Cover of the Official Program of the Golden Gate Bridge Fiesta, from 1937. Prelinger Library, Internet Archive.
On May 27th, 1937, the Golden Gate Bridge, the “world’s longest single span” at the time, was completed and opened to the public. Inside the Official Souvenir Program for the Golden Gate Bridge Fiesta, a visitor guidebook of sorts celebrating the bridge’s opening, are more than 130 advertisements for various businesses across the city that wanted to ride the wave of this historic moment. Most of the businesses advertised, like Chutes Tavern and Schwarz Delicatessen, are long gone, but a few remain and even reside on San Francisco’s Legacy Business Registry. Below we highlight three of these business: Alioto’s Restaurant, Lucca Delicatessen, and John’s Grill.
And to better understand the San Francisco of 1937, a city celebrating the second bridge opening of the decade (the San Francisco Bay Bridge opened just the year prior in 1936), browse the guidebook for yourself to learn more about the details of everyday life, from where to get a haircut to where to rent a bike.
Alioto’s Restaurant at #8 Fisherman’s Wharf, May 2020. Heritage Photo.
By the time the Golden Gate Bridge opened in 1937, Alioto’s had already been serving fresh fish and lunchtime provisions at stall #8 in Fisherman’s Wharf for twelve years. Far from the tourist attraction the Wharf is today, Alioto’s surroundings were a sprawling lumber yard, train tracks, and a union hall, and the fare was popular with San Francisco’s growing population of Italian laborers. The business was started by Sicilian immigrant Nunzio Alioto, who used gas-burning crab pots and served his popular steamed crab and shrimp and crab cocktails on trays that could be attached to car windows – one of the earliest attempts at drive-in eating. Business grew steadily and, by 1932, he constructed the first building on Fisherman’s Wharf by combining the fish stand with a seafood bar specializing in crab and shrimp cocktails and fresh cracked crab.
Nunzio Alioto passed away in 1933, survived by his wife Rose and three children: Mario, Antoinette, and Frank. Left with no other means of support, Rose took over the business, becoming the first woman to work on the Wharf. Initially, her male neighbors refused to sell her fish, but Rose had help in her husband’s former employee Phil Rubino, who helped her procure fish in those transition years.
By 1938, a year after the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge, Rose installed a kitchen and officially opened Alioto’s Restaurant. She continued to improve and develop seafood specialties, including the shellfish stew called Cioppino. This San Francisco culinary classic is still on Alioto’s menu today.
The following years included Alioto’s purchase of Castagnolas #7 next door and a fire and re-building on the same site in the 1950s. Around 1958, Rose’s son Frank assumed the operation of the restaurant. In 1971, grandchildren Nunzio and Joe took over management responsibilities and this third generation honors Alioto’s past by continuing the fine tradition of Rose’s original recipes. The restaurant displays their history on the stairways and in its Calamari Room with photographs, menus, and ephemera from their seven decades on the wharf.
Alioto’s is facing multiple setbacks during the COVID-19 crisis; they have made the tough decision to remain closed for business during the shelter-in-place, and a recent fire at Pier 45 has devastated the local fishing industry’s capacity to harvest the fresh seafood. At this time, you can support Alioto’s by purchasing gift cards through their website.
While not officially on the Legacy Business Registry, John’s Grill has remained an indelible part of San Francisco’s living history since 1908. Featuring original period furnishings, the dark-paneled walls of this downtown establishment are replete with old San Francisco memorabilia and portraits, reminding patrons of the city’s rich past and the restaurant’s layered history. The business played a role in the business district’s recovery after the 1906 Earthquake and Fire, and claims the distinction of being the first restaurant to open in the rebuilt downtown core.
John’s Grill solidified its place in popular and literary culture when it appeared in Dashiell Hammett’s noir masterpiece, 1930’s The Maltese Falcon. Hammett started dining and drinking at John’s Grill in the early 1920s, when he worked as an operative for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency in the Flood Building next door. The restaurant proudly displays photographs of Hammett and Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, and Sidney Greenstreet – stars of the celebrated 1941 film adaptation, and today you can order Sam Spade’s lamb chops with baked potato and sliced tomatoes.
