John’s Grill, San Fransisco, CA

During a recent visit to San Francisco, I decided not to join my colleagues in a business dinner and opted instead to strike out on my own for a walk around the city.

Although I have visited San Francisco about half a dozen times over the past two years, I still felt unfamiliar with the city. Each time I had visited it had been for business and my time was so packed that all I saw was the airport, the hotel and the bureau.

In my mind, San Francisco has always existed as a dark, foggy city of the 1930’s and 40’s. But the image of the black and white city of detectives, sultry blond dames, and intrigue seemed out of step with the modern city. Vestiges of that city could still be found in hotels like the Mark Hopkins or The Seranio, where I was staying. But these old remnants were few and far between at first glance.

Although the San Francisco I was seeking only existed mostly on celluloid, a steady drizzle gave this evening a particularly film noir air.

Being unfamiliar with the city, I asked the concierge for a dining recommendation. I explained that I wanted something American…seafood maybe. Within walking distance I said with a subtle nod to the weather. He looked at me for a moment, summing up my requirements and finally said “Johns Grill. It’s not really American, but it is very San Francisco.”

I followed his simple directions thru the wet night for a few blocks up O’Farrel street to left on Powell and right on Elis to No. 63.  And from the moment I saw the “John’s Grill” neon sign glowing green red, and white through the rain, I knew this was a bit of the San Francisco I had been searching for.

I walked through the swinging wooden doors with porthole-windows and almost literally inhaled the nostalgia. Only a few couples and groups were scattered around the wood paneled dining room. The walls were covered with pictures of the famous and not so famous that had dinned there. The desk clerk had told me that there was live jazz every night, but when I walked in the strains of Margaret Whiting’s “Moonlight In Vermont” floated on the aroma of steaks and bread. The recorded tune only added to the excitement that raced through me.

After perusing the menu in my tucked away corner, I was pleasantly surprised to see that it was what I considered typically American food Steaks and seafood. I ordered the “Johns Steak,” figuring I couldn’t go wrong with the signature entrée, and a pinot noir. After all, I was on the west coast. Turning to the back on the menu, I found the story of the restaurant. It was heavily featured in Dashiell Hammett’s story “The Maltese Falcon.” Now I have to admit that although I have seen the film countless times, I have never read the novel. The menu went on with atmospheric excerpts from the story.

 “Where Bush Street roofed Stockton before slipping downhill to Chinatown, Spade paid his fare and left the taxicab. San Francisco’s night-fog, thin, clammy, and penetrant, blurred the street.”

“The Maltese Falcon” by Dashiell Hammett

This is what I love about places like “Johns Grill.” A complete feeling of appreciation and nostalgia without any gimmicks like “Dashiell Hammett wrote The Maltese Falcon sitting at this table” plaques. Although, I would like to think that maybe he did sit here, maybe not exactly where I was sitting, but two seats down so I could look over his shoulder to read what he is writing.

“John’s” played a heavy role in the story, written in the late ‘20’s. So much so, that, in 1977, a club of Hammett enthusiasts and writers had formed a club, “The Hammett Mystery Society” and met regularly, using the restaurant as their venue. I asked the twenty-something waiter about the club. He looked puzzled, almost as if he had not read the history, but had been told about it, in case someone like me asked. “I don’t think it is the same one, but some group meets here. I don’t know exactly when.” I waved off his suggestion of asking the manager.  I liked the idea of an isolated group of mystery devotees meeting once a week to discuss all things Hammett and I didn’t want to be disillusioned if they had disbanded.

Of course, the danger of a romantic place such as John’s Grill is that the food won’t live up to the legend.  I am happy to report that was not the case.

The “John’s Steak” was, as advertised, a thick cut bone-in New York Strip, aged and cooked to perfection.  Even at $31, it was a treat. Served with a side of roasted new potatoes and asparagus the meal matched the dark, cozy mood of the place.

It was matched perfectly by a glass (or two) of ’07 Pinot Noir from Carneros Creek, a small winery in Napa. ($12. Glass, $48 bottle)  I would recommend this vintage and you could probably find it more reasonably priced outside of a restaurant setting.

