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    A Family Tradition: Original Joe’s

    By David Landis–

    History and tradition are truly a very good thing—especially when it comes to food!

    In a town like San Francisco, where new restaurant openings are a dime a dozen (even in these pandemic days), it’s nice to know that in the culinary world there is consistency. And no one does it better—or at a higher level—than Original Joe’s.

    Since 1937, this mainstay of Italian-American cuisine has been offering up with aplomb such delicious mouth-watering main dishes as homemade pastas with red sauce, Joe’s Special (hamburger, scrambled egg, onion, and spinach) and a luscious Chicken Milanese.

    What’s the secret to their success? According to family member John Duggan, it’s a family affair. “I think we try to be a welcoming, comfortable, fun restaurant. From my grandfather and my mother, to my sister and myself—we want our guests to feel right at home. We want to give you a piece of the city. We have been feeding people for 84 years. We go out of our way to make our guests feel special. Our menu is Italian-American and those are two comfortable, welcoming cuisines. You can take the richest man or woman in the world and one day a week she or he will want to eat at Original Joe’s because they want something like that. Our corner (at Stockton and Union Street) is world-class real estate, the heart of North Beach, with a view of St. Peter & Paul—and a welcoming and charming atmosphere. We went out of our way to make the dining experience what it can be, one that pays off in the long run.”

    So, the Gay Gourmet asked, what is the history of the place? Duggan said, “Tony Rodin, the original owner of Original Joe’s, was my mom’s father. He was a Croatian immigrant who had arrived in San Francisco a few years before. He worked in North Beach before he opened his own place on Taylor Street. My grandfather was in charge from 1937–1983. He had a partner, Louis Rocca. Louis’ grandson owns the Original Joe’s in San Jose. My mom (Marie) and father (John) in 1983 bought Louis out and they ran the restaurant with my grandfather until 2007.”

    He continued, “I had been working at the restaurant with my sister, but mom was the boss. We had the fire in 2007 in the Tenderloin—that’s where we hit the fork in the road. That’s when my sister, Elena Duggan, and I took over. My mom is still involved, believe me (and my father)! The last year has been different with COVID-19. My sister and I drive the operations of the restaurant. We were closed for 5 years: October, 2007–January, 2012. That was the hardest and most challenging part in San Francisco. We had a burnt-out restaurant in the Tenderloin: do we rebuild or build a new home? The great recession of 2008—the fire, plus the recession, slowed us down. It took us a while to find the courage and take the next step and find a new home. My mom had wanted to go back to the Tenderloin—she was the queen of the Tenderloin—she felt connected to that community. Taylor Street was an incredible place, an oasis within the Tenderloin. We had the most diverse customer base and the most tenured staff in San Francisco.”

    “But my sister and I thought,” he added, “if we are going to reimagine the brand, finding a new home was an important foundational piece because the Tenderloin is a challenging place for businesses. We always loved North Beach. It’s such a quintessential San Francisco neighborhood and the heart of the Italian community in San Francisco—it was the great combination of Italian and American, like our restaurant. Our new location was the old Fior d’Italia (which had been there for decades); it’s been a restaurant for over 100 years. We love the history. In 2010, North Beach was much quieter, not as vibrant as it is today. Tony Gemignani had opened Tony’s Pizza across the street and the longstanding North Beach Restaurant was there, up the street. We knew it would be a restaurant row in San Francisco.”

    “It took courage to take over that space and make it what it needed to be,” Duggan continued. “When we took it over, it was Joe DiMaggio’s. We believed if we were going to succeed, we had to make it our own. We gutted that space, we brought in half the old red-leather booths from Taylor Street, we took the wood from the old dining room, the brick from the old bar—everything we could save, we salvaged. So, people who were customers at Taylor Street could see and touch and know we did everything we could to keep it authentic. We had to bring it into the 21st century, too. At the end of the day, the culinary direction comes from my mother and my sister. Between the two of them, they have five decades of Joe’s recipes and food running through their blood. We’re a brand and our menu has been fairly consistent for 84 years. We tried to balance it keeping traditional, but from a culinary standpoint, we needed to up our game and be a little more refined, make sure our products were the best, and all our traditional dishes were done with a modern day look and feel without losing who you are.”

    The Gay Gourmet asked, “Weren’t you one of the first to implement an exhibition kitchen?” Duggan replied, “We were the first communal table before people knew what they were. We believe the Joe’s concept was the first to introduce exhibition cooking. It was a matter of necessity on Taylor Street because of the size of the restaurant. It was a hit from day one. You get a great sense of the restaurant when you eat at the counter because you’re connected with the waiters, the chefs, and the busboys. That’s always resonated with our clientele. It’s fun.”

    So, are all the Joe’s restaurants related? Commented Duggan, “Original Joe’s started on Taylor Street in 1937. The second Original Joe’s opened in 1938 at Chestnut and Fillmore; it was only there 52 years,” he said with a laugh. “My grandfather was there, the Della Santinas, Bruno Scatena and Louis Rocca. The Della Santinas opened Marin Joe’s in 1954. They still own it and they’re thriving. Bruno Scatena opened Joe’s of Westlake in 1956, which we took over in 2014. Tony and Louis were partners; in 1956, Louis opened Original Joe’s in San Jose with his son Babe Rocca. The first Little Joe’s was not related. But we just opened a Little Original Joe’s in West Portal. It’s located in the former Paradise Pizza, owned by the now-retired Sal Alioto. He consulted with us on our pizza. We serve pizza, pasta, and parmigiana there. During the pandemic, we’re a to-go operation. It’s fun to be in pizza. It’s new and different for us.”

