The Old Clam House would be a perfect name for a senior citizen lesbian bar. But I won't go in that direction. No, this piece is all about my love of San Francisco history and a singular historical restaurant. It's also a tale of longing and wanting to be accepted, a story full of hope and promise. We all yearn to belong, and I recently learned that where I belong is a placed called the Old Clam House.
Or something like that.
Through the years, I’ve often driven past the Old Clam House, which is located on grim, industrial Bay Shore Boulevard. Noting the plain wooden structure with the bright (and occasionally not fully functioning) neon sign, I’ve mumbled, “I wonder what that place is like?”
Enough was enough. My curiosity about cooked saltwater mollusks finally got the best of me, so I did a little research on the Old Clam House. It first opened its doors in 1861, which makes it one of the oldest restaurants in San Francisco. (I love historical establishments built around the seedy Gold Rush era.) Abe Lincoln was president when this perennial seafood eatery steamed its first clam. The restaurant, emancipated from its original name (Clam House and Oakdale Bar), was located on the old waterfront, nestled on a creek that flowed into San Francisco Bay. (The swampland was eventually filled in.) Back in the day, this culinary enterprise was connected to downtown by two wood-planked roads — basically, they had a better transit system than Muni. Now, this blast from SF’s dining past sits non-discreetly amongst Kragen Auto Parts, Silver Crest Donut Shop, and a recycling center.
With my newfound Old Clam knowledge, I’ve realized it’s time to break the culinary fourth wall and make the commitment to eat there. No more putting it off — it’s my clam-destiny!
At 3 p.m. on a Friday, I step into the Old Clam House. A contingent of loyal eaters is gathered at tables against a wooden wall decorated with a sea of license plates (“Shady 90,” “SLIPPRY”) and alarge portrait of John F. Kennedy. A big marlin and a wooden ship’s helm hang over the kitchen. A framed paper reads: “McKinley Has Been Elected.” Despite those modern references, it feels like I’ve walked into the historic Barbary Coast. I might be shanghaied by a gang of crimps (boarding masters who use trickery to put sailors on a ship) after accidentally stepping onto a hidden trapdoor.
I love this old-timey eatery. It’s the kind of place where guys clad in derby hats with stripy shirts and non-ironic twirly mustaches would ride up on penny-farthing bicycles and enjoy a pair of steamed crab legs before engaging in bare-knuckle boxing in the front bar. This would be a perfect spot for a steampunk clubhouse meeting.
Three generations of content eaters dig away at plates of seafood while hoisting hearty mugs of fresh clam chowder. Regulars filter in and take their positions at the bar, which is adorned with the hanging chassis of a red sports car.
The loyal drinkers look like they’ve been coming here for a lifetime; like Charles Bukowski downing double boilermakers after working a long shift at the post office.
“Hiya Jack. How ya doing,” says the MILF-y bartender. “Hiya Dan!”
“It’s my darling Maria!”
“Are you drinking tomato juice and beer with a salted rim?”
From my spot at a table on the outskirts, I’m clearly an outsider in this secret Old Clam House society as regulars enjoy their highballs and mugs of freshly made chowder. (It’s lonely not being a regular.)
What is this?” I ask the waiter, who sets a container of murky liquid down in front of me. (Finger bowl? Sake!?) “Soup,” he says. “Clam broth. Some people like it. Some people don’t.”
Complimentary soup! That’s as good as a complimentary pair of warm socks.
I deadpan: “Are there any clams in this?”
Confirmation: clam broth contains clams!
Now it gets real. I go completely overboard with crazed clam spirit.
“I’ll have a bucket of clams, the clam strips, a cup of clam chowder, and the fettuccine pesto (pause)with clams.” Slamming the murky liquid (it tastes fingerbowl-ish), I add, “More clam broth when you get a chance.”
A drunken woman dressed in her work clothes sips a highball at the bar and loudly exclaims, “I’m going to do that dance. You know, the Thriller dance.” She waves her hands in the air Michael Jackson style.
