Things that happened in 1849: The execution of Fyodor Dostoyevsky was cancelled at the last second; Zachary Taylor was inaugurated as the 12th president of the United States; Harriet Tubman escaped from slavery; and the Tadich Grill opened in San Francisco. The walls are still wooden, the linens are still a crisp white, and judging from the looks of things, it still has its original bar and wait staff.
The Tadich is not the best restaurant in S.F., by far, but after the demise of Original Joe's, it's usually the place I take out-of-towners. Last week I was to meet an Italian couple there. They were Internet acquaintances, and we had never met in person. We also never figured out how we were going to know who was who once we got there, so I was already feeling a bit anxious.
If you have to wait for strange Italians, there is no better bar than the one at the Tadich. It takes up the bulk of the restaurant, curving around the center in a giant, oblong oval. The regular tables are a sort of afterthought; the real excitement goes down at the bar. It is staffed with wizened pros who could tend the thing in their sleep, and perhaps some even do.
Every once in a while I go in and get served by some young hotshot who thinks he is in the Rat Pack. I live for such moments. "What'll it be, my dear?" he asked, spinning on his right foot a little, turning his body my way and pointing his index finger at me like a pistol. He looked about 30 and vaguely loony. This would be fun. I ordered my drink and he jumped off like a shot to prepare it, singing the name of the beer as if it were an aria. The woman to my left, who was sitting with her family, shot me a knowing smile. "He's an odd duck," she said. I concurred. "He's new," she added, in such a way that I gathered he had told her his life story in the first five minutes of serving her. I was right. When he came back with my drink, they continued the conversation.
"So I'm in New York, and I'm in love ..." He emoted the "in love" with great exaggeration, pulling his face down like a mime into a dramatic mask. He went on to describe the romance in great detail; I listened with one ear and looked around the bar to see if anyone looked Italian. Most people were WASPy, but there were some swarthy types. I had no idea how old the Italians were. I tried to listen to see if anyone had an accent, but everyone sounded American. It was 15 minutes after the time that they were supposed to arrive. Do Europeans always arrive late? I decided to give them 30 minutes.
"So," the loquacious bartender said, slapping his palm on the bar, "to make a long story short, I knocked her up ..." The story was indeed getting good, and he hadn't even reached California yet. His co-workers behind the bar shuffled back and forth, in and out of his conversation, opening bottles and dropping cherries into drinks. We were all smiling, though, and we all really liked this goofy guy, so the Tadich had made a good choice in him, albeit probably not the most efficient one.
He brought me another drink without asking, and continued his story, which is basically that he made it out here with his new family and got a job. He made a Jim Carrey-esque "serious" face when he told us that.
I was just thinking that it would be okay if the Italians never showed up, because I could watch this guy interact with people all night. The family next to me moved to a table and ordered cioppino, and a man who had obviously gotten off work in the area took their place. He knew the entire staff here, and the bartender from Absinthe even came over and slapped him on the back. He ordered some expensive fish dish to go, and had a whiskey while it was being prepared. We struck up a convo, of course, and soon he was looking around the place, trying to figure out who looked Italian. Even the young buck from New York helped out, going up to random people and asking, "You speak-a Italiano? Eh?!" The joint was completely full, so we had a lot to choose from. This is why people come to places like the Tadich Grill by themselves — the staff here go out of their way to make you feel a part of things.
I was just about to give up and order dinner at the bar, when a man and a woman with Italian accents walked in and asked for "Ms. St. Clair." The Italians! Hurrah!
We were seated in a private booth in the back, where I immediately had to switch gears. I sort of missed my new family up front. We gazed at the menu, and the man said, "What is this 'cioppino'? It sounds Italian, but we don't have that in our country."
"Really?!" I said, in my best Jim Carrey.
They just stared at me.