    OJ’s (as I like to call it) has been one of the Gay Gourmet’s favorite haunts for years. From family gatherings to holiday staff parties to celebrating in the newly-opened, Italian-garden outdoor parklet, the restaurant has class, comfort, and best of all, great service.

    One of the things I like best about the restaurant is that, within minutes of sitting down, a staff person clad in a tuxedo arrives at your table and asks you what you’d like to drink. How many San Francisco restaurants do that? (I’m not talking about the universal question in town, “What kind of water would you like?” I’m talking a real drink.) Speaking of real drinks, OJ’s are legendary: a healthy strong pour that doesn’t break the bank.

    Everything at OJ’s from start to finish is memorable. We started our most recent visit with cocktails (a Tito’s martini up and a Far Niente Chardonnay from Napa for our friends and a Negroni with Hendrick’s Gin and Wither Hills rosé from New Zealand for me and my husband). Boudin’s famous sourdough bread arrived at the table with pads of butter without asking—a welcome addition. We followed that with an antipasto platter, complete with buttery mortadella, melt-in-your-mouth prosciutto, salami, a variety of cheeses, olives, and mustard. Next, we sampled a light and perfectly-fried (not greasy) fritto misto, with shrimp, lemon, fennel, onions, olives, and green beans, served with a spicy aioli. Needless to say, the portions at OJ’s are more than generous and sharing is a great option.

    Moving on to our main courses, we ate family-style. We tried a super fresh Dungeness Crab Louie with hardboiled egg, avocado, and in-season cherry tomatoes; a filet of sole piccata with the perfect amount of capers to complement the lean, white fish that has such a delicate flavor; the famous OJ French fries, browned to a crisp; creamy mashed potatoes; and a classic—Joe’s famous cheeseburger: 12 ounces of ground chuck cooked on the charcoal grill with chopped onions mixed in on buttered sourdough, topped with Swiss cheese. Other favorites on the menu include: tender, crispy, and juicy Chicken Milanese, served with a side of spaghetti (with the traditional red sauce, of course); Joe’s house-made ravioli (filled with beef and spinach, served with a red meat sauce); and for those who want something lighter, Joe’s chopped salad (romaine, radicchio, salami, cucumbers, bell peppers, tomatoes, garbanzo beans, pepperoncini, fennel, olives, provolone cheese, and parmesan cheese with an Italian vinaigrette).

    For dessert, we sampled the warm butter cake (not to be missed!) with cream cheese, chocolate sauce, vanilla gelato, and fresh berries; their New York-style cheesecake (possibly the best in the city)—creamy and rich, topped with raspberry coulis and fresh berries; and powdered-sugar covered beignets.

    What’s next for OJ’s? “The last year has challenged us in ways we never thought,” explained Duggan, “but we’re determined to come out of this stronger and better than we ever have because of our brand, our great people working for us, and the passion to be the best we can be every single day. It’s an unforgiving business: our history and tradition set us apart, but you have to be great every single day. That’s what makes this business so tough. We try to work on that every day. This is why I’m so passionate about our restaurant. 400 years of Joe’s history in the Bay Area. That’s a lot of power. The brand resonates with customers. It’s an incredible history in the Bay Area.”

    Bits and Bites

    The Gay Gourmet made a second sojourn recently to beautiful Santa Barbara, which is an easy drive-in getaway from the Bay Area. Here are a few restaurants to add to your must-dine list there: La Paloma, part of the Acme Hospitality Group (which owns Loquita and The Lark), has inventive cocktails and celebrates the cuisine of the early California settlers, the Californios. The menu offerings include ranchero-style food incorporating Spanish and Mexican influences, with such delectable favorites as a grilled Castroville artichoke, lean and tender Santa Maria tri-tip, and Santa Barbara Mission chicken (with pink peppercorn sauce). It’s located in the former well-loved Paradise Café in the historic Presidio neighborhood. Also of note: Salty’s on the Beach, a great place for a casual lunch overlooking the gorgeous Santa Barbara harbor (don’t miss their “Endless Summer Mai Tai”); Convivo (owned by the proprietor of Poggio’s in Sausalito) in the Santa Barbara Inn, with delicious Italian cuisine right on the waterfront; and Flor de Maiz, also on the waterfront, which presents elevated Mexican delights paired with such creative cocktails as a Margarita Vallarta (with house-made green apple, cucumber, and basil juice and a black lava salt rim); and the Xalisco (Tequila blanco, house-made cucumber and green apple juice, and basil leaves).

    Original Joe’s, North Beach:
    La Paloma, Santa Barbara:
    Salty’s on the Beach, Santa Barbara:
    Convivo, Santa Barbara:
    Flor de Maiz, Santa Barbara:

    David Landis, aka “The Gay Gourmet,” is a foodie, a freelance writer and a PR executive. Follow him on Instagram @GayGourmetSF, on Twitter @david_landis, email him at: or visit him online at:

    Published on May 20, 2021