Quite a few restaurants — from glitzy to shabby and anywhere in between — have rich histories, usually involving famous patrons, a memorable event, or a unique vibe. And, as you might suspect, such connections can make for an attractive destination if you happen to be a hungry or thirsty curiosity-seeker, even when the fare served doesn’t catapult anyone into the upper reaches of the Michelin Guide. This is about the inspiration drawn from renowned customers and from past exploits at the restaurants themselves.
There have been such landmarks in San Francisco, some memorialized in print and on screen, some that fostered a scene or gave artists a place to hang out, and some simply the source of tabloid fodder. All too many disappeared or moved on, to be replaced by other businesses, or razed. A handful have endured and, in doing so, have provided a touchstone to hallowed names and bygone eras.
GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN
I recall my one supper at Ernie’s, a posh supper club on Montgomery, weeks before it shut down. The room was beloved by the late, legendary newspaper columnist and man-about-town Herb Caen and his upper-crust cronies, and a hotspot for visiting Hollywood royalty. The prodigious director Alfred Hitchcock was a real fan of Ernie’s and decided to use it as a location for scenes in his San Francisco-based psychological drama-mystery “Vertigo,” starring Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak. But, rather than deal with the logistical problems of shooting inside Ernie’s, a replica of the interior was built on a studio soundstage. Still, Hitch loved the restaurant, ate there, and paid homage to it in “Vertigo.” So it was rather cool to be at the actual Ernie’s, having an expense-account meal before the end.
As for the beloved Caen himself, he had numerous favorite haunts in town where you could trace his steps and those of his contemporaries. They included the now-defunct Enrico’s Sidewalk Cafe, where owner and host Enrico Banducci would welcome some of the performers whose careers he helped launch at his nearby hungry i nightclub — Woody Allen, Mort Sahl, Jonathan Winters, and Bill Cosby among them. (Cosby, whose reputation is in free-fall at the moment, helped Banducci hold onto the cafe by donating funds during lean times.)
Enrico’s is gone, but Le Central Bistro — another regular Caen stop — remains downtown on Bush Street. There, the master of bon mots would gather every Friday for lunch at the same window table with politico Willie Brown, clothier to the wealthy Wilkes Bashford, and high-society toffs Harry de Wildt and Matthew Kelly. Caen has left us and sauntered off into the beyond where he is surely covering the supernova circuit and flirting with other celestial bodies. But a portrait of him hangs by that table and a plaque marks his longtime seat.
THE OUT, THE IN & THE PERENNIAL
When it comes to celebrity sightings on the dining and drinking front, San Francisco is hit-or-miss these days. You can’t see actors Don Johnson or Cheech Marin relaxing at Ana Mandara — the posh Vietnamese-French eatery that they owned on Beach Street — because it closed a couple of years ago. But you might run into the award-winning director-screenwriter Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, and so on) at his Cafe Zoetrope on Columbus, sipping wine from his own vineyard, or you can sit at one of the tables in North Beach’s beloved Caffe Trieste where Coppola wrote some of his most acclaimed screenplays. Or you could head to the warm confines of the Tosca Cafe across Columbus Avenue, where U2 front man Bono, actors Sean Penn, Peter Coyote, and Nicolas Cage, and members of the rock band Metallica were irregular regulars before the venue was sold by longtime proprietress Jeannette Etheredge. (For the record, Beyoncé and Jay-Z have had a bite there under the new Tosca regime.)
I would be negligent not to mention John’s Grill — a setting in author Dashiell Hammett’s 1929 detective novel The Maltese Falcon. John’s is still alive and kickin’ on Ellis Street in the Tenderloin, and continues to offer a divey film noir atmosphere where Hammett’s private eye Sam Spade would feel right at home.
THE POP-CULTURE NEXUS
Whether I’m down in Los Angeles for work or play, it’s hard to miss the show-biz personalities as they frolic. Public places where they eat and imbibe are everywhere — often with TMZ’s troops and the independent paparazzi lurking about. It’s no surprise to spot Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis as the married actors sweat over the spiciest of Thai cuisine at Jitlada on Sunset Boulevard, or Krysten Ritter of the new Jessica Jones Netflix series at a pho diner on Cahuenga Boulevard, and Josh Radnor of the sit-com How I Met Your Mother at the cafe up the block. And Los Angeles’s century-plus as home base to the idolized and the notorious assures that it’s easy to sit and chow down where the idols of yore sat — or belly up to their favorite bars. The ghosts of cinema, music, and television past lurk everywhere.
For instance, the Tam O’Shanter is a quaint-looking Tudor-style Scottish pub that’s been on Los Feliz Boulevard in Atwater Village next to Glendale since the 1920s. It was also the favorite lunch and happy hour retreat for none other than Walt Disney, the so-called Nine Old Men (his core crew of animators), and other staffers from the early days of the Disney Studios. One wall usually features framed caricatures of vintage Tam staffers and customers, courtesy of the Disney gang. In the back dining area, you will find their designated table with the artists’ whimsical scribbling on its surface left intact under a laminated coating, decades after it was done, and an etched metal plate on the side noting it as Disney’s official way station.
The food at Lucy’s El Adobe in Hollywood is just so-so, but this old-school Mexican joint across from the Paramount Pictures lot on Melrose Avenue was the preferred pit stop for a generation of Los Angeles folk-rockers including the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, David Crosby, and Andrew Gold. If you go, the ambiance remains kitschy and a little hippy-dippy. You probably won’t catch a whiff of patchouli oil cutting through the aroma of refried beans as you sip your Tecate, although you’ll definitely hear 12-string guitars and sweet harmonies in your head.
THE PRESENCE OF GREATNESS
Entertainment industry insiders have long made their deals over dinner at Dan Tana’s or had their trysts at upscale establishments including the Polo Lounge. Then, there’s the granddaddy of Hollywood restaurants, Musso & Frank Grill, which is the oldest in town, having opened in 1919. Its loyalists included literary lights F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Saroyan, Dorothy Parker, and William Faulkner, while silver screen luminaries remain Musso’s most esteemed clientele. Among the most familiar: Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, Humphrey Bogart, Marilyn Monroe, and Charlton Heston from the golden age of film, and Johnny Depp, George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and Harrison Ford today.
Ultimately, Orson Welles’s booth, where the protean actor, screenwriter and director had his meals on a regular basis, is the power spot at Musso & Frank. One afternoon, I was seated in that very booth with a couple colleagues. Welles’s name came up, and I swear I could feel a tingling in my butt. I’m not sure if was Welles’ lingering star quality on the leatherette or the chicken potpie I had eaten. I just knew that being at Musso’s put me in the presence of greatness.