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