By Anne McMullin
On Valentine’s Day each year, Louis’ Restaurant marks another anniversary of serving food to locals and tourists alike. This year will be its 83rd commemoration.
The casual diner, perched on the cliff above the old Sutro Baths site, has been passed down through three generations of the same family. It is currently owned by brothers Tom and Bill Hontalas, grandsons of the founder, Louis Hontalas.
In 1906, Louis Hontalas was 11 years old when he left Greece alone to join family members who had already come to San Francisco in search of a better life. Louis settled in with family and worked hard at a number of different jobs over the years, including at his older brother’s Point Lobos Avenue restaurant, the Cliff Cafe.
During the Great Depression, Louis and his wife, Helen, decided to open their own restaurant to help support their growing young family. They rented a small building up the hill from the Cliff House and opened their doors to the public on Feb. 14, 1937.
The restaurant has always been a family affair. Tom Hontalas, who works as a cook, just as his father and grandfather did, said that he started working at the restaurant at 10 years old, washing dishes for 50 cents an hour on weekends. He said all four siblings and their collective nine children have worked at the family restaurant over the years. Some still do. His sister Kathy, who runs the front end of the house, started working there in 1974 and has been full-time since 1992.
A number of employees have also worked at the restaurant for decades. Russian immigrant Rachel (Rosie) Lelchuk was hired as a waitress in 1947. She became a beloved figure and continued working there for the next 55 years, eventually retiring in 2002.
The area around Louis’ on the western-most edge of San Francisco has seen many changes over the years, but the restaurant has always managed to survive. In 1948, a huge fire destroyed the car barn next door and the restaurant suffered serious fire damage. In 1966, another fire destroyed the Sutro Baths below.
In 1976, the National Park Service (NPS) purchased the 78 acres that now encompass the Sutro Historic Landscape District and Louis’ became a lessee of NPS. In 1992, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area developed a master plan that called for returning the restaurant site to open space. However, after a successful campaign by loyal customers who sent thousands of postcards, they amended their plan to include the restaurant.
In 2010, the federal government required an open bidding process for the location. Louis’ proposal beat out three other competitors and they received a 10-year lease to continue operating at the site.
Tom is proud of his family’s long history “on the hill” and he has compiled a binder of old historical photos that he and the other staff love to share with interested customers. A photo of an old menu shows burgers were once 30 cents and hot dogs 20 cents. Another black and white picture in the binder shows a beautiful popcorn machine that was once rolled out to the sidewalk on the weekends to sell snacks to the public.
The restaurant, which seats 51 people at tables, booths and the counter, has huge windows on three sides that allow for lots of natural light and broad views of the Pacific Ocean, Lands End and the remains of Sutro Baths below. Paul, a local diner, who loves the eggs benedict, shared: “You can sometimes even see whales from where you are seated!”
Hontalas says that about two-thirds of his customers are locals, while the others are tourists from around the world. He loves it when out-of-town patrons share that they were told, “when you go to San Francisco, you’ve got to go to Louis’!”
The breakfast menu offers a wide range of options from “build your own” omelettes to waffles, pancakes and eggs benedict. Lunch items include fish and chips, fried prawns, hamburgers, sandwiches, and Shrimp Louie and Greek salads. The restaurant uses locally sourced food, organic produce and organic coffee.
“Where else can you get down-home cooking, at a reasonable price, surrounded by spectacular views?” diner Stephany from Sacramento said.
Louis’ Restaurant is located at 902 Point Lobos Ave. Phone: (415) 387-6330. It is open every day from 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. In the summer it stays open until 9 p.m. Louis’ does not accept credit cards, but there is an ATM on site. For menus and more information, visit www.louissf.com.
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