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The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of

John's Grill Centennial Benefits SF City College Students

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So there's this joint, see. John's Grill, down on Ellis Street. Been around a long time -- 100 years now. If youz countin'.

But counting, they were -- as this centennial celebration trumpeted the establishment of John's Grill as one of the first restaurants to rise from the ashes following the 1906 earthquake and fire which, almost, devastated the city of San Francisco.

Especially father-and-son restauranteurs Gus Konstin and John Konstin, who for the past 40 years have owned this hallowed haunt revered by locals, celebs, tourists and Dashiell Hammett purists.

"He went up to John's Grill, asked the waiter to hurry his order of chops, baked potato, and sliced tomatoes, ate hurriedly, and was smoking a cigarette with his coffee when a thickset youngish man with a plaid cap set askew above pale eyes and a tough cheery face came into the Grill and to his table."

That would be ol' Sam Spade, the fictional anti-hero detective of The Maltese Falcon, born of Hammett's fevered imaginings when the author himself was doing time (and dining at John's) while working as a Pinkerton dick next door in the glorious old Flood Building -- one of the few structural survivors of the '06 earthquake.

"More than anyplace, John's Grill and San Francisco have the strongest connection to my grandfather," said guest-of-honor Julie Rivett. "I speak all over the country about Dashiell Hammett. But whenever I'm here, the venue is always sold-out."

Three-deep at the plank, the joint was jumpin' with all the usual suspects: cops, dames, do-gooders, politicians, social register-types and those ink-stained wretches from south-of-the-slot. Yeah-- you know the drill.

And so did all the "Johns" there -- who gamely served on the party's "Johns" Committee which was dreamed up by honorary chairwoman Ellen Magnin Newman and City College Foundation events chairwoman Debra Dooley.

"This is where I wake up and," revealed Jay Johnson, a longtime Grill habitue who, dressed in his daily dapper uniform of pin-stripe suit and snap-brim fedora uniform, undoubtedly, reigns as the most sartorial savvy executive news editor at The San Francisco Chronicle.

Johnson describes John's Grill as a club, "a home away-from home where everyone knows your name." After years of lunching there, his good pal John Konstin makes sure to save the corner booth by the bar for the newspaperman, five days-a-week.

Sipping an Old-Fashioned, Johnson declares, "History just oozes out of the walls here."

Good will oozed, too, as this swingin' shindig benefitted San Francisco City College Foundation and the students of CCSF's  Hospitality Program -- from whence John Konstin also honed his craft.

A clever menu of Hammett-inspired crudites (pork and chicken roulade dubbed the Joel Cairo Crostini) were prepared by John's Grill crew and City College instructor and student chefs, with foodstuffs donated by local purveyors such as Anchor Steam Brewery, Bi Rite Foodservice and Delicato Family Vineyards.

"John and his family are great supporters of the Foundation," said City College Foundation Board President Haig Mardikian.

John's Grill is entwined within the Mardikian family history -- his father, George Mardikian, ran the vaunted (and late-lamented) Omar Khayyam Restaurant around the corner up on Powell Street. Back in the day.

"You had John's Grill, Omar Khayyam, Bernstein's Fish Grotto and Bardelli's, all within blocks of each other," said Mardikian. "I believe there is a now Skechers shoe store where my dad's restaurant used to be."

Observing the crowd's snazzy dress code, some were surprised that former Mayor Willie Brown was spotted at the soiree sans his standard Wilkes Bashford-issue fedora.

"That," as Sally Foster and new City College Foundation Board member Anne Riley correctly noted, "is because he actually knows it's not polite to wear your hat in doors."

But Da Mayor still ruled in full-color as he pointed out the restaurant's walls filled with photos of famous San Franciscans.

"Did you notice Mayor Brown's photo is the only one in color?," teased Gus Konstin. "We use black-and-white because color is too expensive. But Willie Brown? He sent us his own photo from his office. In color!"

Natch, sweetie.

Mayor Brown studied the storied political line-up, peopled with both old friends and foes. Many, now, long gone.

"At John's you're always seated under your photo," explained Willie Brown, a longtime steak or, sometimes, fried oysters aficionado. "That's how it's been since the beginning of these wall photos -- from Mayor George Christopher to Herb Caen."

Whether it's a well-seared steak, philanthropy, fried oysters, friendship or a crisp, dry martini, Gus Konstin is sure of one thing: "I've traveled all over the world and there is only one city I love: San Francisco!"