By John Geluardi
San Franciscans donned their hats and spats last night to honor the anniversary of John’s Grill, which has been serving up steaks, martinis and literary intrigue for 100 years.
Outside the restaurant a jazz band played period tunes while San Franciso’s A-listers arrived to pay their respects to the city institution. Former state senate leader John Burton, state Senator Mark Leno and former city mayors Willie Brown and Frank Jordan stopped by to mingle with the city’s gentry, cops and literary fans.
The family that has owned the restaurant for the past 40 years threw a lavish celebration, which was open to the public and complete with complimentary wine, martinis and toothsome appetizers. “In San Francisco you have the Golden Gate Bridge, Coit Tower, and John’s Grill,” family owner John Konsin says. “We have people who have been coming here for decades and some come here five days a week for lunch.”
John’s Grill was seared into San Francisco history when noir writer Dashiell Hammett used it as a setting in his 1927 novel The Maltese Falcon. And 80 years later, walking into the restaurant is like stepping into the vibrant pages of that noir masterpiece. The interior is carefully designed with period furnishings, and the dark paneled walls are covered with photos of the handsome Hammett and the movie stars, Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet, who portrayed his obsessed characters in the 1941 movie.
Because of its noir roots, John’s Grill has always had a special relationship with city cops. Former Police Chief Earl Sanders was standing near a section of wall that was dedicated to photos of the city’s best-known flatfoots. “This is a very special place,” the fedora-clad Sanders said and pointed to the pictures of his fellow officers. “Toschi, McKenna… oh yeah and that guy (Sanders points to a picture of himself). I have a lot of memories here.”
The real treat for Hammett buffs was having the opportunity to speak with his granddaughter Julie Rivett. She is an emissary for the National Endowment for the Arts’ program The Big Read, which seeks to restore the art of reading into American culture. She was very gracious and talked about her grandfather and his longtime companion, playwright Lillian Hellman and her father’s writing.
She also talked about what was perhaps the most controversial word in the Maltese Falcon; “gunsel.” Hammett used the little-known term to get by prudish editors when describing his character Wilmar Cook, a petty criminal involved in a homosexual relationship. The term was long thought to mean “a hoodlum, especially one who carries a gun, but Rivett settled the controversy Thursday night. “The original meaning of the word gunsel is a boy who is kept for illicit purposes by hobos.'” Yikes!