The Six Best Really, Really Old Restaurants in SF

Half a dozen eateries that have stood the test of time

December 16, 2016 9:00 am

Once upon a time, pets-dot-com ruled the universe. 

All we’re saying is: Things change. And fast. Especially here. 

Which should bind us more closely to the things that survive, thrive and live on, as icons. 

Like these half-dozen restaurants, the old-school classics of our city’s dining scene.

Included: a luncheonette where they’ve served “long shore men, sailors, dock workers, military personal, yachtsmen and women” since 1912.

That’s six years after the earthquake. And they’re still moving and shaking to this day.

The Java House Restaurant & Red’s Java House
Founded: 1912 and 1955, respectively
We’re eating: That $7 hot dog
Most interesting historical fact: The similarities of the names are no accident: the titular Red and his brother decamped from Java House to start up their own breakfast and lunch shack, a few piers away. Either one will provide hearty/greasy food, cheaper than the other options in the neighborhood, and with spectacular views. 

The Old Clam House
Founded: 1861
We’re eating: As much roast dungeness crab as we can fit in our mouth
Most interesting historical fact: S.F.’s “oldest restaurant in the same location” dates back to our city’s days as the center of a “thriving fishing industry.” It survived the earthquake and fire in 1906 when the conflagration failed to push south of 20th street. 

Tadich Grill
Founded: 1849(!)
We’re eating: A deep-fried oysters and bacon frittata that was supposedly a favorite of the newly wealthy gold miners
Most interesting historical fact: No joke — local (and national, sometimes) celebrity favorite Tadich Grill claimed its title of California’s oldest restaurant when three Croatian immigrants set up a tent and a sign reading “Coffee Stand,” a set-up later upgraded to a “shanty made of corrugated iron.” It’s been reconstructed many times — including after the events of 1906. The day after the 1989 earthquake, it served Bloody Marys on the house. 

Cliff House
Founded: 1863
We’re eating: Poached salmon to the sound of live harp music, at Sunday brunch
Most interesting historical fact: Cliff Houses tend to burn to the ground. The second version, constructed in 1896 and meant to resemble a French chateau, saw Teddy Roosevelt and his predecessor as guests before it burned to the ground, a year after the 1906 calamities. The current version is co-operated by the National Park Service and a private family. 

John’s Grill
Founded: 1908
We’re eating: A New York Steak, plus three jumbo fried shrimp — a.k.a., the Surf and Turf
Most interesting historical fact: John’s is such a part of the mid-century firmament in S.F. that it actually appeared as a setting in The Maltese Falcon, starring everyone’s favorite homegrown, hard-boiled S.F. private dick: Sam Spade. 

Cha Cha Cha at The Original McCarthy’s
Founded: 1933
We’re drinking:
Whatever looks good
Most interesting historical fact: 
Don’t let the name fool you: Cha Cha Cha, serving Peruvian and Puerto Rican food, makes its home alongside the Irish bar founded by Denis McCarthy, an immigrant from Ireland’s County Cork, in the days immediately after the repeal of Prohibition. (It had operated as a “soda fountain” previously.) It actually just changed hands again, in September — but the new owner promises no changes to staff or Caribbean-Cuban concept. 


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