Litigator, author and restaurateur John Briscoe tells local history through the lens of food and drink
Published in 2021 Northern California Super Lawyers magazine on July 7, 2021
John Briscoe’s CV would seem too packed to allow for an additional designation. A former deputy attorney general for the state of California (1972-1980), Briscoe has argued in front of the U.S. Supreme Court and at the Hague, taught law at Hastings and UC Berkeley, and is himself an author, poet and cultural historian. And he’s an environmental litigator at the firm he helped found, Briscoe Ivester & Bazel in San Francisco.
But in 2014, he added restaurateur to the list, becoming part-owner of the iconic Sam’s Grill, which has been serving sand dabs and petrale sole in San Francisco’s financial district since 1867.
The dinner table has long provided an embarkation point for Briscoe’s literary forays into the history of San Francisco and California. An accomplished poet and historian, his books include Tadich Grill, a history of San Francisco’s oldest restaurant; and Crush, the story of California wine.
“The first colonizers [of California] could just as easily have been English, or Russian,” Briscoe writes in Crush, “in which case Lord knows what we’d be drinking today. But they were Spanish.”
After 50 years of experience, Briscoe is currently working on a book of reflections on the law, called Paper Lawyer. A student of ancient Chinese poetry, he has also published three volumes of poetry. The Lost Poems of Cangjie is a translation of recently discovered poems written in China nearly 5,000 years ago. A Child’s Christmas in San Francisco (2015) is a collection of poems written many years ago by schoolchildren—including Briscoe—celebrating San Francisco food and drink. Briscoe began writing poetry in earnest while a law student. After launching his career, he began telling the story of California through the lens of food and wine.
Sam’s has been a special place for Briscoe since childhood. In 2005, he held meetings with Lawrence Ivester and Lawrence Bazel in its curtained booths to plan their new firm. His clients would later come from far-flung Alaska, Eastern Africa, South Korea or the Middle East. But Sam’s was a quick walk from their office in the financial district.
It also became the meeting place for the Warren Hinckle Roundtable. The gathering—which exists to this day despite the death of its legendary namesake journalist—brought together a marquee group of friends, including historian Kevin Starr, poets Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Robert Hass, columnist Carl Nolte, novelist Herb Gold, photographer Fred Lyon, and, of course, Briscoe.
“It was informal at first. It was just getting together for lunch or dinner. And inevitably we would talk about San Francisco history, California history, world history, but it tended to be local,” Briscoe says. “It wasn’t like there was a roster of members. One day, Kevin just said, ‘This is a meeting of the Warren Hinckle Roundtable,’ and it was known as that ever after.”
Then one day in 2014, Briscoe walked over to Sam’s for lunch and was in for a shock.
“It was chained,” he says. “Closed. The light was off. Nobody was inside. I found out that the owner had a handshake deal with somebody to sell it, and the fella he was selling it to was going to turn it into a pizza joint of some sort. It wasn’t even going to be called Sam’s. So that was going to be the end of Sam’s.”
A flurry of phone calls ensued—“not knowing anything about running a restaurant, but by golly, we’ll figure it out,” he says with a laugh—and soon Briscoe found himself one of the stewards of this living embodiment of San Francisco history.
“We gave it a deep cleaning, its first since 1946. We closed the place; we tore everything out of the kitchen.” They brought in new chandeliers, a new floor, new ceiling, and new drapes enclosing the storied wooden booths, which had not been touched. “When we reopened a couple of months later, it was very nice for people to walk in and say, ‘So glad you didn’t change a thing!’”
But can the fifth-oldest restaurant in the United States survive the COVID-19 pandemic? Briscoe has been trying his best to help Sam’s hang on.
“[Sam’s is] a San Francisco institution … for construction workers, for politicians, for writers,” he explains. “Preserving what little I can of what’s great about San Francisco does matter.”
‘Sanderlings, Changelings’ by John Briscoe
Two bucks and a doe browse near.
Ears flick, tails flicker, tongues lick between
their camel jaws mid-chew while the deer stare
emptily, each blank black eye
a preternatural indifference.
A fawn, still speckled, scampers ungainly
uphill toward a just-fledged crow
which flyhops six or eight yards away
in whatever direction whenever the fawn
draws too near until the fawn
crumples to rest, too tired to wander
even to its mother’s leaking teats.
Long-legged little girl thirty years ago
chased terns, curlews, willets and sandpipers
but mainly sanderlings skittering
in seeming imitation of them
into the spume of receding surf
until the next incoming wave’s uprush
sent all in a scurry back upbeach, the birds
unruffled, my daughter drenched to above her knees
and flopping on her beach towel too tired
to even eat her lunch.
That girl, this fawn,
each only moments earlier
so sure of her part here.