Doin' the Tadich
The Tadich Grill is undoubtedly California's oldest restaurant, having been established as a coffee stand in 1849 and later expanded to a full-service eatery. A visit to the Tadich was, of course, an essential stop on my historic restaurant itinerary. Before I left New York I called several friends. "Have you ever been to the Tadich Grill?" I asked.
"No, but I'd love to try it," was the response I got from several long-time Bay Area residents.
In response, I chided, "The restaurant's been around for over 150 years. You've been in the Bay Area for over thirty years. And it takes a visit from a New Yorker to finally get you there? Shame on you!"
I was joined by four shamed Bay Area residents.
I decided to go vintage all the way. I walked to California and Van Ness from the Majestic Hotel, the oldest in San Francisco, and hopped on the California Street cable car, which goes direct to the Tadich. This was only the second time I've taken a cable car, mostly a tourist attraction and at $5 more than twice the cost of a bus, but for my purposes this mode of transportation was de rigeur.
Before dinner I stopped off at another historic San Francisco locale, Schroeder's, just around the corner from the Tadich. This German restaurant and beer hall, the oldest on the west coast, opened in 1893 (though it's only been at its present location since 1959). They often have live polka bands, whether you like it or not.
I felt like a wuss ordering a short glass of bock beer when the standard glass in the joint is a 19-ounce "pint," liter mugs are not uncommon, and two-liter boots are available. But I didn't want to ruin my appetite for food or wine at the Tadich. Accordingly, I also skipped the complimentary happy hour meatballs.
The Tadich really is one of those classic old American restaurants, all done up in dark wood, waiters done up in white jackets. A good deal of the restaurant is taken up by counter/bar space, and I wonder if that's a remnant from a time when men of affairs were more likely to dine alone. At any rate, that aspect would make it a comfortable spot for solo diners today. Medium-size groups are seated at tables in semi-private partitioned quarters, another blast from the past, I guess, that you rarely find at restaurants that aren't Japanese or Korean.
As long as I was doing the tradition thing, I decided to go with several San Francisco classic dishes. I started with their house special salad, with crab meat and bay shrimp, topped with Louie dressing. Crab Louie is the classic San Francisco crab salad, served all over town, especially at Fisherman's Wharf. The dressing is a mayo-based cousin of Russian or Thousand Island, with a touch of chili.
Cioppino is another classic San Francisco specialty, an Italian-style fish stew reminiscent of a bouillabaisse. I had never tried the dish before, even though I've visited the city on countless occasions. While I have nothing to compare the Tadich version to, I enjoyed it greatly.
Another famous San Francisco eatery that had a life almost as long as the Tadich was Jack's, in the same downtown neighborhood. It had a 136-year run, ending in 2000. Shortly thereafter it became the S.F. outpost of Bistro Jeanty, a Wine Country favorite, as Jeanty at Jack's. I ate there several years ago in that incarnation (now gone too), and the well-preserved classic interior, full of little rooms, was a pure delight.
During my four days in San Francisco I ate at several other restaurants with long San Francisco histories, but I regret that I found out too late about several other important blasts from the past. Sam's Grill, also in the financial district, has been around since 1867. And John's Grill, opened in 1908, was a favorite haunt of Dashiell Hammett's and appears as a setting in The Maltese Falcon. It seems my dance card is already filling up for my next visit to San Francisco.