3 Landmark San Francisco Restaurants Serving Up History
San Francisco is a must for foodies because of its commitment to culinary innovation, not to mention having more than its fair share of Michelin-starred chefs. But did you know that San Francisco is also home to a handful of authentic old-time restaurants equipped with classic family recipes? Check out these three local treasures that have remained reliable favorites as a city and an industry grew up around them.
Tadich Grill (240 California St.)
Catch a cable car to your table. Although California was still a year away from statehood when Tadich Grill was conceived, there were plenty of mouths to feed. Gold in the hills meant the population of San Francisco exploded from 500 to 25,000. Tadich Grill no longer accepts gold nuggets as payment, although they did back then.
These days, Mad Men-style martinis are in demand at the old-school dining room, the nation's first mesquite grill. "We serve 300 martinis a day, a testimonial to our long-standing traditions," says manager David Hanna. Although the restaurant made several moves prior to settling at 240 California St. in 1967, its current location gets the Instagrammable plaque, “California’s Oldest Restaurant.”
What began as a coffee stand run by three Croatian immigrants at the end of Long Pier at the height of Gold Rush days morphed into what’s widely considered to be the third-oldest continuously run restaurant in America. Take a seat at the long mahogany bar or settle into the dining room where wood-paneled walls and white linens add to the club feel. Servers are pros, sporting traditional white jacket and tie to serve up tasty sourdough bread, signature cioppino and a very decent Bloody Mary.
Sam’s Grill & Seafood Restaurant (374 Bush St.)
Sam’s Grill has hosted special moments and whispered secrets for just shy of 150 years. Much-loved for a classic Old Fashioned and the freshest daily market fish, Sam’s owners have preserved the timeless look and feel of the place.You can even draw the curtains at your private, cozy dining booth where a bell will summon your waiter.
The story of Sam's begins with an affable Irishman named Mike who sold the bay’s abundant fresh oysters from a waterfront stall in 1867. That enterprise evolved into an oyster saloon. During Prohibition in the 1920s, an owner named Sam stepped into the picture. He experimented with a re-branding using his and his partner's surnames. Zembolich & Zenovich was short-lived (surprised?), so Sam’s Grill stuck.
Sam’s isn’t about new California cuisine. It’s about old-school waiters in white shirts, black suits and bow tie moving in and out of the kitchen in a well-practiced choreography.
Food enthusiast and history buff John Briscoe, a current co-owner, says it’s “extraordinary that three of the nation’s five oldest restaurants survive in San Francisco in the company of fabled places like Boston’s Union Oyster House and New Orleans’ Antoine’s.” Not bad for this much younger American city.
Cliff House (1090 Point Lobos Ave.)
Bring your camera. Stay for sunset. Due west, the road to Cliff House is six miles from Union Square. You can’t go any farther without landing in the frothy waves of the Pacific Ocean, overlooked by this restaurant perched on rugged bluffs. In this enviable position facing out to the sea, Cliff House has a sordid and assorted history over its 150-plus years.
Once host to presidents and wealthy Victorian society, the oceanfront destination alternatively went through periods of popularity among high life and riff-raff. It was adjacent to the immensely popular turn-of-the-20th-century Sutro Baths, then shuttered during Prohibition. Later, it was the centerpiece of a fabled 10-acre amusement park attracting thousands weekly. Although this place with an 1863 birth certificate survived earthquakes, it suffered destruction by fire twice, including an 1887 explosion aboard an offshore schooner wreck. Cliff House started all over again each time in the same Lands End spot.
Due to changeable weather conditions punctuated by San Francisco’s signature fog, the Cliff House has a live webcam and a website noting the time of sunset, so guests can perfectly time a visit. Settle in with a Ramos Fizz at the Zinc Bar, with its hand-carved back bar salvaged from the 1889 Paris Expo, and stay for Friday night jazz. Take a window table to enjoy house specialties of clam chowder, Crab Louis and the housemade popovers.
Cliff House entertainment sometimes includes offshore views of spouting California gray whales navigating their 14,000-mile round trip annual migration.
A dedicated urbanite, Laurie Jo Miller Farr loves walkable cities. As a San Francisco-based travel writer, she enjoys views from these signature hills following half-a-lifetime marketing a couple of oh-so-flat destinations: NYC and London. She tweets @ReferencePlease.