An always-too-crowded oyster bar with a row of nineteen wobbly stools and a menu on the wall that lists little more than shellfish, Swan Oyster Depot has been a beacon for seafood lovers since it opened in 1912. Oysters from the east and west coasts are served on the half-shell. There are whole lobsters, cooked to order, seafood salads made of shrimp or crab; and you can get some delicious smoked trout or salmon, available with rye or French bread. Also, creamy Boston-style chowder. The marble counter is strewn with condiments: Tabasco sauce, lemons, oyster crackers.
Dungeness crab is served in season (generally, mid-November through May), available "cracked," meaning sections of cooked, cooled claw, leg, and body ready to be unloaded of their sweet meat. Crab Louie is a regal dish (invented in San Francisco) in which large chunks of sweet meat are cosseted in a condiment compounded from lemony mayonnaise spiked with relish and olive bits, enriched by hard-cooked egg.
Expensive, uncomfortable, and noisy: Swan Oyster Depot is all these things; and its inconvenience is part of its charm (as is the ebullience of the Sancimino family, who have run the lunch counter since 1946). For many devotees, this is simply the best place in San Francisco to eat fresh seafood.