John’s Grill in the city’s heart for 110 years

San Francisco Chronicle - Late Edition (Sunday) - - NEWS - By Carl Nolte

This is the season for old fa­vorites: the holi­days, friends, good cheer, the clas­sics. So we went to John’s Grill on Ellis Street just off Pow­ell to­ward the end of last week to help cel­e­brate the restau­rant’s 110th birth­day.

The place was crowded. A lot of po­lit­i­cal big­wigs were on hand: the mayor, the po­lice chief, the fire chief, the pub­lic de­fender, a city su­per­vi­sor or two, Wil­lie Brown shak­ing hands. State Sen. Scott Wiener brought a framed procla­ma­tion. Free drinks fore and aft, hors d’oeu­vres the size of small lamb chops. Very old school.

The new school was there, too — in the Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton High School Ea­gle March­ing Band play­ing out­side.

No drinks for them; they got a free lunch in­stead.

There used to be a lot of places like John’s Grill in San Fran­cisco, all dark ma­hogany, white table­cloths, the walls lined with pic­tures. John’s re­minded David Gabriel, a No­vato civic leader, of old San Fran­cisco, the part that hasn’t changed much. It re­minded Steven Adair MacDon­ald, an at­tor­ney, of the bars and restau­rants of his youth in New York, the dark walls, the feel of the place.

That’s one of the hall­marks of places like John’s Grill. There’s a touch of New York in them, Man­hat­tan with pe­trale sole. San Fran­cisco al­ways fan­cied it­self as New York with a bet­ter at­ti­tude.

There’s a mix at John’s, reg­u­lars like MacDon­ald (a club sand­wich for lunch, steak for din­ner), and tourists from all over. Now you see high-pow­ered lawyer types across the room from vis­it­ing ya­hoos who wear shorts and flip-flops to din­ner down­town.

It was a dif­fer­ent world in 1908, when John’s first opened. The place has had only three own­ers and for the past 50 years has been run by the Kon­stin fam­ily. Gus Kon­stin, who died this year, was a Greek im­mi­grant with an Amer­i­can suc­cess story. He came to this coun­try with only $20, got a job clear­ing restau­rant ta­bles, was pro­moted to waiter, saved his money and bought his own place.

He used to pre­side be­hind the bar at John’s wear­ing a white hat, like the cap­tain of a cruise ship. He was a host who knew every­body’s name.

Kon­stin was shrewd. He and his wife, Sydna, in­vested in real es­tate, and bought not only the restau­rant but the three­story build­ing as well.

He also cap­i­tal­ized on John’s most cel­e­brated cus­tomer, Dashiell Ham­mett, a some­time de­tec­tive who be­came a writer of noir fic­tion. He ate at John’s Grill of­ten and men­tioned the place in his mas­ter­piece, “The Mal­tese Fal­con,” and Gus turned the place into a shrine to Ham­mett and Sam Spade, the dour hero of the tale.

Gus’ son, John, now runs the restau­rant and his own son, Johnny, and his daugh­ter, Sydna, are learn­ing the busi­ness.

“Con­sis­tency is the key,” John Kon­stin said. “We don’t change the menu much, or the way the place runs. Other places change all the time, but we stay the same and we’re still here.”

It’s a shrewd mix­ture of old San Fran­cisco with a dash of the new. The fam­ily has been po­lit­i­cally well con­nected. Kon­stin serves on the city Build­ing In­spec­tion Com­mis­sion, and the fam­ily is gen­er­ous with po­lit­i­cal and char­ity con­tri­bu­tions.

On elec­tion day, John’s Grill throws a big po­lit­i­cal bash, with Brown, the po­lit­i­cal guru and Chron­i­cle colum­nist, pre­sid­ing. Ev­ery­one in the city is in­vited for a free lunch and plenty of gos­sip. Mayor London Breed was there this year, and men­tioned it — and Kon­stin’s gen­eros­ity — at last week’s birth­day party. “No one was turned away,” she said, “It is like a fam­ily.”

John Cahill comes to the restau­rant a cou­ple of times a month.

“I sit at ta­ble 11 right un­der my fa­ther’s pic­ture,” he said. His fa­ther was Tom Cahill, who was chief of po­lice for a dozen years, longer than any­one else in San Fran­cisco his­tory. The con­nec­tion goes back a long way, to the days when Tom Cahill was a pa­trol­man and Gus Kon­stin was a waiter.

Not far away, Bill Scott, the city’s cur­rent po­lice chief, stood at a small ta­ble, talk­ing with any­one who came by. He spent most of his ca­reer in Los An­ge­les and has been a San Fran­cisco cop for less than two years, an out­sider by old­school stan­dards.

But there he was, the new po­lice chief un­der the old chief ’s pic­ture. De­spite all the changes, San Fran­cisco is still a small town.

Julie Rivett, Dashiell Ham­mett’s grand­daugh­ter, of­fered a toast to­ward the end of the party.

“Here’s to John’s.” she said. “A clas­sic.”

Carl Nolte is a San Fran­cisco Chron­i­cle colum­nist. His column ap­pears ev­ery Sun­day. Email: [email protected] sfchron­i­cle.com Twit­ter: @carl­noltesf

Liz Hafalia / The Chron­i­cle

Mayor London Breed (left) helps John’s Grill owner John Kon­stin and his son and daugh­ter cel­e­brate.

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