For many San Franciscans and its foodie visitors, dining has become a competitive sport. Usually it’s all about new restaurants. They open (and close) every day and many people follow which chef went to which restaurant as closely as Hollywood follows celebrity love affairs and New Yorkers follow Yankee trades. The Bay Area restaurant business is also a fickle world, in which comings and goings are chronicled with passion and obsession. My goal here is to draw attention to those restaurants that have endured and that have kept the spirit of the original. There are those classic restaurants that have been around for 20 or thirty years, even fifty years, many of which are well worth highlighting. Perhaps I can get to those in a later post. But here are the really old ones — still around. It’s easy to imagine San Francisco’s premiere crime fiction writer Dashiell Hammett and his characters dining in each of them. Any of these places would add a cinematic sense of mystery to your dining on a foggy San Francisco night.
Tadich Grill: The claim here is the “oldest continuously running restaurant in San Francisco.” It opened in 1849. It was bought out by another family in 1928 and moved to its current location in 1967. The owners went to great lengths to recreate the art deco interior and, in fact, moved the bar (the central focus) from the previous location. It is rumored to be one of the first (1925) restaurants to use Mesquite to grill fish. It’s a busy, busy place. They don’t take reservations and the lines to get in are long. But there’s more to picking this place than just the nostalgia. Great food. The place is also packed with young, trendy folks during Happy Hour in the Financial District. On the other hand you will not be greeted with a cheerful smile and “my name is Wendy.” It’s a great-looking place, but thinking only of the food, Tadich is as good as any of the new ones.
240 California Street
The Old Clam House: The restaurant, out on Bayshore, once known as the Oakdale Bar and Clam House, recently celebrated its 150th anniversary, putting its birthdate as 1861. Unlike the others, the restaurant survived the earthquake and fire and is, therefore, one of the few pre-1906 restaurants still in the same location. As the name implies the specialty is seafood of all types as are many of the oldest San Francisco restaurants. How about Crab & Smoked Salmon Benedict for brunch? The area of the original dining room is a charming reflection of an earlier era — one over which Abraham Lincoln presided (the era, not the dining room).
299 Bayshore Boulevard
Sam’s Grill: The restaurant’s lineage can be traced back to 1867, but it has changed locations (1906 earthquake contributed to one move) a few times. It has also changed owners and even names (Sam’s Grotto at one point). What you see today when you walk in appears to reflect its most recent update. That occurred in 1946. More than any of the others, I felt as if I was stepping back into an old movie, and I swear my lunches there are in black and white. Though it’s on Belden Alley, a favorite spot for tourists and a more trendy, rambunctious set, Sam’s seems to cater to older, more established San Franciscans — at lunch mostly men in their suits who sip martinis served by white-coated waiters who are as mature as the clientele. The main room has low-backed booths that offer a sense of privacy but also the ability to see and be seen. To one side is a row of very private booths with drapery where one could plan a bank robbery or have a discreet affair. The restaurant specializes in seafood. I suspect the recipes are the ones used in forties and fifties.
374 Bush Street
John’s Grill: Dashiell Hammett ate there. It’s documented. As the story goes, he wrote chunks of his novels while seated at their tables. And, also fact, the place was used as a setting for one of Hammett’s novels. Opened in 1908, the place looks and feels authentic. There is a picture wall that boasts an incredible list of the famous celebrities from the movies and politics who have dined there over the years. The location is in the center of the city, just off Market and near Union Square, the city’s — maybe the country’s — most concentrated high-end shopping district. There was a bit of a stir recently when their replica of the Maltese falcon, was stolen. A crime that Sam Spade could solve, if he hadn’t already.
63 Ellis Street
Sam Wo Restaurant: (Closed April 19, 2012) Owners claim it is 100 years old.
That would make its founding in or near 1912. I’m not sure how the years are counted; but it was here to serve San Francisco legends like Jack Kerouac and Brue Lee as they ventured into Chinatown. For a period, Sam Wo Restaurant had the distinction of having “the rudest waiter in the world”— Edsel Ford Fung. People would show up to be insulted. The place doesn’t appear to have changed much in a century. The teapots look at least a century old. Great, inexpensive rice noodle dishes. You enter through the kitchen, climb narrow stairways and dine in an unintentionally minimalist environment on either the second or third floor. It is one of those legendary places where diners (adventurous tourists and San Francisco natives) might spot a movie star hiding behind a beard or sunglasses, or maybe just a fugitive on the lam.
813 Washington Street
A subtler than usual self-promotion: San Francisco eateries figure into the Carly Paladino and Noah Lang San Francisco mysteries. Death in Pacific Heights and Death in North Beach are available here.