San Franciscans keep legendary Red’s Java House alive

There may be no building still standing in San Francisco that embodies the city’s working class roots more than Red’s Java House.

The beloved shack perched on the corner of Pier 30 has served the city its famous sourdough cheeseburgers and cheap beer since 1955, and despite all the chaos of 2020, it’s not stopping anytime soon.

“San Franciscans own Red’s,” owner Tiffany Pisoni tells me, as we sit out back in the shadow of the Bay Bridge. “It’s an institution. I may have purchased it 11 years ago, but it belongs to the city.”

That back patio feels like an oasis of normality from another era right now. Situated between the looming bridge and a giant COVID-19 testing center that looks like it’s dropped in from a disaster movie, Red’s is somehow weathering the storm.

“I thought: We’re going to survive this, we’re going to show San Franciscans that we’re not going anywhere. No matter what.” Pisoni says. “It’s been an amazing feeling knowing that people are coming out and want to keep this place going.”

The tiny diner that veteran Chronicle writer Carl Nolte once called “the Chartres Cathedral of cheap eats” remained open even through the darkest days of the pandemic, that has seen over one hundred S.F. restaurants permanently close.

Red’s shifted to take-out through April and May, but now diners can order inside and take their $10.47 hamburger and beer lunch combo to the tables on the back deck over the water.

The restaurant gets its name from the pair of seafaring redheaded brothers who bought the place in 1955. Pisoni became the third owner, after taking over the restaurant in 2009.

“My father, an engineer, was working on Pier One at the time, and he said ‘I heard buzz that Red’s may be for sale, just go check it out,'” she says. “So I did … and I walked away. A month later he convinced me to check it out again.”

Red's Java House owner Tiffany Pisoni outside her restaurant in San Francisco, California on Sept. 10, 2020. Photo: Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE / SFGATE

Photo: Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

Red’s Java House owner Tiffany Pisoni outside her restaurant in San Francisco, California on Sept. 10, 2020.

Pisoni was finally persuaded to invest in the historic spot.

“My thought was I could come in and change it, not the menu, but clean it up, and put my own touch on it,” she says.

“And did you?” I ask.

“I did not.” She laughs. “Within the first month I realized I wouldn’t be changing Red’s. I got so much slack from our regulars.”

Pisoni describes some of the protests long time Red’s customers made to change.

“The mop bucket was always under the TV, not in the mop closet. And so I moved it into the closet, and they were like ‘Where’s the mop bucket?…Where is it?! That bucket has been there for fifteen years and that’s where it belongs!'”

The mop bucket was just the start.

“I repainted the interior in the exact same color, but they told me I was making the place too clean. There was also an old coffee roaster in here that hadn’t been used in years. I removed it … They did not like that. So I didn’t change the patio, or anything. The tables inside are the original tables, the stools are the original stools.”

I ask if the staunch defense of the old ways was a little scary.

“No. I think it’s love,” she says. “Their parents brought them here, you know. And they’re bringing their kids here.”

Like the original brothers, Pisoni is a San Francisco native. We talk about the old city, and how the mile of land between the Chronicle building on 5th and Mission and Red’s has changed over the years. From our spot out back, with jazz drifting over the patio, the imposing Salesforce Tower and glassy skyline of Downtown looks down on the humble hut.

“We have construction workers, bikers, financial district people … All walks of life come to Red’s, and they all feel like they belong.”

One thing that Pisoni did add to the decor was more photos, and the cluttered interior walls of Red’s tell the tale of one of the most storied restaurants in San Francisco.

In 1955 brothers Tom and Mike McGarvey purchased Franco’s Lunch that had been serving food to longshoremen and sailors since 1929 on Pier 30, and renamed it Red’s.

Former owner of Red's Java House Tom "Red" McGarvey stands in front of the port side cafe during the latter years of ownership. Photo: Courtesy Tom McGarvey

Photo: Courtesy Tom McGarvey

Former owner of Red’s Java House Tom “Red” McGarvey stands in front of the port side cafe during the latter years of ownership.

The joint was a hit among longshoremen and downtown office workers alike.

In 1981 The Examiner told readers that “Drinking hot coffee and looking at the sunrise on the underbelly of the Bay Bridge is an early morning sight not to miss. Even if you’ve been out all night — or maybe especially if you’ve been out all night — dancing, of course, at the Mark … Rosie, the waitress, will smile and give you a glazed donut to dunk for an extra 35 cents.”

Joe Montana stopped in for a burger before the 49ers Super Bowl victory parade in 1989.

At some point the brothers reportedly fell out, and Mike bought the similarly named Java House two piers down the waterfront.

Tom McGarvey, now with white hair, is still a customer at Red’s.

“I just spoke with Tom last week!” Pisoni says. “He had his 90th birthday here. I call him to check in. He’s a character, an amazing man.”

Red’s regulars know all the staff by name, order things not on the menu, and walk in with the exact change. The last change to the menu was over twenty years ago, when french fries were first offered. The most popular item by far is the cheeseburger, served on sourdough bread with pickles, mustard and not much else.

Employee Carlos Medina pours drinks at the bar of Red's Java House on Pier 30-32 in San Francisco, California on Sept. 16, 2020. Photo: Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE / SFGATE

Photo: Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

Employee Carlos Medina pours drinks at the bar of Red’s Java House on Pier 30-32 in San Francisco, California on Sept. 16, 2020.

“We don’t do lettuce, we don’t do tomatoes,” Pisoni laughs. “When out-of-towners come in and ask us to hold the tomatoes, I’m like, ‘sure thing!’”

The burger is worth the hype. I’m no food critic but it tastes like a glorious, chewy mustardy release of 2020 tension, and the million dollar view doesn’t hurt.

Anthony Bourdain once described Red’s as a “wonderful, old school, high fat, high protein, beer for breakfast kind of a place,” adding, “any time you begin to doubt the wonderfulness of San Francisco, really, all you gotta do is come here.”

With the passing crowds from Giants games and FiDi lunch break diners thinning out due to the pandemic, Pisoni has changed opening hours to suit whenever people come to Red’s.

“People have started coming a little later after working from home, so we stay open later; like I said, San Franciscans run this place,” she says. “If they’re here, we’re staying for them.”

Red’s has survived a lot. A massive fire destroyed the pier in 1984, but the restaurant was saved by the SF Fire Department’s fireboat Phoenix.

The Loma Prieta earthquake that collapsed a steel section of the Bay Bridge couldn’t even damage the scrappy little shack that lives in its shadow.

Pisoni is sure Red’s will make it through 2020, as will San Francisco.

“We’re a resilient city, we’re gonna come back,” she says.

Chef Carlos Medina brings us drinks as Pisoni tells me that Red’s has managed to keep all their employees through the crisis. “The customers know all my staff, it’s family here. My team is amazing.”

One day soon the COVID-19 testing center, the smoky skies and the masks will be gone, but San Francisco’s favorite little burger joint will still be in the exact same spot, as will the mop bucket.

Andrew Chamings is an editor at SFGATE. Email: [email protected] | Twitter: @AndrewChamings

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