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    Historic John’s Grill: 115 Years and Counting

    By David Landis, The Gay Gourmet–

    It was only two years after San Francisco’s devastating earthquake, in 1908, that John’s Grill emerged from the ashes and opened its three-story steak and chop eatery near Union Square. It’s one of those iconic and classic haunts, made famous by The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett’s popular Sam Spade detective novel (and the subsequent movie starring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, and Peter Lorre). There’s even a replica of the famous falcon upstairs at the restaurant, which was stolen and returned. More on that later. To quote the book, “Sam Spade went to John’s Grill, asked the waiter to hurry his order of chops, baked potato, sliced tomatoes, and was smoking a cigarette.” Hammett wrote the San Francisco-based novel while working as a detective at the Pinkerton Agency next door in the Flood Building. According to the restaurant, “John’s Grill was—and still is—the downtown gathering place for those who ran the town and those who wanted to run the town. Inside, today’s customers will find period furnishing and dark paneled walls framed with hundreds of photos of movers and shakers.”

    John Konstin, Jr.
    Photo Courtesy of John Konstin, Jr., John’s Grill

    Now, 115 years later, John’s Grill is prospering more than ever. Co-owner John Konstin, Jr., (and his other co-owner, his dad), celebrated recently by closing the adjoining street and serving a free lunch to more than 3,000 people. That lunch, in honor of the book and the movie, of course included the famed lamb chops and sun-dried instead of sliced tomatoes.

    To honor that milestone anniversary, The Gay Gourmet decided to revisit this marvelous steakhouse, talk with co-owner John Konstin, and dine with my fellow San Francisco Bay Times columnist (and movie buff), Jan Wahl.

    “Being the third-generation owner of John’s Grill,” commented John Konstin, Jr., “I have a lot of pride and joy. I love every ounce of this place. Many of my early memories come from John’s Grill, with friends, family, and the team at John’s that I call family as well. I’ve been working here on and off from when I was a child, starting at the age of 13. Many of the cooks, chefs, and waiters have watched me grow up since I was a kid. It’s a real full circle moment to now work side by side with them as the leader of the restaurant! Being the next owner of this historic business and celebrating 115 years made things so clear that John’s Grill is here to stay for another 115 years.” 

    He added, “Moving to New York at the age of 20 and finishing my culinary arts and B.A in restaurant hotel management from the Culinary Institute of America Hyde Park has me poised to steer this ship in a successful direction. All the wisdom I’ve attained from my parents and grandparents also has a huge role in John’s Grill’s success over the last 5 or 6 years since I’ve taken over.” 

    “(Our celebration with) three thousand attendees was a special moment for me and my family,” he continued. “We love our community and always give back whenever and however we can. This celebration was a massive offering of free wine and beer and food! It truly felt like the whole city was there to celebrate with us! It was special to just see everyone smiling and having a good time. It made me proud to be a part of such an amazing organization and city. My whole team worked so hard to put this together and it truly couldn’t have been better! Food always brings people together. (I loved seeing) the smiles, and the line around the block to Market Street. It makes me so happy to be in this industry to facilitate and invoke this sort of emotion with people. We are here to shine a light on our beautiful city and the memories of the last 115 years while we look forward to the next century!”

    David Landis (The Gay Gourmet) with Jan Wahl at John’s Grill
    Photo Courtesy of David Landis

    In her inimitable style, Jan Wahl added: “I’m not sure there is a real falcon. As memorable as it is, it was always stolen or in mysterious hands. If the one at John’s Grill was stolen, I hope it was by movie buffs! I think Willie (Brown) knows where the real Maltese Falcon is! The restaurant is perfect for this perfect film, full of film noir-ish corners and set designs. My favorite dish is Sam’s lamb chops. Kinda macho and perfectly seasoned. This movie reminds me of one of my favorite actresses, Mary Astor. This witty and wise woman was coming off a real-life scandal, yet she persevered and won even more fans as the femme fatale. If you like her in the Falcon, you’ll love her in Dodsworth. See you at John’s Grill. I’ll be the dame in the corner.”

