Occupation: Financial Advisor
Location: Santa Clara
Favorite Restaurant: Sam’s Grill and Seafood Restaurant
Reviewed Sam’s Grill and Seafood Restaurant: Thursday, February 2, 2010
Founded in 1867 as an oyster saloon, Sam’s Grill has thrived as one of San Francisco’s oldest and most beloved restaurants. Located in the heart of the financial district, Sam’s predictably serves financial, legal, and real estate types during the lunch hour, and a large amount of tourists and conventioneers in the evening. Its fans enjoy a taste of old San Francisco, as well as excellent seafood, meats, and produce, much of it indigenous to the West Coast. Consider local seafood like petrale sole, san dabs, rex sole, Dungeness crab, Olympia oysters, and classic Gold Rush dishes, like Filet of Sole Marguery and Hangtown Fry.
This is not a fussy or pretentious restaurant, but rather a throwback to the past. It’s a straightforward, grownup place that takes its diners back to another era. I visited Sam’s for dinner on a Thursday night with my foodie aunt and uncle from Lake Tahoe, and we had our usual great time there in the old fashioned, turn of the century atmosphere that we love with the white tablecloths, fishing and hunting prints on the wall, and a corps of very experienced tuxedoed waiters who have been on duty at Sam’s for many years, if not decades. They are not reluctant to share their attitudes about what is fresh and what looks great and what you would probably enjoy most — you can trust these guys.
As with any great seafood restaurant, freshness and availability are paramount — combine these qualities with a cooking staff that has the highest respect for the seafood and meats, and you have a winning combination for a legendary restaurant in a town that is full of great ones.
We each started our meal with the small mixed seafood salad. This delicious starter is composed of hearts of romaine, tomatoes, and avocado with a mound of fresh Dungeness crab, bay shrimp, and prawns, and dressed with a terrific vinaigrette. The salad can also be ordered as an entrée, and is a bargain at $20.
My main course was the veal porterhouse steak, charcoal broiled, and with bacon strips on top. While this dish may be a bit much for the cholesterol challenged, it is a big treat for the carnivore. The steak is thick, tender, juicy, and full of flavor from the grill.
My guests had the popular grilled petrale sole and the sweetbreads sauté with lemon and capers. The sole is a firm-fleshed fish indigenous to the West Coast and it is greatly enhanced by a turn over the charcoal. Sam’s was one of the first restaurants in the West to feature charcoal grilling, now a widespread cooking method. The sweetbreads came crispy on the outside and velvety smooth on the inside. The pungent and creamy flavor of butter, lemon, and capers is unctuous and sinful. You can’t find old dishes like this in many places these days, but Sam’s makes a specialty of them. There is even fresh abalone meunière served every day for only $75!
One of my favorite aspects of Sam’s is the careful attention given to the side dishes, and on this visit we had some of my favorites: dark brown, crispy hash-brown potatoes, succulent French-fried zucchini, and probably the best creamed spinach in town.
Sam’s has a full bar with generous cocktails (try the “see through” Bloody Mary or the straight-up martini) and an excellent wine list of exclusively Californian wines. Tom is the bartender, and he is an excellent mixologist and a very engaging guy.
Also, there is seating in an open dining room or in a long hallway with private booths that seat from two to ten diners. These are great for private business meetings or liaisons of the romantic kind.
And the bread! I am convinced that this restaurant has the best sourdough bread in San Francisco. The loaves are round, dark, and crusty with the most flavorful interior I have ever tasted in this most famous of West Coast bread. The owners have told me in the past that their loaves come exclusively from “oven number one” in the old Parisian baking factory. Wherever it is baked, I have not been able to find sourdough like this in any store or restaurant. If sourdough is our king of breads, then Sam’s is its castle!
We finished our dinner with one of my favorite desserts anywhere: a fresh lemon crêpe topped with vanilla ice cream and flambéed with a large shot of Grand Marnier liqueur. The combination of flavors and textures is stunning: lemon and butter, sweet and sour, heat and ice, and a great mouthful of orange brandy! It is not on the menu, but the waiters will make it for you if you ask nicely.
In over thirty-five years of going to Sam’s, and, by my rough calculations, nearly one thousand visits, I have never been disappointed in this restaurant. I like old fashioned places that make an effort to carry our history forward. I like the freshness and variety of our wonderful native seafood, meats, and produce and having them expertly cooked and served with a minimum of adornment, exuding their own great flavors. Food this good does not need to be drowned in sauce or perked up with seven spices, it is great on its own merit.
As a restaurant experience, Sam’s makes me very happy, and I believe it is a tremendous gastronomic treasure that all serious food people should experience while we still have it. So, dress up a bit, leave the kids with a babysitter, and savor a step back in time into San Francisco restaurant history at Sam’s Grill.
Occupation: Nursing Student
Favorite Restaurant: Patio Filipino
Reviewed Sam’s Grill and Seafood Restaurant: Monday, February 8, 2010
Most consumers will agree with the saying, “You get what you pay for.” But in the case of Sam’s Grill and Seafood Restaurant, the high prices were not only unjustified, but the food left a sour taste in my mouth.
