Food Arts presents the March 2013 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to the Sancimino family, owners of San Francisco’s venerable Swan Oyster Depot.
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The Sancimino Family

Carolyn Jung / March 2013

Food Arts presents the March 2013 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to the Sancimino family, owners of San Francisco’s venerable Swan Oyster Depot, where everyone from high society ladies to Hell’s Angels members squeeze in for a seat at the tiny 100-plus year old counter to devour oysters on the half shell and cracked Dungeness crabs that just don’t get any fresher.

Swan is that kind of welcoming place, a throwback to another era, when eating at the counter was done for practicality, not because it was hipster-cool. The bulk of the family-run operation may be in deliveries of fresh seafood to local homes, but it’s the counter with its 20 ancient rickety spinning stools, behind which assorted family members serve up seafood with a hefty side of irreverent banter, that has made Swan a landmark. Indeed, an America’s Classic award from The James Beard Foundation is proudly displayed on the back wall, amid a rather eclectic collection of signed football jerseys, 49ers team photos, posters of fish, and a large assortment of rubber duckies.

“It’s an institution all right. And we should be institutionalized,” laughs Jim Sancimino, whose father, Sal, bought the place in 1946 from an immigrant Danish family who founded it in 1903. It was destroyed in the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake, then rebuilt a few doors down at its present location in 1912.

The first child in his family to go to high school, Sal Sancimino served in the Navy, despite having a bad inner ear that left him prone to seasickness. Sal may not have followed in his father’s and uncle’s seaworthy steps as crab fishermen, but he learned the fishing business inside and out from them. Sal’s wife, Rose, a former Army surgical nurse, handled the house credit accounts, which Swan’s customers settled at the end of each month, until age 90. Their seven children—Vince, Steve, John, Tom, Philip, Mary, and Jim—have all worked at the place at one time or another. These days, Swan is overseen largely by sons Steve and Tom, with an assortment of nieces and nephews working behind the counter.

The place hasn’t changed much over the years, which is just fine by everyone. It’s still cash only. There’s no website, nor even a cordless phone. The fish, brought onshore just hours before the place opens, comes from suppliers the family has dealt with for generations. Chowder is still the only hot item on the menu and it’s Sal’s original recipe. It closes at 5:30 p.m., so no dinner. Sunday is rest day.

Seafood seer Jon Rowley (see “If I Had an Oyster Bar,” March 2012), an avowed oyster zealot who produces the annual Pacific Coast Oyster Wine Competition, has been eating at Swan for about three decades. “It drips with history,” Rowley says. “Ruth Reichl told me years ago that she looks for great joints that are owner operated and have their own character and personality. Swan is all of that. It has such a cool family, what with all the brothers. Everyone behind the counter is busy and having fun. You go enough times and you get to know who has the best jokes, too.”

Over the years, the Sancimino brothers have marveled that generations of families have made eating at the counter such a storied tradition. Will Swan be around for another 100 years? They sure believe so. “People realize that the crab cocktail and glass of wine their grandfather ate here is the same type of meal they’re having here today,” says Jim, who helps answer the phone at Swan. “People keep coming because they realize that something so good so many years ago is still good.”