There are a number of restaurants in San Francisco that have captured my imagination– restaurants about which I know absolutely nothing, apart from the clues given away by their often antiquated signs and odd locations. Russia House and Julius’ Castle come to mind. I am not typically curious about what’s new and exciting. I leave that to other, hipper bloggers. Show me a restaurant that has survived fire, earthquake and food trend and I’ll be there. Sooner or later. It’s not as if they’re going anywhere.
I’ve driven by the Old Clam House for years. Or, rather, been driven by it– I don’t have a car. It has captivated me for a number of reasons. First, its location– a rather depressing span of Bayshore Boulevard, near the stretch of the 101 unappealingly named the James Lick Freeway. Next, its age. The Old Clam House has been in business since 1861, making it second only to Tadich Grill in terms of senility. Lastly, the name itself– The Old Clam House. Does the word “old” modify “clam” or “house”? I assumed the latter, but refused to dismiss the former. A home for retired prostitutes also came to mind, naturally. My friends and I talked of going there for a long time.
Finally, after one near miss a few months ago, my friend Bill thought it high time to gather up the menfolk and wander down Bernal Hill for a special dinner– my birthday dinner– at the Clam House. As I sat with a cocktail opening birthday cards, I noted that a card from one friend read “To an (old) clam.” Everyone, it seemed, was ready for the evening ahead.
When we arrived for our reservation, the seven of us were greeted warmly and offered our table promptly, but we paused long enough to note the Wall of Fame lined with celebrities either gracious enough to bestow autographed 8 x 10 glossy publicity photos they just happened to be carrying with them at the time or desperate enough in their ebbing careers to think that any publicity is preferable to none at all. I couldn’t decide. One of my favorite Old Clams to grace the wall is pictured below. Please forgive the light reflection obscuring her face. I feel that, out of kindness, I must obscure her identity, however lightly.
Once seated, we were greeted by our server with water, baskets of sourdough bread, and individual cups of hot clam broth which my friend Dan, who swallowed his fear of clams (the actual meat, not clam byproducts or the idea of them) to come to dinner, declared it good. And it was– subtly flavored, briny and fresh tasting without being too, well, clammy. It struck a good first note.
While figuring out what to have for our main courses, we contented ourselves with beer and ordered two plates of fried calamari. My friend Bill and I ordered cups of clam chowder, which seemed like a too obvious choice, but a good one, nonetheless. The clams inside the chowder were plentiful and tender; the potatoes had enough tooth to them without being undercooked. I could smash the chunks on the roof of my mouth with my tongue. If I wanted to. However unsubtle it may have been, I introduced Bill to the pleasure of adding tabasco sauce to chowder. I like the heat it gives and the pretty pink color. The fried calamari was exactly as it should be, too. Crispy and ungreasy with just a little bit of chew. I normally avoid cocktail sauce and go straight for a squeeze of lemon, but I dipped a few tiny tentacles in, since the sauce was homemade. I stifled a yawn.
While browsing the menu, I noticed that the restaurant served Scalone Bordelaise. If you are among those fortunate enough never to have run into this terrible shotgun marriage between bivalve and gastropod, Scalone is a mixture of scallops and abalone– two wonderful mollusks when kept in their separate corners– usually ground together and frozen into patty or steak form. They must be pan fried directly from the freezer, in my experience, or they will do what is only natural– separate. I know this dish too well, having been forced to served it as an annual specialty at the Bohemian Grove camp where I worked the previous summer. We referred to the dish as Scabalone which, to us, is what it looked like when sufficiently browned on the griddle. Our campers ate it with a squeeze of lemon. as though to sanitize. I can imagine that adding a creamy sauce to it would only make the scab look infected. I moved down the menu.
I opted for the Mescalanza because it had a bit of everything in it– crab legs, clams, prawns, Oysters Rockefeller. That, and because the name made me think of Mario Lanza. Coming from an Italian family that, like Lanza, hailed from Philadelphia, I felt it my duty to order the dish. I think I made the right choice, at least in terms of the dish’s theatrical value…
Flaming seafood. An attention-grabbing entrée is always in order on one’s birthday. I thought about making a wish by blowing out the clam, but thought better of it.
