No visit to San Francisco is complete without lunch, dinner, or multiple meals grabbing some of the city’s famous seafood. More specifically, the city’s ocean going specialty is crab, as the Fisherman’s Wharf area is a major marketplace for crab fisherman bringing the real deal from the adjacent Pacific Ocean. During our Valentine’s Day trp to SF, my wife and I zeroed in on two highly-rated spots specializing in crab and walking distance to our hotel to give a try, The Franciscan Crab and The Blue Mermaid. In my last food fight installment, Indian food from Texas handily beat the competitor from Florida. Would this be a close battle or a blowout? Read on to find out.
In one corner…
The Fransican Crab
- 43 1/2 Fisherman’s Wharf, San Francisco, CA
- Hours: 11:30 A.M.-10 P.M. Daily; reservations recommended on weekends
- Price: $55-75 per person, no alcohol
Directions: on the west side of Fisherman’s Wharf, just past Pier 43. From the 80 westbound, you can follow the Embarcadero all the way up (take exit 2B for Harrison Street and The Embarcadero). From the 80 eastbound, exit 4th Street (Exit 2). At the end of the ramp, continue on Bryant Street to the Embarcadero, then turn left. Alternatively, immediately after passing 4th Street, turn left at 3rd street, and continue when it changes to Kearny Street. Turn left on Columbus Avenue, then right on Powell Street, which will take you straight to Pier 41. Follow the curve to the left to reach the restaurant. For an alternate route wesbound, exit 5th Street, turn right, and continue as it turns to Cyril Magnin Street. Turn right at O’Farrell, then immediately left at Powell, which you can follow to the restaurant as described above (be aware of the cable cars up to Jackson Street).
Note that the restaurant will validate your parking for two hours.
The Fransican Crab has won several local awards for seafood excellence, so my wife and I were really excited to try it. It was an easy five minute walk from our hotel, the Kimpton Argonaut. There was an announced 15-20 minute wait for a table when we arrived, but we were seated in less than ten. Our room wouldn’t be ready for another hour anyway, so we didn’t really care, aside from the fact that we were starving, it being nearly 4 P.M. back in Texas.
The restaurant has a large upstairs dining room, and has the stereotypical nautical theme that you’d expect on Fisherman’s Wharf. As much as the food, though, the restaurant is known for its views of SF Bay, and we were lucky enough to score a table by one of the 20-foot tall windows.
We scored a window seat, and had a fantastic view of Alcatraz
20-foot tall picture windows all along the wall, making for an airy dining room
Crowded, almost 50s-themed dining room
The ubiquitous nautical theme you find in every Fisherman’s Wharf restaurant
In addition to an expansive menu, the Fransican Crab offers a 3-course prix fixe menu for $34.95 per person, which provides a choice of house salad or clam chowder, one of eight main courses, and homemade frozen custard for dessert. That’s actually a decent deal, so my wife and I decided to go with that, and ordered identical meals. To start off with, we chose the clam chowder, naturally. All meals also come with the obligatory homemade bread.
So far, so good. The bread was delicious, with a crunchy crust but moist and tender inside. Meanwhile, while not the best clam chowder I’ve ever had (that honor goes to The Lobster Shanty in Salem, Massachusetts), it was good. The chowder was thick, with plenty of clam and potato chunks for good measure. The only issue was a definite lack of heat. I had to dump in quite a bit of black pepper to spice it up. On to the main course, the delicious-sounding crab alfredo.
And this is where things went off the rails. The dish looks fine, but there were some serious issues. First, the fettuccine was overcooked, about a notch beyond al dente and into the realm of soggy. But the bigger issue was the sauce – the ratio of butter to cream seemed to be the reverse of what it should have been. It was watery, had the flavor of cream flavored butter, and with too much salt on top of a naturally salty protein (the crab), it was simply unpleasant. I tried to finish as much as possible (I hate wasting food, especially when I just paid $35 for it), but I just couldn’t get through very much of it before giving up. At least the crab was nicely done, tender, flaky, and sweet like it should be. Overall, though, this was a major disappointed. That left dessert to try and salvage the meal. I also ordered a capuccino to go with the custard.
I have to say, salvage mission accomplished. That frozen custard was, simply put, so outrageously good that it was pure evil. It was thick, velvety smooth, and had just the right amount of sweetness mixed in with the vanilla flavor. Absolutely heavenly, and probably the best frozen custard I’ve ever had. I won’t lie, I ate the whole thing. The capuccino was very good, too. I’m not a huge coffee drinker, but I enjoy getting it in San Francisco because folks there know how to make a good, strong coffee with bold flavors. This one didn’t disappoint. It was strong, and though the drink itself contained no chocolate, the dark roast contained an almost chocolatey flavor.
I also had no complaints about the service. Despite the heavy lunch crowd, we were seated in less time than we were told to expect, we were waited on and served promptly, and were actually on our way in less than 90 minutes. That’s actually pretty impressive given the ginormous crowds milling around the Wharf on Valentine’s Day.
