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Ernie's was a renowned restaurant in San Francisco, California, for many years. First opened as a modest family-style Italian trattoria around the turn of the 20th century and located near what was the notorious Barbary Coast area of the city, in the 1950s it became world famous as a luxurious restaurant serving mostly traditional French cuisine in what was usually called Victorian or fin-de-siècle bordello-like decor featuring plush red wallpaper, heavy draperies, impeccable white linens, and formal waiters in black tuxedos. Writing in 1979, the well-known gastronome Roy Adries de Groot called it "unquestionably the most elegant, famous, finest, and luxurious restaurant in San Francisco and [it] is probably among the three or four greatest truly American restaurants in the country" that "can provide dinners of supreme elegance and luxury."[1] When it closed in 1995, it was one of the few remaining restaurants of the kind that had once epitomized the celebrated San Francisco dining scene; among the others, some of them even older and as nearly well-known, were the Ritz Old Poodle Dog, Jack's, The Blue Fox, A. Sabella's, and Amelio's. All of them are now gone, and only a few vestiges of the 19th century still remain in San Francisco: Tadich Grill, Sam's, and John's Grill; none of these, however, ever enjoyed the reputation for decadent, even illicit, pleasures that many of the others purveyed.

Ernie's first opened around the turn of the 20th century, owned by Ernie Carlesso, who was also its chef. At the time it was a simple Italian trattoria called Ernie's Il Travatore. Located at 847 Montgomery Street near Jackson Square, it was just on the edge of the Barbary Coast, an anything-goes district that had been known throughout the world since the 1850s for its brothels, saloons, opium dens, gambling and dance halls, and restaurants with discreet private dining rooms upstairs where more services than mere food could be provided. The little restaurant serving traditional American-Italian food was so successful that in 1935 [2] Carlesso and one of his waiters, an immigrant named Ambrogio Gotti, [3] bought the building, continuing, however, to rent "rooms upstairs to 'boarders'." [4] The building itself had been the site of one of the more notorious landmarks of the Barbary Coast, the 'Frisco Dance Hall and some of its elements were still there. Carlesso, the namesake Ernie, died in 1946 and his partner, Ambrogio Gotti, retired in 1947, selling his share to his two youthful sons, Roland and Victor, who had already been working at the restaurant as busboys.[5] Only 21 and 25 years old when they became sole owners, the two brothers continued in that role for the next 48 years.

Sometime in the late 1940s or early 1950s, the brothers made an important decision: they replaced the old red checkerboard tablecloth-type decor with a completely rebuilt interior. Their goal, says De Groot, was to "make it the most beautiful restaurant in the world." [6]

The first thing they did was to clean up and move the famous long mahogany bar, with its intricate, stained-glass back, to the front of the restaurant. It was the last remaining relic of the 'Frisco Dance Hall. The main dining rooms were deocated with magnificent Victorian crystal chandeliers, the walls covered with maroon Scalamandre silk brocade, the banquettess and chairs in red, the carpets in burgundy, the furniture, antique pieces from some of the great mansions of San Francisco. The ambiance was that loud, supreme elegant in which the wealthiest nabobs of a hundred years ago might have met the grandest ladies of the night. [7]

French chefs were hired, crêpes Suzettes appeared on the menu along with chicken in Champagne, and by the early 1960s Ernie's received the first of 32 consecutive annual five-star awards from the Mobil Travel Guide. [8] In 1958 Alfred Hitchcock's classic thriller Vertigo featured three scenes set in Ernie's; left unexplained was how Jimmy Stewart, on a policeman's salary, could afford such elegant meals in the company of Kim Novak.

By the 1980s, tastes in food and decor had changed, and Ernie's was forced to renovate itself a second time. The menu was lightened, the red silk wallpaper was replaced by yellow silk, the famous old bar was moved, and new chefs were hired. The transformation, however, was not completely successful. By 1989 the Zagat Survey was giving Ernie's, "a fading North Beach flower reincarnated as a stylish, elegant French restaurant", only 21 points out of a possible 30 for its cuisine, 22 for its decor, and 21 for its service, unimpressive scores for so expensive a restaurant. It noted, however, that "gone are the bordello-like setting and snooty service." [9] Four years later, in 1993, with new chef Craig Thomas in the kitchen, Zagat was giving it 22 for cuisine, and 25 for both decor and service. [10] Others were less kind. "Ernie's is a parody of a fine restaurant," said the San Francisco Chronicle in 1986, "perhaps because Ernie's serves so many tourists they feel they can play-act their way through a meal. In this tricky business climate when expensive formal restaurants are fading in popularity, the owners of Ernie's would do well to reevalutae their attitude toward their customers." [11] Although the latter-day Ernie's also launched the careers of celebrated local chefs such as Jacky Robert and Alain Rondelli, its efforts to adopt to a changed world were not enough: on September 30, 1995, Ernie's closed forever. [12]


  1. De Groot, in an unnamed newspaper article reprinted in In Search of the Perfect Meal, page 241
  2. Some sources say 1934
  3. Some sources give his first name as "Ambrose", the translation from the Italian "Ambrogio"
  4. According, at least to De Groot, who is, however, careful to say that Gotti's sons always denied the assertion, page 241
  5. Some sources say Gotti had become a full partner of Carlesso in 1934, others say 1939
  6. De Groot, page 242
  7. De Groot, page 242
  8. San Francisco Chronicle, September 29, 1995, at[1]
  9. Zagat, 1989, page 42
  10. Zagat, 1993, 42
  11. Unterman and Stesser, page 60.
  12. San Francisco Chronicle, September 29, 1995, at[2]

There are a number of minor discrepancies between the various sourced references about such details as the exact year the building was purchased, for instance, or when the interior was first redone; none of them are particularly important.