Lands End, San Francisco
The first time I went to Louis’, I had a hangover. It was my birthday and therefore a given, really. My friends had planned a big night out followed by brunch the next day at a spot I had been told was a hidden gem. The sort of proper, old-school San Francisco diner you don’t find much anymore. Oh, and the shrimp salad. You have to get the shrimp salad. (I did). But as I dragged my thumping head into Louis’ for the first time, I was in awe. The tiny box of a restaurant is perched precariously on a cliff’s edge, with booths crammed up against a panoramic sweep of the ocean below. The food – breakfast, burgers, salads, shakes and coffee – is all straight up, tasty and inexpensive. Halfway through the meal we spied whales breaching in the blue distance, and our waitress brought over a pair of binoculars. At this point I decided Louis’ was the most perfect diner in the world. But it wasn’t until I met Tom Hontalas, a third-generation owner of the business, which was started by his Greek grandparents, that I came to appreciate Louis’ history. San Francisco’s famous Sutro Baths, an ambitious turn-of-the-century leisure center that burned down in 1966, transformed a rocky outcrop of the city known as Lands End into a mini-getaway. Louis' was born of that boom, and since then it has weathered natural disasters, changing landlords and new visions for the area. Its future is uncertain. But I and many others hope it’s here to stay. There just isn’t another one like it.
"The restaurant feels inseparable from my life"
My grandmother and grandfather opened it up in 1937. Louis and Helen. Louis was my grandfather. He came here as an 11-year-old boy from Greece in 1906; his older brother, Mike, had come here previously. They came for a better life. We have the ship’s manifest, and he’s listed there as 15 years old. We think he lied about that because they wouldn’t have let an 11-year-old boy come on his own. He landed in New York, and I have no idea how he got to California.
At that time, right next to where we are now, the cliff was lined with buildings. There was the Cliff House down there and the Sutro Baths to the right and there were a bunch of little shops. Mike had opened up a place called the Cliff Cafe. Louis starting working for Mike from 1906, and in 1927 they told him there was a young woman back in Greece and he should marry her. So he went and met my grandmother, who was only 18. They came back on the boat and somewhere along the way she got pregnant.
Adolph Sutro had his big plans for his bathhouse but he needed a way to get people here from downtown. So he just built his own railroad and brought people out. And between the railroad and Sutro Baths there was an indoor walkway that wasn’t being used at the time. So my grandparents went to Sutro's nephew or grandson and said, “Can we take some of that building and make our own cafe?” And in 1937 they opened their little Louis’ restaurant.
I started in ’68, and my brother started in ’67. I never really wanted to work here. But I tried going to college a couple of times and well … it just didn’t work for me. Getting through high school was hard enough.
In 1966 there was the big fire that burned down the Sutro Baths. The company that owned it at the time was just a real estate company, and they had plans to build some condominiums. My father was told that, because they owned our property too, they were going to tear down our restaurant. So that scared us.
We went many years not knowing what the future of Louis’ was gonna be. Then in the early 1970s a bill passed that started the Golden Gate Recreational Area. Over time the national parks system bought Sutro’s, which we were part of, and they bought the Cliff House. So we had a new landlord, and this time it was the federal government.
We have some longtime customers, but a lot of them have died. We used to have one guy that sat in that corner and would sometimes come in two or three times a day. In 1974 my dad invested a couple hundred thousands dollars remodeling the restaurant, and this has been the layout since. A lot of it still looks the same. The tiles on the walls, the formica table tops.
We also had a lady that worked for us for 55 years. Her name was Rachel; we also called her Rose. She started working for my parents right after world war two. She had this real shrill voice and wore overwhelming perfume. When I was young I didn’t like her, but I was just a stupid kid. As I grew up I appreciated what she did for the business, and what a good, caring person she was. She was the person I would call if we were shorthanded. She’d hear my voice and before I would even ask she’d say, “Do you need me at work? I’ll be right in.” She was remarkable. That was her section over there by the window, the best section. She worked five or six days a week and never took any vacations. She worked 55 years straight through. She just passed away last year, which was sad.
The menu has hardly changed. People come here and think that because we’re by the ocean, it’s going to be seafood. But we do burgers, because that’s what the Greek immigrants did. Back in the old restaurant my father sometimes served enchiladas, and on the weekend we would roll out this popcorn machine and the peanut warmer.
So in 1992, the parks service told us they finally had a “master plan for the area”. They invited us to a meeting, along with the Cliff House and other businesses on the hill. My brother and I watched this presentation with a whole map of the area: a visitor’s center on the hill, and the Cliff House, and Sutro Heights Park. And I kept looking at the map and there was no building where Louis’ was. The presentation ends and they say, “Any questions?” And I raise my hand. “Where’s Louis’?” And they say, “Oh, Louis’ won’t be here.” They said they figured we’d be OK just having a little eatery in the visitor’s center. And I was pissed. I was shocked. That’s the way they told us they wanted us out?
"We went many years not knowing what the future of Louis’ was gonna be"
We weren’t going to go quietly. The only thing we could think of was to print up a stack of postcards. We put a stack where everyone could see and our customers could fill them out. Within a few months we had 8,000. And we took them to the parks service and said, “Hey look.” One thing they’d told us was that we were just a place for tourists, so if our restaurant is here or in the visitor’s center, what’s the difference? But we went through those postcards and put them into categories: San Francisco, within an hour of San Francisco, California, US, and international. And it turned out 75% of our customers came from San Francisco or an hour away.
That was a scary time. We were told we had to bid to keep our own spot, so we put together a package and presented it to the park's service. And then it took them 12 years to get around to reviewing it – but eventually we got a 10-year lease. That lease ends December 2020. That’s three years away. We’re hoping to extend it, but I don’t know what’s going to happen. Both my bother and I are ready for a another go-around. We’re not ready to retire.
Do I see the next generation taking over? There are nine grandchildren and they’ve all worked here at some point. My younger daughter worked here the longest but one day she said, “It’s time for me to go.” And what are you going to do? My wife worked here for many years and when she told me two years ago that she was done, it broke my heart.
The restaurant feels inseparable from my life. I’m going to be 60 this year. I’ve worried about money since I was 17 years old. I’ve always owed people: the banks, or my father. And that means I’ve always had to work. One bad thing about having your own business is that you have no pension; you have to plan your own retirement. I’d love to win the lottery. But you know – and I might just be totally lying to myself – I think that if I was to win the lottery I’d still want to work. But who knows.
All photos taken by Feeder. Historical photos courtesy of Louis' Diner