Dining at a place like the newly reborn Original Joe's, if you have no memories of the restaurant's Taylor Street location, feels a little like walking into your new husband's family reunion — overwhelmed by the hugs and introductions, smiling through the inside jokes and half-funny stories, hoping to reflect glimmers of the affection that has brought all those people together.
I admit it: During my first 13 years in San Francisco, I never went to the original Original Joe's on Taylor, which burned down in 2007 and reopened in North Beach three months ago. The Original, Marina, and Westlake Joe's, many of which are gone, all belong to the world of the San Francisco native, a world in which 60-year-olds still argue over the outcomes of high school football games and get wistful over the taste of pink popcorn. (Side note: Original Joe's is hardly the original Joe's, founded by Ante Rodin and four others in 1937 after a partnership split at the New Joe's on Broadway and Columbus. There's also an Original Joe's in San Jose, a now-unconnected spinoff founded in the 1950s. Oh, and Easter Bunny believers? If there's an original "Joe," culinary historians haven't identified him.)
And so it feels like interloping to press into the crush of diners in the entryway of the new Original Joe's, most of whom have white hair and native pedigrees. Each time John or Elena Duggan, Rodin's grandchildren and the current owners, walk through the room, people stop them to shake hands and introduce or reintroduce themselves.
The counter seating from the old place didn't survive the move, and the front room comes off like a Hyatt restaurant, but the main dining room, framed in dark woods, carries the weight of Original Joe's 75 years of business. Gold-and-black checkered linoleum. Deep booths upholstered in scalloped red leather. Waiters dressed in tuxedos haul giant trays of food out from the open kitchen, then dart back through the aisles to pick up more. It's easy to go to the bathroom and forget to return to your table for 20 minutes, absorbed by the wall of menus, letters, newspaper clippings, and photographs. There is no kitsch to the restaurant's evocation of its past: a marvel in itself.
The menu evokes the Italian restaurants of a half-century ago, before the risotto-filled 1980s and the hand-rolled fusilli with rabbit and foraged mushrooms of today. It was an era when Italian restaurants could get away with serving chicken cacciatore and spaghetti with meatballs as long as they kept a few steaks on the menu for the diners who thought pasta was exotic. The new Original Joe's has upgraded its ingredients, bringing the restaurant's prices up to special-occasion levels, though every entrée comes with a side (fries, mashed potatoes, vegetables, spaghetti, ravioli) and arrives on a platter big enough to hold a whole roast chicken.
The dishes I ate were classic and simple, sometimes cooked indifferently, sometimes well. The lettuce in the shrimp louie ($15.95) was covered in tender pink curls of shrimp, properly hard-boiled eggs, and tiny arbequina olives, yet coated in a too-sweet pink mayonnaise. Veal piccata ($26), smothered in capers and lemon-butter sauce, wasn't the tenderest. One friend described his ravioli with meat sauce as "Costco-ey," which was apt. Hamburger steak ($17.95) turned out to be, uh, a hamburger shaped like a New York strip.
But the cooks did a fine job with a New York strip ($27.95 for 10 ounces, $38 for 16), served with a pat of wine butter on top that soon pooled around the steak, and the cooks demonstrated with the spaghetti with giant meatballs that they knew what "al dente" meant. A salmon fillet ($24.95), glazed with an herbed butter sauce, had been pan-roasted until the meat began to pull apart in fat, shiny flakes. When I ordered the sweetbreads, the waiter responded with the same "Yessssss!" that usually greets a slam dunk, and then recommended I order them his favorite way, "au sec," or without tomato sauce. The pale, tangerine-sized lobes came instead with a sauce of white wine, butter, parsley, and sage. They had the texture of a just-baked meringue, and after three or four hunks of the creamy, rich meat, I lost any sense of where the sweetbreads stopped and the butter began.
And eating at Original Joe's is a reminder that the restaurants that make the national magazines may serve fine food, but have exchanged some of the qualities that make restaurants stick around for three generations. Enough birthday candles made their way through the dining room that I suspected they'd moved the date of St. Lucia's Festival. The elder John Duggan, who'd been making the rounds wearing a natty tweed sports coat, slapped me on the back and pointed at the space where my sweetbreads had been. "Hey! Leave me the plate at least!" he barked out, laughed, then moved over to charm the next table. Diners waiting in line leaned over to speak to strangers. One of my tablemates returned from the urinal with a story from the guy next to him, who claimed to have kissed Marilyn Monroe in the back of the restaurant when it was still Fior d'Italia. Interactions like those don't seem to happen at State Bird Provisions or Benu.
What is astonishing is that, after five years of absence and a change of location and décor, the Duggans still command the kind of loyalty that packs a restaurant on a Wednesday night. Original Joe's, original or no, conjures up a collective nostalgia for the days when San Francisco was a port town, teeming with Army and Navy men, and you could still hear Italian in Little Italy. Even for an early 1990s immigrant like me, the sensation is hard to shake.