I’d never had a seafood bordelaise before. The sauce itself was fine, but made an already rich dish obscenely so. I nibbled at the Oyster Rockefeller slowly, since there was only one and, to me, the star attraction. To my surprise, I actually liked clams drowned in sauce, but the other bits of seafood suffered, like the prawns and crab. Though impaled on skewers suspended above the bowl on what looked like a bar bell rack, it was impossible not to coat everything I touched with bordelaise– it was all over my hands. When my butter-coated fingers dropped a prawn into the bowl, I discovered a bit of sunken treasure– an ear of corn. I think the fact that an ear of corn can go unnoticed at the bottom of one’s bowl for several minutes illustrates either the immense size of the bowl in question or the limited observational powers of the person eating it. I vote for the former but won’t rule out the latter. Shaking off as much sauce as I could, I bit into the corn. The corn juice released from the now-damaged kernels mingled with what sauce remained, not so much running down my chin, but getting absorbed by my beard. The corn was abandoned.
The other dishes ordered by my dining mates were just as gargantuan. The clam linguini was enough to feed all seven of us and was delicious. My friend David’s Lazy Man’s Cioppino was served in the same oversized bowl as my Mescalanza. We questioned why the dish was named “Lazy Man’s Cioppino”. Since the crab legs were uncracked and the prawns still in their shell, we assumed that the lazy man in question was the one who prepared the dish.
As we finished our dinners, or tried to, I asked our server for a hot towel, since my hands and part of my left forearm were coated with bordelaise. She said yes, but returned without one. I asked someone else for an extra napkin and was given a few small ones of the paper kind. I was wedged into the middle of the table and didn’t feel like getting up to go to the bathroom, so I just moistened the paper napkins with what little water was left in my glass and cleaned myself up as best I could given the tools I had. I’d hoped that someone might think about clearing our table of dirty plates, but hope accomplishes nothing but the heightening of future disappointment.
I am very glad I didn’t get up to go to the restroom. As we abandoned our dinner, my friend Gary turned to all of us and said, “Keep an eye on the door of the Ladies’ Room and see what comes out. It’s good.”
We all tried to keep up our conversations, but everyone kept staring at the Ladies’ Room door. A couple of minutes passed. Nothing. A tall, fifty-something blonde entered and then exited two minutes or so later. Was that what we were supposed to be looking at? No, of course not. We’d all stared at her as she went in.
As my attention was beginning to flag, out came a rather tall woman with enormous breasts that were so ill-contained by her overflowing tank top that her aureolae peeked over the top, though her shirt was partially covered by what looked like an open Janet Jackson Rhythm Nation 1814 leather jacket. Her stride was confident across the restaurant, even in her high heeled boots. She wet her index finger with her tongue and wiped the corners of her mouth as she walked. Someone at my table intimated that she might be a working girl. I thought perhaps she was just having the same issues with the excess of bordelaise I was.
Then a man came out of the Ladies’ Room adjusting his pants. I knew then that the joke I’d made about the the restaurant being a home for retired prostitutes wasn’t too far off the mark. I’ll just have to omit the word “retired” the next time I tell it.
Considering the fact that this woman was a practitioner, one assumes, of the world’s oldest profession, I thought her behavior best suited for the oldest restaurant, Tadich Grill. Since I don’t know what the world’s second oldest profession is, I was at a loss to give her any restaurant-appropriate career advice.
No dessert was offered to us, though I had heard tell of flan being available. It would have been nice to have had a candle to blow out, to make a wish for my 38th year, but it seemed so clear to me that this woman stole my birthday thunder. There was no way in hell I was going to out-blow a professional, so I let her have the honor. I just wonder what she wished for. I hope it was something nice.
The Old Clam House is located at:
299 Bayshore Boulevard
San Francisco, CA 94124