By Molly Gore
By Molly Gore
By Pete Kane
By Lou Bustamante
By Pete Kane
By Ashley Goldsmith
By Pete Kane
By John Birdsall
There are so many ways to discover the city, from the prosaic to the poetic. Exploring a city through its restaurants, as pragmatic as that may seem, inevitably draws in other elements: history, architecture, sociology. In every city I've lived in, I've acquired a 5-foot shelf whose contents range from the expected and useful (every local restaurant guidebook ever published, regardless of date) to the somewhat less so (am I ever really going to read anything by San Francisco's own Gertrude Atherton?).
I love the extra sensation when you're watching a locally set movie and a frisson runs through the audience when it recognizes its own landmarks. So when I read that Nathaniel Rich would be showing film clips and reading from his just-published San Francisco Noir: The City in Film Noir From 1940 to the Present at the San Francisco Public Library, I showed up in search of cheap thrills as well as another book to add to the 5-foot shelf.
It was a delicious evening, on a properly rainy and foggy night, replete with a dozen or so clips that were both familiar (The Maltese Falcon, Vertigo, Dirty Harry) and not (Race Street, Chinatown at Midnight, The Raging Tide, all three of which were added to my considerably overburdened TiVo wish list when I got home). Flipping through the compact little tome, I found two Fisherman's Wharf restaurants referenced for Nora Prentiss, Lou's Pier 47 and Pompei's Grotto, and proposed an evening at one or even both to Rich, who promptly countered with a preference for Julius' Castle, included in his essay about The House on Telegraph Hill.
San Francisco, CA 94133
Region: North Beach/ Chinatown
Seared foie gras $16
Roasted sturgeon $28
Grilled squab $27
Poached pear $8
Banana in phyllo $9
2001 K-J Riesling $2 per glass
Open for dinner nightly from 5 to 9:30.
Not wheelchair accessible
Parking: valet, $10
Noise level: low to moderate
I hesitated. Certainly I've been aware of Julius' Castle for as long as I've been aware that there was such a thing as restaurants. The curious, rickety-looking wooden structure, with its round crenelated turret, has never really seemed like a castle to me (perhaps because few castles are either shingle-style or have their names painted on their side in enormous letters). It was built in 1922 by an Italian immigrant, clings to Telegraph Hill, and looms over the eastern edge of the city, but never has been celebrated for its cuisine. (Which is a nice way of saying that the words "tourist trap" flashed neonlike through my brain.)
But Fisherman's Wharf is not known as an outpost of la gourmandise, either, so when Rich said that neither of those restaurants had actually appeared in Nora Prentiss, I agreed to his choice. I felt a trifle snookered later, when I was reading the book, came to The House on Telegraph Hill, and read "The house ... did not exist ... [but] was superimposed photographically on an actual site ... [whose] actual building is Julius' Castle." How, I wondered, did that make it a more legitimate choice than the other nonsettings?
Still, I'd always loved the family story about the dinner my father had at Julius' Castle in the '50s, with his old friend Harry Benjamin, and Benjamin's friend Alfred Kinsey, who had amused them all by posing a set of queries to my father. No, not the more-than-500-item sexual history (which would have been administered in a rather more private and clinical setting than a restaurant), but 50 questions that he used to determine the suitability of a prospective staff member of his institute.
When he was done, he complimented my father on his responses. "You got every answer right," he said, "except for one." "And which one was that?" my father wanted to know. "The last one," Kinsey said, "when I asked you if you'd be willing to move to Bloomington, Indiana."
As you drive up to the Castle's cul-de-sac, you pass the beautifully preserved Art Moderne Malloch Apartments (1360 Montgomery), where Lauren Bacall fell in love with Humphrey Bogart, once he'd been surgically altered to look like Humphrey Bogart, in Dark Passage, another entry in Rich's smart and well-written book.
I was the first to arrive, and was stashed in Julius' ground-floor lounge, a dark, wood-paneled, and viewless space, with a carved bar on one side and a wall of wine shelved behind grates on the other. "Why," I asked, "is there a framed cover of A Man Called Spade over the host stand?" (Spade, of course, was incarnated by Bogart in The Maltese Falcon. I was going a little noir crazy.)
"They have a meal here in it," the maitre d' replied, pointing out Julius' Castle in the photocopied text. "What do they eat?" I asked, eagerly, hoping for a tip. "All it mentions is coffee," was the sad reply.
Just then Rich materialized and we were led upstairs to a series of rooms (remodeled in 2003, in undistinguished Victorian style), which were bright (at 7:30 on a long summer night) and -- well, what's the opposite of viewless? The view was so overpowering, so panoramic, so bright blue and full of sea and Golden Gate and Alcatraz and Bay Bridge you couldn't look at anything else. (Cue the music.)
One side of the building is mostly windows, and they all have tables clinging to them like limpets. The window tables were occupied, so we were given a table in the second rank, close to the center of the room; it was big enough for four, but skewed on an angle and set for two, catty-corner for the best possible views.