Cioppino, San Francisco’s Inimitable Fish Stew at the Iconic Tadich Grill
It is a rustic, tomato based, intensely flavorful fish stew synonymous with San Francisco, where it is said to have originated in the mid 1800’s at the time of the California Gold Rush.
The North Beach immigrant community of Italian Fishermen, on returning from their fishing expeditions, would use whatever was left unsold from their catch of the day to make a fish stew.
The ingredients were never exactly the same. Everything was “thrown” into a pot with onions, garlic and lots of tomatoes, olive oil, herbs and wine and cooked slowly blending the flavor of the ingredients. To make it more wholesome and filling, it was served with chunky toasted sourdough bread, toasted on the open flame, slathered in oil or butter and seasoned with garlic.
Originally a “throw everything in the pot” stew served to feed the fishermen and their families, it found its way into the restaurants of North Beach, an Italian neighborhood where many Italian immigrants had settled and opened restaurants – and as it migrated “upwards” to other neighborhoods, so did the price.
A bowl of Cioppino in San Francisco is currently priced at $30.00 -$45.00 – possibly what it cost the fisherman to feed their entire family for a month in the 1800’s.
“No matter what religion you are, you are not truly baptized until you have had lunch or dinner at the Tadich Grill.”
Emeril Lagasse, the famous New Orleans Chef and Restaurateur known for his EMERILS restaurant empire, TV Shows and Cook Books
San Francisco has some of the finest restaurants in the Country, the Chefs competing against each other and for diners with their unique style of cooking and expensive custom interiors. There is one restaurant however, that adopted a different course and has managed to carve out a special place in the restaurant landscape. It specializes in “Old School” cooking, using a menu that has changed very little over the years. And yet it has survived and is one of the most unique restaurants in San Francisco.
Tadich Grill is the oldest continuously running restaurant in California now approaching one hundred and sixty-nine years and is the third oldest restaurant in the USA.
Founded by Croatian immigrants in 1849 on the Long Wharf, now known as Commercial Street, Tadich was originally a Coffee Stand. Since the early days, it changed location a few times, evolving into the Tadich Grill as it is today.
The Restaurant has been in its present location for over 45 years and the interior has not changed in that time. The walls are paneled in dark wood with mirrors above. It has antique tiled floors at the long wooden bar, white table cloths on the tables that are arranged down the center, with alcove seating along the far wall.
This is a very classic “Old School” restaurant, serving classic “Old School” food, much as it has since its inception.
The restaurant has survived the ups and downs of the restaurant industry, plus two devastating earthquakes during that time, one in1906 and another in 1986.
The menu is extensive. Although Tadich Grill is essentially a seafood restaurant, they also serve fish, meat, pastas, salads and calorific desserts – and everything is delicious.
Located in the heart of the Financial District, Tadich Grill attracts a lot of business and professional people from the neighborhood as well as tourists and it is always busy, with a line of diners waiting at lunch and dinner time,
The restaurant is a definite San Francisco experience and it is operated in a very specific way by waiters who are well trained and know their craft.
Paul Lovato at the Bar has been with the restaurant for nearly thirty years. He was a former teacher and his manner is that of a Drill Sergeant. He wears the classic white server’s jacket but is permitted to choose his own tie. He is one of eight rotating bar men serving classic, handmade cocktails such as Manhattans, Negronis, Martinis, Side Cars and Old Fashionds.
Tadich has its own Bloody Mary Mix, a replica of the one originally served at Harry’s New York Bar in Paris. Since the 1920’s there have only been seven head chefs, who after reaching this level, remain with the Restaurant until they retire.
The waiters are known for their attitude, which is part of their “schtick,” but they are efficient while at the same time being entertaining. Dressed in black trousers, black shoes with starched white jackets and aprons, they are in charge and boss the guests around – as I soon found out.
I entered the restaurant at about 5.00 p.m. to avoid the line of dinner guests who would begin to arrive by 6.00 p.m. With a dramatic show of gesticulating arms, the Maitre d’ greeting the guests at the door sent me to the bar, even though I wanted to sit at a table in the center. His style was more like a policeman directing traffic at a busy intersection at rush hour, seating the guests as quickly as possible, where he wanted them to sit ignoring where they wanted to sit.
Settling in at the bar, the silverware was ready, and I was given a chunk of sourdough bread with butter. My order was taken promptly. I had come for the Cioppino which I ordered. There was a bib that I could use to protect my clothing and a tool with which to crack the crab.
Very soon the Cioppino arrived. It was mouth-watering and was served with two slices of toasted sourdough bread slathered in butter, garlic and herbs. Just looking at it, I could not wait to begin.
Knowing better than to engage, I nodded.It was returned piping hot, the temperature being so hot that I suspected it had been heated in the microwave. Fact is, it was absolutely delicious and was overflowing with seafood.
Tadich’s recipe includes crab, prawns, sand dabs, clams, mussels, scallops and bay shrimp. The broth was hearty, a deep tomato color and I could see the herbs floating in the broth. The toasted sourdough bread was crunchy and delicious and ideal for dipping and slurping.
My companion at the bar ordered Petrale Sole which he said was delicious. He told me he had been coming to Tadich Grill for the last 45 years, two to three times a week, (he worked in the Financial District) and the food was always excellent. According to him, everyone who was anyone had eaten at the Tadich Grill, including world leaders, politicians, celebrities, movie stars, leading sportsmen, visiting chefs, local business leaders – and me!!
This was a special dining experience and to anyone visiting San Francisco. I would say for excellent food and classic cocktails accompanied by some of the most entertaining waiters, this should be on the list of things to do. At $38.00 a serving, the Cioppino is not cheap, but it is satisfying, more than enough for one meal or easily enough for two to share.
- Seating: 110 Guests.
- 240 California Street,
- San Francisco, CA 94111
- Tel. 415/391-1849
- Hours: 11.00 a.m. – 9.30 p.m.
- website: tadichgrillsf.com