For desert, I selected the signature pecan pie, which came as a skimpy but well-designed presentation.  The small sliver with a dollop of rich whipped cream, surrounded by fresh California raspberries seemed a little to haute cuisine for such a down to earth place.  But by this time, I didn’t care.  I was carried away with the atmosphere.

A low roll of thunder played across the constant drizzle as a jazz guitarist began his rendition of “In The Still of the Night.” The coffee and pecan pie was finished, the check paid and I reluctantly left the warm embrace of the dining room and ventured back into the night.

The diesel growl of a city bus faded into the strains of a piano trio in the club across the street. The velvet trumpet echoed off the black wet street pieced by the staccato notes of the piano. The electric signs danced on the black puddles, painting an electric mural on the street. I stood under the awning and listened to a complete set, then the start of another. As I walked away, the sound of free jazz was swallowed by the sounds of the city at night.

Some ghosts never give up their city. I would like to think that there is still a little Hemingway in Paris and a little bit of Dickens in London, and on a wet drizzly night in San Francisco, I would like to think that Dashiell Hammett is still making his way back home.

Where: John’s Grill, 63 Ellis StreetSan Francisco, CA     415.986.0069

England’s Imperial War Museum

Warbirds remain forever frozen in mid-flight.

My wife and I are in a London underground station with 25 strangers and it is cold and dark.  Above us, we can hear the drone of bombers in the distance, their constant whine occasionally punctuated with violent blasts from bombs dropped.  Suddenly, there is a blast and the walls and bench we are sitting on shake violently as dirt falls from the ceiling and smoke fills the cramped space.  As the dust settles, the city siren blows and a light appears at the end of our tunnel. “All clear!” calls a man with a Cockney accent, and he leads us out into the night.  The acrid smell of burning ruins hangs heavily in the air like fog and forces me to breath shallowly.  In the distance through the ruins, I can see the white dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral, silhouetted in the light of a thousand fires.  In the sensory-deprived darkness everything seems bigger and more fragile.   The clanging bells of the unseen fire trucks seem to pass dangerously close, the crumbling brick walls seem to threaten collapse at the slightest movement.  Cautiously we are lead thru the rubble of the city until we emerge into the bright light of a hallway.  Reality check.

This isn’t really 1941 and we are not in the 53rd straight night of bombing during the London Blitz.  We have been in The Blitz Experience Exhibit, one of several compelling, interactive exhibits at the Imperial War Museum in London.  Although I have been to London many times before for work, it was not until I went there with my history major wife, Christine, on an actual vacation that I visited the Museum.  It was long over due.

The Imperial War Museum (known as IWM on the website) is one of the best repositories of information about the world at war from 1903 to the present, but especially rich when it covers WWII.  And this should be no surprise.  Great Britain took the brunt of what the Germans dealt out during the war years and arguably, served as the last best defense for the free world until the Yanks entered the fighting in 1941.  But I think the thing that surprised me most about all the exhibits was the lack of “stiff upper lip-ed-ness.”  All of the exhibits and displays portrayed real people suffering during a brutal attack by hostile forces without the romanticism of propaganda movies and Benny Goodman songs. The exhibits remind us that no man, woman, or child remained untouched by violence of the war.

No exhibit portrays this better than “The Children’s War” exhibit, which looks at the home front through the eyes of the children of England.  This hands on exhibit follows the progression of the war with the evacuation of over 2 million children from war threaten cities into the relative safety of the west country.  It was called at the time “the biggest exodus since Mosses” by the government.  The “Children’s War” exhibit is all the more compelling because it is designed for children as much as for adults.  As you enter the exhibit, you are confronted by a large projection of pictures from the evacuation.  In one photo, a mother kneels in front of her 7-year old son, pinning a label on his lapel as he looks at her confused.  In another, a young girl holds a tiny suitcase in one hand and her even younger bother’s hand in the other.  Opposite the projection, a mother’s sits with her young daughter explaining why.

The museum boasts a vast re-recreation of a WWI trench system.

Deeper into the multi-floored exhibit, in front of a propaganda poster about gas masks, I overhear a boy of about 10 ask his mother “But why did the Germans want to kill the children?”   These are difficult questions for both child and parent.  In age of all-you-can-kill video games and numbing violence everywhere, to be able to provoke these questions from children is the mark of a compelling exhibit.

