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    A Place Where ‘Everybody Knows Your Name’: San Francisco’s Timeless Balboa Café

    By David Landis–

    Don’t you often just want to hang out at a neighborhood restaurant and bar where, in the words of the hit TV series Cheers, “everybody knows your name”?

    San Francisco’s version of that archetype is Cow Hollow’s 106-year-old Balboa Café, run by the esteemed PlumpJack Group. The institution embodies the diversity of San Francisco itself: if you’re straight, gay, young, old, millennial, techie, socialite, politician, single or with your family, rich, poor or just a plain old sports fan—you’re welcomed with open arms. Given that California’s current Governor Gavin Newsom has had a role in the Balboa’s longstanding history, it’s no surprise that I’ve seen the likes of the late Steve Jobs, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, financier Gordon Getty, Chief of Protocol Charlotte Shultz and many more of the City’s glitterati among its longstanding patrons.

    The Balboa opened its doors in 1913 (even though the sign above the door says “1914,” albeit because of superstition). Early on, the Balboa was a working-man’s saloon with pool tables, a sawdust floor and a carving station where bartenders sliced meat and made sandwiches for the patrons.

    Over the years, Balboa has changed, but it still retains its historical integrity. The original bar and signage remain, as well as many traditional details, including historical photos lining the walls. In 1980, renowned chef Jeremiah Tower oversaw the kitchen for four years, before leaving to establish his iconic Stars Restaurant. Prior to Gavin Newsom’s PlumpJack Group taking over in 1994, Judge Bill Newsom, Gordon Getty and seasoned restaurateur Pat Kelley would meet at the Balboa to discuss the establishment’s potential. Ultimately, Kelley convinced Gavin to make a bid to buy the restaurant.

    What keeps people coming back is that while the Balboa Café excels at American classics—like its famous burger (possibly the best in San Francisco and it’s only $16.50) or its tender and juicy lightly-breaded Chicken Paillard (a weekly Wednesday special, priced at $23 including an arugula salad)—the Balboa is constantly re-inventing itself.

    “We’re taking the classics and stepping it up a notch,” comments new-ish chef Goran Basarov, who in person wants to be called by his first name and acts more like your school chum than what he is: a talented, fine dining chef. “We’re elevating the cuisine, but at the Balboa, we want it to feel like home,” says Goran. “We’re not pretentious.”

    It’s the classics that continue to pack them in at the Balboa. The aforementioned burger is a mainstay: (insider’s tip: it’s not on the menu, but you can order the burger on a soft round bun instead of the baguette). Accompaniments consist of house-made pickles and some of the best French fries in town (order them “extra crispy”). Another popular must-have dish is the homemade meatloaf on Mondays; and an additional favorite is the Balboa’s very hearty chicken pot pie ($23), which sports the flakiest of crusts.

    At a recent lunch, we enjoyed a fresh ling cod fish & chips (the special of the day on Fridays), impeccably light and non-greasy; a taco salad brimming with black beans, corn, avocado, tortilla strips and some added grilled, yet very moist, chicken ($15 for the regular salad, plus whatever protein you’d like); a fresh seared ahi tuna salad ($23.50) with root vegetables, hummus, spiced pepitas and herbed goat cheese (my companion who dislikes goat cheese even loved Goran’s lighter interpretation); and a garden-fresh grilled California artichoke with a tangy remoulade ($10.50).

    Here’s another insider’s tip: the Balboa Café wants wine to be approachable. So, if you buy a bottle across the street at PlumpJack’s wine shop, there’s no corkage fee at the Balboa for the first bottle. How’s that for a deal?

    If cocktails are your thing, I’d vote for the Ramos Gin Fizz, a classic that Balboa has made modern with bitters and just the right amount of cream. For weekend brunch, the restaurant proudly serves more of their famous and tasty Bloody Marys than just about anywhere around town. Cocktails run about $13. For an even craftier cocktail experience, you can visit PlumpJack’s new White Rabbit lounge ( ) across Fillmore Street. Designed as an homage to the hit of the 60s San Francisco band, Jefferson Airplane, the artisan venue features such drinks as “Aperol in Wonderland” and “Rummy Bunny.”

    Balboa Café isn’t just kid-friendly; it’s dog-friendly. We’ve dined with our SPCA pups Gaston and Alphonse numerous times outside and the atmosphere is as convivial al fresco as inside. And the wait staff gladly bring water in dog bowls for thirsty canines.

    Balboa is so old school that they don’t take reservations for parties of less than 6 people. But if you can’t get a seat right away, cozy up to the century-old bar with veteran bartenders Kevin and Alejandro. They’ll make you feel a part of the gang straight-away and within a short time, they’ll even know your name.

    Although the Balboa Café has been voted a “legacy business” by the City of San Francisco, it’s not standing on its laurels. In fact, stay tuned in late April/early May for a new menu to debut, with what Chef Goran promises might include a few surprises—maybe even from his native Macedonia. “We draw inspiration from the Mediterranean,” explains Chef Goran. “We’re the good old Balboa, but we’re making it even more flavorful.”

    Balboa Café is located at 3199 Fillmore Street (at the corner of Greenwich). Reservations only for 6 people or more. For info, visit:

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