Amid the new restaurants and celebrity chefs who tend to take center stage in San Francisco, there are some standout restaurants celebrated for their long history and traditions. For decades these quiet gems have provided their guests with unique ambiance, excellent service and distinctly San Franciscan meals that we are thrilled to share with you.
Historic Restaurants in San Francisco
The Buena Vista Café
Opened in 1916, and named after a “good view” of the waterfront with the majestic Golden Gate Bridge and rolling hills behind it, The Buena Vista Café is best known for its Irish coffee offered at any time, along with “Breakfast Served All Day.” At the intersection of some major tourist trails, and easily reachable by the city’s moving relic—a famous San Francisco cable car—this place sees crowds eager to get in from early morning till… even earlier morning… at the 2 am closing time.
Try an overstuffed Buena Vista lobster roll with lemon aioli and fresh herbs, or order a tender Dungeness crab omelet, but never leave this place without a glass of a heartwarming Irish coffee, made with Tullamore Dew Irish whiskey, Peerless organic coffee, C+H cane sugar and heavy cream. The recipe remains unchanged since its inception in 1952, when it was brought home from Shannon Airport in Ireland by the then-San Francisco Chronicle columnist, Pulitzer Prize-winner Stanton Delaplane.
One of San Francisco’s oldest steak and seafood restaurants is historic John’s Grill, opened in 1908. This beloved city landmark was made famous by Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 novel “The Maltese Falcon,” featuring a sly detective, Sam Spade, who always ordered his favorite dish. In the Hollywood film noir with the same title, Humphrey Bogart played Sam, adding to the popularity of John’s Grill. The Maltese Falcon Room on the second-floor displays memorabilia from the classic film, including the notorious black bird.
Sam Spade’s Lamb Chops are prominently listed on the menu, supplemented with a quote from “The Maltese Falcon,” and served exactly as described in the novel—with baked potato and sliced tomatoes.
The dining room walls of the multilevel restaurant are covered with photos of prominent San Franciscans, international celebrities and movie stars. Luciano Pavarotti, Lucie Arnaz, Julia Child, Billy Joel, Andy Warhol, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Steve Jobs, Truman Capote, Vidal Sassoon and Sen. Dianne Feinstein have all enjoyed the John’s Grill fare, and so should you!
Squeezed amid the turn-of-the-century buildings in the bustling North Beach neighborhood, Sotto Mare Oysteria & Seafood is all about an authentic Little Italy experience. The counter, inside a long and narrow dining room, dates back to 1919 and is decorated with countless mementos of the restaurant’s long history.
Some crowd-pleasers here are Benita’s Baccala (salted cod with sweet peppers, tomatoes and herbs) and Crab Diavolo. “Baccala is my mother-in-law’s recipe,” explains Richard Azzolino, the proprietor and a native North Beach resident, who is on the premises most of the time along with wife Laura. “Crab Diavolo was a one-time special,” Laura says, “but it became so popular, we had to put it on the menu full time.”
“Octopus salad is my recipe,” continues Richard, “and we also do cioppino the way my mother used to. In my childhood, we ate pasta with cioppino sauce first, and then the seafood. Here we just serve cioppino over penne pasta—a shorthand version.” Even bread is baked according to Richard’s request. “No sourdough,” he says. “That would interfere with the taste of seafood, and we want you to fully enjoy it with our housemade marinara or lemon-caper sauce.”
Sutro’s at the Cliff House
If a wild ocean beach with crashing waves is your thing, then Land’s End is where you have to look for your memorable San Francisco meal.
Sutro’s name refers to legendary Sutro Baths, a public saltwater pool that was built in 1896 and touted as the largest indoor swimming facility in the world. After it burned down in the 1960s, the site of historical ruins with concrete walls, stairs and passageways that lead nowhere, became a favorite of leisure walkers and a part of a large recreational area.
The multilevel Cliff House is home to an antique carved-wood bar, dating back to the 19th century, and a comprehensive collection of Sutro Baths’ paraphernalia, including a pure wool swimsuit worn by male swimmers back in the day. Sutro’s restaurant is beautifully designed, filled with the moving light of ocean reflections, and serves signature dishes like Dungeness crab cakes with chipotle aioli, arugula, jicama and shaved fennel and Crab Louie with jidori egg, avocado and seasonal greens.
