December 5, 2023


Professional waiter experts

Is the food at S.F.’s historic John’s Grill actually good? A Soleil Ho investigation

I came to John’s Grill with barely a clue about what I was getting into. That’s not to say that people don’t know the place — I’m sure you know plenty already, sweetheart. People, especially San Francisco old-timers, like to talk about the way our politicos tend to swan through the dining room at lunchtime, shaking outstretched hands on the way to their favorite tables. They talk about the nostalgic color of its walls, dark like Havana cigars, and about that black falcon, perched on the restaurant’s second floor like a kind of guardian deity. Seventeen inches of lead and bronze, it’s an angry-looking, stout bird that takes all the oxygen out of the room when you look at it.

I’m no detective, though that clammy day I was playing the part. Yes, I did find your lost rabbit last month, and you might remember that time I got caught up in those serial murders back in 1986. But I’ve long stopped that game — at least after the Burlingame incident. Yet, when San Francisco’s fog blurred the vision like a gauze blindfold, I showed up to solve a mystery nonetheless. I guess, even now, I can’t say no to a dame in need of a restaurant recommendation. Thanks to her, I found myself at John’s Grill, trying to find out if the restaurant was the real deal.

The parklet at John's Grill, which has been open in S.F. since 1908.

The parklet at John’s Grill, which has been open in S.F. since 1908.

Yalonda M. James/The Chronicle

Over a period of three weeks, I staked out John’s, inhabiting a table on its outside parklet. It was painted black, like a stable in mourning. Each stall was set up with a table with a white cloth and paper covering the tabletop, the sections separated by clear vinyl. I peered through the makeshift windows at my fellow patrons: thick-necked men in cowboy hats, loners who gobbled down their steaks in silence, tourists who were mostly there for the bird statue.

Since it opened in 1908, John’s Grill was just a good steak spot until Dashiell Hammett got his hands on it. Just one reference, dropped casually in a detective novel in 1930, changed everything.

Hammett’s detective, the anti-hero Sam Spade, “went to John’s Grill, asked the waiter to hurry his order of chops, baked potato, and sliced tomatoes, ate hurriedly, and was smoking a cigarette with his coffee when a thick-set youngish man with a plaid cap set askew above pale eyes and a tough cheery face came into the Grill and to his table.” With that line in “The Maltese Falcon,” Hammett enshrined the reputation of the restaurant for the rest of the century. Since then, it seems like the restaurant itself has been preserved in enamel. It’s a place where Father Time himself might fancy taking a nap.

Its well-preserved atmosphere likely has to do with the fact that the Konstin family has run the restaurant for more than half of its life. Gus Konstin, the father of the current owner, was the one responsible for turning this into a Dashiell Hammett fan club. Sure, no one is smoking inside anymore, and the fashion sense of the customers is, to put it kindly, much more informal than it was.

And like a house being slowly augmented with additions over the course of decades, the menu inevitably bears the markers of trends past: sun-dried tomato aioli on its fried chicken sandwich, a macaroni and cheese side scented with cloying truffle oil, an anonymous beet salad ($15.95) with feta and microgreens. I know you’re tempted, angel — lord knows how many beet salads I’ve seen you tear into — but stay with me here. Going to John’s is all about ordering Titanic-era cuisine, first class, and hold the iceberg. Dinner here is a parade of meat and potatoes, splashed with Francophile butter sauces in infinite configurations. It has the austere bearing of a man who’s had a whole head of white hair for decades: always old, no matter what year it is.

Lamb chops at John's Grill, which has been open in S.F. since 1908.

Lamb chops at John’s Grill, which has been open in S.F. since 1908.

Yalonda M. James/The Chronicle

As the falcon is enshrined, so is Sam Spade’s dinner order ($32.95). See the falcon, then eat the chops. When in Rome, right, dollface? Four frenched lamb chops, their exposed bones clean and pistol-like, arrived with a fluffy baked potato, cooked vegetables and three mealy slices of unseasoned tomato on a parsley-rimmed plate. The lamb was just hit with salt and pepper, then striped on a hot grill. The chops’ gamy flavor was concentrated at its charred, fatty bits, and it was easy to bite through each succulent lollipop. Say what you will about Spade’s taste in women, but his taste in food is commendable.

The filet mignon ($37.95) was tender too, cooked to a perfect rosy pink medium rare each time I got it. Pretty on-the-nose, but you can’t go wrong with a steak or chops from the grill.

But don’t think you can get your bread buttered on both sides here. Non-potato vegetables get the short shrift. The zucchini and yellow squash weren’t frozen, I’ll give them that, but they might as well have been. Cut into irregular slices and seemingly cooked in a sauna, the squashes were floppy, their interiors almost disintegrated, like warm snow. The only aspect that saved them from seeming completely institutional was the generous aroma of garlic. A side of creamed spinach ($6.95), while well-seasoned, was watery enough to drink.

Jack LaLanne's Favorite Salad at John's Grill, which has been open in S.F. since 1908.

Jack LaLanne’s Favorite Salad at John’s Grill, which has been open in S.F. since 1908.

Yalonda M. James/The Chronicle

The one exception to this parade of vegetal melancholy is Jack LaLanne’s Favorite Salad ($33.95 for two servings), an extravagant dish named for the late local fitness expert. Chopped lettuce and spinach come loaded with crabmeat, avocado, thick slices of raw button mushrooms, diced tomato and tiny bay shrimp, which is then tossed in a rich blue cheese vinaigrette. The greens are a tougher bunch than the fragile mesclun and Little Gems that have become de rigueur on San Francisco salad menus since the 1980s. This salad is more like a main event than rabbit food.

You’d think a place known for its detective lore would be crawling with nastiness, wannabe gumshoes armed with magnifying glasses and not too much sense. But it’s as genteel as the makeup section at Bloomingdale’s. The servers, men and women in black vests and black pants and black masks, made their money’s worth the nights I was there, keeping me in their sights in case whimsy inspired me to ask for another cocktail or a last-minute bowl of thick clam chowder. Even tourists who rolled in wearing cowboy hats and sports jerseys were treated like princes and escorted to the falcon when they asked about it, stiff drinks in hand.

Server Pablo Garcia cracks pepper on the salad of guest Eva Schouten at John's Grill, which has been open in S.F. since 1908.

Server Pablo Garcia cracks pepper on the salad of guest Eva Schouten at John’s Grill, which has been open in S.F. since 1908.

Michael Short/Special to The Chronicle

In so many ways, John’s Grill is an anachronism. And, believe it or not, I don’t mean to say that in a derogatory way. There’s something very soothing, and also humbling, about being in a restaurant that prides itself on being the same every time — that will likely still be slinging lamb chops for 100 more years. John’s is a golem, animated by just a few very important words that it’s carried into the future, step by step. As far as how it performs as a restaurant, I’d say that there are many here that are much better than John’s. But you know there are no others exactly like it.