2013 was a rough year for some San Franciscans, and by “some San Franciscans,” I mean me.
Tosca, North Beach’s iconic bar, was closed and remodeled (it’s nice, but it’ll never be the same), the first unionized strip club The Lusty Lady was shut down (to reopen under Tosca’s new owners in late 2014 as a stripper-themed bar that will probably be nice, but never the same), Schroeder’s ancient German restaurant in the FiDi is soon to be under new management, The Gold Dust relocated and the only Thai restaurant I enjoyed that delivered to my house closed up like a clam shell after 20+ years. Like a stereotypical cranky native, I mourn and moan over these losses and write them off as “locals losing the culture wars, one shuttered establishment at a time.”
2014 isn’t starting any better from this standpoint. In November, it was announced that Joe’s of Westlake, the practically San Francisco adjacent Daly City restaurant, had been sold due to the owner’s health and would be closing on January 26th for a year-long renovation that will likely destroy everything I love about the unchanged monument to Mad Men era cuisine and service.
Change is inevitable, but that doesn’t mean we have to like it.
I said a tearful goodbye to the original Tosca decor a year ago (including the Marilyn Monroe portraits above the urinals), and drank at the Gold Dust one final time, but the Lusty and my Thai restaurant were snatched from under me so fast I could only wave in sorrow after they departed. Not wanting to live forever in regret over missing one last serving of steak fries as big as your head or a final nod of respect to the white jacket clad busboys, my best friend and I got on 280 for half a minute and got off on Glenwood Drive for a tearful journey into the heart of wood-paneled memories.
If you’ve never been to Joe’s of Westlake, there’s still time, and you’ll need plenty of it because the wait is huge these days as locals crowd in for a final round. In the future, San Francisco will be divided into two camps: those who remember Joe’s and those who don’t.
I’m not suggesting Joe’s is a realistic candidate for historic preservation, but I am asking that Daly City’s planning board at least consider it. The mid-century sweep of the arched windows, the wrap around vinyl booths that make the rudest sounds if you sit too quickly and the old fashioned coffee shop style counter all are reminders of a certain kind of “pre” era that once existed in the Bay Area. Joe’s is decidedly pre-health food (meat is not one but nearly two food groups if you order a steak), pre-foodie and pre-scene. The best part is that it’s also pre-irony. Probably because of its proximity just outside the city limits, it was never really discovered by the new urban diners looking to glance at the menu through a retro-hip filter. The clientele at my last meal was classic Joe’s, and by classic Joe’s I mean predominantly senior citizens. As long as I remember going to Joe’s, these same retirees have held court in booths and counter chairs so used to their weight that imprints remain upon their departure. No matter the time of day, it was the same; we long suspected that these customers had been there since the place opened in 1956.
On our final visit, my friend and I settled into a booth and took in the special smell of cholesterol and decaf coffee that always permeated the place. It would be a hard goodbye.
“This is the second great suck we’ve witnessed in our lives here,” my friend pointed out as we sank into our Shirley Temples (although we were sad to note they were no longer served in bar glasses like when we were kids and that the once plentiful maraschino cherries were greatly reduced). “First there was the original boom in the ’90s,” she said, reminding me of the pioneering dot commies we started to encounter in high school, “and that took out a bunch of old favorites.” We sighed remembering family owned restaurants that were once plentiful in North Beach (many slowly replaced in the ’90s with the kind of “scene cuisine” that is the root of present day foodie-ism) and started naming a dozen hair dressers, thrift shops, Asian markets, dive bars and old movie theaters that bit the dust back in the day.
“It’s like San Francisco’s wave of Giulianization,” I said, remembering New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s campaign in the ’90s to sanitize Time Square of everything from XXX movie theaters to overly aggressive hot dog venders. “I don’t feel like anything interesting is allowed to stick around here any more, and if it does get to stay, it’s scrubbed and air brushed beyond recognition like models in foundation ads.” The Kentucky Derby and sad clown paintings on the walls looked down at us in understanding.
The more we reminisced about a certain kind of unselfconscious strain of San Francisco’s cultural life (the kind remembered and still experienced fondly by those retirees stationed at the counter), the more I began to feel like Fran Lebowitz talking about New York. In the documentary Public Speaking, Lebowitz points out one of the great over-looked points of nostalgia: no matter when in our history it happens, nostalgia is a form of insisting things were in some way preferable when you were younger. Nostalgia isn’t just for past times, it’s for past selves. The memories that I have from places like Joe’s, Tosca, and the Lusty Lady are all memories of my younger self. Were we just holding onto the past to keep in touch with those even just slightly more youthful incarnations of yore? As I polished off the last of my mushroom omelet (and felt my hands and feet swelling after more than my usual month’s intake of sodium), I got up and took a final look at the old Joe’s of Westlake.
The lounge still smelled of spilled Chivas and second hand smoke (although they had finally removed the ancient cigarette machine more than a decade after the indoor smoking ban), but the glass grapes above the bar were still back-lit like I remembered. Maybe the plant fronds were a little dusty, but there was something just so…intact about the place that made me wonder what a mid-century modern antique dealer would be able to get for the atomic age fixtures that would probably be gone come closing.
We ate the cherries from our drinks and walked out slowly, savoring our last breaths of the familiar greasy air. Just where would the long situated retirees go once the doors to Joe’s of Westlake closed? For that matter, what about the busboys in the white cutaway jackets, the cooks, barmaids and waitresses I remembered from childhood wearing double sets of false eyelashes? Where could a couple locals like my friend and I go the next time we needed a familiar taste to bring forth our memories like a 21st century madeleine?
“I think Cesar’s on Powell is still there,” my friend suggested the old Italian eatery right by the usually off-limits Fisherman’s Wharf.
“Closed!” I reminded her. “I think it’s been over a year.”