San Francisco has always had an epicurious relationship when it comes to film, from the dramatic Cliff House in Erich von Stroheim’s 1924 silent Greed, tothe jungles of the Rainforest Café in the 2004 Adam Sandler comedy, 50 First Dates. San Francisco restaurants aren’t known for their longevity either, so it’s not surprising that many of this city’s once well-known movie locations are no longer in existence – or at best, vaguely resemble how they were immortalized on film.
Arguably, one of San Francisco’s best-known landmarks is Mel’s Drive-In, whose initial claim to movie fame was the scene in 1967’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner where Spencer Tracy gets into a fender bender in the parking lot at 5199 Mission near Pope (now the Crocker Amazon Apartments) in the Excelsior district.But, of course, the restaurant earned its star on the San Francisco Walk of Foodie Film Fame for George Lucas’s 1973 paean to the last of simpler times, American Graffiti. The film was shot primarily in Petaluma, but Lucas found his perfect period diner in the soon-to-be demolished Mel’s Drive-in at its original location at 140 South Van Ness.Unfortunately, soon after the movie opened, the restaurant was bulldozed to make way for condos and another type of drive-in – the Tower Carwash. Mel’s has since been reborn into its current famous burger-and-shake chain, thanks to Mel’s son.
In terms of film history, The Jazz Singer – Al Jolson’s 1927 silent-to-talkie film, while mostly shot in Los Angeles had its most historic scene filmed on location here in Union Square. Situated on the prestigious corner of 200 Powell and O’Farrell, Coffee Dan’s was a clamorous underground speakeasy/cafe known for its ham and eggs, jazz acts and patrons banging small wooden mallets on the tables in lieu of applause. It was here that jazz singer Jack Robin (Jolson) exclaimed the celebrated line, “Wait a minute, wait a minute. You ain’t heard nothin’ yet.” Shortly after the movie opened, Coffee Dan’s lost their Powell Street lease but reopened years later in another underground location at 430 Mason, where a chute took customers from the street level lobby to the downstairs nightclub floor. Today, that nightspot (and chute) still exists in the form of Slide (mallets not included).
Another type of history was made when a bad cup of joe at SFPD Inspector Harry Callahan’s beloved Acorn Café (China Basin’s Tiger’s at 701 Third Street and Townsend) tipped him off to an attempted robbery in 1983’s Sudden Impact. That scene ended with Dirty Harry’s infamous request to “Go ahead, make my day.” That particular location has worn many fry-cook aprons: before Tiger’s it was home to Doggie Diner #29, and after Tiger’s, became a Burger Island. Today it’s home to another burgerstand – McDonald’s.
And let’s not forget John’s Grill, where in 1941 The Maltese Falcon’s Sam Spade ordered chops, baked potato and sliced tomato (even if the actual restaurant was never used in the movie). Open for almost 100 years, this three-story steakhouse at 63 Ellis Street still brings in locals, movie fans and tourists, drawn to the movie memorabilia including photos of Falcon author Dashiell Hammett and the film’s stars, and (sadly) the broken wooden cabinet that once housed the Maltese Falcon prop which was stolen back in February of this year.
Of course, this is just a taste of The City’s film sets; there’s also Edinburgh Castle, Vesuvios and Fog City Diner in So I Married an Axe Murderer, Tosca Café in Basic Instinct, and the original Enrico’s (RIP) in Bullitt.From greasy spoons to jazz clubs, dark dives to colorful diners, San Francisco restaurants have played backdrop to many an interesting movie scene – some you’d miss if you blinked, others are burned in our memories. But without a doubt, filmmakers love our restaurants. Some might even say it’s the stuff that dreams are made of.