    San Francisco Bay Times movie columnist and historian Jan Wahl
    Photo Courtesy of David Landis

    So, how’s the food? Well, let’s start by recommending that a proper start begins (as my recent dinner did) with a John’s Grill dry gin martini, shaken, served straight up. That will evoke the memory of Sam Spade while you peruse the menu. For my lunch with Jan, I opted instead for a crisp, light, Lichen Estate pinot gris from the Anderson Valley. Jan chose the Virgin Paloma (grapefruit, soda water, and simple syrup) since, in her own words, “there must be something—or someone—I haven’t done.” The San Francisco sourdough bread arrives without asking (and without an additional charge), which sets the stage for the delicious meal to follow.

    Throughout the meal, our attentive waiter Poom was always there when we needed him—and not there when Jan and I had our not-so-private tête-à-têtes. As my loyal readers know, I’m a native Midwesterner and a glutton for a good steak. John’s Grill delivers on that front. The corn-fed medium-rare filet mignon is tasty and tender. It might be the best in the city, served with vegetables, baked potato, and sliced tomatoes. But when you dine at Sam’s, you have to take Jan’s advice and order Sam’s chops: lamb chops, sliced tomatoes, and a baked potato. For dessert, we chose a flan with berries—light and custardy and a sweet ending to a lovely meal.

    In summary, and to quote the last line of the film version of The Maltese Falcon: John’s Grill “is the stuff dreams are made of.”

    Bits and Bites

    According to 24/7 Wall St., the best bakery in California is Acme Bread Company in Berkeley and San Francisco. 24/7 Wall St. recommends ordering the jalapeño cheese bread.

    Mooala Oat and Almond Milk, unlike some other alternative milks, doesn’t contain sugar. It’s dairy-free, organic, and shelf-stable. That’s a plus for The Gay Gourmet.

    The book Oldest San Francisco by Alec Scott (from Reedy Press) “draws a picture of a city that exploded during the Gold Rush and has since drawn generations of dreamers to it. From Alcatraz to the Presidio to the Ferry Building, from the Mechanics’ Institute to Gump’s Department Store, it tells the stories of the institutions that have made San Francisco distinctive. The book spotlights Ghirardelli, a family firm that helped make San Francisco a chocolate mecca. It also pays tribute to the Tadich Grill, which has served downtown diners since the Gold Rush and introduced mesquite grilling to America.”

    Locally acclaimed Woody’s at the Airport (at the Monterey Airport) was named by readers of USA Today as Best Airport Sit-Down Restaurant in 2023. My sister Kate says they have the best sand dabs on the Monterey Peninsula.

    Woodhouse Fish Company on Fillmore Street recently went through an interior renovation and is looking spiffy. I’ve always loved their Tuesday all-day $1-ish oysters!

    There’s a new gin in town from Sausalito Liquor Company called Marin Coastal Gin. It’s a balanced coastal gin that highlights California citrus peel, locally foraged nori seaweed, angelica seeds from Santa Rosa, and a combination of two types of junipers. Well worth a try!

    I just visited The Vault Steakhouse for its recent partnership with Cal-Indian restaurant ROOH and the results were astounding. The combination of two great restaurants yields extraordinary concoctions. Plus, the live jazz piano gives The Vault a turn of the century, sophisticated New York feel. Standouts that night included: the potato pavé tots with caviar from the Vault; the yoghurt magic puff with tamarind and raspberry dust from ROOH; the chutney stuffed mussels from the Vault; and the beef short rib with madras curry from ROOH. Bravo!

    Sterling Vineyards recently reopened its doors to the Napa Valley community. The winery has new and improved attractions, including the world’s only winery aerial gondola, elevated tasting rooms, and a strong commitment to sustainability. They’re offering four new tasting experiences (The Sterling Stroll, Tour and Terrace Tasting, Hilltop Tasting, and The Founders Experience). Time to visit Napa again!

    John’s Grill:
    Acme Bread Company:
    Mooala Oat and Almond Milk:
    Oldest San Francisco:
    Woody’s at the Airport:
    Woodhouse Fish Company:
    Sausalito Liquor Company/Marin Coastal Gin:
    The Vault Steakhouse:
    Sterling Vineyards:

    David Landis, aka “The Gay Gourmet,” is a foodie, a freelance writer, and a retired PR maven. Follow him on Instagram @GayGourmetSF or email him at:

    Or visit him online at:

    The Gay Gourmet
    Published on November 16, 2023