Before San Francisco had a Golden Gate Park or a public library, there was Sam’s Grill and Seafood Restaurant. Founded by Michael Bolan Moraghan in 1867 as a fresh fish emporium, it claims to be the third-oldest restaurant in San Francisco and the fifth-oldest in the country.
Walking into the place downtown feels like stepping inside a sepia-toned photograph that has come to life. Customers dine on crisp white tablecloths alongside wood-paneled walls. The sound of relaxed chatter floats through the air along with the clink-clink of cocktails shaken by a tuxedoed bartender. A long line of brass hooks on the wall holds coats and purses—but they were originally installed for hats.
Formal but not stuffy, classic but not staid, Sam’s embodies the joie de vivre of a bygone era. Some of the waitstaff have worked at the restaurant for nearly three decades, and diners request their favorites by name. Former employees, some of whom are in their 80s, still drop in to say hello. One waiter in particular, Tony Luccetti, had so much character he inspired a screenplay.
In the historic-restaurants-of-San-Francisco category, Tadich Grill gets a lot of love, and was recently the subject of a profile in the New York Times. Yet Sam’s is only three years younger, serves up fresh petrale sole and cold Alhambra beers with just as much character, and it doesn’t get nearly enough attention.
Renamed Sam’s when Sam Zenovich took over in 1922, Frank Seput bought the restaurant in 1937 when Zenovich died and kept the name. The Seput family subsequently ran the restaurant for three generations before selling it to Phil Lyons.
Yet Sam’s nearly shuttered in 2014, when Lyons retired without a transition plan. Nearly two dozen loyal patrons—including longtime employee Peter Quartaroli, who had worked at the restaurant as a server and maître d’—banded together to rescue the place.
The restaurant’s loyal clientele are ecstatic they did. Today, the gratitude flows as freely as the negronis.
“Thank you for bringing it back,” said one happy customer to partial owner Mark Buell, who still lunches at Sam’s twice a week. “What a gift to the city.”
“I hear it every day,” Buell said. Though he and his business partners say the transition wasn’t easy.
“It was a challenge,” Quartaroli said. “The building was falling apart, and there were only two years left on the lease.”
The partners received dividends for the first time just last year—prior to that, all profits were reinvested into the restaurant and the neighboring tavern.
Quartaroli, who now works as the managing partner of the restaurant, helped to create Sam’s Tavern, a modern bar that adjoins the more formal restaurant (an internal door connects the two businesses). During demolition, he unearthed a brick wall scorched by the 1906 fire.
“I came home reeking like smoke,” he said. “It was from the wall; it still smelled like fire.”
Quartaroli framed the hammer he used to demolish the scorched wall, which hangs in a glass box alongside the bar.
While the tavern draws a more casual crowd, the restaurant is a hangout for politicians, artists and attorneys.
The table in the corner of the restaurant is nicknamed “the mayor’s seat” because former Mayor Willie Brown lunches in the chair four days a week. Velvet-curtained booths line the far side of the restaurant, a separate area where the most clandestine of conversations can occur.
The walls have seen the likes of Bill Clinton and Kamala Harris—and also a family of ranchers some 20 to 30 strong who gather every year at Sam’s for their annual reunion. Sam’s is where Frances McDormand debated what to wear to the Oscars with Esprit co-founder Susie Tompkins Buell (married to part owner Mark Buell), and where Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Michael Ondaatje once dined.
Chef David Gingrass of Spago and Postrio fame consulted on the menu, and the fish is procured from a variety of sources to ensure the highest possible quality.
“He freshened up the menu while keeping it classic,” Quartaroli said of Gingrass.
The most notable items on the menu—when you can get them—include the rex sole and the sand dabs. Oysters, petrale sole and cioppino are all popular. The fish is served simply with a choice of preparations and side of vegetables, alongside fresh bread from Jane bakery with paper-covered butter tureens.
The food is delicious, but Sam’s is really about family in the most expansive sense—a community built by routine and ritual, by seeing the same people every week or every month. It’s something hard won, and well cherished, in a city that can feel so fragmented and transitory.
“We’re not going anywhere," Quartaroli said. "This is home.”
Julie Zigoris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org