March 29, 2011
The classic grills of San Francisco offer dishes from the past

San Francisco is a worldwide travel destination, and one of its biggest draws is its burgeoning restaurant scene. From the top of the high end to the simplest of ethnic restaurants and burger joints, the City by the Bay offers dining choices that are unrivaled.

Adding to the city's dining legend are three classic grills whose cachet lies not with revolving-door trends, but with heritage and traditional offerings that are consistent and dependable.

The Tadich Grill (established in 1849), John's Grill (1908) and Sam's Grill (1922, though it started as an oyster stall in 1867) are old-school seafood-and-steak houses that draw knowledgeable diners, local power brokers, celebrities, politicians and adventursome tourists. Tables and counter stools fill quickly, and the turnover rates are turbulent.

We dropped by John's Grill last Sunday night at 7, jogging two blocks to get out of the drizzle. Inside the clubby, oak-paneled landmark, we were told the ground-floor dining room was filled. So we climbed the staircase and were shown to a narrow table for two in the Dashiell Hammett Room. So called because the restaurant was a setting in the writer's classic novel "The Maltese Falcon." Memorabilia and wall-mounted photos make the space an homage to Hammett and the Humphrey Bogart-Mary Astor movie.

A hefty fillet of petale sole in lemon-butter-mushroom sauce was flaky-fresh and perfectly cooked. Ditto the chef's special red snapper, topped with bay shrimp, Dungeness crab, mushrooms and lemon cream. Flavor- and texture-wise, there was an awful lot happening on those plates. Still, we thought capers would be a welcome addition.

Keeping with the retro theme, our entrees' side dishes were foil-wrapped baked potatoes with sour cream and butter (where were the chives and bacon bits?) and sauteed baby carrots and green beans - al dente, of course.

John's Grill is at 63 Ellis St., (415) 986-0069;

Tadich Grill: 240 California St., (415) 391-1849, (the website is scheduled to open in May).

Sam's Grill: 374 Bush St., (415) 421-0594. No official website, but visit for information.

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