I have a group of “lady friends” who gets together for each other’s birthdays, and we’ve been touring the city’s old-school establishments, like Tadich Grill and Le Central. Yeah, there is some drinking that goes on at these lunches, plus some shit talking and tales of dating highs and woes.
It’s enough to make me want to celebrate half birthdays so we can get together more often. These lunches rock.
Our favorite thus far has been Sam’s Grill and Seafood Restaurant, at the entrance of Belden Lane on Bush, and it’s been there way before the French buskers took over the alley.
Sam’s has been in this location since 1946, although its history extends to 1867, back when Michael Molan Moraghan (yes, he was Irish) was selling oysters in an open-air market on California Street.
The Sam in the name is Samuel Zenovitch, a Croatian who purchased Moraghan’s oyster business and restaurant in 1922, and then Frank Seput (another Croatian) took over the business in 1937 when Zenovitch died. The restaurant remained with various generations of the Seput family until it was sold to Phil Lyons in 2005—now back in Irish hands.
You can read all these details and more on your menu—and I’m sure many of the career waiters at Sam’s can tell you what it was like to work there during the Seput years—but I always like to know who a restaurant is named after.
There’s a full bar (natch) where you can get your lunch started with a martini, and you’ll want to snag one of the private and curtained wood booths. There are tables as well, but really, it’s all about the booths.
Upon noticing that the service buzzer in our booth wasn’t working, our crusty server (almost crustier than the Boudin sourdough bread on our table) quipped: “Yeah, I had it disconnected. You ladies would be pushing that thing all day.” And … we were off to the races.
The menu is printed daily, and I was happy to see a small box on it with a mention of their focus on sustainability and quality—which wasn’t on there the last time I came in for my birthday a few years ago. The menu also has the old GArfield exchange phone number on it, love it.
Since I’m so into old-school places, my table pretty much told me to do it up: I ordered the crab Louie ($27), a pile of picked crab over chopped iceberg lettuce with a piece of claw meat like a crown on top; the classic San Francisco dish of celery Victor ($11.50), with anchovies draped over celery cooked in stock and then chilled.
One of the best Hangtown fry ($18) executions I’ve ever had, full of plump oysters and topped with strips of extra-crisp bacon; sand dabs à la Sam ($24), a must-order dish—the plate was tiled with pieces of the delicate and oh-so-fresh fish (the sand dabs are dipped in flour, panfried, then skinned, deboned, filleted, and put on the plate with some drawn butter over the top and heated up for a quick flash); and we said mercury be damned and had some swordfish ($26) off the charcoal grill. All of it was excellent—a terrific feast.
The menu is loaded with seafood choices: other strong picks are the rex sole à la Sam or petrale meunière. (I crack up over the big chunk of boiled potato that comes as a side on all the fish dishes—so very much from another era.) If you want to get something meaty, you gotta do the sweetbreads (there are three kinds, including one version charcoal-broiled with bacon—hello).
The surprise favorite was the decadent baked clams Elizabeth ($19), a dish I had never heard of before (ends up it was named in honor of one of the matriarchs in the Seput clan). The clams are covered in bread crumbs and paprika, a ton of butter, Parmesan cheese, and red wine.
Not the most photogenic item, but man, that sauce was pure evil—it’s like the dish was built to be mopped up with sourdough bread. We did damage. We also had some sides of french fries and fried zucchini—yeah, vegetables.
We didn’t make it to dessert—it was all about sobering up with some coffee (served in vintage diner cups). The all-California wine list proudly includes white zinfandel as one of its seven by-the-glass choices—we opted for bottles of the Mumm brut ($37) to carry us through lunch.
This place is a classic Financial District lunch spot—in fact, it isn’t even open on the weekends (just lunch and dinner Monday through Friday). You can make a reservation for six or more for lunch; otherwise, just come in a little bit on the later side if you don’t want to wait too long.
They can’t guarantee a booth for you, but here’s a tip: if your party is nine or more, you’ll score a booth since they can’t seat you anywhere else. Dinner reservations can be made for 5pm onward, for any size party.
I know Tadich is our San Francisco classic, and I adore drinking and dining at that bar immensely. But the last Hangtown fry I had there was cooked beyond belief with rubbery oysters—and put me back $22.95. Maybe since Sam’s is a little less famous, it has to pull the Avis card and try harder.
Whatever, this piece is not about comparing the two places. It’s about celebrating San Francisco—and simpler times. It’s about our city’s love affair with seafood. It’s about boozy lunches with good friends in curtained wood booths, sopping up delicious buttery sauces with sourdough bread.
And it’s about getting sass from hardworking jacketed waiters who have been working there for 43 years. Yeah, that’s the stuff.
Photo Credit: Belden Place