I was a child of the Depression, the one that began in 1929 and lasted more than 10 years. But I wasn’t necessarily depressed by the Depression. I chalk that up to a hard-working mother and father and at least in part to Original Joe’s, which opened in 1937. Before you think this is a strange way to begin a serious restaurant review, hear me out.
When I was just a sprout my family ate regularly at Original Joe’s. It provided a good “square meal,” as they used to say, and not only was the food good, it was good value for the Depression dollar. Later as a reporter for the Chronicle, I hustled over from Fifth and Mish to the Tenderloin, sat at the counter for a big breakfast, or sometimes dinner when I got off work.
Now after its disastrous fire on Taylor Street back in October 2007, Original Joe’s has opened on my North Beach home turf – 601 Union Street at Stockton, right across from Washington Square Park. And best of all, my Esteemed Editor gave me the coveted assignment to review it.
Yes, I know, reviewers usually wait a couple of months to give a restaurant time to settle in. But I couldn’t wait. I was in a hurry and I was hungry.
Original Joe’s has been part of the fabric of my youth, adulthood and now beyond. I’m going through a mid- to late-life food crisis. So as soon as it opened late last month, I ate lunch at the counter several days in a row and followed that with frequent dinners in the comforting, deep red, retro booths just like the old place. They make me feel at home. I remembered some of the tuxedoed waiters, and my two favorite Irish bartenders, Michael McCourt and Michael Frazier, were behind the plank to serve me a “pop” of this or that. One might assume from my eagerness that I have a hasty palate – and I do.
SO JOE’S BEGAT JOE’S
But first a bit of history, courtesy of the young John Duggan, who with his father (also John Duggan), his mother, Marie, and sister, Elena, work their restaurant like good quarterbacks work an opposing defense. The founder of Original Joe’s was Marie Duggan’s father, Tony Rodin, a Croatian from what was then Yugoslavia. Tony was a merchant seaman, and in 1932 he jumped ship in San Francisco and wound up working at New Joe’s in North Beach. That experience gave him an idea, and in 1937 he founded Original Joe’s. So Joe’s begat Joe’s, and there you have it. But let’s get on with what my hasty palate discovered.
JOE’S FAMOUS HAMBURGER
The day it opened I rushed in early and sat at the counter in front of the exhibition kitchen to see if I could channel the old Original Joe’s ham and eggs ($13.95). I could. As I remembered from the old days, I was presented with a glorious, center cut of chewy ham that almost covered my platter. And my eggs were perfectly scrambled. Everything was working.
A few days later I made another assault on the counter to try the omelet with ham, green peppers, onions, and cheddar cheese ($10.95). It worked admirably for me. I was on a roll so for my third counter visit I went for what the menu lists as “Joe’s Famous Hamburger Sandwich with French Fries” ($11.50). Yes, it was as I remembered: a hamburger steak-sized slab, nicely charred, with lots of onions wedged into two hollowed slabs of Italian sourdough. It was pure nostalgia – juicy with a hunk of sourdough that scratched the roof of my mouth just the way I recalled.
TASTES AND LOOKS LIKE REAL FOOD
On a Friday evening when the place was packed – and it was packed every time I visited regardless of day or time – my wife, Joan, chose the filet of sole ($19.95), and I went for an old favorite, grilled calfs’ liver with bacon and onions ($22.95). We shared a side of sautéed spinach ($5.95). Everything was outstanding – the sole, browned nicely and moist; my liver, pink on the inside, tender and juicy.
I stopped by for lunch one day with my friend James Melling, a North Beach gentlemen and trencherman of some distinction. A kitchen miscue brought James a plain omelet rather than the classic Denver omelet (the one with ham, green peppers, onions, and cheddar cheese) he expected. Our waiter Nick (who remembered us from the Washington Square Bar & Grill) wanted to play catch-up and bring the proper omelet, but Gentlemen Jim would not have it. The omelet was just what it was, a good omelet. And that brings me to one aspect of the plated offerings at Original Joe’s that appeals to me mightily. What appears on your plate is not architecturally inspired. It doesn’t climb like a downtown skyscraper. It looks like real food, and it tastes like real food. That day I chose the pot roast with mashed potatoes and mixed vegetables ($18). I found the pot roast full of flavor, nevertheless a bit dry.
VOTE OF CONFIDENCE FOR THE PRIME RIB
A few nights later with my wife and daughter we did some further research. Joan stuck with her conviction about the filet of sole. Daughter Laurel went for the smaller (10-ounce) New York steak ($27.95), and I gave a vote of confidence to the regular cut prime rib ($29.75), served on Saturdays only. It was a perfect evening. As usual service was prompt and carefully executed. The filet of sole lived up to Joan’s expectations; both the New York steak and the prime rib were beefy, pink and juicy.
At another lunch my buddy Carl Nolte, columnist from the Chronicle, chose the Joe’s Special ($12.95). He proclaimed it “just like old times,” and I trust his judgment. The same day I opted for the fried oysters ($25.95). It was the best meal I enjoyed for this review. From the Oregon Coast, the oysters were fried crispy in a light batter of cornmeal and flour and served with both tartar sauce and red cocktail sauce. As Nolte said, “Just like old times.”
And to wind up my hasty palate routine for this review, one day my Esteemed Editor lunched on eggplant Parmigiana ($16.95). She proclaimed it as good as her mom’s.
Other miscellaneous menu items I enjoyed: Shrimp Louie ($15.95), an antipasto platter ($16), spaghetti with meatballs ($16.95), corned beef and cabbage ($16.95), and arancini ($9).
Well, I’m sure you get the point here: Retro and vintage Original Joe’s, while not offering Great Depression pricing, gives fair value for the product delivered. That’s Original Joe’s legacy. One day John Duggan the elder said: “You can’t run a legacy without the young people. You only get one chance to make a first impression.”
Daughter Laurel brought it all back home: “I’m very into the vintage, retro vibes, and something I enjoyed is that it managed to be very old-timey without being kitschy and contrived. My boyfriend will love it.”
Original Joe’s is impressive and brings a lot of panache and economic energy to North Beach.
The wine list features California and Italian offerings.
Original Joe’s: 601 Union Street (at Stockton), Sunday–Wednesday 10:30 a.m.–10 p.m., Thursday–Saturday 10:30 a.m.–11 p.m., 415 775-4877, www.originaljoessf.com
♦ ♦ ♦
Like your parents’ favorite restaurant during the Depression. The staff seems to know and like all the customers, and all the customers seem to know and like each other.
This is the kind of restaurant you expect to have a high sound level and it does, but it works as an exciting soundtrack for restaurant theater.
Dining room lighting is soft and pleasing but not dim. Lights are way up at the counter.
Calf’s liver, bacon and onions; ham and eggs; corned beef and cabbage; fried oysters.
WHAT THE DIAMONDS MEAN
Northside San Francisco ratings range from zero to four diamonds and reflect the food, atmosphere and service, taking price range and type of restaurant into consideration.
OUR REVIEW POLICY
We conduct multiple visits anonymously and pay our own tab.