Elegant Dining at Ernie's
by Glenn Dickey
Nov 15, 2014

The news that Victor Gotti, co-owner of the legendary Ernie’s restaurant, had died last week brought back many great memories of elegant dining in San Francisco and elsewhere.
When Nancy and I were married in 1967, we lived in San Francisco for two years before buying a house in Oakland. In that time, we were determined to dine in the finest restaurants in San Francisco, which were Ernie’s, the Blue Fox, La Bourgogne, L’Etoile and Trader Vic’s. None have survived.
Trader Vic’s, with its Polynesian-accented menu, was an exception, in more ways than one. It had the reputation of being more like a private club than a restaurant. Knowing that, I asked Herb Caen to get a dinner reservation for us, which automatically put us in the privileged category. I never got anything less than superb service and food there.
The other top restaurants all served what was called a continental cuisine but was primarily French, very rich food, heavy on cream sauces – and delicious.
Dining was much more formal than today. Men wore jackets, dress shirts and ties. If you weren’t wearing one, there was always one at the reception desk that you had to put on. Those restrictions didn’t bother me. I always felt that, if you go to a high level restaurant, you should dress fittingly. Not many diners today agree with that.
Again with the exception of Trader Vic’s, which had a PolynesiaN décor, the top restaurants were all elegantly furnished. And the most elegant was Ernie’s, with its rich leather upholstery and gracious service. Diners were not royalty but Ernie’s made us all feel that we were.
It was a favorite for Hollywood people, too. A scene from “Vertigo” was filmed there, and actors and actresses would dine there when they were in San Francisco, though the only one we saw in person was Peter Ustinov, coming out of the restaurant as we were going in. I didn’t make the mistake of asking for his autograph. That was the kind of thing that would get you banned from the restaurant.
We’ve eaten in many good San Francisco restaurants since. Gary Danko’s is a favorite; we hosted a small post-wedding dinner there for our son, Scott, and his wife, Sarah. The restaurant most reminiscent of that earlier time, though, is Aquarello’s; its menu is more modern, but its atmosphere is very much like those of an earlier era. You can actually speak without having to shout at your dinner companions.
Even Aquarello’s, though, doesn’t give you the kind of feeling we got from dining at Ernie’s, looking around the lush surroundings and feeling that we were in a special place and a special time. At Ernie’s, diners were truly made to feel as if they were royalty.
Neither Nancy nor I came from families who had great food. My mother, bless her soul, was a great baker but a terrible cook; the only way I could get through her Thanksgiving turkey was to smother it in cranberry sauce. Nancy’s family ate healthy with home-grown vegetables but the meals were ordinary. For both of us, it took coming to San Francisco (she came all the way from Memphis) before we could learn to appreciate good food.
But, once we got here, the process accelerated. Even on our trips, we looked for special places and in 1982, when Scott was 12 and old enough to appreciate the dinners, we scheduled a trip that would include dinners at three Michelin three-star restaurants, L’Auberge d’Iill in the Alsatian wine country, Paul Bocuse’s restaurant in Lyon and the Tour d’Argent in Paris.
To our surprise, L’Auberge d’Iill was our favorite. We had lunch there, driving down from Strasbourg, and finished it at a table along the Lill river, which gives the restaurant its name.
The others had their moments, though. When we were eating at Bocuse’s restaurant, the chef/owner walked through the room, stopping at tables to talk briefly in French. When he stopped at our table, Scott spoke to him in French. Bocuse was delighted. He went back to the kitchen to learn Scott’s name, scribbled out a short message to “Mon ami, Scott” and had the waiter take the message and a copy of a book on Bocuse’s career to the table. Those remained prized mementos until we lost both in the 1991 Oakland fire.
At the Tour d’Argent, we had a table overlooking the Seine with a direct view of Notre Dame Cathedral. Watching the tourist boats traveling up and down the river, it felt almost as if we were in a movie.
We also had some unexpected treats on that trip. We flew in and out of Brussels, because of a special deal on an airline that no longer exists. The first night, we were exhausted, having traveled about 14 hours in tourist class. We only wanted to get a decent dinner and about 14 hours of sleep. Even if we’d wanted to sightsee, it was pouring rain.
We hailed a cab which took us to the city center and dropped us off at a restaurant, La Sirene d’Or, at the start of a street just off the Grand Place and lined with restaurants.
We were there for five hours! The food was excellent, as was the accompanying wine, which Scott shared. We had let Scott have a little wine at our dinners to let him learn to drink sensibly. Since that is often the approach of European parents, the waiter wasn’t bothered by Scott’s drinking.
As it happened, the owner/chef of the restaurant was planning a trip to California, where his brother lived, so he had a waiter tell us to stick around because he wanted to talk with us. It was an unforgettable experience and, yes, the dinner was excellent.
Midway through our trip, when we were staying over in Lyon, we wanted a simple dinner the night before visiting Bocuse’s restaurant. The hotel clerk recommended Leon de Lyon. It turned out to be a great meal, the first experience we’d had with nouvelle cuisine, as well as with Beaujolais directly from the barrel, which is how most of it is drunk in France. The table was also decorated with great care. Altogether, it was a great evening.
From Lyon, before we went to Paris, we stayed at a chateau in the Loire Valley, which had its own restaurant, with a Michelin one-star rating. The whole trip was a gastronomic experience.
There have been other trips on which we had remarkable dining experiences. In Madrid the next year, we ate at a restaurant that was a favorite of Ernest Hemingway’s and had pictures of him on its wall. Later, we ate at the famed Jockey Club restaurant and had an experience of a different kind. I had asked the clerk at our hotel to make an 8 p.m. reservation but when we arrived at that time, employes with guns came bursting out of the restaurant. In Madrid, the locals don’t even start coming to dinner until 9, so they thought we were criminals trying to break in. They soon saw that we were not, so we just went to a bar on the corner and sipped sherry until 9 p.m., when it was safe to return.
Overall, there has been no trip with tne multiple great dining experiences we had in 1982. And, I have never again seen a restaurant with the elegance of Ernie’s.
But, when I’m asked what restaurant is my favorite, the answer is always The French Laundry. We’ve been there eight times and each experience has been exquisite.

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