By Anne McMullin
Restaurant owner Tony Lai worked for a number of years at White Cap, a large bottle cap manufacturer in Hayward. When the company shut down and moved its operations to Mexico, Lai was left without a job. Contemplating his next step, Lai realized “always liked to cook and liked to eat.”
With the help and encouragement of his brother and sister, he opened Americana Grill on Balboa Street in the Outer Richmond District in 1996.
Lai was born in Saigon, Vietnam. He was 19 years old when he and his family escaped their war-torn country in search of a better life. After a year in Malaysia, and then being sent to Louisiana, he came to the Bay Area in 1979.
Over the years business was steady and Lai developed a solid local clientele, who came for the dependable food, reasonable prices, friendly staff and the restaurant’s casual, neighborhood feel.
About five years ago, Lai began to notice that the Outer Richmond neighborhood was changing. The commercial corridor underwent a major City-sponsored revitalization that included curb extensions to make the streets safer and new signage, lighting and landscaping. Lai also noticed a cultural shift, with an influx of young people looking for imaginative, fresh and high-quality food. A number of new, hip restaurants were popping up and bringing new life to the neighborhood. That’s when Lai felt the urge to make some changes to his restaurant.
When his friend, local chef James Moisey, was forced to close his restaurant in the Lower Haight after a huge rent increase, Lai approached him about teaming up to revamp his establishment. Moisey agreed, and he and Lai went to work on the menu, adding new, updated classics. They closed briefly to remodel the space, adding new floors, counters and lighting and they decorated the walls with vintage photographs of historic Playland at the Beach and Victorian-era beachgoers. They displayed a vintage menu from Topsy’s Roost, a popular “chicken shack” that was once at the foot of Sutro Heights back when one could order a half chicken for 50 cents.
In the fall of 2016, Lai reopened his restaurant under a new name: Eat Americana.
Lai says that “99 percent” of his long-time clients, many of whom were initially hesitant to see their friendly local hangout change, are very supportive of the restaurant’s update.
Native San Franciscan Roberto Montoya, who was dining with his five-month-old daughter and his mother, said he discovered Lai’s restaurant shortly after moving to the neighborhood eight years ago and has been coming back ever since.
“The food is great, the staff is nice and they give you a lot of value for your money,” Montoya said.
Eat Americana is open 10 a.m-3 p.m. and 5-10 p.m., six days a week. The restaurant is closed on Tuesdays. Breakfast is available all day, serving favorites like chilaquiles, made with tortillas, sauce, cheese, pulled pork, cilantro and sunny-side up eggs. It is also known for their bread pudding French toast.
The day and evening plates include items like a pulled pork sandwich, cauliflower and goat cheese gratin, pan roasted salmon and short rib lasagna. They also serve several desserts, including a mini pecan pie and a banana, vanilla ice cream, hot fudge and crushed graham cracker sundae.
Lai started a happy hour from 5-7 p.m., Monday through Friday. If customers order $20 worth of starters, they receive a free beer, cider or soft drink. Wine and several cocktails are also served..
Lai said he loves his customers and his Outer Richmond neighborhood, describing a very friendly and supportive relationship with the other businesses in the area. He said he is very appreciative of the opportunities he has had in the United States and is committed to helping others.
“The more I make, the more I can give back,” Lai said.
He and his wife make regular visits back to Vietnam, working with local entities to identify needs they can address, like providing food and medicine. They also support a Buddhist center there that provides education to youth, something Lai sees as a critical investment in the childrens’ future.
Eat Americana is located at 3532 Balboa St., between 36th and 37th avenues. Phone: (415) 387-2893. For menus and more information, visit http://www.eatamericana.com.