News over the past week about the potential relocation, or refurbishing (or total demise) of historic Union Square hofbrau Lefty O'Doul's has perhaps had some of you wondering what is up with this term "hofbrau" that sounds German, given that Lefty O'Doul's sounds a lot more like an Irish bar. Here for you now, a brief explainer about this model of bar-restaurant that's actually somewhat unique to the Bay Area.
The word derives from a German one, of course, Hofbräu, which referred to a type of brewery with ties to the German royal court, and these days also refers to a number of breweries, and this big brewery-sponsored tent at Oktoberfest in Munich.
But in Northern California the term came to be used for bars that served freshly carved meats of different kinds, many of which opened in the 1950s and 60s when cafeteria-style eating was gaining popularity with local chains like Gene Compton's Cafeteria among them. But the hofbrau, where there was typically a full bar, also seems to have grown out of San Francisco's long history as a booze haven, and a Barbary Coast-era tradition of serving "free lunch" at bars as a way to entice more daytime customers into drinking.
Today, there are still a number of hofbraus around the Bay Area that have stayed popular with locals and tourists alike, including Lefty's and Tommy's Joynt on Van Ness. According to the food blog Dive, "while there are hofbraus located outside of the Bay Area, notably Sam's Hofbrau in LA which morphed into a strip club in order to survive, most of the old-school, truly unique, American, hofbraus are centered in and around the Bay Area."
According to Lefty O'Doul's proprietor Nick Bovis, who has run the place for 19 years now, their breakfast, lunch, and dinner is as popular as ever, perhaps because of the high concentration of nearby hotels and the enticement of a buffet meal deal. He says they typically serve about 1000 people per day, and go through seven 32-pound turkeys, four 35-pound roast beefs, 15 corned beefs, and five 5-pound pastramis daily.
A handful have shut their doors or pivoted away from the old hofbrau style in recent years, but some soldier on, true to form. The Harry's Hofbrau chain still has three locations, in Redwood City, San Leandro, and San Jose. The Chick N Coop chain closed their Mission Terrace and Parkside locations a few years ago but still have one in Daly City. And there's also Bogy's Hofbrau in South San Francisco (which serves only beer and wine), Brennan's in Berkeley, Roast Haus Hof Brau in San Rafael, Europa Hofbrau in downtown Orinda, and The Oaks Corner in Emeryville, which is attached to the Oaks Card Club and serves both hofbrau style food as well as Chinese and Vietnamese food, and it's open 24 hours and is entirely awesome.
As Dive puts it, these places are "cultural icons" as much as they are fun places to get drunk while eating meat, and if this is the first you're hearing of them, maybe it's time for a tour.