Suppose you had some out-of-town visitors, and they asked you to take them to a "traditional, authentic San Francisco restaurant." You could do no better than to take them to Tadich Grill, which is not only San Francisco's, but also California's, oldest restaurant. But you need to warn them: Tadich Grill takes no reservations and is usually packed at lunchtime and dinnertime, Monday through Saturday.
Your guests may very well have to stand in line waiting for a table. If they are famous, important, or influential people, they will still have to wait, and may very well be standing next to some of the city's business or political leaders, or other local celebrities.
Tadich Grill Today
When guests walk into Tadich Grill today, they'll see on the right, a long wooden bar stretching from the front door back to the kitchen. The stools at the bar are always occupied with diners. On the left side, a row of tables with starched white tablecloths outline the bar. On each one there is a bowl of lemon quarters. Further into the restaurant, built into the wall, are alcoves with booths large enough for six patrons. Dark wood paneling with large mirrors cover the walls and Art Deco brass and milk-glass light fixtures hang from the fifteen-foot ceiling.
Tadich Grill is essentially a seafood restaurant and has been for over 166 years. Twice a day (and sometimes all afternoon), the place bustles as waiters serve aromatic dishes bearing last night's catch, broiled, sautéed, or grilled. It is noisy, yes. But unlike some popular spots, it's not so noisy that you can't have a conversation with your companions. If you'd been to Tadich Grill a century ago, it would hardly have looked any different. Back then, customers left happy and returned frequently, just like they still do.
In 1849, Nikola Budrovich, Frano Kosta, and Antonio Gasparich, three immigrants from Croatia, set up a tent on Long Wharf and posted a sign on it that read Coffee Stand. Long Wharf was a pier that reached half a mile into the Bay. Hundreds of sailing ships were tied up there, and the pier was lined with hastily built shops, saloons, markets, and gambling dens. Coffee Stand served fresh fish grilled over charcoal to the merchants, sailors, and argonauts who frequented the pier. At one point, a ship carrying a load of iron tied up at the pier, and the crew immediately deserted the ship to go off in search of gold. Shortly thereafter, the Coffee Stand tent was replaced by a shanty made of corrugated iron. At the time, the shore of San Francisco Bay lapped at the edge of Montgomery Street. But bay fill was expanding the city eastward, and Long Wharf was turning into an extension of Commercial Street. In this reclamation process, Coffee Stand was obliged to relocate to the New World Market, the city's central produce market, at Commercial and Leidesdorff streets and was renamed New World Coffee Stand. Before long, success required larger quarters, and the Croatians moved their place to Commercial and Kearny and promoted it from Stand to Saloon.
In 1871, sixteen-year-old John Tadich arrived in San Francisco, after a long voyage from his home in Dalmatia on the Adriatic coast of Croatia. After a few years working in various saloons, he was hired as a bartender at the New World Coffee Saloon. When it moved again to 221 Leidesdorff, he went along, and, in 1887, he bought the establishment.
The Cold Day Restaurant
In 1882, due to a remark made by Alexander Badlam, Jr., San Francisco's tax assessor, the New World Coffee Saloon acquired a new name. Badlam, running for re-election, bragged that it would be "a cold day" when he'd be defeated. He was soundly defeated, and the newspapers had a field day over his remark. Since Badlam was a regular at the New World, everyone began to call it the Cold Day Restaurant; the restaurant's name when Tadich bought it. The 1906 earthquake and fire destroyed the place and, along with it, another nearby Croatian restaurant, the Adriatic, owned by John Sutich. Tadich and Sutich joined forces and opened a new Cold Day at 417, and later at 411 Pine Street. In 1912, Tadich dissolved the partnership and opened a new place at 545 Clay Street, and called it, of course, Tadich Grill, the Original Cold Day Restaurant.
One year later, Tadich hired a countryman, Tom Buich, as a pantryman. Five years later Tadich fired Buich for constantly trying to tell him how to run the establishment. But Tadich was a forgiving man and hired Tom back in 1923 as a waiter. In 1928, Mr. Tadich sold to the Buich brothers. By 1934, Tom and his brothers, Mitch and Louie, were the sole owners, and they revived the Coffee Stand's practice of grilling fish over charcoal, using mesquite exclusively.
Once again, redevelopment forced the restaurant to move. In 1967, Steve Buich (Louie's son and Michael's father) identified the restaurant's new location at 240 California Street, orchestrated the build out and move without skipping a beat, and continued to advance Tadich Grill to the forefront of the nation's restaurant industry, carrying on it's already 118 year iconic history. In 1989, Michael Buich joined the business and his family continues to own and operate it today. Employees serve loyal customers for generations. John "Duke" Dukich worked there as a waiter from 1924 to 1966, forty-two years. John Skorlich started waiting tables in 1939 and kept at it until he retired twenty-seven years later. John Markovich also served for twenty-seven years, 1943 to 1970. The restaurant has survived rough spots over the years: prohibition, the food shortages during World War II, and the 1989 earthquake. In the latter event, it closed on the day of the quake and the following day, but opened the next day with an abbreviated menu. With no gas, the menu was limited to Crab Louies, deep-fried prawns, or charcoal grilled fish, and customers were offered free Bloody Marys. The day after that, it was business as usual.
Tadich Grill, like many well-known restaurants, likes to keep tabs on its famous customers, such as politicians. You could hardly be, or even run for, mayor of San Francisco without being a familiar face at Tadich Grill. Many other political leaders, from Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia to George H. W. Bush, have partaken of the Buich family's fresh fish. Sports figures, such as Joe DiMaggio, were a common sight. And after battling each other on the gridiron in 1985, quarterbacks Joe Montana and Dan Marino had lunch there together. Hollywood legends have been seen at the tables over the years: Groucho Marx, Bob Hope, Lana Turner, Clark Gable, Cary Grant, Danny DeVito, Jack Nicholson, George Lucas, and Francis Ford Coppola, among many others. Herb Caen, of course, was a regular. But perhaps the most honored guest ever appeared in January 1949 to celebrate the hundredth year of the restaurant's operation: ninety-four-year-old John Tadich. (His daughter, Ruby, ate there regularly until 2008 when she passed away at age 104.)
San Francisco treasures tradition, longevity, and the honoring of history. Few, perhaps no, other city establishments can equal Tadich Grill in exemplifying those qualities.
Reprint from the Nob Hill Gazette June 2010 George Rathmell
John Briscoe, prominent San Francisco attorney, food enthusiast and history buff, has written a book for the Buich family recounting the evolution of not just a restaurant, but one of the world's most vibrant cities. It is a wonderful gift to the city of San Francisco and its many residents and visitors. The book is a conglomeration of diverse facts, skillfully woven together, offering the reader insights into the history of the city and the evolution of the culinary arts of the West told through the kaleidoscope of The Original Cold Day Restaurant.
Steve and Mike Buich (1993)