I first visited Sam’s Anchor Café (better known as “Sam’s”) when I was 23 years old. I had just completed a full day job interview in San Francisco, where I was hoping to move from New York. I was exhausted, but still had a few hours before my red-eye flight home. I decided to check out a place on the water in Marin county that friends had described as a Bay Area “must-do.”
So, I boarded a ferry and headed across the bay to the charming seaside town of Tiburon. Just a few doors down from the ferry terminal, I spotted a retro neon sign emblazoned with “Sam’s Anchor Café.” I tentatively entered a dimly lit, smoky bar that reeked of popcorn and beer. I was wandering through the bar when a hostess approached me and asked if I would like to sit outside. I nodded and followed her, quickly realizing that the outdoor waterfront deck at Sam’s was the place to be.
It was a beautiful Thursday afternoon in late June—“five o’clock somewhere,” as my Dad would say. The place was bustling, with groups camped around the deck eating burgers, fried calamari, oysters and fresh crab Louie salads; patrons everywhere sipped a pinkish-white cocktail that I soon found out was Sam’s signature drink, the “Ramos Fizz,” a frothy concoction of gin, egg whites, lime juice, sugar, heavy cream and orange flower water. The large wooden deck overlooked Tiburon harbor and San Francisco Bay. Just off to the right, the dozens of colorful boats docked at the Corinthian and San Francisco Yacht clubs added to the picturesque setting.
I settled into my plastic deck chair and ordered my first-ever Ramos Fizz, sighing contentedly. Just then, two nice looking young men sitting nearby implored me to join them. Already immersed in the friendly openness of Northern California, I gamely headed over to sit with these two strangers. Within a half hour, we were strangers no more. Ted lived in San Francisco and had been there about a year. His friend, Bert, was visiting from Chicago. After exchanging pleasantries and clinking glasses, Bert & Ted apparently felt comfortable enough in my presence to begin snapping their fingers in unison and singing…
“Trailers for sale or rent; room to let, fifty-cents. No phone, no pool no pets; I ain’t got no cigarettes. Ah, but two hours of pushin’ broom buys an eight-by-twelve four-bit room…. I’m a man of means, by no means—King of the Road…”
I did not recognize this song, but over the next two hours I became intimately familiar with the Roger Miller classic, “King of the Road.” To this day, I know all the words and each time I hear the song I insist on snapping my fingers to the beat and belting out the lyrics… and I am always reminded of that special day on the outdoor deck at Sam’s.
I relocated to the Bay Area a year later and Sam’s became a regular haunt. A favorite weekend activity was to bike with friends through San Francisco’s Marina district and over the golden gate bridge, through Sausalito, Mill Valley and Tiburon, eventually landing at Sam’s for lunch. It was always a casual and welcoming place where we easily made new friends and passed the afternoon blissfully. After a few Ramos Fizzes and a nice lunch, we would board the ferry with our bicycles and return to the city.
As much as I enjoyed biking to Sam’s, the quintessential way to arrive was via boat. Fortunately, during my tenure in San Francisco, I had several friends with boats and we would occasionally sail right up to the dock outside Sam’s, moor the boat and saunter up the pier straight onto the outdoor deck. We couldn’t help but feel like VIPs, with everyone on Sam’s deck watching us disembark. Good times.
I moved back to the east coast in late 1989 and in the ensuing years I continued to visit Sam’s many times. I introduced my husband to Sam’s early into our relationship. When our children were young we made a family pilgrimage there for Saturday lunch. Our kids loved sitting outside by the water, until one of Sam’s ‘friendly’ pelicans landed on our table and starting eating right from our plates! We were more surprised than upset, and quickly realized that these winged visitors only added to the local color of this iconic joint.
My most recent visits to Sam’s were last month—in fact, I had lunch there 3 times in a two-week span. First, we indoctrinated our niece who was new to the Bay Area; then, we returned twice with our daughter and her friends, all Sam’s first-timers. Even after frequenting the place over so many years, I still marveled at how tasty the food was—especially for a casual spot that people chose primarily for the atmosphere. During one of these recent meals, I experienced my first-ever Crab Cake Benedict—a rich and delectable combination of fresh Dungeness crab cakes topped with poached eggs and hollandaise. Yum!
Even the February weather cooperated so we could enjoy Sam’s outdoor deck as it should be: with clear skies, sunshine and comfortably mild temperatures. No Ramos Fizzes for our group, but even so, Sam’s did not disappoint. This venerable Bay Area establishment has weathered the test of time. If anything, it’s even better now than I remember!
As I write this, it’s a beautiful, sunny Sunday… 20-something degrees in New York with snow on the ground and more heading our way soon. I am dreaming of warmer weather and a relaxing brunch outside on the deck at Sam’s Anchor Café where life is always good.