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June 11, 2010

Tadich Grill

Tadich Grill Dominic Armato

You're on your own in San Francisco.

It's been a long day, your stomach's gnawing, and anyplace honest with a counter is sounding like a good idea. A restaurant that's been around for over 150 years can't have survived that long by playing to culinary trends -- were there culinary trends in 1849? -- so you brush past the fellows having a smoke on the sidewalk out front, open the door and step out of the rain-drenched night and into the bustle within.

The Long CounterDominic Armato

It isn't 1849, but it might as well be 1949. If you block out the less conservatively dressed patrons and the servers' terminals, you could pretend that Truman was still president, Don Newcombe was the NL rookie of the year and Tony Bennett was still Joe Bari. So you wait for a spell until a stool opens up at the satiny smooth wooden bar that starts at the front door and goes on forever, maybe all the way into the kitchen in back, maybe all the way into the bay. You take a sip of water and, under yellow light cast by ancient brass fixtures, start to look over a menu filled with the kind of simple seafood and steaks that meant the good life to your grandparents. Your waiter steps up, white jacket, black tie, slick hair, a face with experience, and though he works a busy counter he moves with economy and carries himself like a foreign dignitary. "Can I get you something to drink?", he says, sounding like he arrived here from Western Europe, but decades ago. You ask for a Diet Coke, to which he responds, "I said something to drink," with just enough of a wry tone and a twitch of the lip to keep it friendly. He glides off to retrieve your Coke. You're the boss, but it's his turf.

Seafood CocktailDominic Armato

You start to regret the selection. Something with bourbon somehow seems more appropriate as you soak in the scene. Folks who got off late unwind with an old-school cocktail. The walls are lined with trench coats and the counter lined with briefcases. A septuagenarian with earlobes like dried apricots -- a regular -- sits down to your left, orders and eats a minute steak with potatoes, pays his tab and hobbles off before your seafood cocktail even hits the counter. The seafood cocktail decided to dress for the occasion, wearing a perfectly trimmed lettuce leaf, purely for show, that frames a chaotic mix of bay shrimp, prawns and crab claws, cool and tender, still smelling of the sea. It's touched with just the right amount of cocktail sauce, a house blend that eschews ketchupy sweetness in favor of texture and fire, the tomato pulp still detectable, the horseradish wafting up into your nose before the fork passes your lips. It's simple and perfect and you sigh when you reach the bottom all too quickly. Your waiter raises an eyebrow and cracks the faintest smile as he whisks away the empty vessel. He won't ask what you thought of it. He already knows.

CioppinoDominic Armato

When he returns, he bears a wide, shallow bowl filled with a stew whose acquaintance you're anxious to make. The cioppino's a house special, and if you doubt the house's authority, the plate helpfully reminds you that the house was built, figuratively at least, in 1849. The seafood stew is bold and decidedly not of this era, made with heavily reduced tomatoes, dried herbs, what must have been every sea creature at the market and enough oil to carry their flavor. The first spoonful of wine-fortified soup hits your lips, and you're transfixed. It's deep and developed, almost bordering on dirty, with the essence -- no, the bold, unmitigated totality -- of the bounty of seafood that adorns the bowl. Clams, mussels, shrimp, crab, scallops, fish... they're all here, all with their own distinct flavors, all sweet and luscious and tender. You have bread to dunk. It isn't crusty, artisan bread, but rather thick slices of something light and moist, toasted to a faint crisp, basted with butter and garlic and absorbent like a sponge. You have to resist the urge to tear through the cioppino like a madman, but you manage to linger with it for a spell, making every spoonful count and using the bread to mop up afterwards. You couldn't have gotten anything more out of the bowl if you licked it. The dishwasher will pause for a moment, wondering how a clean bowl got mixed in with the dirty.

