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John's Grill

Today we introduce Who Goes There? a regular feature wherein Laurel May cracks the doors on mysteriously enduring San Francisco restaurants—unsung, curious mainstays with the dusty, determined look—to learn secrets of longevity and find out, who goes there.

[Photo: Jennifer Yin]

Generally speaking, when you stumble across a restaurant festooned with signs calling it “historic” or stop-worthy on a “Literary Tour of San Francisco,” it's best to give it a plenty wide berth. But then again, when said restaurant has managed to keep its doors open for over a hundred years, well, a person's gotta wonder.

Johns' Grill fits the bill with gaudy signage proclaiming it's existence “Since 1908” and its tourist lure as the “Home of the Maltese Falcon,” the best-known work of writer Dashiell Hammett. He’s known as the father of “hard-boiled” detective fiction. Think dames, gumshoes and such. Besides being a stop on the literary tour, the restaurant also seems to be a mandatory stop for visiting politicians, with the restaurant's “famous patrons” list reading much like a United Nations roll call: Hillary Clinton, Al Gore and Baroness Philippine de Rothschild have all stopped in, presumably for something like hangtown fry. So John's Grill has the visiting film noir geeks coming around to gawk and the foreign dignitaries stopping in between international incidents, but who else actually eats here?

I ask Jose, who's been behind the bar since 1978. He's friendly and more importantly, quick with the drinks. He also has a tendency to address his customers in French. “Comment allez-vous, Madmoiselle?” When I tell him I don't speak French, he laughs. “Me neither.” Once the language barrier is removed, I pose the question. He's diplomatic. “Well, it has changed over the years. These days, the lunch crowd is businessmen; dinner is tourists. But we do have regulars.” Taking a look around, nestled amongst weary-looking Midwestern families loaded with Union Square shopping bags, I spot a few. And they are old.

There's one now, at the end of the bar. A well-heeled looking septuagenarian, dining on what appears to be clam chowder. “Twice a week, I come here.” Does he have a menu favorite, I ask. “No. I eat everything. Herb Caen used to sit right here. We used to have the most wonderful conversations. Joe Alioto and his crew would come by.” He goes back to his soup, and I have a look around the restaurant. It's a dark wood, white tablecloth kind of spot, but not “fancy.” It's the kind of place a person could take his dad, or grandfather, and he'd understand the menu, with its Sam Spade's lamb chops, Jack LaLanne's favorite salad, oysters Wellington. No precious tall food here, no vessel name listed next to the seafood selections. Just the good old fashioned, tried and true.

According to Neil at the host stand, ownership has changed "about 4 or 5 times" over the years. But it’s been owned by the same family now since 1970. "The last of the good old San Francisco places. All that's left is us, and Taddich." Some things never change. The tourists keep coming, the old guys reminisce and the doors of John's Grill swing wide open for both.

- Laurel May

John's Grill

63 Ellis Street, San Francisco, CA