By Ashley Goldsmith
When a longstanding restaurant closes, the community’s response is pretty typical. There’s a period of mourning by both regulars and those who never had a chance to dine there, then eulogies run in the local papers waxing poetic about the restaurant’s best dishes, followed by speculation about why it closed and what will take its place. But the near death of Sam’s Grill & Seafood Restaurant, a 150-year-old San Francisco institution, was anything but ordinary.
When word spread that its temporary closure for renovations could become permanent, rather than complain that another piece of classic San Francisco was gone, a group of more than a dozen diners and a longtime employee banded together to invest in and reopen Sam’s Grill in 2014. The teamwork to keep it alive tells you everything you need to know about what this spot means to the city.
“I’d been working at Sam’s on and off since 1994 as a server and maître d’ when I was approached by a few regular customers about joining them in this effort, and it just made sense,” recalls Peter Quartaroli, the managing partner of the new ownership group. “We’ve all known each other for a long time and it feels like family; the regulars are a big part of Sam’s and they appreciate the history and were willing to fight to keep this place alive. We all look out for each other and this was a perfect example of that.”
Sam’s history dates back to 1867. It claims to be the fifth oldest restaurant in the country and is certainly one of the oldest in San Francisco. Sam’s originally began as an oyster saloon at the old California Market, a food bazaar that dwarfs the now famous Ferry Building smorgasbord. It was known as “M.B. Moraghan’s” at the time and favorites like turtle soup, local oysters and abalone (a dish that now costs $75) were available for pennies. Ownership changed over the years, and in 1937, Moraghan’s became Sam’s; by 1946, Frank Seput, the owner at the time, moved the restaurant into the Financial District at its current location. It stayed in the Seput family until 2005, when Phil Lyons bought it from one of Seput’s sons. Lyons’ tenure was short-lived: He decided to retire nearly a decade later and considered closing Sam’s altogether. That’s when Quartaroli and a group of lawyers, designers, a retired real estate developer and more joined forces to rescue Sam’s after it was shuttered for three months.
“When we closed, it was incredible how you’d walk down the street and people would stop you and say ‘Hey, wait a second, what happened? How’s [this server] doing? How can I get in touch with him?’” Quartaroli says. “That’s part of the charm of the restaurant and what I think really keeps it going. There are generations of families who were raised on Sam’s, and even though we’re in the Financial District, it’s very much a working-class restaurant. We have these people who come in five days a week and they’ve been doing it for years.”
Quartaroli is technically the longest-tenured employee, and has taken time off over the years to act in and produce films (not to mention write one about Sam’s). A few waiters who had been there for more than 40 years retired several years ago. Stefano Crivello, a waiter since 1998, remained and was instrumental in bringing the investors together to revive his workplace.
“After we had been closed for a while for the remodel, I started to hear rumors about this guy who was interested in buying the place, and from what I knew he didn’t have a good reputation,” Crivello says. “So I had lunch with Peter and Ryan [the current maître d’] and we discussed what to do. I told them that I knew a few customers I felt comfortable with and asked them if they’d be interested in investing in Sam’s. Most said that if I got the right people involved, they’d be willing to do it—and the process just snowballed. Peter came on board and after a couple of months and a paint job, Sam’s was saved.”
Those saviors included Mark Buell, Mary Anne Sayler, John Briscoe, Carol Sayers, Jeremiah Hallisey, George Miller and Clint Reilly. [Eds. note: Reilly owns the Gazette.]
Sam’s is the kind of place where the server asks how your family is doing before they ask you what you’d like to eat—sure, the food is good, the fish is fresh (and was made better with the addition of chef Dave Huerls after the reopening), the vibe is old-timey, the service is professional—but it’s the relationships cultivated from more than a century in business that separates Sam’s from rival hangouts. And, yes, that’s what keeps customers coming back for generations and also what attracts such a dedicated staff. For now, Sam’s lives on, thanks to a 22-year lease, but Quartaroli hopes it will survive another 150 years.