Last summer, Sam’s Grill, that historic fixture of San Francisco downtown dining at 374 Bush Street, was on life support. Then it closed and remained dark until October. Suddenly, it came back to life when a small group of Sam’s loyalists took it over, negotiated a new lease for the 147-year-old seafood restaurant, touched up the paint here and there and reopened to loud rejoicing of its regulars.
Sam’s is a restaurant where regulars reign supreme. And Sam’s regulars are downtown
business types, well known to the establishment. It only takes reservations for six or more at lunch but will take reservations for dinner. The regulars, who all seem to know each other, simply walk in without reservations and hang out at Sam’s small bar for a Bloody Mary or a straight-up martini, before being ushered into one of the curtained booths that hides them away from the occasional Yelper or guidebook tourist.
While not a first-string, varsity regular that suits up each day for my fix of fresh seafood, I have patronized Sam’s for years on an occasional basis. Readers will know that Sam’s is my kind of place — no-nonsense food and drink, served in a no-nonsense style. So when word got out that Sam’s Grill had reopened, I thought it would be a good time to reassess what was going on at that somewhat shabby corner of Bush Street and Belden Place.
But rather than make you wait longer for an evaluation, let me state that things are just fine at Sam’s Grill — meaning things are just about the same. The old tuxedoed waiters are still there (two of them have been there for more than 40 years), and the food has maintained that consistent excellence that drew me there in the first place.
FOUNDED IN 1867
A bit of history will help you position Sam’s Grill in San Francisco restaurant lore. Tadich Grill dates its founding to 1849, the Old Clam House to 1861, Sam’s Grill to 1867, Fior D’ Italia to 1886, and Schroeder’s to 1893. Sam’s opened as an oyster saloon in San Francisco’s California Mar-ket that stood where the Bank of America building is now. It was called M. B. Moraghan’s. Later, it was operated by Sam Zenovich. Its name was the Reception Cafe, but most patrons called it Sam’s. Then it changed hands in 1937 when Frank Zeput bought it, and it became Sam’s Grill and Seafood Restaurant. It moved to 374 Bush Street in 1946. Phil Lyons bought it in 2005. And now, as I said, a group of Sam’s regulars have taken it over.
These days your host at Sam’s is a personable young man named Peter Quartaroli who has be-come the proprietor and a general partner. Besides being a good front man for his restaurant, Peter is an actor and producer who has appeared in more than 30 film and TV projects — including playing a cop in the movie Zodiac. He has also produced six films and is currently brainstorming one based on a character from Sam’s Grill. I’m looking forward to trying out for that part.
Since it reopened last year, I’ve dined at Sam’s with several buddies in whose palates I have considerable faith: James Melling, my North Beach chum, whom I call the Gentleman Trencherman; Carl Nolte, the San Francisco Chronicle’s Native Son columnist; and one evening with a group headed by historian Kevin Starr and attorney John Briscoe.
Unless, you are an unshakable and total carnivore, an unremitting pasta-head, or a vegetarian, you go to Sam’s for the seafood. That’s why they call it Sam’s Grill and Seafood Restaurant. The menu is printed and dated each day because the restaurant gets daily fresh fish delivery and the menu reflects that. So it’s understandable that the line cooks at Sam’s Grill have a sturdy embrace of the concept of the broiling, grilling, or sautéeing of fresh seafood. When I have dined there, almost always my fish, scallops, prawns, or whatever, have been still sizzling on the plate as the tuxedoed waiter set it down on the white tablecloth.
Before launching into a menu assessment, let me mention the crusty and sour sourdough bread, a special bake by Boudin, which greets you at your table along with the small crock of good salted butter. I’ve read a few complaints on the Internet that the bread is put out in advance and is dry. That has not been my experience.
Appetizers at Sam’s are old school. The crab cocktail is a generous mound of Dungeness crab legs and body meat laced with a proper Louie dressing. The deep-fried onion rings deserve applause — crisp and not greasy as they sometimes can be. Maintaining my old-school ties, I have enjoyed the celery Victor salad, originally created by chef Victor Hirtzler at the Hotel St. Francis, or the no-nonsense crab Louie, both of which remind me of my San Francisco roots. I’m told that the Caesar salad is a good choice, but I somehow have missed it.
I’ve also missed the clam chowder as well as the mock turtle soup. I know I have to try the mock turtle soup, served only on Wednesdays, and I’ve set myself a goal to do that because it has received raves from my buddies. Another Sam’s Grill goal for me is Hangtown fry, the oyster and bacon omelet that dates back to the Gold Rush. I’m a good eater, but there are only so many days in a week for this research.
A FEW FAVORITES
Probably the number one choice of dinners at Sam’s is the petrale. I prefer it charcoal broiled and napped with a bit of brown butter and a squeeze of lemon. Other top choices for me are the boned Rex sole, halibut, and swordfish. All are well handled, presented simply, and need no enhancing. I would also like to give a vote of confidence to the fried Olympia Oysters. This is a favorite. I dab a bit of tartar sauce on each bite and away I go.
As to side dishes, a requirement for my buddies and me, I go for the creamed spinach and the glorious, crispy hash browns. These are extras, though your plate — really a platter — comes with an accompaniment of sautéed mixed vegetables (carrots, cauliflower, and zucchini perhaps), not done to mush but still with a bit of snap, and a chunk of perfectly boiled potato.
The wine list at Sam’s Grill is not extensive but it is serviceable. I tend to stick to the Napa Valley St. Supery sauvignon blanc.
For dessert, I’m told that Sam’s offers a fine tiramisu and a good rice pudding. I can’t comment on them. But I’m betting they are good.
Editor’s note: Prices are not included in the dishes listed above; customers are advised to consult the daily menu, which reflects market prices.
Sam’s Grill and Seafood Restaurant: 374 Bush Street (at Belden), Monday–Friday, 11 a.m.–9 p.m., 415-421-0594
♦ ♦ ♦
A downtown crowd of business types — both men and women, but heavier on the men.
Laughter and the banging of dice cups are not obtrusive or unwelcome. And the private, curtained booths muffle sound.
NOT TO MISS DISHES:
Grilled petrale, scallops, fried Olympia oysters with tartar sauce, hash browns, creamed spinach.
WHAT THE DIAMONDS MEAN:
Ratings range from zero to four diamonds and reflect food, atmosphere, and service, taking price range and type of restaurant into consideration.
OUR REVIEW POLICY:
We conduct multiple visits anonymously and pay our own tab.
Correction April 10, 2015:
Incorrect menu prices were removed and an editor’s explanatory note was added.