There’s a diner in the city
In a dicey part of town.
It’s had clients through the decades
Who’ve come from all around.
There are judges, cops, and gamblers,
Cabbies, priests, and lawyers too.
They all meet at the counter
Over pot roast and beef stew.
It’s like the United Nations
In a great reception hall
The counter knows no color
It respects the green of all.
For a brief time at the lunch hour
Society’s pecking order fades
While white collars blend with blue ones
As brief alliances are made.
It’s certainly not the country club
Where impropriety makes them frown.
It’s the counter where humanity meets
In a dicey part of town.
I was in the Bay Area this week and had time to kill one evening. I took the BART into the city and got off at the Civic Center, taken in by the connotations of the name. This station brought me into the heart of San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, an unsavory scene if ever there was one. Not being a swine, though, I was able to pick out a few pearls.
While walking towards Union Square, I stopped for a drink at a small corner bar called the 21 Club. This had its own history of (ill)repute, having been around two generations or more, and doubtless seen much that would characterize la condition humaine. The bartender pointed me to a diner up the street called Original Joe’s as a place to satiate my appetite. He cautioned me about their generous portions and I wasn’t disappointed.
Original Joe’s was established in San Francisco by Louis Rocca and Tony Rodin in 1937 and has been a fine establishment ever since. They are in two locations, the other a late-night diner in San Jose. Their menu runs the gamut of home-style Italian cooking, and the griddles stay hot, the conversation stays warm as the night grows cold. While I was there, two cops on the beat packed a couple of hamburgers to go, a Japanese senescent gentleman polished off a plate of spaghetti and meatballs, and I wolfed down the better part of a plate of lamb chops with mint jelly.
The servers were a pair of old gents in tuxedos who did their bit at the griddle, while the master and sous-chefs took care of the main courses. Ordering was snappy, the clang of pans and the sizzle of oil provided a taste of what was to come. From my seat at the bar counter, I could look out into the street, with its motley collection of oddballs and rejects, as well as a few well-dressed couples walking to their choice of entertainment in the Western evening, past the setting of the sun.
The sourdough bread was quite crusty, needing generous dashes of olive oil. The hand-cut steak fries were piping hot, and the lamb chops were butterflied, large, and scrumptious. Conversation was sparse with fellow diners, although the regulars had their own way of conversing with each other, needing few words and saying much. Time seemed to stand still while I ruminated on the flavors of life, goat and jelly.
The menu covered the gamut of soups to desserts, a few standouts I remember were the gelato, the veal done a dozen ways till Sunday, and a few items I would have loved to sample had I the appetite like calf’s liver saute (Venetian) & the chicken cacciatora.
[ADBLOCKHERE]Post the meal, which was modestly priced, I returned to the 21 Club for a post-prandial drink or two and more tales of the ‘dicey part of town’. Frank, the bartender, told me of the changing street scene, the disinterested society around, and of places like Compton’s Cafeteria, which used to be just across the street.
Compton’s held special significance in the militant political scene of San Francisco in the 1960s. In those days, a man wearing a dress could and would be flung into jail. Despite movements that started in the city like the Daughters of Bilitis, those pre-Stonewall days were tough times indeed for LGBT people. It was a long journey until Queer Nation in 1990, and the “We’re Here. We’re Queer. Get Used to It.” attitude. As Wikipedia puts it,
“queer” became an important concept both socially and intellectually, helping to broaden what had been primarily a gay and lesbian social movement into one that was more inclusive of bisexual and transgender people. Rather than denote a particular genre of sexual identity, “queer” came to represent any number of positions arrayed in opposition to oppressive social and cultural norms and policies related to sexuality and gender.
Compton’s Cafeteria, being in the Tenderloin district, became a hangout for the more-than-marginalized. It was also a focal point for harassment tactics by the police. All that changed one night in 1966, pre-Stonewall, when transgender street prostitutes rioted against this harassment at Compton’s. The management called the police to clean out the restaurant. A cop attempted to arrest one of the regulars, who threw ‘hir’ coffee in his face. The resultant melee spilled into the street, but unusually, the drag queens banded together, getting the better of the police. There is a documentary about the Riot from KQED that deserves watching. Post that incident, city activists worked to establish city-funded services, clincs and training programs to help transgendered prostitutes get off the streets.
Compton’s is long gone, although the neighborhood and the prostitutes remain. Not much has changed, but for a sense of self-confidence and social change programs that are available to all. If you’re ever in the area, do stop off at the 21 Club, and sample the fine repast at Original Joe’s