When the Golden Gate Bridge opened in 1937, original founder Wilfred Gerard was still operating the restaurant (as well as a French restaurant upstairs in the same building). The advertisement for John’s Grill’s in the Golden Gate Fiesta program touted “Good Steaks – Oysters -Fish,” all items you can still find on the menu today.
The ground floor interior of John’s Grill at 63 Ellis Street. Photo courtesy of John’s Grill’s website.
Gus Konstin bought John’s Grill in the 1960s, and today his son John Konstin, the current owner, is preparing his son Johnny and daughter Sydna to run the landmark restaurant. While John’s Grill is a popular tourist destination today, it has also been a haunt for politicians, newspaper barons, financiers, and private investigators for generations and continues to serve its time-honed fare to its dedicated “regulars.”
John’s Grill has made the difficult decision to close at this time, but has put together a fundraiser on GoFundMe to help with the significant costs incurred during the COVID crisis.
Lucca Delicatessen at 2120 Chestnut Street. Photo courtesy of Lucca’s Legacy Business Registry Report.
“Three generations, one LOCATION! Since 1929” is what Lucca Delicatessen proclaims from its website and, true to their word, this family-owned deli continues serving up homemade Northern Italian food from its original storefront on Chestnut Street in the Marina District.
Michele (Mike) Bosco, along with his partners, Chef Maggiore Colona and Italo Cencini, opened Lucca in 1929. Bosco was born and raised in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, and grew up working on the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad and at the Star Hotel in Glenwood. Like many other Italians in the years before the Great Depression, he decided to move to San Francisco to start a business and raise his family.
The Marina was the site of the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition and after the fair private developers slowly turned the area into a residential neighborhood. As the Marina District became more populated in the 1920s, landlords realized that by converting the spaces under their upper-story residential units to retail they could generate more income. This is how Lucca Delicatessen was born – it was originally a parking garage beneath a 6-unit apartment building. Like Alioto’s in Fisherman’s Wharf, by starting Lucca’s Bosco and his partners helped feed an emerging Italian community that lived and worked nearby.
In the 1930s, with the completion of the Golden Gate Bridge, Lombard Street (now Highway 101) was widened, and soon developed into a strip of roadside motels. This only helped grow nearby Chestnut Street’s business district, and Bosco and his partners showcased Lucca (by this time almost ten years old) and its “Italian Sausages and Ravioli” in the Golden Gate Fiesta program.
In 1959 Mike Bosco became the sole owner of Lucca’s, and managed the deli with his son Ed until 1968. Ed ran Lucca’s continuously with great success for 40 years. Today, Ed’s children Linda and Paul Bosco run Lucca’s as a brother and sister team, and continue to share Lucca’s wonderful tradition and legacy.
Lucca cofounder Mike Bosco (back) and his son Ed Bosco (far right) with other employees, c.1960s. (Photo: Courtesy of Lucca Delicatessen)
Lucca’s Legacy Business Application sets the scene for what customers experience at Lucca’s:
Going to Lucca’s is an experience. It has an old-world charm that is unique to the Marina. Folks first see the Lucca sign on the window and the traditional green, red and white striped awning similar to those that hang from many Italian food establishments. Then they see the front windows with all of the different products for sale – pastas, wines, olive oil, vinegars, cookies, torrone, panforte and more. The next thing that brings them in is the smell of the salami hanging on the rack and the prosciutto being sliced on the slicer. Once customers are inside, everywhere they look there is something good to buy – cold cuts, cheeses, olives, bread, roasted chickens, and prepared to go items. It reminds one of taking a mini vacation to Italy. All sorts of smells can be emanating from the kitchen into the front depending on what the chef is up to. It’s an old-school, take-a-number-to-get-helped sort of place. On the weekends, things can get a little noisy as there could be up to 10 customers waiting to be served.
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