In addition to being substations on “Lost,” the Swan and the Pearl are also the names of rival West and East Coast oyster houses. I haven’t been inside either hatch, but I have been to both restaurants, so I’ll focus my comments on the latter. Below are a few key points of comparison.
1) Oysters: Swan’s shucker-servers know and love their oysters like no one else, but it’s the West Village seafood house that takes the category thanks to remarkable freshness and flavor in their half dozen and dozen size plates. Could have been an off-day for the SF stalwart, but Swan’s Kumamotos and Olympias were a bit past their prime on my visit: Not 311 health crisis bad, like Grand Central Oyster Bar on Friday of a long summer weekend, but not good either. Interestingly, the oyster liquor was the highlight at Pearl, better than the Sea Jello snots themselves.
2) Sides: Pearl has a winner here as well in their thinner than Steak ‘n Shake numbers served hot salty and perfect. They reminded me—in a good way—of the canned jobs we used to eat at Camp Kooch-i-Ching. The preferred beverage pairing back then was “Bug Juice”, a generic Kool-Aid we drank by the gallon. Unfortunately, the candied cloying house Riesling at Pearl was eerily similar. Swan’s bread and butter are local laudable and delicious but just not interesting enough to carry the category.
3) Booze: The much more modest Swan list takes the prize with a limited selection of wines and beers that liven up the food without overwhelming it. On tap Anchor Steam beat all Pearl’s beer options and and King Estate Pinot Gris by the glass made the case for Oregon’s move beyond Pinot Noir. It also makes the case for Pearl adding to its underwhelming wine list.
4) Service: Swan by a long shot. Swan’s server-shuckers have a classic gruff competence because they’ve always been gruff and competent, and with four or five family members behind the bar, there’s no risk of getting lost in the noise. Pearl’s overcrowded and undermanned bar is competently covered, but the nudge to leave turns to a push as soon as your fork scrapes empty plate. Also, singleton diners get short shrift, even though they clearly help keep the lunchtime cash cow mooing.
5) Overall: Two winners playing different games. Each restaurant builds on different expectations and succeeds in surpassing them. Pearl is much more of a full service establishment with real starters, mains and desserts. Swan is a much more soulful and delicious version of Grand Central Oyster Bar’s shucking counter. Go to Swan for a late morning or late afternoon snack–closed by dinner time, packed at noon—and go to Pearl for a real meal at the start or end of service when seating is easier to come by. Either way, go. And if you figure out what the numbers on “Lost” mean, let me know.