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8 Classic Old-School Restaurants to Try in San Francisco

Travel back to another era with these throwback eateries
August 10, 2015
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by Amy Copperman

From the soaring rents and influx of new businesses, there's a lot of discussion of San Francisco's change of late. But though the city has always been a boom town from the Gold Rush to the Tech Rush, San Franciscans are also nostalgic for bygone eras and love to memorialize the city's storied, swashbuckling history...especially when it comes to restaurants. From a seafood restaurant dating back to San Francisco's pioneering settlers to an elaborate tiki bar, here are the city's must-visit, old-school restaurants. 

Tadich Grill

Open since: 1887 (restaurant version)

Why it's lasted: This classic seafood destination isn't just the oldest restaurant in San Francisco, it's the oldest in all of California, starting as a coffee shop in the Gold Rush. Today the long wooden bar and tables topped with starch white tablecloths are always full, buzzing with tourists, locals, political leaders and local celebrities who flock to this classic institution for its seafood dishes, caught fresh daily. The restaurant looks largely the same as it did over 100 years ago, offering a rare glimpse into San Francisco's pioneering days. 

240 California St.; 415-391-1849

Swan Oyster Depot

Open since: 1912

Why it's lasted: For more than 100 years, San Francisco's best, most charming fishermen have been shilling fresh-off-the-boat seafood and shucking the area's best oysters at this tiny no-frills lunch counter. There's always a line down the block for one of the 20 counter seats, but it tends to move quickly, and the fresh Dungeness crab, comforting clam chowder and seafood "cocktails" are well worth the wait. 

1517 Polk St.; 415-673-2757

Tommy's Joynt

Open since: 1947

Why it's lasted: As San Francisco's original Hof-brau, the same families have been running this classic destination since 1947, meaning it's largely been frozen in time. The interior is as colorful and kitschy as the muraled exterior with sports memorabilia and vintage photographs covering the walls. The prices are practically vintage as well with huge plates of roast beef, BBQ brisket, corned beef, pastrami, ham or turkey, two sides and a roll with butter running just $9.75. Wash it down with one of the beers from around the world at the large communal table to complete the experience. 

1101 Geary Blvd.; 415-775-4216

House of Prime Rib

Open since: 1949

Why it's lasted: You might see Willie Brown, the San Francisco Giants or any number of other local celebrities sipping perfectly chilled martinis in one of the large booths, but the real star here is the beef, drawing meat lovers looking for a classic fine-dining experience since it opened in 1949. Aged 21 days and prepared according to an old English formula, waiters cut the meat ceremoniously tableside. And while portions are huge, the wait staff, clad in crisp white, is always willing to cut you another slice.

1906 Van Ness Ave.; 415-885-4605

Original Joe's

Open since: 1937

Why it's lasted: The original Original Joes was a tiny lunch counter in the Tenderloin that spawned a dozen imitators, but it has since been uprooted and moved to a swankier corner just off Washington Square park. Though it was renovated in 2012, the Mad Men vibe lingers with the overstuffed red-and-green leather booths, stiff Manhattans and simple American-Italian comfort food. 

601 Union St.; 415-775-4877

Cliff House

Open since: 1938

Why it's lasted: The Cliff House has endured fires, earthquakes and many closings — even the Sutro Bath ruins can be seen from its dining room, a reminder of the area’s former hey day in the 1930s. And yet it remains, like a beacon on the edge of a continent — literally. The views of the Pacific and crashing waves against the rugged Land’s End coastline are just as much of a draw here as the $5 Irish Coffees. Come for a fancy champagne brunch or take in the sunset in the main dining room to experience San Francisco’s enduring beauty. 

1090 Point Lobos Ave.; 415-386-3330

Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar 

Open since: 1945

Why it's lasted: Created at the height of San Francisco's obsession with faux-Polynesian tiki bars, this famous themed restaurant remains just as popular as it was during the tiki craze during the 1940s and '50s. And now its lovable cheesiness is just as much a part of the draw as the center lagoon that hosts live bands on a boat as a tropical "storm" rains down every half hour. Elaborate rum concoctions served in pineapples, pupu platters and a dance floor built from the remains of the S.S. Forester, a lumber schooner that once traveled regularly between San Francisco and the South Sea Islands, make this spot a must-see for a spirited night out back in time. 

950 Mason St.; 415-772-5278

Tommaso's 

Open since: 1935

Why it's lasted: This cozy subterranean Italian restaurant is home to the West Coast's first wood-fire pizza oven and has been stoking love affairs with its warm, charming ambiance and high-backed wooden booths for more than 80 years. While not trendy, this family-run spot is the place to come to split a thin-crust pizza or "Lady and the Tramp" your pasta to experience courtship as it was done in the 1940s. 

1042 Kearny St., 415-398-9696

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