John’s Grill in the city’s heart for 110 years
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
Mayor London Breed (left) helps John’s Grill owner John Konstin and his son and daughter celebrate.