Irrespective of quality, there are restaurants where everyone in San Francisco should eat, on pain of never becoming a true local. I've never eaten at Benu or Saison — someday, he sighed, as moths escaped from his inside-out pockets — but that doesn't gnaw at me the same way that never having eaten at Sears Fine Food does. I'm slightly wistful that I never went to Sinbad's, considerably more embarrassed that I never ate at Joe's Cable Car in the Excelsior, and genuinely sorry that I was never around to experience Finocchio's.
And until the other day, I'd never been to Original Joe's — any of them. In a city where territorial bores go apeshit when you refer to the freeway as “the 101,” that's basically a mortal sin on par with writing an open letter to the mayor asking for the homeless “hyenas” to please disappear. It might put me in the same category of know-nothing arriviste as writers who say S.F.'s music scene is dead, but I figured I'd be up front about this grievous oversight.
And man, am I ever happy I rectified it, because the just-renovated Original Joe's of Westlake is exactly the kind of updated classic I love the most. Every detail that felt contemporary pulled right back to 1960, and vice versa. Even when things didn't really add up — our friendly, capable female server had magenta hair, and while there's nothing wrong with that, the male bussers all wear black bowties and monkey suits — things err comfortably on the side of California casual.
Don't get me wrong: It's a time-warp. The unoriginal descriptor “original” alone says plenty, and the starburst chandeliers, terrazzo flooring, and meat-laden menu — which is set in Futura! — fill in the rest. It's not true Googie architecture like Johnie's Coffee Shop on Wilshire and Fairfax in L.A., but it's way more groovy-grandpa than Daly City's other massive and wonderful restaurant, Koi Palace.
I highly suggest starting with a cocktail that starts with the letter M, like a Manhattan ($7 on the rocks, $8 up). You can do this in the main dining room — which is not yet accepting reservations and for which there was a lengthy wait on a Monday night — or else plop down in the bar, near the après-ski fireplace, where you can order off the full menu as the Creedence Clearwater Revival Pandora station (or something just like it) plays all night.
A bowl of arancini stuffed with fontina (five for $8.95) was surprisingly mild for fried risotto balls — some Parmesan could have really perked them up — but Joe's Meatballs (three for $8.95) more than made up for it. They were tangy, iron-rich, and they disintegrated in the mouth in exactly the right way. Mop up the sauce with some sourdough, which comes in a chrome wire basket and a pat of butter embossed with the winking image of an Italian chef, just like every pizza box in America.
While the menu specifically says that the lamb chops ($34.95) come three to an order, we got four. They had a nice char, but what really kept my attention was the side portion of ravioli, as big as an entrée in much of San Francisco. They were a touch overcooked, but there's something ineffable about that red sauce. It all but pulsates with soft light, a touchstone for generations of diners (in the eyes of this newb, anyway).
I love that the visual accompaniment to the requisite steak dishes is pepperoncini and black olives, but the real side dishes were superb. Apart from that ravioli, we tried mashed potatoes that were buttered within an inch of their lump-less lives and creamed spinach that came a close second. With the 16-ounce ribeye ($38.95) and a glass of Justin Cabernet ($14) from Paso Robles, those sides form an unimpeachable tetrad of mid-century awesomeness. It's worth sticking to the upper half of the wine list if you go the by-the-glass route, as the $10 Bohemian Pinot Noir, one of several wines on tap, had a solvent-y nose I couldn't get past.
But if you really want to eat like you were at a state dinner Kennedy might have hosted for Khrushchev, go with the prime rib ($32.95). It's thick and bloody, even when cooked medium, and full of vigor straight from the era when people smoked Lucky Strikes as they ate such things.
If you need the loo, excuse yourself, walk past the Sardi's-like wall of fame and past the Cascade Room, along the floor that's flecked like a bowling ball. Admire the caricature of Bruno — one of the partners in the original Original Joe's on Taylor Street in the Tenderloin, whose cartoon likeness threatens to shut the party down — and go back to your table and order dessert. If in doubt, go with the Joe's Buttercake ($8), which is basically a bran muffin saturated in butter and cream cheese, bedecked with berries and mint leaves, topped with vanilla gelato, and paired with a chocolate stick. The butterscotch pudding, made with salted caramel and whipped cream ($8) was exceptionally rich. Too rich for two-thirds of this table, anyway, leaving me and my spoon to tackle it by ourselves.
Time will tell if anything infuriates the patrons who want everything to be as it was, but mercifully, what Original Joe's is not is a nostalgia act, the culinary equivalent of Guns N' Roses at Coachella. And now I kind of want to eat Swedish pancakes at Sears Fine Food.