I have a confession to make. I’d been going to Sam’s Anchor Cafe in Tiburon for at least 20 years before stepping inside the dining room. I suspect I am not alone. For Bay Area residents, a trip to the scenic waterfront-dining dock has been a summertime rite of passage for as long as I can remember. But a recent diversion from the plastic-blue- gingham-draped tables, looming seagulls and hopping bar into the dining room proved there’s more to this 87-year-old gem than a festive alfresco pub scene.
Within the nautically inspired interior, a satisfying, classic American dining experience awaits.
The sea-foam green dining room is decidedly less casual than the patio, but it’s still pretty simple and laid-back. A large, boxy space with generous views of the patio, bobbing masts and the city beyond, it is sparsely dressed with dark wainscoting, wall-to-wall carpeting, local artwork and linen-draped tables. Surprisingly quiet yet relaxed, it’s an optimal spot for family dinners, intimate dates and locals looking for memorable yet approachable food.
The genius of Sam’s menu is that it sticks with what works. Rather than chasing the latest food trends, it presents a solid selection of familiar seafood standards sprinkled with options for the less aquatically inclined and accompanied by a wine list of blue-chip Northern California bottlings. You won’t be disappointed if you start with crab cakes and chipotle tartar sauce or ahi tartare with avocado and won-ton chips. The crab Louie is tasty, too, arriving as a heap of Dungeness, carrots, eggs, onions and organic greens tossed in a slightly overly sweet Thousand Island dressing. For a lighter start, Greek salad with oregano vinaigrette is the way to go.
For creatures of habit, it may be hard to stray from sunny-day lunch entrées of fish and chips and Niman Ranch burgers.
Fortunately, no one has to. These staples are on the dinner menu, along with six go-to seafood favorites such as cioppino; linguini with Manila clams, white wine and garlic; and pan-fried petrale sole with capers, garlic and lemon. Rounding out the menu are a few meats, a roast free-range chicken and tofu-vegetable brochettes.
Seated at one of the expansive windows at twilight, my party couldnt resist revisiting the crispy goodness of golden-crusted Icelandic cod doused with malt vinegar and flanked by a mound of slaw and tangle of fries. But we also charted new territory with a decent rendition of braised short ribs smothered in honey-chipotle barbecue sauce, as well as a flavorful erupting chocolate cake, which sadly had a center that didn’t even trickle. Still, the only real semi-disappointment was a halibut special. A mismatched mélange of fish, overwhelming barbecue sauce, mango salsa and corn cakes, it only reiterated what I already know about Sam’s: there’s no need to mess with a winning formula.
If you live for the bustling daytime dock scene, the subdued dining room may not suffice, but it will come as a pleasant surprise to anyone looking for quality, unfussy, reliable dining. In either venue, stick with the standards, and drop by the historic front-room bar; you’ll be reminded why Sam’s continues to be a popular and honorable haunt.
Sam’s Anchor Cafe; 27 Main St., Tiburon, 415.435.4527; samscafe.com. Entrées $12–$18 brunch, $15–$20 lunch, $18–$22 dinner; lunch and dinner daily, brunch Sat and Sun.