More devoted patrons arrive to warm, friendly receptions. A guy in a tracksuit with a Bluetooth embedded in his ear slurps chowder, then puts his finger into the mug to get the hearty last drop. Meanwhile I become Cool Hand Luke, stuffing clams in my mouth like hard-boiled eggs. The fettuccine pesto with clams rocks my world as I toss the empty shells into a large bowl. It’s clam-tastic, clam-riffic, clam-a-lam-a-ding-dong.
“Hiya boss. Do you have my oysters?”
My pile of discarded empty clamshells lies smeared with green pesto sauce. I yearn to be like Norm on Cheers here. I’ve never had a place where my usual drink was ready for me with “my regular spot” situated at the bar. When I enter, I want a friendly Old Clam House staffer to exclaim, “Hey, it’s that guy!”
A mere two hours after lunch, I return for dinner, and announce, “I’m back!” to the bartender. I’m now wearing a bright red hat — I want to be distinctive and memorable in my new role as an Old Clam House regular. My demeanor is confident and relaxed, like I feel very much at home here. The other barflies have paid their dues; I need to greatly accelerate the process within the course of a day. Making my way past autographed Giants photos from the ’90s, I cozy up to the steel Western saddles used as bar seats.
“Aaah! My usual spot,” I murmur.
“What can I get you?” asks the friendly bartender.
“The usual,” I trumpet.
She looks confused. I look offended.
“Clam chowder in a mug, of course.” (Pause.) “My usual.” (Pause.) “And my usual glass of water with lemon.”
“This is clam broth,” she informs me, setting down the familiar container of murky liquid. “It comes with every meal.”
“Yes, I know,” I respond, “because I’m a regular!”
I dunk my bread into the creamy chowder and it warms the palate of my soul. The food is hot and hearty. Other Clam House fixtures are already here: the green shirt guy, the baseball hat guy, the drinking chowder out of a mug guy, etc.
“Jacko,” I say to my fellow Clam man. “What about that game, huh?” I throw out to the guy next to me in a Giants cap. (These are things regulars say to each other.) With a strong sense of conviction, I enthusiastically add, “I like sports!”
The man in the Giants cap leaves his bar seat and sits at a table.
“That’s soooo Jack,” I mumble. With melancholy, I stare off at the sign reading:
This is a respectable house
Clearly, I haven’t passed the Old Clam House initiation.
The next day I return to the Old Clam House mere minutes after it opens at 11:30 a.m. Red hat guy is back. The bartender is wearing sunglasses, which could be construed as the sign of a hangover.
“I’ll have my usual,” I beckon. (Pause.) “Cup of clam chowder.”
“You do have that!” she confirms, adding, “Glass of water with lemon?”
“Yes!” I say, surprised that she got my preferred drink right as well.
She comes back with a container of clam broth, clam chowder, and bread.
“I accidentally poured a bowl instead of a cup, but I will only charge you for a cup,” she says, adding, “I’m not totally awake yet.”
Am I mistaken, or is this preferential treatment only granted to special Clam House patrons? We talk about the weather, a kind of interaction regulars have with their favorite bartenders.
And then I ask, “How are your oysters today?”
“I’ll check in the kitchen,” she says with a smile. Moments later she comes back, not too enthusiastic. “He said they are only just okay.”
Amazing! I’ve earned privy information that only an Old Clam House regular would get. After finishing my creamy clam chowder, I get up to leave, my belly warmed once again.
“See you again, I’m sure,” the bartender says.
My heart is now warm, too: verbal confirmation I’ve officially been accepted into the Old Clam House secret society. Red hat guy has arrived. The only problem: I’ve had so many damn clams in the last two days, it will be a long time before I desire anything further from this marine mollusk.
That’s right, I have a complete clam hangover.
Why not become your very own Norm of the Old Clam House? Hell, it’s spanking easy.
Just go to 299 Bay Shore Boulevard any time between 11:30 a.m. and 9:30 p.m. any day of the week. You can take over my spot at the corner of the bar and enjoy some hearty clam chowder.
Remember: clam broth comes free with every meal!