When I was a wee lad in the sun-baked Los Angeles Basin, my maternal grandparents fostered what would become a lifetime obsession: the cafeteria. Products of World War II, they were people who appreciated the value of simple food and low prices. Add the fact that they were Roman Catholic and had eight mouths to feed, and their philosophy was pretty much a necessity. This is how I was introduced to carving boards of meat, steaming casseroles, and endless ice trays filled with shiny, multicolored geutf8 jewels. But where, oh where does one find these palaces of economic dining in San Francisco? The LA institution Clifton's actually had an early genesis here, but it along with Manning's and Compton's didn't survive the prosperity of the postwar years. It seems, however, that a strange cafeteria hybrid did: the hofbrau. Frankly, this comes as no surprise as it really is just a cafeteria that serves booze, and, well, San Franciscans seem to never tire of the occasional nip. I set out to discover if the cafeteria is still thriving anywhere or if the hofbrau is really the answer, intent on experiencing these culinary relics and their gravy-laden wares.
Little introduction is needed for this city icon, and it has no lack of fans, from the late Herb Caen to Metallica. It's famous for its sandwiches and roast, as well as the décor: a mishmash of historical paraphernalia and signs screaming Where Turkey Is King! Tommy's is equally fervent in the virtues of its buffalo stew and lists them accordingly. In addition to the myriad brews it has crammed behind the bar, it also serves liquor and you can pretend you have the means for a three-martini lunch when they come priced at $3.75 each.
1101 Geary, SF. (415) 775-4126, www.tommysjoynt.com
Having been credited with discovering Joe DiMaggio and bringing baseball to Japan, O'Doul was that consummate old-school, bigger-than-life personality. So before the Bruce Willises, Sylvester Stalones, and others bestowed us with their culinary "treasures," O'Doul gave us this combination cafeteria<\d>sports bartourist trap. The macaroni and cheese and the German potato salad are caloric bombs of goodness. And gnawing on a slice of American beef while staring at a giant statue of Marilyn Monroe is an experience vaguely reminiscent of listening to the Who's Tommy.
333 Geary, SF. (415) 982-8900, www.leftyodouls.biz/index.html
The closest to the sweet memories of my youth, Chick-N-Coop serves up all the goods while little old ladies prattle on about coupons over coffee and bowls of rice pudding. The Taraval location, with its early '80s country atmosphere, boasts cheaper prices. But the best grub and experience is at the Excelsior location. Either way, the claim to fame here is the chicken, and the Chick-N-Coop does, indeed, know how to roast a bird. Sides are tasty, like the Greek-style spaghetti. And be still, my beating heart it has beautiful, beautiful Jell-O.
1055 Taraval, SF. (415) 664-5050; 4500 Mission, SF. (415) 586-1538
One thing I learned during this search was that many of the old-timey joints such as Manning's, which used to be next door to the Emporium were bought by Asian immigrants during the '70s. Hence, today we have a proliferation of Chinese food to go and the ever-delicious Asian buffet, but that's another tale. Top's does, however, meld its former life with its current one, with interesting choices like lasagna and salad, Mongolian beef with shrimp, or Korean noodle soup. It wins big points for employing the linoleum-and-Formica aesthetic and for providing strange but lovely choices for low prices.