Sam’s Hof Brau, Sacramento, California – CLOSED

Cafeterias used to be everywhere in this country. (For those who aren’t familiar with the term, they are restaurants that serve you food from a buffet in a line formation, but unlike a buffet, such as those popular in Las Vegas and around the country, you don’t primarily serve yourself). Nowadays they are few and far between. In California in the late 1940s and the 1950s they evolved into a popular style called a hofbrau (from the German word for a royal brewery) probably because they usually served beer as well as hearty food.

The earliest hofbrau that is still open is Tommy’s Joynt in San Francisco. Still wonderfully original and filled with clutter it serves good, filling food at low prices (perhaps the best value in the city). In 1954 the first Harry’s Hof Brau opened in Redwood City, now a small chain of newer hofbraus owned by Harry’s son Larry Kramer (the original Redwood City location is still open but has been remodeled). Famous ball player, coach, and manager Francis ‘Lefty’ O’Doul opened his eponymous hofbrau / sports bar in 1958 in San Francisco (still open and it sill has some charm but every time I go there for some tasty chow it seems there are more TVs than before). And across the bay in Berkeley Brennan’s opened its Irish style hofbrau in 1959 (still owned by the same family, it moved in 2008 into the historic 1913 Southern Pacific Railroad Station next door to the original location, but it’s also filled with more TVs than I can stand).


Sam's Hof Brau Sacramento

Sam’s Hof Brau, Sacramento – photo by Dean Curtis, 2016


In 1955 Sam Gordon opened his first Hof Brau in Sacramento at 17th and J streets (it closed in 1993 and became Hamburger Mary’s, then Hamburger Patties, and still has the original chef neon sign from Sam’s Hof Brau).


Sam's Ranch Wagon

In 1956 he opened Sam’s Original Ranch Wagon at 817 Broadway with a Western theme in the two dining rooms, the Bonanza Room and the Ranch Wagon Room, and the cocktail lounge named the Gold Discovery Room. The sign for the restaurant was an eye grabber!


Sam's Ranch Wagon sign

Sam’s Ranch Wagon sign via atomicpear on Flickr


In 1957 Sam Gordon opened another Hof Brau in downtown Sacramento at 815 L St. in a Bavarian theme. Then in 1960 he opened his fancier restaurant, Sam’s Rancho Villa, at 2380 Fair Oaks Blvd., which featured three dining rooms, the Candlelight, the Continental, and the Venetian, and two cocktail lounges, the Capri and the Eden Roc (wow, I would have loved to have seen this place!). Although it was swanky, they still served food cafeteria style.


Sam's Hof Brau Sacramento

Sam’s Hof Brau serving area – photo by Dean Curtis, 2016


In 1962 he opened Sam’s Plaza Hof Brau in the Plaza Shopping Center at 2500 Watt Ave., the only Sam’s Hof Brau still open in Northern California. The restaurant is mostly original, except for a few TVs by the bar. At the front is the food line with the servers and a big pickle slice decanter. On the right side of the large main dining room is the long bar with a large oil painting of the Golden Spike ceremony when the Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869.


Sam's Hof Brau Sacramento

painting over bar – photo by Dean Curtis, 2016


The main dining room is decorated Victorian style with wood-paneled walls filled with historic photos of Sacramento, brass railings, red flocked wallpaper, oil paintings, and chandeliers and ceiling fans (that are much too bright, in my opinion). The middle of the room has wooden booths and the side opposite the bar has tables on a raised area (see photo).


Sam's Hof Brau Sacramento

Sam’s Hof Brau dining room – photo by Dean Curtis, 2016


In back is another dining room with cozy wooden booths along the sides of the room with tables in the middle. In the far back is a banquet room. It’s a huge place as you can see in this outside side view.


Sam's Hof Brau Sacramento

photo by Dean Curtis, 2016


The menu at Sam’s is hearty and filling, perhaps somewhat plain, but it’s real comfort food. Roasted, carved meats are the specialty, served in “sam’wiches” or as entrees with choice of two sides. Meats include roast beef, pastrami, corned beef, turkey, prime rib, and tri tip. Desserts are made fresh daily.


Sam's Hof Brau Sacramento

corned beef entree with mashed potatoes, green beans, and a dinner roll – photo by Dean Curtis, 2016


Later in 1962 Sam Gordon opened a circus-themed Googie restaurant called Sam’s Big Top at 16th and K St. in Sacramento. It was designed by Armet and Davis, architects who designed many Googie restaurants. Several of their restaurants are in the Los Angeles area: Pann’s Coffee Shop (open), Johnie’s (closed but standing), Mel’s in Sherman Oaks (open; formerly Kerry’s), and Norms on La Cienega (open). Sam’s Big Top at 16th and K is gone but the second Sam’s Big Top at 2721 El Camino (opened around 1966-67) still stands and is now a Country Waffles restaurant. In 1963 Sam Gordon opened Sam’s Town entertainment complex on US highway 50 (closed in 2000). Sam’s Hof Brau expanded to Auburn, Oakland, Portland, and Los Angeles (all closed except LA’s, which still operates as Sam’s Hof Brau but as an adult club with topless dancers!). The Denny’s Coffee Shop chain took over most of the Sam’s locations in the 1970s and Sam Gordon passed away in 1998. But the Sam’s Hof Brau on Watt Ave. hung in there, leased from Denny’s from 1991-2007 as Plaza Hof Brau, then renamed back to Sam’s Hof Brau in 2009 after it was purchased by the Hof Brau Restaurant Group. Thank goodness we still can visit this Sam’s, pretty much all that remains of Sam Gordon’s once-mighty hofbrau empire.


