“I was always a big fan of Anthony Bourdain’s storytelling,” says Denise Clifton, author of “Tables From The Rubble: How The Restaurants that Arose after the Great Quake of 1906 Still Feed San Francisco Today.”
It was a tip from Bourdain that ultimately led to the book, a delicious mix of urban history and personal anecdotes from owners of some of San Francisco’s oldest, most storied restaurants. (She’s slated to talk about it at several events this month.)
In 2004, Clifton — then a news designer at the Seattle Times — was at Stanford on a year-long journalism fellowship when Bourdain swung through on a promotional tour of his own.
“I was standing in line to get a book signed,” recalls Clifton, “And I thought, ‘I have 10 seconds of his attention, what should I ask?’”
With time only for one more trip to The City before going home to Seattle, Clifton asked Bourdain to recommend a single place she shouldn’t miss eating in San Francisco. His answer: Swan Oyster Depot on Polk Street.
After making her way to the 106-year-old raw bar and market, looking forward to a hero-approved dinner, she arrived late one afternoon to find countermen “throwing out the ice and shutting the door.”
As San Francisco regulars know, Swan Oyster Depot only serves lunch.
It took awhile, but in 2011, Clifton made it to the oyster bar. She discovered that the daytime-only schedule was just one of many distinguishing characteristics.
“There was a little card on the counter saying the restaurant had opened in 1912 and had only been owned by two families ever since. This same counter, this same floor had been there for so long,” she marvels.
“How many other places were there like that? It was as if this little window onto San Francisco had opened up to me. That’s how my book was born.”
Over the course of many return trips to The City, Clifton focused her research on establishments that opened or reopened between the devastation of the 1906 earthquake and the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915, a coming out party for the rebuilt city.
She interviewed John Konstin, owner of John’s Grill on Ellis Street. Opened in 1908, it quickly became a power-lunch spot for local politicos, which it remains today. Author Dashiell Hammett, a regular in the 1920s, name-checks John’s in “The Maltese Falcon,” complete with a reference to his favorite lambchops — still on the menu.
Clifton also spent many hours with members of two generations of the Ho and Soracco clans, respective owners of Chinatown’s Sam Wo (founded 1906) and North Beach’s Liguria bakery (1911), unearthing inspiring stories of hard work, tradition and devotion to family.
Other featured restaurants include German brauhaus Schroeder’s, which dates back to 1893; the Palace Hotel (destroyed by the earthquake, rebuilt and reopened in 1909); and the Comstock Saloon, opened in 1907 as the Andromeda, a hangout for boxers.
In addition to Clifton’s nostalgic, trivia-laden prose, “Tables from the Rubble” has dozens of vintage photographs, a selection of which will accompany each of her upcoming talks.
Whetting readers’ appetite for more, Clifton concludes the book with notes on historic restaurants not profiled in-depth and an extensive bibliography.
“I don’t think of this as a travelogue,” says Clifton, reminded of the impact of Bourdain’s work on her own. “I hope it feels like an invitation to explore.”
Tables From The Rubble: How the Restaurants That Arose After the Great Quake of 1906 Still Feed San Francisco Today
Written by: Denise Clifton
Published by: Tandem Vines Media
Sept. 20 – Green Apple Books, 1231 Ninth Ave., S.F., 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 21 – Metropolitan Club, 640 Sutter St., S.F., 5:30 p.m., $10-$15
Sept. 22 – Chinese Historical Society, 965 Clay St., 2 p.m., $10-$15