Back Story

Restaurants in the good old days when the Golden Gate Bridge opened

When abalone didn’t cost an arm and a leg
Postcard showing The Cliff House before it was destroyed by fire on Sept. 7, 1907 photo: wikimedia commons

In case you missed it by going into a total media withdrawal, this month is the 75th anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge, and my esteemed editor is excited about the birthday. Since I am probably the only staffer who was around in those days, she asked me to weigh in with some recollections of the dining scene and the prices when the bridge opened in 1937. You just can’t get this kind of firsthand stuff from a callow youth like Michael Bauer who reviews for our remaining daily paper.

So here’s what I recall — with a little help from a few restaurant buddies and from Google.

Beer for a Dime at Hinky Dink’s
When I was a kid, my family ate out a lot. There were many good restaurants in San Francisco and in fact all over the Bay Area at the time. My dad knew Vic Bergeron Jr., later to become internationally known as Trader Vic. Bergeron opened a small bar and restaurant in the East Bay called Hinky Dink’s in 1934. It closed in 1951 when Vic moved to San Francisco’s Cosmo Place. At Hinky Dink’s, a glass of beer was a dime. Lunch was 20 cents. Sometimes we ate there. I recall stew and fried chicken, later Vic’s phony Polynesian offerings.

As an adult I did some P.R. work for Vic. Low pay and no free meals, but I was allowed to get a table in the socially coveted Captain’s Cabin. Those great, exotic meals and the rum drinks — usually a Navy Grog for me — cost big bucks. But I can’t remember ever feeling I was being gouged. Maybe it was because two Navy Grogs left me senseless.

Original Joe’s Prices in 1937? Steak Dinner: 50 Cents
I’ve written frequently about Original Joe’s here and elsewhere because that was my family’s favorite hangout during the late Depression years, and I have warm remembrances of this classic when it was on Taylor Street in the Tenderloin. Original Joe’s was founded in 1937, the same year the Golden Gate Bridge opened. Back then a broiled New York steak was 75 cents. Lamb chops were 50 cents. These days Original Joe’s is in North Beach, and prices have changed. Today a 10-ounce New York steak is $27.95, and two lamb chops cost $27.

Green Goddess Salad at the Garden Court
On special occasions my mother and father took me to the Garden Court in the old Palace Hotel on Market Street. Under the stained-glass dome high above our table and surrounded by Iconic columns of Italian marble, we sometimes dined on the famous Green Goddess salad. This incredible presentation featured fresh Dungeness crab legs in an artichoke heart. It was graced with what was called Green Goddess dressing — mayonnaise, tarragon, parsley, chives, and minced anchovies. The dressing was named by a Palace Hotel chef, Philip Roemer to honor actor George Arliss, who had a hit play called The Green Goddess. Around the time the Golden Gate Bridge opened, the Green Goddess salad at the Garden Court was $1.70. Today, and it is still on the menu, the price is $27.

The Cliff House Chowder: A Big Bowl Was 50 Cents
In those great old days, my father and I sometimes stopped by the Cliff House for a bowl of clam chowder. The Cliff House opened in 1863 by Adolph Sutro, a wealthy Comstock Lode mining engineer and later San Francisco mayor who also opened Sutro Baths in 1881. Fire destroyed the first Cliff House in 1894, and Sutro rebuilt it as a Victorian chateau. It survived the 1906 earthquake and fire only to burn to the ground the following year. In 1909, it was rebuilt in a simple, Neo-Classic style and became a San Francisco landmark. Sutro Baths burned down in 1966. The Cliff House continues. Oh yes, prices then and now? A bowl of clam chowder? Then 50 cents, now $9.95. A Dungeness crab Louie? Then 15 cents, now $29.95.

Swan Oyster Depot: Crab Cocktail 30 Cents
The Sancimino brothers — Jim, Steve, Tom, Philip, and Vincent — and their offspring operate the hole-in-the-wall, 18-seat counter joint on Polk Street that dates back to 1912. It’s San Francisco’s quintessential fresh seafood joint. Though he’s too young to remember this, Jim Sancimino tells me that in our magic year 1937, a Dungeness crab cocktail with that pungent red sauce was 30 cents. Today it’s $13.50.

Abalone For 65 Cents at the Old Tadich Grill
Probably San Francisco’s most well-known restaurant, Tadich Grill dates back to 1849, but I am indebted to Steve Buich, whose family bought it in 1928, for these price comparisons. Broiled petrale: then $1.40, now $27.95; broiled halibut: then 70 cents, now $32.75. Grilled rex sole or sand dabs: then 65 cents, now $23.75. And finally, grilled abalone: $1.25, now not available.

Here are a few other restaurants that were around in those days that gave good value for the hard-earned dollar: The Old Clam House (established in 1861 and still with us), Jack’s (1864, gone but not forgotten), Sam’s Grill (1867, still operating), Fior d’Italia (1886 and still open), Schroeder’s (1893, still open), New Joe’s (1928, gone), Vanessi’s (1936, gone), and finally Sam Wo’s, home of the “world’s rudest waiter” (1920, closed last month due to numerous health code violations, though the restaurant’s owner and fans say they plan to reopen).

Is there a point to all of these price comparisons? Yes, money just isn’t the same these days. But what was good value then is good value now. My advice: If you enjoy your meal, forget the price and pleasure yourself by dining out.

Ernest Beyl wonders if readers recall some of these great old restaurants. He may be reached at [email protected].
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