The most photographed architectural structure in the North Beach neighborhood, the historic Sentinel Building is curiously wedge-shaped and painted patina-green. Home to Francis Ford Coppola’s Café Zoetrope on the corner of Kearny and Columbus, it has a fascinating history. Constructed in 1906- 07, before and after the Great San Francisco Earthquake, this flatiron beauty has housed a motley crew of tenants. From local politicians’ offices to underground restaurant Caesar’s Grill, rumored to be the birthplace of the Caesar salad, to a covert speakeasy, a bohemian enclave, a nightclub, an investment property and a recording studio, the building was finally acquired by Coppola in 1972. It became the headquarters for the famous director’s production company, American Zoetrope. A number of his films, including “The Godfather II” and “The Godfather III,” “Apocalypse Now,” “The Conversation,” “One From The Heart,” “The Outsiders” and “Dracula” were written, edited or sound-mixed here.
Cafe Zoetrope is a European-style restaurant with a menu of authentic Italian cuisine and a wide selection of Italian and California wines. Many exclusive vintages come from Coppola’s winery, located in Geyserville, California, and quite a few recipes were conceived by the master filmmaker himself.
Coppola’s latest endeavor at this cozy restaurant, peppered with film paraphernalia and various mementos of his long and celebrated career, is the Great Women Cocktails beverage program. It offers mixed libations based on distilled spirits named after Maria Gaetana Agnesian, an 18th-century mathematician and philosopher; Ada Lovelace, an English mathematician and writer, who worked on the “Analytical Engine”—a computer prototype—in the early 19th century; and the Countess Walewska, a consort of Napoleon III.
Sam’s Grill and Seafood
Step inside a living legacy as tuxedoed servers hurry around with Perfect Martinis and Sam’s Negronis on silver trays, and where you can be seated in a secluded numbered booth with a curtain door for complete privacy. Soak in a feeling of being transported into a film noir ambiance, and catch yourself muttering under your breath, “If these walls could talk…”
Rest assured, all kinds of celebrities and prominent figures from the highest echelons of political and cultural power—not only in the glorious city of San Francisco—but in the nation, have visited Sam’s Grill. Many are coming here today, knowing that an “old-fashioned eating house with old-fashioned waiter service and private booths” won’t disappoint.
“Our goal is to craft Sam’s modern culinary identity while focusing on the many dishes from the last 100 years,” says executive chef David Gingrass, who tirelessly works on perfecting classic recipes and wine pairings alongside proprietor Peter Quartaroli and wine and spirits director, Lance Tolaio. “The menu showcases a collection of San Francisco classics like Celery Victor, Green Goddess salad, coquille Saint Jacques, and Hangtown Fry. Although the spirit of each dish remains true to tradition, the sauces are lighter and brighter than in years gone by.”
The history of Sam’s Grill dates to 1867 when Michael Molan Moraghan began selling fresh oysters from San Francisco Bay at his stall at the base of California Street. In the former open-air market where vendors hawked fresh fish and crabs, “The Oyster King” founded an institution that today is a staple of the city’s Financial District with its high-rises and high-energy crowds. Try some of Sam’s specialties like fish crudo, Petrale sole cooked to order, or Lazy Man’s Cioppino with shelled Dungeness crab.
Fior D’Italia, America’s oldest Italian restaurant, was opened in 1886. It has operated out of San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood in six different locations, and once was located in a tent, where it served soup to the city dwellers displaced by the 1906 earthquake and fire.
At its current location in the historic San Remo Hotel, the first one built after the catastrophic earthquake, Gianni Audieri, the restaurant’s executive chef for more than 30 years, purchased it with his wife, Trudy, in 2012, becoming the fourth owners in 133 years. On the premises almost every night, Gianni continues his “labor of love” expressed in authentic Northern Italian cuisine with homemade pasta and sauces, fresh seafood and seasonal local California ingredients.