where herb ate

I grew up in a household that took the San Francisco Chronicle even though we lived in Palo Alto. When we went to San Francisco we wore white gloves and dresses, and the first stop was the flower stand at the corner of Geary and Stockton to get gardenia corsages. San Francisco was a magical place when I was a child full of big, beautiful people living big, beautiful lives. My mom read Herb Caen religiously, and when I learned to read so did I. We read about the beautiful people that Herb Caen met in the dining rooms at Ernie’s and Tadich Grill or at the bar at Trader Vic’s. When he died in 1997, we cried at my house as if we’d lost a favorite uncle. A few years ago at one of my children’s school auctions, someone donated an original column that came directly out of  Herb Caen’s old Royal typewriter with his pen mark corrections. I don’t recall what I paid for it, but that column, touched by the very man’s fingers, was definitely coming home with me. Even now when I read about the closing of one of the venerable establishments that Mr. Caen himself visited, another little piece of me cries. This month, as I’m sure you’ve heard, we are losing another of San Francisco’s finest: Fleur de Lys. Their last service will be June 28, 2014. Fleur de Lys isn’t even one of San Francisco’s oldest restaurants, but it is certainly one of the most loved. In honor of Fleur de Lys and its ilk, here is a list of some of yesterday’s remaining best, and those that are gone.

Yesterday’s Remaining Best

Tadich Grill, 240 California Street
Celebrated as the oldest restaurant in California, in 1849 Nikola Burdovich, Frano Kosta and Antonio Gasparich opened The Coffee Stand on fisherman’s wharf serving fresh fish grilled over charcoal. The restaurant moved and changed hands several times as the city grew and became New World Coffee Saloon. In 1876 John Tadich became barkeep and in 1882 the New World Coffee Saloon became The Cold Day Restaurant and moved to 221 Leidesdorff. In 1887 Cold Day was purchased by Tadich (and a partner), then in 1912 Tadich alone opened a new location at 545 Clay and renamed it Tadich Grill, the original Cold Day Restaurant. In 1928 Tadich sold to his employees the Buich brothers. In 1967 the restaurant moved to its current location.

House of Prime Rib, 1906 Van Ness
Opened in 1949 by Lou Balaski, current owner Joe Betz took over in 1985 and now shares the reins with his son.

Fleur de Lys, 777 Sutter Street
First opened in the late 50’s, Fleur de Lys was purchased by Maitre d’ Maurice Rouas in 1970. In 1986 he brought on Hubert Keller as a partner as San Francisco ushered in a more chef focused era. Rouas died in 2012 leaving the restaurant to Keller. June 28, 2014 will be their last day of service.

Sam’s Grill, 374 Bush Street
Michael Molan Moraghan began as a fishmonger at the open air market  in downtown SF in 1867. The original market was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and Moraghan sold fish from several locations in the city before the market was rebuilt allowing his return in 1919. In 1922 his (by then mostly) oyster business was purchased by restaurateur Samuel Zenovitch and renamed the Bay Point Oyster Co. In 1930 with the businesses merged, it was renamed Zembolitch & Zenovitch. Then in 1931 the restaurant moved to 561 California Street as Sam’s Seafood Grotto. In 1937 it was purchased by Frank Seput and formally named Sam’s Grill and Seafood Restaurant. In 1946 the restaurant moved to its current location. The restaurant has been owned since 2005 by Phil Lyons.

Fior d’Italia, 2237 Mason Street
Fior d’Italia was opened in 1886 by Angelo Del Monte and ‘Papa’ Marianetti. When they and their heirs were too old to continue to manage the restaurant, a group headed by two North Beach natives took over and ran the restaurant until 1990. Bob and Jinx Larive and Hamish and Rosi Fordwood took over in 1990 and ran the restaurant until a fire closed it in 2005. In 2012 Executive Chef Gianni Audieri and his wife Trudy took ownership and re-opened the restaurant in its current location. Fior d’Italia moved several times due to fires, the 1906 earthquake and landlord disputes. From 1930-53 it was on Kearny street, from 1953-2005 it was at 601 Union Street, and today Fior d’ Italia is on Mason Street.

John’s Grill, 63 Ellis Street
Opened in 1908 by a man named John who died the same year, John’s Grill has changed owners approximately four times and is the famous location for Dashiell Hammett’s 1927 The Maltese Falcon. In 1970 the restaurant was purchased by its current owners, the Konstin family.

Those That are Gone

The Blue Fox was at 659 Merchant Street. It opened about 1920 as a speakeasy, was purchased by Mario Mondin in 1942. In 1948 Mondin partnered with the Fassio family (Piero then Gina then Gianni) until finally closing in 1993.

Ernies, located at 847 Montgomery Street, was opened by Ernie Carlesso 1931 as a Barbary Coast trattoria. Ambroglio Gotti became a partner in 1934. On Carlesso’s death in 1947, Ambroglio sold the business to his sons who introduced white tablecloths and ‘nouvelle’ french cuisine to the restaurant, elevating it from trattoria to fine dining. Alfred Hitchcock made Ernie’s famous in his movie, Vertigo. The restaurant finally closed in 1995.

Trader Vic’s original SF location was on Cosmo Place but later moved to 555 Golden Gate. The first Trader Vic’s was opened in 1934 in Oakland by Victor Jules Bergeron, Jr, and began first as Hinky Dinks. In 1936 it was renamed Trader Vic’s and was dubbed by Herb Caen as the best SF restaurant in Oakland. In 1940 a franchise opened in Seattle, in 1950 Hawaii then in 1951 at Cosmo Place. The San Francisco location closed in 2008.


San Francisco is an amazing food town and we will (luckily) never be at a loss for wonderful, leading edge food. But there’s something to be said for the curtained booths, red velvet walls, and waiters in tuxedos of yesterday. So I’ll be eating at as many of these as I can, while I still can! Who else would you add to this list?

Have a great weekend and eat some good food!