"I have seen purer liquors, better seegars, finer tobacco, truer guns and pistols, larger dirks and bowie knives, and prettier cortezans, here in San Francisco than in any place I have ever visited." The correspondent was one Hinton Helper and the year was 1855, only six years after talk of gold in California had circled the globe and an army of argonauts had turned the sleepy hamlet of Yerba Buena into a rollicking cosmopolis. A dozen newspapers, round-the-clock casinos, a thriving theater scene, and several hundred saloons catered to the booming citizenry, as did an array of eating houses — French, Spanish, Chinese, German, Italian — that reflected the origins of their proprietors.
One venue opened for business in that annus mirabilis of 1849 and is still sating the appetites of wide-eyed visitors and gold-parsing locals alike. The Tadich Grill didn't assume its current moniker until a century or so ago, but its antecedents stretch back to a tented coffee stand, the Wigwam, operated by Croatian émigré Nicholas Buja near Portsmouth Square. Over the next 160 years, as business boomed and the city expanded (and, in 1906, undulated), the place changed names, owners, and locations several times, always remaining within a nine-block radius on the edge of the old produce market, and always operating under Croatian ownership: Buja's nephew John Tadich from 1887-1928, the Buich family ever since. The last relocation occurred 42 years ago, when the produce district was razed to make way for the considerably less picturesque Golden Gateway complex and the grill moved its operations, fixtures, layout, 80-foot mahogany counter, and all from Clay and Leidesdorff to 240 California.
Today's Tadich really isn't that different from the one of a century ago. You still crowd your way into a narrow, handsome, no-frills dining hall, counter on the right, booths on the left, open kitchen in the back, and brass, woodwork, and starched napery as far as the eye can see. If you arrive after 11:15 a.m., you wait for a table, cocktail in hand, while adroit waiters in white jackets and aprons dispense blasé wisdom along with Halibut Florentine, Seafood a la Monza, and Oysters Rockefeller. A half loaf of sourdough and a bowl of lemon wedges adorn every setting, and at lunchtime the sea of pinstripes, latent power, and gelid martinis is not unimpressive.
Let's start off with one of those martinis, a cocktail ostensibly invented a few blocks from here at the old Occidental Hotel by Professor Jerry Thomas. Tadich's rendition is exemplary, served crisp and cold "on the stem" in a glass considerably smaller than those lab-sized funnels that warm up the gin in a minute or two.
Another local delicacy is Crab Louis ($15 small, $22 large), first crafted (perhaps — historians disagree) at the St. Francis a century ago. With Dungeness season in full swing, now is the time to enjoy this simple concoction of shredded romaine, sliced tomato, and meaty shards of absolutely sweet and luscious local crab, a bowl of tart, creamy, scallion-ribboned dressing on the side. The Coney Island chowder ($6 cup, $7 bowl), a Buich family recipe, also makes a fine meal-opener: a hearty bowl of tomatoes, potatoes, onions, garlic, celery, and an abundance of meaty clams draped in a peppery broth.
Unless you're in the mood for a hefty, cream-laden dish out of the Boss Ruef era, it's best to stick with one of the menu's simpler entrees. The grilled flatfish, Tadich's most revered specialty, is where all that Croatian heritage comes in. Back on the Dalmatian coast, fishermen grill their catch over mesquite charcoal, a deceptively simple cooking technique that imparts a delicate woodsy accent to the fish while respecting its subtle flavor. It's California cuisine several generations ahead of schedule. The Tadich and Sam's Grill (another old Dalmatian fish house) are just about the only joints left that still embrace this method, and the results are impressive, especially when the fish is fresh. (Although the Tadich tends to employ frozen prawns, mussels, and other seafood in its stews and casseroles, it seldom serves frozen fish.) The petrale sole ($22), for instance, is presented very simply, just past underdone, with smoky crosshatches accenting its soft and tender flesh. Or you can opt for the equally delectable pan-frying method, in which (say) half a dozen sand dab filets ($20) are cooked until hot, crunchy, and buttery on the outside, light, moist, and delicate within. Both are accompanied by roasted potatoes, the vegetable du jour, and an irresistible, barely sweet tartar sauce thickened with sieved potatoes.
Two more dishes out of the local-classic repertoire are especially worth ordering. The Hangtown fry ($20) encloses half a dozen plump, sweet, lightly battered oysters and thick shards of smoky bacon in a fluffy frittata with a delicate outer crust; it's particularly yummy at lunchtime with a side of the house's lush, creamy hash-browned potatoes ($7). And the calamari Bordelaise ($20) features a platter-sized filet of squid, pounded to the slender and tender stage, encased in a luscious brown-butter crust, and drizzled with just a little more garlic butter: so much for California cuisine.
Desserts are the least successful aspect of the Tadich experience. (Most are made off the premises.) The vaunted rice custard pudding ($6) is bland and watery, with an odd bottom layer of undercooked grains, and the expansive bread pudding ($7), packed though it is with apples, raisins, dried cranberries, and apricots, is equally unsatisfying, neither one delivering that warm old-fashioned comfort level hoped for on a drizzly day. Happily, the chocolate raspberry truffle cake ($8) is a rich and fudgy treat lightened with the brisk flavor of raspberry jam.
For the fish-phobic there are several meat dishes on the daily 100-item menu (the charcoal-broiled steaks, chops, burgers, and calf's liver are popular). The all-California wine list is on the serviceable side, but at minimal markup and with several excellent vintages to its credit.
A loaf of that irresistible sourdough, a jug of Cakebread's sauvignon blanc, and a platter of freshly caught, perfectly grilled sole (or sand dab, sea bass, or swordfish) is one of the authentic tastes of San Francisco, even — especially — after all these years.