It’s Sunday night and, as usual, San Francisco’s Tommy’s Joynt has a line out the door.
The carnival-like facade, painted a bold sky-blue with murals teasing the specialties inside—“World Famous hot corned beef and cocktails” and “buffalo stew”—has attracted a wide swath of people. Tonight it’s a young Latino couple from the South Bay and, next to them, a couple of middle-aged brothers visiting from New Jersey who learned about this Van Ness Avenue institution from a friend.
The line winds its way inside, where men in baseball hats and aprons stand behind a row of carving stations under a menagerie of stained-glass Tiffany-style lanterns, vintage soda trays and taxidermy. Beyond the row of communal tables, patrons perch on tall stools with cold beers and frozen Daiquiris in hand.
Along with Lefty O’Doul’s in Union Square, Tommy’s is one of just two hofbraus left in the city and among only a handful that still remain in Northern California—an area once home to nearly two-dozen of them.
Originating in the late 1940s through early ’70s, these bar-restaurants took the concept of traditional German hofbräu—convivial breweries that offer classic German beer food—and spun their own uniquely Californian version. Rather than dishing out pretzel knots and potato pancakes to stein-wielding patrons, Northern California’s hofbraus are cafeteria-style, meaning customers line up to order from a simple menu consisting of fresh sliced roast beef, pastrami, corned beef, ham or turkey, on rolls or in platter-form (often with a cup of au jus), along with side dishes like mashed potatoes and green beans.
The oldest of the two, Tommy’s, first opened in 1947 and was been owned by the same family until last year, when Susie Katzman and her sons sold the place. But it remains virtually unchanged, a testament to its enduring popularity as a cultural time capsule. It’s a place that multigenerational families still visit together, pushing their trays down the line and gathering at the red-and-white-checkered tables to talk about their week alongside dirt-cheap drinks. In fact, it may be the only place in San Francisco where you can get a bottle of Budweiser for $2.75, a Gin & Tonic for $4 and a Blue Hawaiian for $7.
“It’s the accessibility that makes places like Tommy’s so appealing,” says Ryan Murphy, Tommy’s beverage director. “This is the kind of spot where cops and robbers sit side by side, all enjoying the same food and drinks.” While new to the establishment this past year, Murphy is Bay Area born and raised and has been coming to Tommy’s Joynt since he was a kid. “Anyone who has a father has been brought here by their dad,” he says.
That’s also how some locals feel about Lefty’s, a massive hofbrau stuffed with baseball memorabilia tucked amid the bulk of San Francisco’s Union Square hotels. Opened by former baseball great and San Francisco native Francis Joseph “Lefty” O’Doul in 1958, its the flashback familiarity of the place—and the safe haven it provides in a quickly changing city—that keeps customers returning again and again.
Today, there are a dozen TV screens catering mostly to sports fans and a front piano bar where visitors down cheap pints of Lagunitas and Lefty’s signature lager (a blend that Firestone Brewery in Paso Robles makes just for the bar), while listening to the pianist belt out his version of Jimmy Buffet’s “Margaritaville.”
While these two hofbraus remain mainstays for old San Francisco, the influx of new money (and with it, changing tastes) and rising rents has turned them into a part of the city’s fast-disappearing landscape. San Francisco’s Chick-N-Coop hofbrau in the Outer Sunset neighborhood closed in 2013 after 30 years; the Silver Dollar hofbrau in Fresno shut down January 2015 after 35. Others, meanwhile, have had to turn to creative solutions to make ends meet. The Oaks Corner in Emeryville, for one, now serves Chinese food 24 hours a day in addition to its traditional hofbrau menu, to help expand and diversify its clientele.
And even though Tommy’s has held true to its low-key beginnings, Murphy now sees the need to satisfy the city’s changing demographic (and thirst for craft cocktails), rolling out a brand new drink menu with $9 cocktails ranging from frozen mezcal Palomas to Piña Coladas with a port float.
“When I started working here, there were drinks I hadn’t made in 15 years,” laughs Murphy, a certified cicerone who joined Tommy’s after working as the bar manager at Belga and co-director of the beer program at Monks Kettle. Upgrades aside, it’s Tommy’s throwback nostalgia that keeps patrons—often upwards of 600 or 700 a day—lining up out the door. That, and the roast beef sandwiches and $5 Anchor Steam drafts you’ll be enjoying at your table in 20 minutes or less.