Fish Tale

To wait for a dinner table at Tadich Grill — which doesn't accept reservations — is to bob like a buoy on undulating swells of tourists and Financial District suits. Despite the presence next door of Aqua, that great marble temple of seafood, Tadich continues to bustle with customers — including our little party of three skeptical San Franciscans, a local species who as a rule regard the presence of tourists as grounds for fleeing. Tourists in search of seafood belong on the Wharf; if they're glomming onto Tadich Grill, then surely it must be mediocre, an overpriced disappointment waiting to happen.

The tourists' presence is explained easily enough. For one thing, the California Street cable car passes just outside the door. Even more important, Tadich Grill is famous as the oldest continuously operating restaurant in San Francisco. It opened in 1849, in a different location, as a tent from which its Croatian owners sold coffee. After brushes with developers, evil politicians, and earthquakes, Tadich arrived at its present location in 1967.

Waiting for 20 minutes gives ample time to ponder the restaurant's space (the maitre d' said it would be no more than 10 minutes, but then maitre d's are like contractors estimating the cost of a job: If they told the truth their business would suffer). Tadich occupies one deep room whose roof is unsupported by pillars; it seems like a small airplane hangar. On one side a long counter with stools runs toward the back of the restaurant, and on the other are tables and booths. Dark-stained wainscoting mixes attractively with the art deco-ish light fixtures overhead; Tadich's decor might recall the 1930s or the 1940s, but it surely doesn't belong to the 1990s.

For us, a booth — and a soothing breath of intimacy after the hubbub and misinformation at the door. The waiters were coolly polite and highly efficient, like lab technicians in their identical white coats. A basket of bread and a plate of butter arrived immediately, along with water in too-small glasses that seemed to need refilling every few sips. The staff responded quickly to requests for more, but all the same there were periods of drought.

Tadich does seafood. Its fish is neither fancy nor pricey –it's just good, a tribute to practiced skills in the kitchen and, even more, good fresh fish. Servings were somewhere between generous and enormous. The mesquite-grilled petrale sole, for instance — two huge filets for $14.95 — seemed to fill the entire plate, nearly crowding off the edge the pile of perfectly cooked steak fries (crisp if deceptively pale on the outside, almost mashed-potato creamy on the inside).

Unsauced fish can give pause; so can grilling anything as delicate as sole. But the finished fish was tender and flaky without having dried out, and the almost fruity smokiness of the mesquite made a sauce unnecessary.

The English sole all'Agro ($12.25, and one of the house specials) was also tender and flaky inside its plain breading, but the dish as a whole seemed to be short on flavor. It was served with a peeled, boiled potato that strikingly resembled a baseball, minus its stitching.

The pan-fried calamari steak ($11.75) was crispy-brown on the outside and smelled richly of garlic butter — a concoction sensuously greater than the sum of its parts. Calamari can turn rubbery if overcooked, but the Tadich kitchen had its timing down; its judicious use of high heat managed to achieve crustiness while preserving tenderness.

Calamari also appeared as a starter ($8.75). Squid rings, along with tiny whole squid tentacles, were dipped in a light batter and then deep fried. They were a little tougher than the steak but not at all oily. On the side came ramekins of watery, slightly sweet cocktail sauce and an almost cheesy tartar sauce.

Another starter, the Tadich plate ($10.75, for two), was a potpourri of crab legs, shrimp, and slices of avocado, cheese, and tomato, all arrayed around a bowl of the tartar sauce. It was also supposed to include oysters, but the waiter said they were out, and we authorized a substitution. This turned out to be a neatly rounded heap of something I dubbed “crab slaw” (setting off a tremor of muted hilarity around our table); it had a creamy consistency, and tasted more of mayonnaise than of crab. But we ate it all.

Boston clam chowder (cup $2.95, bowl $3.95) was formidably thick and milky, but there seemed to be more potatoes than clams. It also needed some resuscitation with salt and pepper to slap it to life.

It's fair to say that Tadich's menu doesn't emphasize dessert. The offerings are meager to the point of seeming tacked on; perhaps the chefs understand that after starters dipped in tartar sauce and herculean plates of fish with potatoes, a lot of diners will have little or no interest in dessert.

I certainly didn't, but I was outvoted and reluctantly went along. My choice, rice custard pudding ($3.25), was like a bomb made of eggs being detonated inside me. The overripe taste of broiled egg dominated the heavy, lasagnalike square, which arrived on an otherwise barren plate without even a sprig of mint or a strawberry to lend color. It looked like prison food, and tasted worse.

The plate of fresh strawberries ($3.25) was generous, although the berries could have used another day or two to ripen; they had a rich ruby color, but they were still a shade tart. (Much local produce is still showing the effects of the long wet winter and cold wet spring.)

Only the chocolate trio mousse ($3.95), essentially a slice of pie elegantly layered with chocolate and vanilla mousses and topped with a small dollop of dark chocolate, excited us. It tasted like a not-too-sweet cheesecake, and all that whipping gave it a feathery lightness, like a cloud on a plate.

If tourists think Tadich Grill is a real San Francisco restaurant, they're wrong. The place, with its austerely skilled cooking and changeless menu, belongs to another city in another time. If San Franciscans think Tadich Grill is a mummified tourist trap, a place as detached from their lives as the cable car that runs outside, they're wrong, too. Tadich may not be fancy or innovative, but its straightforward handling of top-notch ingredients is a refreshing reminder that old-fashioned plainness can still result in good fish.

Tadich Grill, 240 California, S.F., 391-1849. Mon-Fri 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sat 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m.

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