Sam's Hof Brau, Los Angeles

Sam’s Hof Brau, Los Angeles


Sam’s Hof Brau
2500 Watt Ave, Sacramento, CA 95821
(916) 482-2175
Open Sun-Wed 10:30am-9pm, Thu-Sat 10:30am-10pm


Thanksgiving Dinner in the Bay Area

For those who don’t have family nearby to visit for Thanksgiving dinner, Le Continental hereby presents some suggestions for dinner on Thanksgiving in the Bay Area. Note: there are probably many newer restaurants that are offering Thanksgiving dinner. The focus of this blog is such that we will only suggest older, classic restaurants.

Most hofbrau style restaurants have turkey dinner on the menu. By hofbrau I’m referring to the Bay Area meaning of the term: a cafeteria, where you order from a food line and take your tray of food to a table (not the German term Hofbräu, which usually refers to a brewery that serves food). Usually there are waiters to take drink orders.

One of the oldest hofbraus in the Bay Area, and one of my favorites, is Lefty O’Doul’s, named after a San Francisco native pro baseball player, which opened in 1958. I’m not a fan of sports bars in general (too many TVs and beer posters for my liking), but this one has much historic charm, from its wood interior and tables to its many photos and memorabilia of local sports legends of the past. Nothing is decorated in a tacky way like many other sports bars. The food is pretty good and the drinks are strong. My favorite meal there is the house made corned beef hash for breakfast (with a bloody Mary of course). It’s a large place so it should be able to accommodate customers at any time of day.

Another historic hofbrau is Tommy’s Joynt, which opened in 1947 on Highway 101 in the heart of San Francisco. Cluttered with bric-à-brac and signs, much of it very old, it is a charming bit of old San Francisco with a Victorian theme. The food is good and very inexpensive. There is a huge beer selection, and the highballs are cheap but strong (Old Crow bourbon in the well is a plus).

There are other hofbraus in the Bay Area, but they all have more contemporary decor, are generally too brightly lit for my taste, and have mostly mediocre food, including the Harry’s chain, the Roast Haus in San Rafael, Bogy’s in S. San Francisco, the Europa in Orinda, and Oak’s Corner in Emeryville. One hofbrau that I would like to try is Chick-n-Coop in San Francisco’s Mission neighborhood, but I phoned and it will be closed on Thanksgiving Day. Finally, there is Brennan’s in Berkeley, an old favorite that had pretty good food, but it moved to a new location a couple of years ago and I have not wanted to check it out. Sam’s Hofbrau in Oakland R.I.P. (not really, it was actually pretty disgusting).

For something much, much fancier you could do no wrong at Harris’ Steakhouse, that is open and serving Thanksgiving dinner. (There are probably booked already, but there’s always next year.) Harris’ only dates back to 1984 (not insignificant in restaurant years!), but it has a classic feel (it replaced the venerable Grisson’s) and serves the best dry-aged prime steaks in the Bay Area, in my not-so-humble opinion. It is not affiliated with the Harris Ranch lower-end steakhouse and brand. Make sure you enjoy a Manhattan or Martini, which is served with its own little pitcher in a barrel of ice. And don’t forget to peek  at the steaks aging through the window from the sidewalk.

Another good choice is the House of Prime Rib. I like what’s left of the vintage decor (though much of it has been redecorated) and the food is pretty good. But I’ve had some problems with the service in the past, and on some occasions I’ve been unhappy with the table I was seated at and the noisy atmosphere. It is also always incredibly busy (which I can’t really understand). But if you can snag a booth in the front room it is an experience you should have at least once. They carve the meat and serve from beautiful metal carts, which originated at Lawry’s The Prime Rib in Los Angeles. They also stole the spinning salad bowl from Lawry’s.

As far as the East Bay (where I live) goes, I don’t know of any classic or historic restaurants that will be open for Thanksgiving dinner, but if you do know of one please mention it in the comments.

Thanksgiving Day Hours, 2012

Lefty O’Doul’s – 7am – 12 midnight
333 Geary Street  San Francisco, CA 94102
(415) 982-8900

Tommy’s Joynt – 10am – 12 midnight
1101 Geary Boulevard  San Francisco, CA 94109
(415) 775-4216

Harris’ – 3:30pm – 8:30pm
2100 Van Ness Avenue  San Francisco, CA 94109
(415) 673-1888

House of Prime Rib – call (I couldn’t get through as the line was busy)
1906 Van Ness Avenue  San Francisco, CA 94109
(415) 885-4605