Ernie’s restaurant … and the big ‘E’
special to northside san francisco
By Ernest Beyl
Recently, as I walked down the gentle slope of Montgomery Street between Pacific and Jackson on my way to score a hamburger at nearby Pickles, I felt the tug of nostalgia for gourmet splendors past.
There was the three-story old brick building that once housed the greatest restaurant in the city. It was named Ernie’s, and in its prime its acclaim went far beyond San Francisco, but it had a humble beginning.
Ernie’s, 847 Montgomery Street, opened in 1934 by an Italian cook, Ernie Carlesso, as Il Trovatore Cafe – a North Beach saloon with spaghetti. Five years later he renamed it Ernie’s and sold a share of the business to waiter Amrogilo Gotti. Together they bought the classic brick building that had once housed the old Frisco Dance Hall, a notorious Barbary Coast landmark. Carlesso died in 1946 and Gotti retired a year later. Gotti’s two sons, Victor and Roland, who worked there as bus boys, took over the joint.
In a few years they had turned Ernie’s from a simple trattoria with red-checkered tablecloths into a top-drawer establishment – arguably one of the most famous restaurants in the world. The Gottis tore the old place apart and recast it in the San Francisco Victorian mode: maroon silk brocade walls, deep burgundy carpets, crystal chandeliers, discrete banquettes and tables with starched white linen, fine china, glassware and cutlery, and deft waiters in tuxedos, all presided over by the shrewd and elegant Gotti brothers. It was a Victorian stage setting of a high style, of fancy French cuisine accompanied by the best wines the brothers could locate. It had a good run but the landmark establishment finally closed its doors in 1995. The Gottis went on to perfect their golf game and lead happy lives.
Ernie’s Restaurant enjoyed international acclaim. Big, slick magazines like Holiday reviewed it glowingly. Food critics, not only here but also in New York and in other so-called gourmet capitals, awarded it stars, toques and forks. Socialites, columnists, politicians, movie stars, and international luminaries flocked to Ernie’s. Frank Sinatra, Alfred Hitchcock, Barbra Streisand, Walter Cronkite, Marilyn Monroe, and Cary Grant dropped in regularly. Hitchcock included Ernie’s in his San Francisco-based film, Vertigo with Kim Novak and Jimmy Stewart, but scenes presumably in the restaurant were actually shot on a Hollywood sound stage. Roland Gotti went south to play the bartender. While perhaps not in the same league as the cable cars and Coit Tower, Ernie’s Restaurant was a major tourist attraction.
Locally it was a rite of passage that young men-about-town took their dates to Ernie’s, especially when a seduction depended upon it.
Even I went there, when I could scrape together the requisite cash – after all, it was named Ernie’s.
All of this was in the early 1950s when I was a dispensable reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, earning, as I recall, $135 a week. And, as a dispensable reporter, Scott Newhall, who at that time was editor of a Chronicle Sunday section called “This World,” called me into his office one day and declared me editor of an annual Chronicle endeavor called “Gourmet,” a tabloid insert on San Francisco restaurants. I was skinny and Newhall said, “You do like to eat, don’t you?” My job was to eat my way around town and then write about it. Not bad for a dispensable reporter. Ernie’s was on my beat, as they say in the newspaper game, and I took full advantage of it. As a newly minted food writer, I wrote about the restaurant glowingly. And that began my brief and spurious career as the Lucius Beebe of North Beach.
I’ll end this short memoir with how one dining experience at the famed Ernie’s Restaurant almost landed me in the slammer.
One late evening I dined there with a young woman of short acquaintance. The evening began with several martinis at the famed mahogany bar that had come around the Horn on a sailing ship. Later, with our veal Oscar (sautéed veal on fresh asparagus tips, topped by Dungeness crab legs, and napped with béarnaise sauce), we enjoyed a fine bottle
of California Cabernet Sauvignon. Then it was a Cognac – or perhaps two.
We finally left just at closing time. In fact we were last out the door. The waiters and busboys were getting a bit edgy, but the Gotti brothers smiled us graciously into the street. Lights were going out within the hallowed restaurant.
Now, those of us who were around in those days will remember that the facade of Ernie’s Restaurant featured a series of wrought iron flower boxes fronted by a spaced series of decorative brass E’s.
They were very handsome – and very desirable for a guy whose name is Ernie.
Yes, I did. I tried to rip one of those E’s from the flower box. A cruising black-and-white slowed and stopped. Somehow I convinced the officer that I was just leaning on the flower box, clearing my head and waiting for a cab. Roland Gotti came out and confirmed that I was only a danger to myself, and the police car left.
The next time I made a reservation at Ernie’s there was a flat package waiting at my table. I opened it and found a large brass E just like those outside. The Gotti brothers had a lot of class.
Ernest Beyl is a North Beach writer with a long memory and a lively appreciation of San Francisco history.