San Francisco is considered one of the greatest restaurant towns in the World. It seems that a new trendy restaurant pops up on almost a daily basis. Thankfully, some of our classic dining establishments like House of Prime Rib, Swan’s Oyster Depot, Tadich Grill and a handful of others survive and thrive. And others get rescued by “angel investors”- like Joe’s of Westlake (fingers crossed), Tosca Cafe, The Big 4, The Old Clam House and Schroeder’s. But I sadly salute the passing of some of my all-time personal favorites.
(formerly 1600 Powell at Green St., North Beach)
This Family-Style Italian dinner house was a go-to for good food at a good price, and always great company. So many memories at Capp’s with family and friends. Dinner always served with a tureen of really tasty Minestrone (“Pass that bowl down here, please!”), followed by a tasty kidney-bean laden house-dressed salad. The long time owners, the Ginellas, were recently booted, another victim of San Francisco’s latest landord eviction frenzy (shameful). Capp’s Corner is also notable (to me) for being the place I first met the late great Seamus Coyle, in his capacity as the greeter. No one could greet you like that grizzled Irishman! I miss Capp’s….and Seamus.
(formerly 2299 Powell St at Bay St., near Fisherman’s Wharf)
Over the years, Caesar’s was the destination for birthdays, weddings, anniversaries…Hell, ANY festive gathering. As teens, we would head to Caesar’s and settle in for a 7-course “pigout” (always trying, but never getting used to the pickled pig’s feet appetizer. No problem, because there were 6 other plates with antipasti, cold cuts, marinated ceci and kidney beans). So loud and raucous that you had to shout your order at the waiter. The best Cioppino in town. Excellent bar! A great, friendly, attentive staff, with owner Matteo actually cooking in the kitchen. And you were always greeted by the smiling face of the late, much-missed co-owner Luigi Romani. R.I.P.
Empress of China
(formerly 838 Grant Avenue, Chinatown)
The classiest destination in Chinatown, the Empress had one of the most spectacular views of The City from both the dining room and the bar. You didn’t go to Empress of China for authentic Regional cuisine. The menu was very “Americanized”. But it was a blast from the past, a step back into San Francisco, circa 1960. Check out the celeb photos on the wall. (“Hey, that’s Jack Soo from “Barney Miller”!) Order a perfect Mai Tai and imagine you’re in a scene from a Bond movie. Another classic bites the dust for more office space. Thanks, Progress…
A very old school North Beach feel in the heart of the busy Inner Sunset, the Villa Romana dining room was decorated with grapevines and Chianti bottles hanging from the barrel-like ceiling. IMHO, there was one reason to make the trip to this Irving Street staple: Pizza. If you missed Villa Romana, you missed one of the best pizzas in town. Period.
The legend of Sam Wo lives on in the memories of anyone who had the pleasure of climbing the rickety stairs to the second or third floor dining areas, sitting at the funky, beat up, hodge podge of communal tables. If you were lucky, you were verbally abused by the legendary Edsel Ford Fung. Kitchen on the first floor? No problem. Dumb waiter that bowl of noodles up to the appropriate floor. Open until 3 am, Sam Wo had a BYOB policy (despite the hand-written sign that stated “No Booze”) that let us bring in whatever beer we could buy at the liquor store down the block (that had, let’s say, a very liberal policy on checking I.D.) The food? Whatever. The experience? Priceless.
The granddaddy of all Italian sit-at-the-counter Italian grills, Vanessi’s was another multi-course dining experience (do you notice a trend in my favorites?) There was nothing like sitting at the counter across from the exhibition grill, and feeling the heat blaze up every time the chef flopped a steak or chop on the wood-fueled fire. Savory sensory overload! Vanessa’s had a great red sauce, slathered on spaghetti and ravioli, offered as your main course or a side. In the late’s 80’s, they moved from Broadway to Nob Hill, and closed soon after. Thankfully, Original Joe’s (North Beach and Downtown San Jose), Marin Joe’s, and a handful of others keep up the tradition.
Guess what? Another Italian Family-Style Dinner House. (Hey, I like Italian food, served in mass quantities. Sue me.) The things that stood out about Gold Spike were: 1. That uneven floor in the front dining area near the bar. 2. The dollar bills and business cards plastered all over the ceiling and walls. 3. The butteriest, garlicky garlic bread ever. Delicious! 4. HUGE portions. Pro-Eater Joey Chestnut would have difficulty not doggie bagging some of his meal. I went there for lunch with a group from work who complained that Gold Spike had “hair on it” (i.e. it was old).You think? It was over SEVENTY YEARS OLD at the time! They didn’t get it. You want pristine? I have the address of Olive Garden for you. As for me, (to paraphrase OG’s motto) a trip to Gold Spike was truly “when you’re there, you were family.”
Johnson’s Tamale Grotto
(formerly Vicente at 24th Avenue, Sunset District)
Tamales were a big deal in The City, WAY before the Tamale Lady and her garbage bag full of delicious masa treats made the bar scene in the Mission. I mean, “Tuesday was Red’s Tamale Day”, fercryinoutloud! The Hot House at Playland was the favorite of many Locals (including my wife’s family). But we were a Johnson’s Tamale Grotto family. They had the original 20th and Mission location and one in Westlake. But from the Sunset District location, we had Johnson’s deliver their deliciously sauced beans and rice (in the round ice-cream containers), enchiladas and cup tamales (made in coffee cups, if I remember correctly?), all wrapped in newspaper and tied with butcher string, to our front door. The sauce? Who knows what they put in it, but it was pure Mexican gravy magic.
(formerly 1349 Montgomery St. near the Filbert steps, Telegraph Hill)
The Shadows on Telegraph Hill was, to me, a “classy date night” destination. I couldn’t afford Ernie’s or Julius Castle (down the block), so when I did save a few bucks, I’d put on my Harris Tweed sports coat and a clip-on tie, and escort my girl (Lincoln High girl, Shirley) to The Shadows for some German-Swiss-Continental-American cuisine…and love. The dining room looked like my idea of what a Swiss chalet would look like (the closest I had ever been to Switzerland being the Matterhorn ride at Disneyland). The glorious panoramic view of the Bay from the bar was impressive. Their lentil soup (with refills!) was delicious. And I scored huge brownie points, even though the tie came off mid-meal.
(575 Commercial St near Montgomery, Financial District)
Paoli’s has a spot near and dear to my heart for one specific reason- their Happy Hour buffet. I make the case that it was the most impressive array of freebie comestibles (with purchase of a cocktail of course) offered at any dining room bar anywhere, ever! It seemed like almost every item offered on the Dinner menu appeared on the massive buffet table near the bar (not true, but a great selection, nonetheless). Another great date night restaurant, dark and moody, Paoli’s offered up a delicious mixed bag of Continental-American-Broiler dishes. But you had to have one at the bar and wander over to see what was happening at Happy Hour first. You might not make it to dinner.
What are your favorite, long-gone restaurants? I’ll have my second list of 10 posted soon…