Sam’s was the first stop on my list of places to review, and we were able to get a table for three without making a reservation. Hungry, and also a little wet from the rain outside, we were actually a little surprised they were able to accommodate us. A good omen perhaps? What immediately struck me was the incredibly bright lighting. Contrasting with the dark, wood-paneled dining room, the florescent lighting inside highlighted what looked like much of the restaurant’s original décor. Our waiter seated us off to the side of the main dining room in what looked like the galley way of an old ship. Unlike many of the newer restaurants in the city, we found that Sam’s stayed true to its roots, and its personality is reflected in both the décor and service: old.
Ultimately, in a place like San Francisco, where the locals have such an educated palate, what separates a great dining experience from a bad one is the service. After being seated, our waiter didn’t mention any of the specials that night. When we asked for a recommendation, he told us that everything was good. While I am certainly capable of ordering off a menu, for someone who had never dined there before, I was hoping he might be able to give us some pointers on what some of their customer favorites were.
We started our meal off with the crab cakes. The portions were generous, but they had a more runny consistency than what I’m used to. The tartar sauce that accompanied the appetizer tasted like it was pure mayonnaise. For our entrees, we ordered the Alaskan halibut, the linguine with scallops, and the sautéed shellfish platter. If you are looking for fresh seafood, this is your place. But beware: in exchange for freshness, you give up the flavor. Overall, I didn’t think there was anything exceptional with the dishes we ordered. I thought the food was bland and average at best. Also, on several occasions my partner found himself reaching for the salt, which is commonly known as sort of an indirect insult to the chef. Needless to say, these were dishes I expected more out of, especially in a place known for its seafood.
In the end I wondered, “Are my expectations realistic?” When it comes to the topic of great dining experiences, most of us will readily agree that there is a certain level of expectation the diner should have. If a restaurant is going to be charging $25, $35, and even $75 for a single entrée, they should be able to justify those prices in the food, the ambience, and the service.
As I mentioned earlier, my party went on a Monday night and got in without any problems. Being that it looked to be one of their slower nights, I felt like our server should’ve been a bit more attentive, acted more accommodating, or maybe even offered us dessert at the end of our meal, a common practice in higher end establishments. And at Sam’s prices, I expected the bathroom, at least, to be clean. So, if you ever think about dining here, I would tell you to turn around and try somewhere else. You’ll get better food, better service, and, I’m almost certain, a cleaner bathroom than you will at Sam’s Grill and Seafood Restaurant.
Occupation: Freelance Fashion Writer
Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: Lahore Karahi
Reviewed Sam’s Grill and Seafood Restaurant: Wednesday, February 17, 2010
Time has stopped at Sam’s Grill, for better or for worse. We came in for an early dinner on a weeknight, and were immediately greeted by the host, who led us right to our table. The restaurant is divided into two sections: a big open floor, and a section of private booths. We were seated in the open floor part at possibly the worst seat in the house — right next to the kitchen — and in an uncomfortable corner that had one seat in the main traffic aisle of the restaurant. Luckily, there were only two of us, so we could squeeze together against the wall, but it was awkward. I was surprised that we got this table after I had gone to the trouble to make a reservation, and because the restaurant was not crowded. It felt more like where you might seat a walk-in. I liked the old-time simple décor, although it could have used a little ambiance, like music playing and maybe some softer lighting, but it definitely felt like we had entered another era. The hooks on the wall were a nice touch for hanging your jacket and belongings. I wish more modern restaurants would do this.
We were the youngest people in there by twenty years, which probably had something to do with our early reservation and also with the vibe of the place. Most tables were filled with couples well into in their retirement years with the exception of one or two young businessmen.
On every table, there is half of a round loaf of sourdough bread. The bread is great — crunchy/chewy with a thick crust, and with a pat of butter for each person. It was fun to tear off pieces while enjoying our bottle of red wine (Estancia Pinot Noir). The menu was very traditional, so we started with oysters, which were served with a Worcestershire lemon sauce, which I enjoyed very much. The quality of the oysters was fresh and good, although I had no idea what kind they were, since they were just listed as, “oysters.”
I asked for some recommendations for my main course, and our server was very helpful. I ended up having the sautéed seafood (he steered me away from the Sam’s Devilled Crab, which was a very heavy dish), and my friend had the filet mignon. The food was pretty good, although expensive for what it was. My seafood dish had plenty of shrimp, scallops, and crab in a creamy sauce with a couple of red potato wedges — not really much of a side dish. My friend’s filet was a good quality piece of meat and nicely cooked with some plain broccoli and the same couple of potato wedges on the side. The portions were medium; a person with a normal appetite could easily finish them. If I had to describe the food to someone in one word, I would say, “plain.” The flavor was OK, but nothing memorable. We weren’t compelled to have dessert, as we were full from our meals and we weren’t that excited about the dessert menu.
While we loved our server — he was charming, honest, and paced our meal very well — I wouldn’t return to Sam’s. While it had an old-world, classic feel, I felt that it was lacking in character, and it made our experience a little bit flat. Everyone treated us nicely, but for the price of the meal, I can think of a dozen other restaurants where I would rather spend my money. It would be hard to recommend, and although I love the idea of a vintage San Francisco experience, this was not it for me.