Most native San Franciscans have an innate love affair with this great city. There’s nowhere else in the world like it, with equal parts history, nostalgia, progressiveness and creativity; it’s a place where the past is very much a part of San Francisco’s present. Memories of the cigar and martini wielding entertainment royalty traipsing down city streets are never far, having inspired many a modern day film.
Having grown up watching Hollywood classics (and Bogart’s bests) like “Casablanca”, “Maltese Falcon”, and “Dark Passage”, I’ve often wondered if I was born in the wrong era. I swoon in the face of nostalgia, enamored with the glamorous side of the 1940′s and ’50s where Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald reigned; of seemingly simpler times, of Herb Caen‘s San Francisco. So it’s no wonder I fell instantly in love with Original Joe’s.
Having visited only weeks after reopening, the bar and open kitchen were abuzz with palpable excitement and anxious chatter. The owners made their way from table to table, prompting introductions to some, and enthusiastic “welcome back”s to others. While the place was full with a diverse crowd of men, women, young, old, locals and tourists, all I could see through my mind’s eye were suited gentlemen in fedoras, cigars clinched between their teeth as they share a laugh over a single malt scotch. And despite the basketball game on the bar TV, all I could hear was the faint toe-tapping and finger-snapping jazz piano and bass in the background. The unanimous joy in the room was undeniable. It felt as if the City was warmly welcoming back a long lost friend, and vice versa.
First opened on Taylor Street in the Tenderloin by Louis Rocca and Tony “Ante” Rodin, Original Joe’s has been a San Francisco institution since opening in 1937. With its famous Joe’s Special burger, and the now famous notion that it has served everyone “from the head politician to the head prostitute,” people from all walks of life loved and celebrated Original Joe’s. Tragically, a fire broke out in 2007 forcing the restaurant to close, leaving only a commemorative plaque denoting historical significance in its place. But with the dedication of the Duggan family (Rodin’s grandchildren) and the avid support of the City, Original Joe’s found its new home on a bustling corner of North Beach; a seeming natural fit for the old time Italian joint.
With every tiny detail accounted for, right down to the original door handles at the front entrance, Rodin’s grandchildren recreated Original Joe’s to a T in the new space. The time-traveling threshold transports you to the 1940′s, across the cherry wood floor, past the lamp-lit host stand, and up to the breathtaking bar and lounge. Taking command at the center of the room is the long, emerald green tufted vinyl booth, anchoring rows of small round tables and matching green leather club chairs. The same art deco mermaids swim across the wood-paneled back wall as they did in the original location, right next to the flagstone fireplace.
Behind the bar awaits the main dining room, filled with scarlet pleated leather booths surrounding dark tables, each with their own lamp permitting a soft yellow glow throughout the room. Waiters in dark jackets and bow ties – complete with a white towel over their forearms – dance across the checkerboard wood floor as if choreographed by Fred & Ginger.
The menu has remained mostly unchanged in decades (don’t believe me? There’s a framed copy of a partially burned menu from the 1950s in the hallway photo gallery), still offering traditional Italian-American dishes like chicken parmesan, shrimp cocktail, veal picatta, even liver & onions. The cocktail list is equally as classic, bringing back such cocktails like the Vesper, Grasshopper, Gimlet and Negroni. The wine list is fairly extensive, with house selections not exceeding $50.00 a bottle.
With the incredible culinary talent residing in this beloved 7×7, the simplicity and tradition of Original Joe’s stands out, honoring the awe and wonder of the City by keeping the past alive, our faces smiling, and our stomachs full.
Photo Credit: Original Joe’s