Another SF icon, albeit a humble one, is biting the dust after 83 years of continuous business. The owners of Louis' Restaurant at Lands End, perched above the Sutro Baths around the bend from the Cliff House, announced Monday that they are closing permanently.
The Hontalas family, which has owned the diner with its sweeping ocean views since 1937, posted the sad news to Facebook.
"This decision was very difficult to make but with everything we have seen and heard regarding reopening for indoor dining we felt it was an unsafe environment for us and our employees," write Tom and Bill Hontalas. "To wait out this pandemic was financially unreasonable."
The loss of Louis' comes at a precarious time for the entire restaurant industry, but especially for restaurants that cater to tourists and don't have access to outdoor space. And small restaurant businesses throughout San Francisco are going to continue to shutter as the months of pandemic shutdowns drag on with no clear end in sight.
Some restaurant owners have been hanging on with the promise — made in May — that they would be able to open for indoor dining this week, as of July 13. But Mayor London Breed and the public health department have now delayed that opening date indefinitely as the Bay Area sees a spike in new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.
Statewide, Governor Gavin Newsom issued an order Monday forcing all indoor bars and restaurants that have reopened to close again, along with a group of other businesses.
Louis' had a bit of a renaissance in the last decade, after closing for an eight-month remodel in 2011 and reopening with a modernized menu of American diner fare that featured cage-free eggs and fair trade coffee — part of the agreement for the 10-year lease they secured the year prior with the National Park Service. Former Chronicle restaurant critic Michael Bauer welcomed the place back and praised its Shrimp Louie salad.
The restaurant was born out of a small collection of restaurants that used to sit along this section of Point Lobos Avenue near Ocean Beach, mostly owned by Greek families like the Hontalases, and it's now the last remaining structure after the others disappeared decades ago. Tom and Bill Hontalas are third-generation owners who started working at the diner as teens in the 1960s. They are grandchildren of the original owner, Louis Hontalas, who arrived in San Francisco at the age of 11 in 1906, and opened the restaurant with his wife in 1937.
Our father, Jim Hontalas, Louis and Helen’s middle son, working the popcorn machine outside the restaurant as a teenager, circa 1945.Posted by Louis' Restaurant on Sunday, May 3, 2020
The Chronicle had a bit of history in an April 2000 piece about Louis':
[The Hontalases] might have been encouraged by a boom in the area's businesses the previous year when the freighter Ohioan ran aground just off the point. It took more than a week to raise and salvage the ship, a spectacle that attracted throngs of sightseers. These "looky-loos," as they were called, were willing to pay nearby restaurants 50 cents for the usual nickel cup of coffee.
In the next decade, World War II also proved lucrative for beach businesses, with servicemen comprising a large part of the clientele. By the late '50s, when the family's second son, Jim, had taken over, cooking alongside his mother, Helen, the main business was on weekends and during the summers. But by the mid-'70s, after the area around Sutro Baths had become part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, year-round sightseeing buses started to make regular stops at the ruins of the Sutro Baths, which encouraged the Hontalases to remodel and expand.
Also in the 1970s, along with the Cliff House, the restaurant became a concessionaire for the Park Service, and therefore had to reapply for its right to operate the diner every ten years. Given there was a bit of drama about its last application process in 2010, and given the uncertainties of the pandemic, it sounds like the Hontalases are ready to hang up their hats and let someone else apply to take the space.
Similarly, It's Tops diner in the Castro, which opened in 1935 and had been in the same family since the 1950s, recently closed for good given that its cozy interior space was not going to make socially distanced eating possible.