Me and the Falcon

Recently I visited San Francisco after having wanted to go for some time. The city’s charms are too numerous to mention, but some of the attraction came from its film history. I remembered Jimmy Stewart jumping in the bay after Kim Novak in Vertigo, Clint Eastwood chasing a killer in Dirty Harry, and Steve McQueen careening up and down the city’s hilly roads in Bullitt.

Once I had arrived in San Francisco I picked up one of the many city guides for tourists. Flipping through it, I was struck by an ad for John’s Grill, which billed itself as “The Home of the Maltese Falcon” complete with a photo of Bogart holding the famed bird. I had almost forgotten that the novel and the classic film were set in San Francisco. While director John Huston later became known for his location shooting, he primarily filmed The Maltese Falcon in the Warner Brothers studio. This may be why it didn’t jump to mind as a San Francisco set film. Having gone back and reviewed The Maltese Falcon, it does clearly set itself as being in San Francisco, just as the novel did. Both the book and the film have become part of the city’s folklore.

The John’s Grill ad also promised “Live Jazz Nightly.” It occurred to me that the restaurant could be a tourist trap, preying on gullible film buffs like me. But since it was only blocks from my hotel and I had no other dinner engagements, I decided it was worth the risk.

I entered a small place on Ellis Street between Stockton and Powell. The music was coming from the second floor, where I asked to be seated. The “live jazz” turned out to be one musician slowly strumming a guitar. The wallpaper looked like it hadn’t been changed since the 1940s. As you might expect, the walls were filled with photos from the film. The menu included a description of the San Francisco buildings and streets, both real and fictional, cited in Dashiell Hammett’s novel and John Huston’s movie.

The waiter arrived and I explained that the ad in the city guide promised a surprise. I showed him the ad for verification. He nodded and said that the surprise would come later. It became clear that this man must have seen thousands of tourists like me.

The menu featured mostly seafood and meat dishes. The “Sam Spade Lamb Chops” immediately caught my eye. The chops came with a baked potato and sliced tomatoes. I confirmed later that the book described Sam Spade as eating this meal at John’s Grill, although it didn’t specify what type of chops they were. “Hey, if it’s good enough for Spade, it’s good enough for me” I thought as I ordered the chops. I also ordered the John’s Grill house drink, the “Bloody Brigid” – named for Brigid O'Shaughnessy, The Maltese Falcon femme fatale. The “Bloody Brigid” was sweet & sour, vodka, soda, special mix, lime and grenadine on ice. Spade probably would never have ordered this drink. The book described him as drinking primarily whiskey and black coffee. But I’m not particularly keen on whiskey or black coffee, and how many chances would I ever have to order a “Bloody Brigid?”

The chops and potato were excellent, and somehow tasted better knowing that I was (in this small way) emulating the classic film hero. My illusions crashed around me when “the surprise” finally arrived. It was flan. Now I had a very hard time picturing Sam Spade eating flan, but it was free and it was good.

During my meal I observed the restaurant. While it abounded with photos and references from The Maltese Falcon, I could not find the bird itself. Sure, the bird may have only been a replica, but I could live with that. After all, in the film the falcon turned out to be a fake. I sheepishly asked my waiter about the falcon. He replied that it had been stolen a few months ago. I burst out laughing and remarked how life imitated art. The waiter glared back at me, not appreciating my sense of irony. A relative later told me that the restaurant’s owner, staff, and many in the community were very upset when the bird was taken. Later I learned that it was one of the falcons made for the movie, although not used in the filming. So I suppose it was understandable the waiter did not see the humor in the theft.

As I left John’s Grill holding my souvenir glass I wondered whether Sam Spade would be proud of me. Probably not, but that’s OK. I had my brush with the stuff that dreams are made of.

Adam Spector
December 1, 2007

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