Did I save the best for last? Well, kind of.
As far as hofbraus go, Tommy's Joynt is perhaps the best known and most famous, and for good reason: it has a whole lot of character, it hasn't sold out to attract a younger/more affluent crowd, and it has a crazy loyalty among both San Franciscans and those who, whenever they visit, make a point to stop at Tommy's.
Plus it has everything any decent hofbrau should – the cheap food, the bar that serves cheap drinks, the sports on the television, the big meeting space in the back, the dimly lit rooms, and walls covered with all sorts of memorabilia.
It even has one of those funky condom machines in the men's restroom, which in this day and age seems pretty progressive. Although, the tranny and hustler prostitutes congregate just one block over on Polk, so maybe the machine was installed by the Department of Public Health – who knows?
One of biggest plusses that makes the atmosphere enjoyable at Tommy's are the customers. Sure, there are a lot of tourists, but often they seem flanked by the locals. The heavy presence of locals also makes the eavesdropping at Tommy's a very special affair. For instance, the night Bruce and I were there we overheard a man at a table of four, just seated, middle-aged gay men complain to the busser, "Sir! Oh, Sir!", as he pointed to a small crumpled up napkin left by the previous table. After the busser picked it up and brushed past our table, Bruce and I began cracking up as we could hear him mumble a litany of abuse in Spanish towards the guy. Hmm...I think I heard somewhere in there pinche and pendejo.
Then, there was the table of young women behind us, one woman in particular, who were just shredding one of their female co-workers in that total catty way women do.
"I know. Can you believe it? Oh, and do you remember Brian? Well, he called me and he even told me that he thought she was self-centered. Seriously. What? Yeah, I heard she was on anti-depressants, too. That's pretty sad. I feel the most sorry for her boyfriend. Can you imagine living with that?"
God! Sometimes I wish I was recording this stuff.
I imagine Tommy's Joynt has had this atmosphere since they first opened in 1947. The original Tommy, Tommy Harris, was a popular young crooner in the 1930s on the local radio station, KFRC, who eventually moved on to NBC. While a radio personality, he co-starred with future legends Morey Amsterdam and Meredith Wilson. Eventually he left the radio business and settled into San Francisco politics, but not before opening the institution that would bear his name long after most people forgot who he was.
One thing about Tommy's – it's not in any danger of closing, at least as far as business is concerned. It seems that anytime I go by it, it has a line of people waiting to eat or people standing in the doorway. Fortunately for us, that line moves pretty quickly as folks, many of them who know exactly what they want down to the specifics, give the guys behind the steam table their orders.
This steam table isn't as long as I've seen in other hofbraus, but apparently they can fill a whole host of requests, from barbecued beef sandwiches, turkey leg dinners with spaghetti, buffalo stew, and even broiled salmon.
Standing at the steam table can make anyone who stands 5'-9" or smaller feel like a little kid, since it's situated higher than most and, when you grab your tray or pay at the register, you are reaching up and over the top. Packed closely between the people in line, the steam table, people seated at tables behind you, and customers entering and exiting, it could make some people feel a bit claustrophobic.
However, I didn't feel that at all, in fact, I felt the opposite. I felt it was warm and welcoming. I felt it was more like a family potluck, with sweet Aunt Gladys and boisterous cousin Jimmy (who just paroled) and unassuming cousin Larry (whom everyone else is jealous of cause he just graduated from UC Berkeley) and that annoying uncle of yours who eats with his mouth open. Oh, and look, there's 3rd cousin Pierre who's in from France and cousin Takeru from Japan (he can really eat a lot)!
I have to admit, the choices at Tommy's can seem daunting. Finally, Bruce settles on the pastrami sandwich, while I choose the barbecued beef brisket dinner.
His sandwich was freshly carved and piled high on sourdough bread. The sandwich also came with a small container of jus to pour over your sandwich, should you chose to do so. In addition, he ordered a salad perhaps to minimize the onset of the meat sweats. Unfortunately, his pastrami sandwich was a little too fatty, likely due to the server's choice of cuts from the meat. The salad also came with 1000 Island dressing which was obviously watered down, leading us to both wonder why someone would water it down when it is so cheap to begin with.
My barbecue beef brisket was pretty good and the meat was plentiful. The barbecue sauce was sweet and kind of what you would expect for a place like this. In other words, I'm sure no one has gone to their grave protecting the secret ingredients of this BBQ sauce. My brisket, despite being tender, also was a little too fatty and I'm guessing the cuts of meat used here aren't what you would find in the case at Bryan's. However, considering that Bruce's sandwich cost $5 and my dinner plate cost $7, I'm not really complaining.
I made the mistake of ordering the side of potato salad seeing as I already had mashed potatoes on the plate, but I didn't realize that until I sat down to eat. That's too bad since the potato salad was pretty bland and couldn't even be beefed up with the addition of a little horseradish and salt. Actually, the potato salad over at Lefty's is better. The sourdough roll that came with the dinner was definitely the best I've had at any hofbrau, so that was a plus.
Tommy's also has a good crew who works the floor with speed and grace. The sole waitress seemed calm yet attentive and seemingly able to handle any emergency, translating basic phrases in several languages at once if she had to. The busser and door guy (I'm not really sure what his job was) also seemed to be friendly when treated the same. And in fact, other than the table of the four queens seated near us, attitude at Tommy's seemed refreshingly non-existent.
If anything, Tommy's seems like a great place to hang out with friends, have a beer, and (while the food is neither great nor bad) perhaps have a sandwich.
Is it worth a visit if you've never been? Absolutely! Is it the king amongst hofbraus? Well, that can be disputed. Frankly, during our visits to various Bay Area hofbraus, both Bruce and I've concluded that Lefty's had the best food while Tommy's had the best atmosphere.
So, in my opinion, here's how it stacks up.
Best Food (in this order):
Jerrold Market Place
Now that I've made these conclusions, I can't tell you how happy I am not to eat another hofbrau-style meal, at least not in the near future. I'm glad I did this research, but boy howdy am I ready to move on. You will notice that I didn't visit all of the hofbraus in the Bay Area or in California, so if you have any dispute with my findings, I welcome your comments/additions on The Hofbraus of the San Francisco Bay Area page.
Thanks for hanging in there with me. Let's keep rollin'.