Classic SFPersonalities

What to leave, what to take

The Duggan family dishes on Original Joe’s

By Tom Molanphy

When fire gutted Original Joe’s in 2007, the Tenderloin landmark restaurant seemed destined for the history books, another relic of San Francisco’s colorful past lost to disaster. Less than a decade later, Joe’s is stronger than ever, with a thronged flagship location on Washington Square and the auspicious, recently revitalized Joe’s of Westlake.

On the surface, it’s a true San Francisco story: a beloved institution rising from the ashes thanks to grit, moxie and a bit of fortunate timing. Deep down, however, it’s the story of a family steeped in the lore of a bygone era, eyes fully fixed on the future.

Sitting around a table at their bustling North Beach restaurant, the Duggan family — parents John and Marie, son John Jr. and daughter Elena — reminisce on a nearly 80-year history of serving up San Francisco’s best comfort food.

It all began in 1937 with the original Original Joe’s at 144 Taylor Street, a hub of the city’s business leaders, politicians and colorful characters.

“You have to understand that the Tenderloin was very different in 1937,” Marie Duggan says, referring to the location of the restaurant that her father, Tony Rodin, founded with his close pal Louis Rocca. “There was music, gambling, boxing … maybe some prostitution, yes. But we didn’t say we lived in the Tenderloin. We proudly said we lived in downtown San Francisco.”

The rest of the family members hear her description of the historical Tenderloin and nod knowingly. Tears in her eyes, Marie talks about 70 years in one place over the clanging of cutlery and the sharp-pitched yells of “Order up!” The Taylor Street location was where her father grew old and where her grandfather ended up “spending his whole life behind that bar.”

For years, the restaurant was run by two generations of the family. The atmosphere was as big of a draw as the food and, thanks to mentions in Herb Caen’s column, it became a hit with locals and tourists. Then, in 2007, a fire that started in the kitchen’s exhaust flue just before lunchtime destroyed the restaurant. There was talk among family members of rebuilding the Taylor location, then talk of finding a new location. That talk lasted almost five years.

“I was ready to take a bow and say good night,” Marie admits. “But we still drove around in our old Joe’s van. At stop lights, people would bang on our hood and say, ‘Hey! When are you gonna open back up?’”

John Jr., tall and sharp in a suit and tie, picks up the story when the North Beach opportunity arrived in 2012. The prime Washington Square location that housed Fior d’Italia for years became available.

“Generations of San Franciscans have eaten on this corner,” he says. “My dad says you can’t find a better corner in San Francisco after five at night.”

The trick would be merging that signature North Beach location with their own venerable and beloved family traditions.

“We had the competitive advantage of being San Franciscans,” John Duggan, an older — but just as dapper — version of John Jr., recalls. “No one could question our authenticity.”

The new location was twice the size of the original, so they had room for memories. The Duggans took everything they could from 144 Taylor and incorporated it in the new location, including the bricks from the fireplace, the handles off the front doors, the bar stools, and even the colorful mermaid wall hangings.

At the back of the restaurant, a wall lined with classic black-and-white photos reminds them of what was lost on Taylor Street, as well as what they created in North Beach. There’s a photo of Joe Montana and pals taking over the Taylor location one night; a packed house for the Democratic National Convention in 1984; a 2003 “big boost review,” according to Marie, from the San Francisco Chronicle; and vintage photos of Fior D’Italia, as a sign of respect.

In the front of the house, eight nuns in their blinding summer whites stand from their booth to leave the restaurant. After John Sr. gently teases one nun that white habits are not needed in San Francisco (“Stick with your gray habit, Sister!”), a 40-something diner approaches another sister to remind her that she taught him when he was in grade school.

“And that’s Joe’s,” Elena says.

A few days later, sitting at a bar table at the family’s newest venture, six-month-old Original Joe’s of Westlake, John Jr. is greeted by Oscar, a waiter who has worked at Joe’s for 30 years and seems ready for 30 more.

Retaining the authentic feel of the restaurant was a critical difference between establishing Original Joe’s of North Beach and renovating Joe’s of Westlake, a longtime neighborhood restaurant in Daly City that went up for sale in 2013.

“North Beach was about redefining our brand. Westlake was different — it was all about not letting down those legions of fans,” John Jr. says.

North Beach, frankly, has icons to spare: Coit Tower, Washington Square and City Lights, to name a few. But Joe’s of Westlake was the icon of Daly City for generations. 

The Duggans did their best to make the transition painless for longtime customers. Instead of plastering the walls with family photos or memorabilia, they preserved the unique Doelger heritage of the circa 1956 building. (Another smart move: pricing one of Original Joe’s signature dishes, the “Joe’s Special,” a scramble of ground beef, spinach, onions and eggs, at two dollars less than the North Beach location.)

Comparing one restaurant to the other is like comparing boy and girl twins. There are some differences — Joe’s of Westlake has few tourists, for example, and a prominent line of hanging pans, some still swinging from use, a nod to the working-class nature of Daly City. However, the clanging of cutlery and the calling of orders maintains a signature “Joe’s” tradition that, for 80 years, has known what to take from the past, and what to leave.

And the future? John Jr. smiles. “A Joe’s restaurant, done the right way and in the right location, will always be relevant,” he says.

Time — and tradition — will tell.

Tom Molanphy is a San Francisco freelance writer.

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