Original Joe's is Back: Eat at Joe's in San Francisco

Travel and Food Notes welcomes back  David Andrusia, San Francisco resident and writer who is passionate about his neighborhood's restaurants.

“Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be,” wrote Simone Signoret.  We love Simone; but when it comes to Original Joe’sthe San Francisco institution that has been resoundingly reborn in North Beach, she couldn’t have been more wrong.

Once upon a time, Joe’s ruled the Tenderloin—the last holdout of the neighborhood’s former glory.  When it burned down a few years ago, it seemed as if a piece of San Fran history (since 1937!) had been lost, and tears were rightly shed. Now, the Duggan family (who have owned the name for generations) have not only resuscitated OJ’s, but brought it back—sorry, Gaga—at the very edge of glory.  Situated on the best corner of Washington Square Park, in the heart of Italian North Beach, the restaurant has become the new social center of this historic neighborhood.  

This is the best kind of bustle:  a well-tuned buzz and gorgeously oiled machine that recalls the late, great Washington Square Bar and Grill.  (Manager Jarrod Brown, recently of Beverly Hills’ premier steakhouse, keeps things moving along with precise elan.)   From first entry, the eye catches a neat design trick: polished chrome sidings on the sleek, round-edged tables. The result?  Subtle sparkle that updates  the sexy film noir look.  Why bypass the cozy, fireplaced bar when drinks are only six bucks?  No fusion fuss here, only Manhattans, Old Fashioneds, and about ten other classic concoctions.  Russian Hill stockbrokers mix easily with gay couples, out-of-towners, and  just about anyone else tired of the Mission trendoids and on the prowl for the dishes that are the real San Francisco treats.

Photo credit: Joey DeRuy
Failing to order the Caesar Salad is nothing short of criminal; it’s a huge wedge of Romaine bedecked with classic, anchovy-laden dressing (and, thank heavens, raw eggs—highest quality fresh ones are used here).  Arancini are fried rice balls—just out of the deep fryer, they are lighter and more flavorful than you think.  Meatballs, oddly, were dry and underseasoned, though the classic red sauce saved the day—as did the Boudin sourdough, the best to be had in town.

Steaks an afterthought?  Not at Original Joe’s, where the grill is fiery hot to deliver a sterling sear.  A small New York steak?  Please don’t: you’ll shoot yourself the next day, so go for the 16-ouncer.  Veal, which has all but disappeared from too many menus, is in fine form here, and none beats the Scallopine Sec, the classic North Beach preparation with wine, lemon, and mushrooms (and no red sauce). Don’t ignore the veggies either, especially the spinach, whose green, lemon-kissed leaves all but shine.  And by all means, someone has to order Joe’s Special:  eggs, mushrooms, ground beef, and onion in a heavenly hash.

We’re not sweets eaters, but that doesn’t apply to the Italian Doughnuts.  These local treasures are high-class zeppole, piping hot and served with an espresso into which you dip vanilla gelato—and then the doughnut balls.

601 Union Street, San Francisco,  415-775-4877


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