to the changing times.

Like the city itself, the clientele has always been a mix of the well-heeled and the bohemian. And celebrities of the food world have confirmed that Swan Oyster Depot is truly a local treasure: Julia Child visits whenever she's in town. Chuck Williams introduced James Beard to the restaurant in the 1960s, and Beard was a fan from then on.

Swan Oyster Depot received the prestigious James Beard Award (the Academy Awards of the food world) for classic regional restaurants in 2000. Will the business survive? The family has a built-in staff training program: On weekends the younger Sancimino boys can often be spotted working behind the famous counter.