Eaters in this town wondered if Original Joe’s would ever reopen after a fire destroyed it four years ago. This beloved institution, started in 1937, drew devoted customers from all walks of life to one of the funkiest blocks of the Tenderloin.
I am ecstatic to report the new Original Joe’s — in the former Fior d’Italia space in North Beach — has not only recaptured the inclusive, unpretentious spirit of the old place, but has upped the quality of both its decor and kitchen.
I love the new place, though I wish it were easier to get in. The restaurant has served 800 customers a day since it opened. Two generations of the Duggan family have not had a moment to set up a reservation system, create a website or catch their breath.
So many old customers have poured in — to share memories, to congratulate or just try the new place — that 37-year-old John Duggan, the former University of San Francisco basketball star, cannot walk through the bar or the coveted inner dining room (with the signature Original Joe’s open cooking line) without being pulled over for a heart-to-heart.
He told me that by the 18th day of business, he, his mom and his sister had seen at least 500 old customers, and 300 have been in twice.
During two anonymous visits, the kitchen showed amazing discipline in the face of this onslaught. Each dish from the slightly abbreviated, if similar, menu came out better than I remembered it.
My favorite Original Joe’s dish, a three-quarter-pound hamburger steak ($17.95) of coarsely house-ground beef, arrived medium rare with a luscious charred crust of chopped onions. This is a magnificent dish for beef lovers, full of flavor, juice and texture.
My second favorite, calf’s liver ($22.95), turned out to be a dream come true: the liver medium rare as ordered; two thick, crisp slices of bacon that melted in my mouth; and plenty of sauteed onions that maintained their character.
Now, I would also include as a favorite veal scallopini sec ($24), slices of tender veal swathed in sliced mushrooms and a perfectly executed pan sauce made with white wine.
Salads have vastly improved. A Caesar salad ($8.95) shows the pedigree of anchovies in its creamy dressing. The success of a lively Italian chopped salad ($15.95), good for sharing, lies in crisp, fresh romaine judiciously proportioned with fresh chioggia beets, salami, cheese sticks and black olives.
Just by substituting fresh vegetables for canned, the tired old war horses turn into steeds. And spaghetti is no longer precooked!
Dessert ($8), best skipped at the old place, is something to look forward to now. Try the salty caramel-topped butterscotch pudding or warm bombolini: doughnuts that come with affogato, an espresso poured over vanilla gelato. An oozing warm chocolate cake with a crust reminds me how much I used to like this restaurant dish.
Old photos and memorabilia cover one long wood-paneled wall that leads from the barroom to the central dining room — and there, low enough for everyone to notice, is a fire-singed menu, a poignant reminder of many meals I had eaten at the former location with three generations of family at the table.
Original Joe’s has achieved the impossible by returning to us intact and better than ever, reclaiming its niche as the quintessential San Francisco restaurant.
Patricia Unterman is the author of many editions of the “San Francisco Food Lovers’ Guide.” Contact her at email@example.com.
Location: 601 Union St. (at Stockton Street), San Francisco
Contact: (415) 775-4877, www.originaljoessf.com
Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily
Price range: $8 to $31
Recommended dishes: Hamburger steak; calf’s liver, bacon and onions; grilled lamb chops; spaghetti and meatballs; crab Louie; butterscotch pudding
Credit cards: All major
Reservations: Not yet