History and good eats

Jack London and Sam Spade loved these Bay Area joints. You will too
Lisa Taggart

Near the sloped entrance to Heinold's First and Last Chance Saloon in Oakland, the wall clock hasn't ticked forward a second since April 18, 1906. When the earthquake struck, the clock stopped, the pilings below shook, and the floor eventually settled a foot or two.

But the place kept serving drinks, as it has for 120 years now. Stepping down into this little wooden shack at Jack London Square is like tilting backward in time ― the 19th-century gas lamps are lit here every evening, photographs and memorabilia like a World War II jacket and helmet adorn the creosote-darkened walls, and it's expected that you'll talk to your neighbor. Heinold's is one of a number of historic gems in the Bay Area where you can have a fine drink or meal and also touch upon stories from an earlier time. Each of them wears its age very well, and each one is worth a visit.

Heinold's First and Last Chance Saloon. 56 Jack London Square, Oakland; (510) 839-6761.

This bar has been serving drinks on the wharf since 1883. The bartenders are not only friendly, they're talented, having developed special skills for pouring at the sloped bar. And any of the regulars will tell you it was here that a young Jack London studied for school (a photo on a smoke-stained wall shows London reading at one of the tables in Heinold's) and bought his first oyster boat when he was 15. The bar's first owner, Johnny Heinold, was a good friend of London's and is mentioned many times in the writer's memoir, John Barleycorn.

Heinold's current owner, Carol Brookman, says faithful patrons are always relieved to come back after years away and find the bar familiar and unchanged. "They're very grateful it's still here," she says. "They either had their first drink here or met their wife or husband here. The place is always a lot of fun. And I don't want to change a thing, of course not."

Atmosphere: Convivial, with what London called the "camaraderie of drink." Best bet: Bloody Marys or London's poison: whiskey.

John's Grill. 63 Ellis St., San Francisco; (415) 986-3274.

One of the first restaurants established downtown after the 1906 earthquake and fires, the old-style chophouse is filled with photos of famous patrons, including actress Lauren Bacall, actor Don Johnson, Mayor Willie Brown, and even Hillary Rodham Clinton.

But the most honored celebrity is from an earlier era ― writer Dashiell Hammett lunched here frequently when he worked as a private investigator in a neighboring building. His most famous character, Sam Spade, ate here in The Maltese Falcon, though Spade had to rush his meal because he was on the trail of a murderer.

The three levels of dining rooms have old San Francisco mementos and Hammett memorabilia, including the elusive black bird itself ― quite a find.

Atmosphere: Clubby, with wood paneling, a small bar, and dining rooms on three stories. Best bet: Steaks or Sam Spade's choice, the lamb chops, with a Bloody Brigid cocktail.

Olema Farm House Restaurant & Bar. 10005 State 1, Olema; (415) 663-1264.

The 1845 building has been serving meals to weary travelers for 113 years. Back then, stagecoaches stopped here to refuel en route to San Francisco.

The farmhouse was the first structure in the tiny town of Olema, near Pt. Reyes National Seashore. Restaurant manager Andi Baker says visitors love to admire the 2,000-strong antique bottle collection, Elvis Presley collectibles, and hand-cranked telephones that decorate the three dining rooms.

But Baker says patrons keep coming back, "mostly because of our food ― it's really good."

Atmosphere: Cozy 19th-century home packed with knickknacks. The garden patio is a good spot to enjoy a drink. Best bet: Barbecued oysters.

Tadich Grill. 240 California St., San Francisco; (415) 391-1849. Closed Sun.

The oldest restaurant in San Francisco grew out of a coffee stand started by Croatian immigrants in 1849. The financial district eatery has changed locations a few times, but it has been popular with San Francisco's power brokers since the city's first days.

Owner Mike Buich says the secret to the restaurant's success is consistency. "We have changed very little," says the restaurateur, whose family has run the place for 91 years. "I know several families where four generations have eaten here."

The restaurant's storied past ― as well as its recipes for Rex sole, crab cakes, and oysters Kirkpatrick ― is told in a colorful new book, The Tadich Grill: A History of San Francisco's Oldest Restaurant, by John Briscoe (Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, 2002; $28; www.tenspeed.com or 800/841-2665).

Atmosphere: Bustling, with a long, usually crowded bar and often substantial lines even on weeknights. Best bet: Dungeness crab cakes and a martini.