I walked by Sam's Pizza a year and a half before I realized it wasn't closed for good - only closed between 3 AM and 5 PM.
During the daytime, with the inside lights turned off and a rickety metal gate blocking closer inspection, it looks abandoned and lonely. Because the décor hasn't changed in the 40 years it's been open, from first glance, one isn't sure when it closed, if it is indeed closed.
By chance, I finally figured out that it was open for business on a night I was in the neighborhood. Very rarely am I in the vicinity of Columbus and Broadway at night, and frankly, why would I be? The only difference, though a significant one, between that area during the day and at night is that the strip clubs and tacky bars are open, populated by the drunk and coarse American versions of British chavs who flock to them.
It's generally not in the chav nature to post restaurant reviews, although a few do, and they are often easily identifiable by their Yelp reviews (keywords: "drunk", "2:00 AM", "bar-hopping").
The sui generis character of the area is further enriched by the hordes of horny incognito gentlemen of all backgrounds who swarm to the quarter-booths on Kearny and Broadway for practically endless hours of jack-off time.
Sorry, but I don't have enough anti-bacterial Wet-Naps to navigate the hundreds of potentially touched door handles in that hood after sunset.
It helps to look at this neighborhood through the lens of history, because when you realize that virtually little has changed since the days of Sydney Town, the Sydney Ducks, Dirty Tom McAlear, and the Chileno harlots who sent up camp on the slopes of Telegraph Hill, you come to view it all with a quaint nostalgia, even as you turn your nose up at and away from it.
If there is any place in the whole Bay Area where history is still alive, albeit with different players and different dives, it is in this area.
Sam's Pizza looks as if it has changed little as well, except for the prices. There is something to be said with sticking with what works. Times may change, but true dives rarely do. That's what makes them either distasteful to some or homey to others.
My visit to Sam's revealed that it is homey, most especially to others – "others" being passed out homeless men and lower working class stragglers. Because my visit wasn't between 12 and 3 AM, I was luckily spared the conversation of some mooks who decided on Sam's because they were too drunk to find Clown Alley.
Nevertheless, the conversation of the two other coherent diners and the cook wasn't much better. It fairly ranged between discussing the reason a friend was booked on a felony charge (slapping a police horse's ass) to where to shop for ghetto fabulous clothes in New York, and which Market Street store had the best brand clothing (note: not the one that sells mostly to whites).
Sam's Pizza is a fairly cramped dive that's dominated by a short bit of counter space and some small wall tables that seat one on each side. Like a lot of Broadway dives, it's not the cleanest joint, and perhaps rivals You's Dim Sum in terms of the Sticky Icky Factor.
The walls are cluttered with yellowed and aging menus and the look of the place is fairly dingy. The smell of grease from the fryers hangs heavy and mingles with the bus exhaust and cigarette smoke drifting in from the bus stop outside. Despite its age, it has all the charm of Jack in the Box on First Street.
After I began eating my cheeseburger and the previous two customers had left (one of them throwing his wadded-up garbage down on the street like a slack-jawed moron*), the young Arab-American cook wearing a Kangol hat walked from behind the counter, stood at the entryway, and began smoking a cigarette. He stood there for several minutes, watching the never-ending stream of Chinese people walk by, and seemed to be passing the time until the non-Chinese invaders appeared - drunk, loud, and obnoxious.
*We, here at Dive, HATE litterbugs.
When he came back inside and walked back behind the counter, I instinctively waited to hear the sound of running water, and yet nothing. Suddenly I looked down at the food in my hands and a not-so-strange thought entered my mind. Could it be that this 8-dollar cheeseburger and fries were touched with unwashed cigarette hands?
A hard gulp followed.
I squirted more ketchup onto my paper plate. The fries, although hot, were previously frozen and not any different than what you would buy off the cheap shelf at the supermarket. The cheeseburger was fairly non-descript and a pale rendition of the burger at AllStars, at double the price. Perhaps I should've ventured over to Clown Alley instead.
Clown Alley, which is just about as old if not older, unfortunately isn't a dive…anymore. It's had one too many remodels and now is a fairly clean and nice place to get a great cheeseburger. The price for a cheeseburger, fries, and a coke reflect that (upwards of $10 for all three).
The price at Sam's Pizza for the same, unfortunately, doesn't. And that's too bad, because I really wanted to like Sam's, especially after the long wait.
Sam's, however, is a great example of how a place can have strong elements of a dive and yet have no redeemable qualities. Sometimes sticky tables, a skanky clientele, an aloof cook with questionable sanitary practices, and overpriced mediocre food makes a worthless shithole just that, and nothing more.
That, my fellow divers, is what we must trudge through in our ongoing journey to the top, by way of the bottom.
So take another deep breath and follow me.