John's Grill is no stranger to turbulent times. The Union Square restaurant was underway when the 1906 earthquake hit, and was the first restaurant to debut downtown in the recovery, two years later. Today, it's thriving, despite a location right in the center of the pedestrian-unfriendly Central Subway construction.
John's original wood walls, lined with portraits of past and present celebrity diners—not to mention a hot Zagat review from last fall—attract a never-ending revolving door of locals and tourists, totaling around 500 patrons a night.
Business may be great, but owner John Konstin knows he needs to keep up with the times to keep the three-story icon relevant.
Customers span generations, from kids to "great-great grandparents," he says, which means walking up the stairs proves difficult for some-or impossible. As a result, he's installing an elevator in the back of the restaurant to transport patrons from the basement all the way up to the third-floor banquet room, which gets lots of corporate buyouts (Ford threw a party there recently).
He's in the process of getting permits with the city and hopes to debut the elevator this year, complete with a retro look to blend in with the surroundings. A big part of his job involves preserving and adding to the original Titanic-era vibe, from buying older wood chairs to installing ceiling moldings that appear worn in.
Every inch of John's is packed with historical morsels, down to the basement. That's where the original owner coined, crafted and bottled Gerard's salad dressing. An upstairs glass case houses a shrine to Humphrey Bogart's 1941 film noir classic, The Maltese Falcon. It's based on Dashiell Hammett's novel, in which private eye Sam Space orders chops, a baked potato and sliced tomatoes from John's—a combo still available to diners today.
Being a longtime local business comes with certain perks. John works closely with the MTA and the higher-ups in charge of the Central Subway, so he got to hang John's Grill-branded banners along fences on Market Street to direct eaters. The construction hasn't hindered sales volume, he says, and business went "gangbusters" during the holiday shopping season.
When he takes a look at how neighbors' rents in Union Square have skyrocketed, he thanks his lucky stars his dad, Gus, bought the restaurant and building about 40 years ago. (One restaurant space across the street commands $50,000 a month in rent, he says.)
When Eater met John over lunch, he passed on bread and opted for some veggies and scallops. ("I'm on a diet," he reveals.) He gets his daily exercise walking downhill from his Russian Hill home, but going uphill is another story (he calls Uber). By the end of the day, however, he indulges in a deserved dessert; after all, he sometimes clocks 80-hour weeks.
The seafood-infused Jack LaLanne salad is his favorite dish on the menu. It's named after the fitness guru who celebrated his golden years at the restaurant (a 90th birthday, he recalls), and drank a bottle of red wine a day until his death in 2011.
John, also a big believer in wine, says he was way ahead of the farm-to-table trend "before it became hip to buy local." Meats come from Harris Ranch in California, and when John got into the business, he put a stop to the frozen vegetable craze, instead plucking from California's fresh assortment. (He does go out of town for oysters, since he prefers the meaty East Coast ones.)
The dress code also got a makeover under his watch. Waiters were once required to wear tuxes, and John wouldn't dare step foot inside without sporting a tie. But when the 1996 Democratic National Convention rolled into town, jeans-wearing techies like Steve Wozniak helped downgrade the code to casual.
One tradition kept consistent is "assigned seating," in which celebrities sit under their picture on the walls. Today, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and former Mayor Willie Brown are regularly seen chowing down beneath the watchful gaze of their own faces.
Still, the scene is a stark contrast from the early days, when lunchtime marked the "end" of workdays (the 9-to-5 hadn't stuck yet). Back then, a three-martini meal and rooms clouded with cigar smoke were commonplace, he says.
The family-owned business has personable touches other big corporate restaurants lack, he says, such as the ability to alter menu items like specialty drinks on a whim. One of the longest-tenured employees is a bartender who scoffs at measured pours, and has served what John calls some of the strongest drinks in town five nights a week for the past 37 years.
Another longtime fixture is the fact there's no valet parking, which he thinks hasn't affected business one bit. After all, BART is 100 feet away.
Konstin's "not sure" if the incoming Central Subway will give John's a boost, but either way, he doesn't plan on the business going anywhere. His 22-year-old son, who's coming up on the age John was when he took the reins, is currently learning the ropes at NYC's Culinary Institute, with plans to one day take over John's demanding job. "When you have a full restaurant, you can't just walk out on it," he says. "It's like a baby."