When San Franciscans speak of their revered old restaurants—the places of integrity that preserve the style of an earlier day—Tadich Grill, at 240 California Street, is always mentioned in the same breath with Sam’s Grill and Jack’s, a trinity of old-fashioned houses situated in the city’s financial hub. Tadich Grill is one of the oldest restaurants in California and undoubtedly among the oldest eating establishments in the country. In its 129-year history it has been run by only two families, both originally from Dalmatia. It began in 1849 when Nicholas Buja opened a waterfront café that served lunch to sailors. Some years afterward John Tadich, a nephew of Buja’s, emigrated to the city and began working for his uncle, and in 1882 the café became a restaurant and acquired its present name. In 1912, the same year that Tadich’s moved to its longtime location at Leidesdorff and Clay streets, Tom and Mitch Buich, also from Dalmatia, went to work for Tadich; ten years later they were joined by their brother Luko, nicknamed Louie. The three Buich brothers purchased the restaurant from John Tadich in 1928, and thirty-seven years later Louie’s sons, Steve and Bob, took over with their mother as consultant. Seven family members now make their living at Tadich’s, continuing the tradition. Dave Sokitch, who was trained by Dominic Ivelich, Tadich’s chef for nearly half a century, has been in charge of the kitchen for thirteen years. Even the turn-of-the-century character survived intact when, in 1967, Tadich’s moved to California Street. Every detail of the old premises was duplicated, from the long handmade mahogany bar and counter that bisects the room to the semiprivate booths lining one side. In its functional, unfrilly appointments and atmosphere—white tablecloths, bentwood chairs, long-aproned waiters—Tadich’s is a nostalgic link with the past.
Throngs are drawn to Tadich’s primarily for the fish, and the restaurant is crowded from the moment it opens its brass-plated doors at eleven-thirty in the morning until it closes them promptly at eight-thirty at night. I doubt there is another restaurant in town that serves as many varieties of fish and shellfish in the span of a year, although stormy weather and fishermen’s strikes may severely limit the number of species on a given day. Tadich’s reputation rests on the quality of its fish as well as their diversity, the almost too-generous portions, and the skill in grilling and panfrying. Sitting at a table or the counter in the rear of the dining room, one can see the open kitchen where the fry chef wields his large skillets with practiced dexterity and the grill chef keeps track of row after row of rex sole and salmon and swordfish steaks browning over the intense, even heat of Mexican hardwood charcoal.
Tadich’s daily dated menu includes many of the same dishes every day but lists certain fresh fish and casseroles under the heading “Today’s Special.” Since that all-important adjective “fresh” doesn’t precede many of the fresh fish actually available, it is useful to keep in mind what species are invariably fresh or frozen. The “big three,” as Tadich’s refers to native rex sole, sand dab, and petrale sole, are offered only fresh, and the rex sole and sand dab are served with the bone in, although a waiter will bone them at the table upon request. Other fish never served frozen, according to Bob Buich, are swordfish (in season in late summer and autumn), Columbia River sturgeon, sea bass, brook trout, rock cod, turbot, and such occasionally served species as striped bass and scrod. In the sometimes-fresh, sometimes-frozen category are halibut, oceangoing salmon (frozen during four winter months), and freshwater baby salmon from Washington, one of the most interesting fish on Tadich’s menu and a true delicacy when fresh. The young salmon is a hatchery-grown Chinook that has never been released to complete its normal anadromous life cycle. The result is a salmon—without the salmon’s concentrated flavor or color—that tastes like a refined trout. Among the shellfish, the most distinctive Western delicacy, Dungeness crab, is designated “fresh” on the menu for seafood cocktails and salads, although in times of scarcity frozen crab is used. Frequently watery and with no discernible flavor, it is the only disappointment I’ve encountered at Tadich’s, and recently I learned why. The crab dishes are not made with live crabs cooked in Tadich’s kitchen but with “fresh crab,” an industry term for crab that is cooked at the fishery and vacuum-packed in tins. The crab is “fresh” only because it has never been frozen, and unlike ordinary tinned crab it is perishable and must be used within three days. If not heavily iced, vacuum-packed crab retains quite a bit of flavor—the crab legs seem to fare better than the shredded meat—but it still rates a poor second to freshly cooked crab that has never been iced. Tadich’s prawns and scallops are frozen, as they are just about everywhere else, but there are superb fresh Eastern oysters as well as choice, tiny Olympias and occasionally Oregon razor clams.