Old San Francisco is rapidly dying. Sure there are cable cars and Queen Anne houses, but the shops around Union Square have none of that feel you get when you watch a noir-ish film like The Maltese Falcon. Sadly, there is not much left of that San Francisco. “Modern” is the zeitgeist of San Francisco now, I-Phones rather than phone booths and Starbucks and a Caramel Macchiato instead of a coffee shop and a mug of joe. And with that comes the over-casual dress and attitude that is the current age. White linen table cloths and dignified waiters in ties have fallen to disposal paper coverings and a guy in a Major Lazor T-shirt saying, “Hi, I’m Justin, your wait-buddy. What can I get you?” But not everywhere. There are a few hold-outs who refuse to give in to the current trends.
A couple of blocks south of Union Square is a haven of Old San Francisco named John’s Grill. Not being a regular visitor of San Francisco, I’d never heard of it. By chance, I was checking out restaurants on my smartphone (yes, I do have one) while my wife, Kelly, was shopping, I found it was close and sounded good. Established in 1908, it was a favorite haunt of Dashiell Hammett. In fact, you trivia nuts, it is mentioned in The Maltese Falcon. To be honest, I did not remember it at the time, only realizing it when I saw their website on my phone. I loved the book, The Book, so much that I dedicated my latest Morg Mahoney mystery to it. Obviously, I found that interesting and I called. I had no problem getting a reservation, but then six is way too early to dine for most San Franciscans. I asked if there were a dress code, since I was in Levi’s, and was a little disappointed that there was not. We showed up on time, but opted to go upstairs to “the Maltese Falcon” Room, which didn’t open until six-thirty. We took a seat at the small, but well-stocked bar while we waited.
I should have ordered Johnny Walker and soda, or two, or more, like Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, but had one Johnny Walker Black on the rocks instead. Personally, I think soda ruins scotch. The bartender, Louis, pronounced Louie like in Casablanca, had been there for thirty years. The bar was pretty empty, so we had a chance to chat. He mentioned a few of the famous and infamous who had dined there. He told us of how things had changed since he started. Then, you would wear a tux when dining there on Friday and Saturday nights. You wouldn’t have got through the door in jeans. While he did not criticize the current policy, I got the feeling that he missed the old days. The clock struck six-thirty (figuratively) and we went upstairs.
Downstairs was nice, with cloth table cloths and mahogany paneling, but was rather noisy. More the hangout for locals coming in for a Grey Goose vodka martini or white wine at the end of the work day than quite dining. As we hit the top of the stairs and walked past the display case with a black falcon that looked like a dead ringer for the one in the movie, the mood changed. There was a guitarist playing mellow jazz. Tables had more space between them. We had a window table overlooking Ellis Street. The waiter was polite, helpful and a study in black, with shirt, trousers and tie all in that basic color. And he wasn’t named Justin and didn’t try to be our good buddy.
The menu looked liked something out of the 50’s or 60’s (click here to see it). There was no seared ahi or cranberry quinoa salad. I probably should have ordered the Sam Spade’s Lamb Chops in honor of their mention in The Book, but I’m not in love with lamb. Just because you like a character in a book doesn’t mean you have to eat and drink what he did. So I opted for the sea bass. My wife took a walk down memory lane and ordered the filet with Bernaise sauce, her favorite when we both ate steak in the 60’s and 70’s. Nothing was listed for a starch but a baked potato (imported all the way from Idaho, no less), although I now understand fries are available. We both had the baked potato, again my wife’s favorite.
The food was great and servings were generous. Although my sea bass had a beurre blanc sauce and I’m not really into that, the fish itself and the veggies were perfectly cooked. My wife said the same about her steak. She was so impressed that she ordered the chocolate mouse torte and said that it was worth the calories, which is saying a lot. All the way through, our waiter was attentive while never hovering. It was just like fine dining in the 60’s. It wasn’t cheap, but we’ve spent far more for far less quality. If you’re ever visiting San Francisco, I would recommend breaking your diet and splurging at John’s Grill.
I should mention that Zagat rated John’s Grill as the “#1 Steakhouse in San Francisco.” Also,The Maltese Falcon Room is a National Literary Landmark and the meeting place of the Dashiell Hammett Society of San Francisco (click here for more info). We chose wisely, both for food and for literary history.
Why write about John’s Grill? Because it’s a dying breed. This is Old San Francisco, with all the class of a Hammett novel. If we lived in San Francisco, would we be regulars? Maybe not. I could almost hear my arteries hardening as I ate. I do try to eat more healthily than I did in the 60’s. However, the feeling of quiet quality, of dining rather than eating is becoming rare. We were not rushed. It would be a place I would go on special occasions. And our dinner there was a special occasion. I felt like I should have been wearing a coat and tie, even though it wasn’t required, and have hung my snap-brim fedora (yes, I have more than one and do wear them) on a coat hook by the door. I was sure that I felt the ghost of Dashiell Hammett sitting there with us, having lamb chops, baked potato and sliced tomatoes. But maybe that was just the air conditioning.
Old San Francisco is fading away. When you shop in stores like Saks and Neiman Marcus, you see people in frayed jeans and T-shirts (men and women) instead of suits and dresses. Am I the only one who thinks we’ve lost something when we no longer make things a special occasion in our lives and dress accordingly? Maybe I belong back when Hammett was writing about San Francisco. When no one would have dared go to John’s Grill in Levi’s.