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.)
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.
My father is slightly miffed to hear that I'd lunched at Sam's without him; he's a sweetbreads fancier, and would have ordered them sautéed, with mushrooms. As a consolation prize, I offer him lunch at Tadich Grill, though sadly the restaurant doesn't offer sweetbreads (although the calf's liver steak has a certain fame). Entering Tadich's always gives me a thrill: Everything about the place suits me -- right down to the ground -- from its lovingly maintained, shiningly polished wood bar and paneling to the long, white aprons on the waitstaff. My parents first ate at Tadich's when it was on Clay Street, but vintage photos show the same fixtures in the same layout; the owners moved the place to California Street lock, stock, and burnished coat hooks.
This time we get a private booth merely through the luck of the draw (there's a 20-minute wait, even on a quiet day during a holiday week). The extensive menu is yet more alluring than Sam's, but we have a much less successful meal. My mother adores her oysters Rockefeller, made with fresh puréed spinach, but I'm less convinced by the Boston clam chowder, a trifle thick, and the ordinary green salad my father gets. Sure, I could see Humphrey Bogart ordering the breaded veal cutlet after he emerges from the plastic surgeon's bandages in Dark Passage, but I prefer its side of pasta in a fresh marinara sauce to the rather dull veal. Still, my father insists it's just what he wants. I'm even less thrilled with my mother's curious lobster "medallions" -- they're breaded, too, though the menu didn't mention that -- which come with rice and a "fresh crab crème and sherry sauce." But I feast on the best dish of the day, the pan-fried petrale sole fillet, three huge, delicate fish, perfectly cooked. I love the fragile fish on its own and also with Tadich's divine tartar sauce, heady with fresh dill. (Janice tells me that her family loves Tadich's cioppino. And the sand dabs. And the raw oysters.)
I go to John's Grill for a late dinner with my brother Jeff and his friend Liz after we see Rivers and Tides at the Roxie. John's pushes the Hammett connection hard -- the bird is pictured on the front of the menu, an article about Sam Spade printed on the back. There's "the Maltese Falcon room ... headquarters for the Dashiell Hammett Society of San Francisco," and the "Bloody Brigid," the house drink named for Miss O'Shaughnessy, whose actions in the story the menu recounts (but which I will omit in case you have yet to read the book or see the movie, with which the Castro series debuts).
And there's the fabled Black Bird itself, perched on a shelf among perfectly ordinary figural liquor decanters that no one will ever die for the love of (not while they can find them on eBay). It may be the stuff that dreams are made of, but we won't dream of the perfunctory food we're served. "Sam Spade's lamb chops," which I order (as well as the insipid, too-sweet Bloody Brigid -- one drink that should have a sting in its tail), turn out to be five decent rib chops with a good baked potato and some slices of unripe tomato. The broiled salmon with mediocre hollandaise is dull; a big, pretty, bone-in New York ("John's steak") tastes only faintly like the steak it could have been. You will find me at the Castro for all of "Noir City," but I don't think you'll ever see me at John's again.