I first went to Tommy's Joynt on a date – one of the more memorable ones I’ve been on, in part because this guy was as intrigued by the place as I was. Up to that point, I had pleaded with friends to check out the Joynt with me, but no one had given in to my hard sell. Turns out only a select few of my peers have a soft spot for hofbraus with punny names.
Once I made it inside, past the buffalo stew mural and fluorescent pink and green sign, I knew the wait was worth it. The place is pure magic, from the Swiss-Family-Robinson-meets-TGIF’s décor to the stoic meat carvers, the walls crowded with international beer posters, and photographs of San Francisco in the ’40s. I had stepped into the old country of San Francisco restaurants.
The characters who populate Tommy's were as colorful as the décor – friendly regulars telling us how to order, and no-nonsense bartenders, also telling us what to order. With all that good company, my initial Tommy's Joynt experience left me dizzy, perfumed with eau de corned beef, and a need to know how this place came to be.
So I went back recently and hung out with 30-year-old Sam (Sammy to his friends) Katzman, one of the original owner’s grandsons and the restaurant’s floor manager. The history of Tommy's is his family’s history.
Tommy Harris (the Tommy) was a singer who apparently gave Ol’ Blue Eyes a run for his money and used to perform at his previous restaurant, The House of Harris. He joined forces with restaurateur Al Pollack and they opened the Joynt (the official name among those in the know) in 1947. Sam’s grandfather, William Veprin, went in on it too, and now his descendants run the place. Grandma Tootsie owns the restaurant, Sam’s mom is the general manager, and his brother is bar manager. They aren’t the only family unit working the Joynt.
There are seven Alvarado brothers on Tommy's payroll. Four Gutierrez brothers. Three Roscoe brothers. Then there are the guys from the same village in Honduras. The Joynt employs them all, and as Sam explains, these workers have no choice but to hustle. “No one ever wants to be embarrassed in front of their family. If you screw around, your brother’s gonna be there to take care of it. If not at work, then at home.”
As a Union Local 2 restaurant, these employees are in it for the long haul. The bartender’s been here since 1970. Juan Sr., who works the line alongside his son, Juan Jr., has been here on and off since 1979.
The restaurant harbors a dedicated following: from Antonio, who cooks up all that buffalo stew, to Mike, a regular who can tell you all about San Francisco in the ’60s. Each has been calling Tommy's Joynt home for years, if not decades.
ANTONIO, THE CHEF
Antonio Alvarado, started out as a busser in 1978 and worked his way up to a carver. He now cooks all the food in the downstairs kitchen, including upward of eight briskets a day. On Thanksgiving, his busiest day of the year, 1,200 customers eat here, together consuming 80 turkeys. The busy pace is good for Antonio, who tells me, “The day I stop using my hands is the day I end up in Colma, where all the cemeteries are.”
KYE, THE HUNDRED TIMES REGULAR
Kye, a former taxi dispatcher who claims he’s been to Tommy's at least a hundred times, says he first started coming here back in the ’50s. For an army man stationed in the Presidio, Tommy's was a go-to place to get a good, cheap meal. According to Kye, not much about the Joynt has changed – same good food, weird décor, and good service. The night we talk, he is dining with his son and nephew, all history buffs, and all regulars of the Joynt.
HECTOR, THE CARVER
Hector Gutierrez, who hails from Puebla, Mexico, started at Tommy's in 2002. He too began as a busser, then as a middleman (the guy in the carving station who ladles the gravies, scoops the mashed potatoes, and handles the side dishes). He now holds the coveted carver position. He wields his knives proudly and quickly. Over the course of an hour he goes through about 100 customers, each with specific requests – thinner cuts, the burnt end, medium rare, dark meat, light meat.
I ask him what the most popular dish is and he points to a platter of lamb shanks. That’s not Hector’s pick at the Joynt, though. “I can’t eat so much of it,” he says, his hand on his stomach. “We’ve got a lot of lamb in my country.”
BILL AND MIKE, SUNDAY REGULARS
I meet Bill and Mike on Sunday morning before a 49ers game. They’re part of a larger crew of regulars who make a tradition of going to Tommy's on game days when the Joynt opens an hour earlier. They arrive at 9 a.m. to down a few Bloody Marys before catching the Candlestick shuttle that picks them up across the street. Bill has been coming here since the ’70s, but he’s a newbie compared to Mike, who says he’s been a regular since the late ’50s, before he was of legal drinking age. Back then, Mike explains, “the normals drank beer, the weirdos drank wine, and the drunks drank whiskey.”
Sammy shows me a yellowed, somewhat disintegrated menu that dates back to when the place opened. While some of the menu items have changed (ham hocks and chicken livers have fallen out of favor), the prices have always been affordable here. The hot platter used to go for $2.05, or $2.26 with a coffee. It now goes for $9.25. Beef ribs on Tuesdays are the most expensive thing on the menu at $10.50.
“We’re definitely an egalitarian restaurant. I mean, we’re not the Carl’s Jr. on Seventh and Market, but if somebody’s got five bucks, we can definitely serve them a good meal,” Sammy explains. He’s right. You see all walks of life carrying their trays of hot plates and roast beef sandwiches: young families, football fans, first dates, and (true story!) guys donning the full Gary-Oldman-as-Dracula regalia.
Sam tells me that while the Joynt gets its fair share of tourists, the majority of the clientele is made up of faithful regulars. He points to a photograph next to the bar of two runners. “That’s Linda and Harvey,” he says. “They’re regulars and every marathon they run they go as Team Tommy's.” Oh, and Metallica members have been regulars, too. The Joynt used to be the band’s favorite haunt, and it hosted all of its official fan parties here. Janis Joplin lived in the Goodman Building right behind the Joynt. Legend has it someone found her rummaging through the Joynt’s bins one night, chewing on discarded turkey carcasses. Probably drunk.
At the Joynt, you don’t have to wonder what the walls would say about San Francisco history if they could talk. You can just ask. Someone’s bound to tell you.
Tommy's Joynt is open every day from 10 a.m. till 1:45 a.m., except on 49ers game days, when it’s open at 9 a.m. The daily specials are just that, so if you want the lamb shanks, you better show up on a Thursday. There’s seating for every kind of experience: booths for hot dates and communal tables and a long bar good for chatting with the regulars. Friday and Saturday nights are the busiest, but you can always wait at the bar until the line to order dies down. Be sure to check out the view from upstairs, to see the pots and pans hanging from the ceiling. And bring cash. The Joynt is a no-plastic establishment.