The story is told through journals, toys and other articles.  There is even a full-scale model of a typical country home.

It is not all gloom and doom.  The resilient attitude of the children is apparent in cheerful letters to home, describing the farm fresh foods, and the excitement of seeing springtime in the country.  One child writes “It’s a wonderful time here…it’s called spring and it happens every year!”

“The Children’s War” runs thru October 2011 at The Imperial War Museum, London.

Searching for John Steinbeck in Monterey, CA

There is no denying that Monterey is forever associated with John Steinbeck.  The author spent the first part of his life here and that time resulted in five of his most famous novels, among them “Cannery Row.”  But don’t look for the magic of that time or those characters in the modern namesake.  Today, Cannery Row is more about than cotton candy than characters.

The city has put up freestanding placards dishing out snippets of history about the sardine canning industry that once thrived here, explaining how Steinbeck became lifelong friends with marine biologist Ed Rickets, and pointing out the splintery wooden building that once housed the Pacific Biological Supply Company, owned by Rickets.  They also perpetuate the pervasive rumor that Rickets was the inspiration for the main character ‘Doc” in the novel, “Cannery Row.”  The building is about the only thing left from that era and is not open to the public.

The Cannery Row of Steinbeck’s novel is indeed, lost to history.  The stench of processing fish has been replaced with the heavy scent of baking waffle cones and frying fish. As the tide retreats, the concrete supports of old canneries emerge from the sand like the ruins of a lost civilization.  The only member of Steinbeck’s cast to remain is calm water of Monterey Bay.  As a silent witness to the changes on Cannery Row, perhaps it remains the most magical part of any visit to Monterey.

What to do:

Cannery Row is the focal point of Monterey.  Since 1985, the area made famous by John Steinbeck’s novels has been turned into somewhat of a gaudy tourist destination.  However, no trip to a seaside town would be complete without buying at least one starfish or pirate hat and there are plenty of stores here to find them. But Cannery Row offers more than typical seaside resort souvenir stores.  The Monterey Bay Aquarium (www.montereybayaquarium.org) at the end of the famous street, offers state-of-the-art displays and many hands-on exhibits.  If visiting the interactive exhibits has put you in a mood to get closer to the water, you can arrange a guided kayak tour or rent a sea kayak from AB Seas Kayaks (www.montereykayak.com).  For those seeking more artistic shopping, the Row offers a couple of art galleries that feature local artists.  Dick Crispo’s Costal Painting Gallery is located at 100 Cannery Row.

If you are looking for beaches, don’t look here.  Most of the shoreline is either covered by docks, or strewn with rocky outcrops.  However, the lack of suitable beachfront offers up a free activity for young and old alike: tidal pools. This can make for some fascinating wildlife viewing as sea lions bask on the exposed rocks.  It gives budding marine biologists a chance to do a little of their own exploration.

Where to Eat:

There are more seafood restaurants in Monterey than you can sling an empty sardine can at, and if you are looking for the typical over the water seating with a view of the Bay there are no shortages of places to dine.  Most offer fresh, if a little mediocre fare with almost identical menus.  However, one of the best in this category is The Fish Hopper (/www.fishhopper.com) located at the end of pier at 700 Cannery Row.  Along with the bay view, they offer a lunch special of Parmesan encrusted Halibut  served over a mixture of organic veg ($24.00)  To top things off, a unique serving of Key Lime pie with a delicate Kiwi sauce drizzled over.($8.00).  For dinner, go a little more romantic at The Chart House.  With not a t-shirt or flip-flop in sight the ambience is calm and dark.  The Chart House is a typical surf’n turf restaurant; their prime rib is predictably good with a generous portion and reasonable price.  The house Shiraz, Tripichi pairs nicely. After dinner, take a walk back down the Row for desert at Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory.  Eat it there, or overlooking Monterey Bay at one of the many sitting areas.

Where to Stay:

InterContinental Hotel Monterey offers accommodations directly on Cannery Row.  It offers individual balconies with a gorgeous view of the bay.