Bourbon Bread PuddingDominic Armato

You don't have room for dessert, but you're going to eat one anyway. Bourbon makes an appearance, allowing you to right an earlier wrong, steeped with caramel and basting a bread pudding that comes out of the kitchen without its cap. Your waiter walks it over to a free patch of countertop, reaches into a refrigerator below for a bottle of fresh whipped cream, lays a huge dollop on top of your dessert and, by accident, a small one on his fingertips. He glances over his shoulder, and in a flash, the misplaced cream disappears into his mouth before he turns and sets the dish before you. "Pudding" seems like even more of a misnomer than usual, with cubes of spongy bread and tender, cooked apple nearly unsullied by binder, held together, it would seem, by sheer force of will and the occasional raisin. It's sweet and delicious and you need coffee, so you order an espresso. But the machine behind the counter spits and belches and emits a few disconcerting noises, and after fiddling with it for a few minutes, your waiter declares it dead and sullenly informs you that drip coffee will have to do. "That's okay," you say, realizing that a plain old cup is more appropriate, and this was probably providence. An old mug is set before you, the coffee within is smooth, warm and easy to drink, and with three deep gulps, it's gone.

You pay the check, and as you struggle to stand, your waiter thanks you with a warm smile. He genuinely seems to mean it. Or he's a master at making you think so, which is really all the same to you. You work your way to the front of the narrow building, another lone body falling in to take your place. You step back into the cool night, stand in the neon light and take a deep breath. A cab pulls up and asks if you need a ride. And even though you get in, you think to yourself that he arrived too soon. You really would have liked a few more minutes.

Tadich Grill
240 California Street
San Francisco, CA 94111
Mon - Fri11:00 AM - 9:30 PM
Sat11:30 AM - 9:30 PM


Ah, that takes me back. For 10 years, I worked around the corner from Tadich. Sometimes for lunch, sometimes taking a cocktail, and from time to time for dinner. The Cioppino was a staple. A warm bowl at lunch in the winter would set up the afternoon nicely.

That's the one thing I do miss about San Francisco, the very old school eateries. Sure, I like the modern with every other foodie, but there is something about a smocked waiter that really brings you back. That it isn't in a steak house is even better.

I love your writing at baseline, but this post transported me to another time and place and actually made me quite jealous.

I like Anita's comments -- it pretty much captures my reaction to this evocative piece. Even if you didn't write about one of my favorite subjects -- food -- I would visit your blog for the fabulous writing and photos. Please keep them coming!

Twnety-five years ago, I used to meet my partner for lunch at Tadich, and damned if you haven't brought back memories long slumbering. I can taste the seafood cocktail like it was only yesterday I ate it last, instead of a quarter of a century. Thanks for the memories!

Ah, thanks for this beautiful review. For 10 years, I worked one block away and spent many wonderful hours at the Tadich - this really takes me back and makes me wish I were still there!

Thank you thank you thank you!

Funny how all of us former San Franciscans remember this old standard with such fond memories...

Beautifully written. Thank you!


I actually just ate at Tadich last Monday on a visit to SF. I liked the cocktail (got a sidecar) wasn't overwhelmed by the entree (beef medallions) and also got the bread pudding, which ended up being solid. The atmosphere was great, although it was pretty crowded and I felt a little rushed. I thought the food was OK, but wouldn't have recommended it as a place I loved. Maybe I just didn't order the right thing. Cool to see you write up the place right after I visited though Dom.

FWIW, Campbell, the friend who sent me there later told me I'd ordered perfectly. I saw a lot on the counter that looked pretty plain, and I've no doubt would have failed to excite me. But I really, really enjoyed that cioppino. And the place is a trip.

Aw, I wish this write-up had existed last December! I found myself in San Francisco, alone, after a long day, looking for somewhere to sit a counter - basically exactly the same situation you were in.

I ended up at Sotto Mare instead, where I had an incredible platter full of pan-seared sand dabs (and little else), so the night was not a disappointment - but gosh that bowl of cioppino in your picture is calling to me.

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