Before it suffered irreparable damage in a tragic 2007 fire, Original Joe's spent over 70 years working its way into the heart of San Francisco with humble, honestly prepared hamburger steaks, Italian-American staples, and the kind of customer service you only encounter in a family-run business. It took the owners, the Duggan family, four years to find an appropriate space to stage Original Joe’s rebirth. Now, just seven weeks in, the buzz has been good, and the Chowhound chorus has chimed in to say the new Original Joe's achieves what it set out to: infuse a new space with the richness of history and unmistakable branding they’ve nurtured over a lifetime.
To be honest, I still wasn't overly excited about hamburger steaks. But after one long dinner spent sharing the bustling 200-seat dining room with Marie Duggan, her children, Elena and John, some construction workers, friendly Midwestern tourists, Ed Lee, and a handful of hipsters (oh, the irony of a new old school place that serves calf's liver!), I can say they've done it—100%.
Marie, who's father Tony Rodin founded the restaurant in 1937, says the space feels magical because people with a story came into a storied spot. (Fior d'Italia a.k.a. "the oldest Italian restaurant in the nation" was there for over fifty years before Joe DiMaggio's took over.) I'd add that an intense attention to detail and generous grants from the city didn't hurt. The Duggans were hell-bent on preserving interior hallmarks that survived the Sutter Street fire. Vintage swivel stools and red booths live on here, while low-slung art deco wood ceilings, snazzy cork “tile” floors, and huge pendant lamps give the space a feeling of permanence. In other words: it’s the opposide of "industrial chic."
A near-carbon copy of the decades-old menu is offered, but they've upped the quality of ingredients—without pimping them out as some are prone to do. Sourcing-conscious San Franciscans can rest-assured the chicken is from Mary's, the meats are sourced (mostly) from Del Monte, bread comes from Italian French—the same Grant Avenue bakery the Duggans have always used—and they're still using Lazzari fuel in the charcoal grill. This means die-hards can once again dig into that hamburger sandwich, and ten or so different steak cuts—all with an optional, inimitable OJ’s char.
Still, there's newness. Elena and her brother John added more items for light eaters and vegetarians. They removed most of the weight from their beloved eggplant parm. And there are less-Americanized regional pasta dishes, like an orechiette tossed with housemade, spicy fennel sausage that wouldn't elicit a sneer from the staunchest Perbacco advocate.
We scarfed down a shatteringly crisp and light rendition of another Italian classic, fritto misto: fried lemon wheels, anchovy-stuffed olives, pepperoncini and calamari. I can't see anyone with a pulse pushing away the crusty arancini with oozing, cheese-gushing centers. Of course the charming waiter coerced us into his favorite, the Porterhouse steak—a truly Flinstonian cut that would've fit in just fine with The Sopranos.
There is good wine to wash it all down—from an enomatic machine, from the tap, or from an (old-school?) bottle. You can drink the only Bastianich Calabrone available in the U.S., and a spicy, smooth Michael David "Rapture" Cab I didn't pass up for round two.
Your stomach is going to hate you, but there are necessary sweet endings. The spumoni gelato was made just for the restaurant by Naia across the street. Then there's a butterscotch pudding that captivates with the salty-sweet balance pastry chefs have been teaching us to fall in love with for a few years now. Yes, it’s de rigeur, but you won't hear anyone at Original Joe's calling it budino.