Out of the Past

Inspired by an S.F.-set film noir series, we haunt the classics

I've always been attracted to the science-fiction mainstay of time travel. In fact, I practice it frequently. Pace H.G. Wells, I employ no high-tech machinery. Though I give points to Jack Finney for setting up his hero in a posh apartment in the Dakota in 1882, I need no top-secret governmental agency for my little trips. I neatly sidestep both the time-travel paradox (you know, the one that goes "What if you travel into the past and kill your own grandmother before she conceives your mother, huh, what then, Miss Smartypants?") and the free-lunch theory (if you bring with you into the past Mozart's published sheet music and he copies it off you note for note, thereby giving himself even more time to feud with Salieri and pinch Constanze's bottom, hey, how is that fair?).

My own brand of time travel involves (big surprise) restaurants: I like to eat in venerable old eateries with décor unchanged since the early days, focusing on their traditional specialties. On the right day, with proper lighting and a good plate of food in front of me, a certain timelessness sets in; I slip the surly bonds of the present and get a glimpse of the past. If the mood has been sufficiently set, I'd swear you can exit Musso's right onto Hollywood Boulevard in the '40s, or Julien's into Paris in the 1880s, especially if you move from one mode of time travel into another -- a movie set in the time and place you're trying to access.

Dinner and a movie: my two favorite entertainments. They're even more potent in combination, especially in what I term a theme evening -- you go to a Japanese movie, you eat in a Japanese restaurant. The imminent arrival at the Castro of "Noir City," an irresistible series (starting Friday) of 20 films, all set in San Francisco, seems heaven-sent for such nights. (See Night & Day, Page 29, for details.)

The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of?: John's Grill, 
where the Maltese falcon of movie fame rests, isn't the 
best of the noir restaurants, but its Sam Spade 
connection is undeniable.
Anthony Pidgeon
The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of?: John's Grill, where the Maltese falcon of movie fame rests, isn't the best of the noir restaurants, but its Sam Spade connection is undeniable.

Location Info



Sam's Grill
Crab Louie $19.75
Poached salmon with egg sauce $15
Veal porterhouse with bacon $16.50

Tadich Grill
Pacific oysters Rockefeller $13.50
Pan-fried petrale sole $15.75

John's Grill
Sam Spade's lamb chops $26.95
John's steak $26.95

Sam's Grill and Seafood Restaurant, 374 Bush (at Belden), 421-0594. Open Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Closed Saturday and Sunday. No reservations. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: difficult. Muni: 2, 3, 4, 15. Noise level: moderate (quiet in private booths).

Tadich Grill, 240 California (between Battery and Front), 391-1849. Open Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Closed Sunday. No reservations. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: difficult. Muni: 1, 12, 41. Noise level: moderate (quiet in private booths).

John's Grill, 63 Ellis (between Stockton and Powell), 986-3274. Open Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday from 5 to 10 p.m. Reservations accepted. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: difficult. Muni: 9, 38, F, K, L, M. Noise level: moderate.

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I want to eat in the restaurants where Robert Mitchum would have shared a steak and a scotch with Jane Greer (in the film whose title encapsulates the doom-laden genre, Out of the Past), the ones around the corner from where produce trucker Richard Conte picked up Valentina Cortese (Thieves' Highway). In San Francisco, you can choose among places that had some age on them in the '30s, '40s, and '50s when these films were set, their creamy walls already yellowed by the smoke from decades of cigarettes, their specials well-known by the regulars.

My first thought is a couple of spots I haven't been to in years, Sam's Grill and Tadich Grill, and a third that I've never ever eaten at, John's Grill, which is an inevitable choice because of its immortalization in Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon: Sam Spade dines there, hurriedly, on "chops, baked potato, and sliced tomatoes." (He also had a meal, sadly unspecified as to its contents -- that's what I miss in literature, not enough menus! -- at Herbert's Bachelor Grill on Powell, but we can't join him there, as Herbert's is no more, and bachelors must dine elsewhere.)

Janice and Adam are happy to meet me on a rainy afternoon at Sam's. A bit of palm oil and a promise to be out in good time -- after lunch, we're going to see Gangs of New York, set just a few years before the original Sam's Grill opened in 1867 -- gets us one of the wood-paneled private booths, in a little corridor just off the brightly lit main room. I glimpse the open kitchen and a few framed prints of fish in the cozy, slightly shabby room before we pull aside the brown, vaguely art deco-patterned curtain reminiscent of a Pullman car blanket that separates us from the outside world. "I feel like we should be doing a deal in here," says Janice, though she doesn't specify what kind -- political, business, or maybe hiring a detective. We decide to start by sharing a crab Louie, and then try to cover the waterfront: It's hard, very hard, to choose among the many items listed, especially when we're also thinking about what a film noir tough guy might have ordered (that neatly eliminates the mesquite-grilled ahi with pesto sauce). We're tempted by the Hang Town Fry, the deviled crab à la Sam, even the sweetbreads sautéed with caper and lemon (Janice hesitates, because the last time she was here she ordered charcoal-broiled sweetbreads "and they were a little dry"). We end up with veal porterhouse with bacon for Janice, a fried seafood platter (crab, shrimp, scallops, sole) for Adam, and an old-fashioned dish of poached salmon with egg sauce for me.

We have a good, indeed a very good, meal. Many horrors have been perpetrated in the name of crab Louie, aka crab Louis, invented right here in San Francisco, but this is not one of them. Sam's is just shredded iceberg lettuce, Louis dressing (essentially mayonnaise and chili sauce), and so much fresh, sweet crab that it's impossible to pick up a forkful that isn't laden with it. We're pleasantly surprised, as we are by our main courses. All three come with the identical garnish, a huge hillock of boiled potato, but next to that little visual joke is a lot of delicious food. Janice tears into her huge, juicy porterhouse, and I am thrilled with my moist, still-rosy-at-the-heart chunk of sweet salmon, in a lake of buttery sauce, under a blanket of grated hard-boiled egg. I've had crisper fried food, but we still enjoy everything on the seafood platter tiptop, the batter tasting cleanly of fresh oil.

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