Doggie Diner’s famous sign

The town’s official pooch got a new leash on life this week, and I for one could not be happier.

The Doggie Diner head — the last of the original litter — was granted landmark status by the Board of Supervisors this week, a fitting act for a smiling snout that speaks volumes about San Francisco’s lengthy embrace of the sophisticated and the schlocky.

But it also means that I can finally sign off the campaign to save DD’s much-abused head on which I labored the better part of a year, hounding city officials and urging pseudo-animal rights activists to fight to give this dog one more day. Our fates have been forever joined — I crusaded so I would never have to write his obit and now, no doubt, he’ll figure prominently in mine.

And that’s fine, because it means the Doggie Diner story will live on for generations to come, and how a vestige of The City’s past has been saved instead of fading away in old photographs.

San Francisco has lost enough icons in the last half-century to make a preservationist weep, and if you ever got to read my e-mails you know that there are a lot of steamed buns out there that you won’t find near a hot dog cart.

The story of the 7-foot-tall grinning plastic dachshund head, and how it came to be saved, provides a snapshot of the best and worst of city politics. If at times it seemed it involved another outbreak of San Francisco’s trademark silliness, it’s only because some of those in power failed to recognize the importance of the Doggie Diner sign to generations of city residents and its connection to other ocean-front landmarks like Playland that were allowed to rust away and then be paved over.

Seven years ago, the sign that used to stand atop the Sloat Boulevard restaurant was all but hanging by its long pencil neck when someone had the grand idea to list it for landmark status, a plan that was approved by The City’s Landmarks Advisory Board.

But the members of the Planning Commission were so busy green-lighting the endless building projects of then-Mayor Willie Brown’s favorite developers that they somehow overlooked the importance of the kitschy culture that dotted the American landscape in the ’50s and ’60s. So they placed a municipal muzzle on the proposal, and the tale of the pup took a new turn.

Of all the times that I probably qualified as a candidate for anger management, none probably triggered a more intemperate response from me than The City’s treatment of the sole remaining Doggie Diner head, the last of the 25 that once stood atop the fast-food joints that operated in the Sunset, the Marina, the Mission and Civic Center. I simply couldn’t stand by and watch a bunch of arrivistes who didn’t know anything of The City’s history let another icon go the way of the Fox Theater, so a crusade was launched and it took off like a greyhound.

In order to put the Doggie Diner’s history into context, I tracked down the chain’s creator — a character named Al Ross — in Palm Springs, one of the few cities more plastic than the dachshund head. Ross said he came up with the idea after seeing a sea of customers lined up for hot dogs in his East Bay neighborhood. After a few years the concept took off, and the publicity-conscious Ross even began hosting black-tie dinners for opera and symphony patrons at his outlet on Van Ness Avenue.

At one time there were 13 Doggie Diners in San Francisco. Ross, who operated the chain for almost 30 years before selling it to a corporate giant that ran the franchise into the ground, told me that “it would break my heart to see the final one torn down.”

Thankfully, therewere enough supervisors then, notably Gavin Newsom and Alicia Becerril, who saw the populist beauty of the campaign. It took months of negotiation with the property owners to reach an accord — and it also took a fair amount of fundraising to come up with the $25,000 needed to patch up the dog head.

When the candy-apple painted icon was unveiled in June of 2001, there were more than 500 people present, including Mayor Brown, who was kind enough to pose for pictures with the people who came out to enjoy the colorful spectacle.

“This ensures all the hard work and community spirit will be rewarded,” said Sean Elsbernd, the supervisor who authored the landmark legislation. “To take it down now would almost require an act of God.”

Now it will stand for generations like so many things in San Francisco — a breed apart.

Ken Garcia’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at or call him at (415) 359-2663.

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