One late evening in 2005, my roommate and her situationship picked me up outside Greyhound at the old Transbay Terminal on Mission and First. I had just crossed the street from buying a Swisher cigar at Walgreens. I jumped into the back of the SUV and proceeded to gut the cigar innards and replace them with some of that pre-dispensary-no-seeds-no-stems-no-sticks. By the time we reached the Hard Knox Cafe on Third Street, we were properly famished. But, they were closed. The situationship, born and raised in the City, knew of one place that was always open late on the weekends and always had a table available. We reached Van Ness Avenue. I couldn’t tell if the mist was coming from releasing the hot box or the fog rolling down the avenue, but I looked up and was met by a blindingly lit building: Tommy’s Joynt.
For the first time visitor, Tommy’s can be overwhelming; there’s art and tchotchke and taxidermy and yellow lamp bulbs and patrons and carvers and it’s all continuously buzzing simultaneously on loop. The line was long and that gave me time to figure out my order. Turkey dinner plate with mashed potatoes, stuffing, cranberry, and gravy. Comes with bread and butter. I don’t know what the others ordered. Nothing else existed once I found a back booth and started to go full savage mode on the mid-June Thanksgiving feast in front of me. I had only been living in San Francisco for six months, but Tommy’s made me feel right at home.
And I guess that’s how most people feel about Tommy’s Joynt. For what seemed like years, Tommy’s stubbornly stood smack dab in the middle of two high rise construction sites. Now it’s sandwiched between two finished high rise buildings. Let’s not forget the on-going construction right outside on Van Ness looking like Bowie might pop out of a Labyrinth wall at any minute. When people pass by the comically long building covered in its iconic mural, I hope they are also thinking about how much longer they will be able to catch a glimpse of this piece of San Francisco history.
By now, I would hope that most people living in San Francisco know about Tommy’s. Tommy Harris started as a 14-year-old vocalist and became one of KFRC’s top attractions in the 1930s. Tommy and his family opened the namesake Joynt in 1947, mostly as a late night palace where musicians could get some grub and one of the 100 beers offered. “After the show, dash down Geary Street to Tommy’s Joynt. The most gorgeous joynt in S.F.,” a piece of ephemera reads. Tommy would later become a San Francisco Parks Commissioner.
Two stories — and a livable attic — of Italianate flats used to sit directly on top of Tommy’s. Unfortunately, the two flats suffered severe fire damage from the neighboring inferno when Second St. Mary’s Cathedral was engulfed in flames in September of 1962. The neon Tommy’s Joynt sign managed to be saved and the original still hangs to this day.
The interior aesthetic of the hof brau is almost always the same: Germanic. Overbearing exposed beams, dark wood, dim lighting and plush carpet. Tommy’s is no exception. The only bright light comes from the lamps hanging over the glistening Herculean roasts, the heat lamp chandelier giving the roast an angelic halo. And you’re greeted by an entire echelon of roasts that belong to their master carver; roast beef, corned beef, pastrami and of course, turkey. After all, this is the place where “turkey is king.” We don’t even want to get into the buffalo stew, soups and the sids.
If you’ve never been to a hof brau, your first visit can be intimidating. The list of questions runs through your mind: Do I grab a table first? Where do I stand? Where is the silverware? Where do I pay?
Get in line. Grab a tray (or they’ll hand you one). Order from the menu above the line (or look at your damn phone since you’re already looking at it anyway), speak the hell up and tell them if you want sage stuffing instead of mashed potatoes (or ask for both), ask for double meat, grab the food, move down the line, have your cash ready, and pay for your food. Grab your eating utensils while you’re at the register. Pick a table. Sit down. Shut up. Eat.
The hof brau beast is a rambunctious and rapid rollercoaster and once you’re strapped in, you’re committed. It’s not for the timid. And that’s why so many curmudgeons love it. But, this could also be one of the reasons why it’s disappearing (also the high cost of running one). The hof brau idea was brought to the U.S. by a German immigrant named John Iffland, in Newark in 1888 and became a common thing. It ultimately gave the idea of the modern day cafeteria. When Tommy’s opened in 1947, this was the era of the mid-century hof brau revival: Harry’s Hof Brau opened (1954), Brennan’s (1958), Lefty O’Douls (1958), Sam’s Hof Brau (1959).
Rumors circulated about Sam’s Hof Brau in 2017 when the corporate owners at the time decided not to renew its lease. Within days of expiration, the great-grandson and grandson of the original owner, Sam Gordon, stepped in and brought it back into the family. They managed to mirror the constant turning points of Covid-related dining restrictions; offering curbside dining during Thanksgiving (their busiest season) and turning part of the massive parking lot into outdoor seating and including covered booths. Getting by, like most every other independently-owned and operated restaurant in the country, so that the Broadway Theater-esque bulbs of their original neon sign continue to flutter and shine.
It’s a tradition for my mom and I to dine at Sam’s after we’ve done some thrifting in the area. It’s always been one of the few places where my mother will agree to dine-in. The transition from stepping out of the bright, noisy and modern world, through the heavy wooden portcullis, and into the dimly lit Bavarian-esque indoors; Sam’s immediately has an effect on you. Either you love it, or you hate it. And for those like my mother and I who love it, the ceremony of sidefooting it down the line whilst you order your food is enchanting. My go-to order: hot open-faced turkey sandwich. Freshly carved turkey slices on characterless white bread, topped with deeply beefy gravy and soft mashed potatoes. Oh, and a side of dressing strewn with redolent bits of sage. Don’t judge me. Mami orders the hot pastrami or the corned beef sandwich, side of mashed potatoes and gravy. Salt, pepper, mustard and horseradish are on every table. The order is always the same. The flavor of the food is always the same. The consistency in service and quality of food is hard found and stuff of legends. Sam’s makes this style of food the way you’d make it at home for your family.
And that’s what I suppose people love about Tommy’s, Sam’s and the remaining hof braus the most. People aren’t just protective of the two because they’re afraid of change, or even because they want to preserve everything that’s old. People are protective of both businesses because it makes regular patrons and new patrons feel like they’re at home. If a native San Franciscan turned weary traveler had just exhausted every resource to find their way back to San Francisco after being away for 30-years, they’d return to a totally changed San Francisco. And might even find it possibly unwelcoming. Imagine how they’d feel when laying their eyes upon Tommy’s Joynt, sliding into one of their booths and sliding into a platter of piping hot comfort food. These types of institutions are the guiding light during the most celebratory and troubling of times. And my god, everyone needs a port in the storm.
Tommy’s is one of San Francisco’s longest-living institutions and few like it exist anywhere else, especially in California. You get what you put in. No one is gonna be mean to you, the mural over the front doors does say, “Welcome Stranger.” But, you bet your ass that you’ll be guffawed at if you don’t already know what you want by the time you get up to the carving station. And justly! There’s almost always a line at Tommy’s and you have plenty of time to decide what you want.
And if your feelings are hurt, just buy one of the many $5 draft beers from the vast selection during their midday happy hour which runs from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. You’ll be alright.
Now we have to ensure that Tommy’s is going to be alright.
Illyanna Maisonet is a first-generation Puerto Rican and a cook. She sometimes writes about food, too.