Hearty comfort food keeps the taste of The City alive 

If you heard the news that Original Joe’s was going to reopen in a famous North Beach spot and didn’t immediately think of a special with ground beef, scrambled eggs, onions and mushrooms, chances are that you’re not from around here.

There is a certain cultural symmetry in that former Tenderloin institution moving into the spot that was once the decadeslong home of Fior d’Italia — another famous San Francisco restaurant that was also uprooted by a fire. It’s kind of like a phoenix, rising up from an aging, wood-burning oven.

People have been waiting for nearly four years for Original Joe’s to find a new location since a kitchen fire closed its Taylor Street home, almost like waiting for the neighborhood church to reopen following an extensive renovation. And they’ll likely be happy that they won’t have to brave one of San Francisco’s most dicey neighborhoods any longer to find a counter seat.

“We wouldn’t move from our original location if we didn’t have to,” said John Duggan, proprietor of the family business. “But we have so much faith in our customers we believe they’ll seek us out. After all, people have spent the last 35 years risking their lives to eat our cheeseburgers.”

The move to the corner of Stockton and Union Streets makes perfect sense, but in a town famous for being food-crazy, how does a restaurant that wouldn’t make any critics’ 100 Best list thrive for seven decades? And that begs an even bigger question: What makes a restaurant a classic? Time and tradition, service and stability, sure. But it goes even beyond that — and as the rotating lineup of failed restaurants attest — it can’t be magically re-created in a kitchen.

You don’t have to be atavistic to see why people still flock to places like Joe’s, Tadich’s and Sam’s Grill, which have an old-world charm that can’t be faked. Or for that matter, neither can newer, hipper destinations like Zuni Cafe or Chez Panisse, where signature dishes have spawned a thousand imitations.

For Duggan, the enjoyment of time pieces like Joe’s (which spawned look-alike diners throughout the Bay Area) is that they fairly reek of tradition and history. It would be easy to see Don Draper from “Mad Men” sliding into a leather booth there for a classic three-martini lunch.

“When customers come into certain places, they know they’re getting a real taste of San Francisco,” he said. “If there’s a formula, it’s simple food done great. There’s an authentic taste that’s hard to match.”

For local food writer and cooking teacher Tori Ritchie, the classic restaurants all have a certain air of nostalgia to them that makes people feel at ease.

“The restaurant-going population today is so fickle it’s absurd,” she said. “They’ll stampede to whatever is hot and trendy. So some of the older, established restaurants give you a sense that you can escape all the changes going on outside the door, and they take all the complications out of food and dining.”

Comfort is a huge part of that concept, since customers like to see the same service staff that they’ve know for decades, and most new restaurants turn over their employees almost as fast as their menus.

That will help explain why, even in these healthy, small plate times, the House of Prime Rib still flourishes, and why high-end concepts like Rubicon are already part of the dust bin of history. How many steakhouses have come and gone since Harris’ opened its doors? And Greens is still a vegetarian hot house, largely because it was a pioneer in the concept.

When I lived in Los Angeles, Wolfgang Puck, with Spago and Chinois on Main, was all the rage. But now he’s about six celebrity chefs removed from today’s kitchens, and it’s still considered cool to go to old-school Musso & Frank’s, to get a glimpse of how the Rat Pack lived in the glory days of Hollywood.

Besides, when you break it down, places like Original Joe’s were the original fusion restaurants, says Ritchie, combining Italian cooking with the all-around popularity of the American diner.

That’s why food trends are fleeting flashes, and Original Joe’s will reopen just in time to celebrate its 75th anniversary.

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Ken Garcia

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