Rating: 3 stars. A disappointing meal overall, one that was spiraling towards a dreaded 2-star rating until it was rescued by that insane frozen custard.
In the other corner…
The Blue Mermaid Chowder House & Bar
- At the Kimpton Argonaut Hotel, 495 Jefferson Street, San Francisco, CA
- Breakfast: 7:30-10:30 M-F; 8-11 Saturday
- Brunch: Noon-3 P.M. weekends
- Lunch: Noon-3 P.M. M-F
- Dinner – 5-9 daily; reservations recommended
- Price: $40-60 per person, including one glass of wine
Directions: take the 101 freeway north to downtown SF (if coming in from the east via the Bay Bridge, follow the 80 to the 101 north), then exit at Van Ness Avenue and continue north on 101. At Lombard Street, continue straight; do not turn left to stay on 101. Turn right at Bay Street, then left at Hyde. Finally, turn right at Jefferson, and the hotel and valet will be on your right. From the east, coming in via the Embarcadero is not advised due to very heavy Pier 39 traffic, especially on nights and weekends.
I’ll start off by saying that The Blue Mermaid wasn’t what I was expecting. It’s a hotel restaurant, so I was expecting a stuffy, oversized dining room with overpriced, unimaginative menu. Instead, this is a pretty small dining room, with the obligatory nautical motif. Unlike the Franiscan Crab, there are no 20-foot picture windows looking out over the Bay, so the Blue Mermaid would have to win this food fight on the strength of its food.
The menu at The Blue Mermaid is smaller than at The Franciscan Crab, and varies based on the season. Besides crab, the house specialty, as you’d expect from a place with “Chowder House” in the name, is chowder, with six (!) varieties on the menu. The crab & corn chowder is prominently described as “#1 Award Winning” on the menu, a fact our waiter also made sure to mention when taking our order. The only downer – despite spending the late afternoon and evening schelpping up and down San Fran’s hilly streets, and a late (8:45) dinner reservation, we were both still completely stuffed from our late lunch, and just couldn’t get ourselves to order much food. But, since we’d come all the way from Dallas to try this place, we did the best we could, which meant a family-style dinner of appetizers and sides to share. To whit – crab, spinach, and artichoke dip, two cups of crab & corn chowder, popcorn shrimp, and shells & cheese. Fresh sourdough bread (what else, it’s San Francisco) also came with the meal.
I hate spinach, so I didn’t try any of my wife’s dip, but she enjoyed it so much she wanted to take the leftovers back to the room to eat for breakfast the next morning. Overall, the crab & corn chowder lived up to its billing. It was delicious; thick, creamy, and the corn provided a nice note of sweetness to go along with the healthy helping of clam chunks. I’ll have to give a minor demerit for the unnecessarily fru-fru presentation, though. The olive oil and green pea dropped on top didn’t really add anything to the chowder, aside from reminding you that you were in Northern California. And the shells & cheese were deliciously simple; nothing fancy, just shells in a cheddar cheese sauce, but the taste was outstanding. I’d rate the popcorn shrimp as good but not great. The shrimp were fresh and juicy, and the cocktail sauce had a lovely sweet-tart mix going on. But the breading wasn’t crisp at all. I want a nice “pop” when I eat popcorn shrimp, which just wasn’t there.
The Blue Mermaid also has an extensive collection of local craft beers and California wines. I had a glass of the Annabella chardonnay, a Napa Valley wine that complemented my light meal well. I unfortunately forgot to take good notes about the flavor, but I do remember it being a fairly light-bodied wine, but not bracingly acidic like a lot of lighter wines can be. If you’re a wine drinker, you’ll enjoy dinner here.
As mentioned earlier, we had a late reservation at 8:45, but the restaurant was still busy when we walked in. Nevertheless, we were seated without a wait, and our orders were taken quickly. Our long day hit us both like a ton of bricks about half an hour through our meal, but thankfully, we received our food pretty quickly, and we were back in our room at the Argonaut before 10. Needless to say, this was one night we were very thankful we ate at the hotel…
Rating: a little hard to judge without ordering a main course, but based on what we did order, 4 stars. This food fight also ends in a blowout. Good food that’s not outrageously priced by SF standards. The only downside is that if you’re visiting Pier 39, it’s a pretty long walk to get here.
NOTE: This is part 5 of a multi-part series about our short Valentine’s Day weekend in San Francisco. Other parts of this series:
- Flight Review – Virgin America Main Cabin, DAL-SFO-DAL
- Sightseeing at 35,000 Feet – Dallas to San Francisco
- Hotel Review – The Kimpton Argonaut Hotel, San Francisco
- A Delightfully Exhausting 30 Hours in the City by the Bay
- Restaurant Reviews – San Francisco Crab Food Fight at The Franciscan Crab and the Blue Mermaid (this post)
- Restaurant Review – Hang Ah Tea Room, San Francisco