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Hamburger Sundaes and Hookers: The Heyday of Van Ness' Hippo Burger

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Former employees reflect on the iconic burger joint, shuttered in 1987.

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Mark Ritchie with a Hippo burger menu, outside the restaurant's former home (now a CVS).
Mark Ritchie with a Hippo burger menu, outside the restaurant's former home (now a CVS).
Tierney Plumb

The arguable birthplace of gourmet hamburgers—not to mention an adventurous hamburger sundae—shuttered at Van Ness and Pacific in 1987, but Hippo will remain seared in locals' minds as a smorgasbord of wild times in San Francisco.

When entrepreneur Jack Falvey opened the harlequin restaurant in 1950 in an abandoned Safeway, he already had a parade of animal-branded businesses in the city, including Monkey Inn, Crocodile Casbah and Giraffe Bar. As former Hippo employee Mark Ritchie tells it, Falvey was a rare breed himself, with bulging eyes like a goldfish and flowing white hair.

Ritchie says Falvey was a fixture in the social scene, and he and his parents ran in the same circles (Ritchie, 57, now owns his dad's real estate firm, Ritchie Commercial).

Falvey hired a local artist to create the hippo logo and 20-foot-tall murals inside, accented by loads of stripes and awnings, and his own antics mirrored those inside his circus-themed restaurant: His nearby office doubled as a private men's party club, and Ritchie remembers finding rolled joints upstairs in the Falvey home while babysitting Jack's son, Tim Falvey.

Back then, gourmet hamburgers didn't exist, and Falvey was one of the first to slather on sauces and serve them open-faced. Unfortunately, some of them got sauced on the sauce:

Tim says the Bourbon Burger was "good, until the cook started to drink all the bourbon."

One of the oddest concoctions was the hamburger sundae, a hot "nudeburger" smothered with ice cream and topped with hot fudge, nuts, a cherry, and a pickle. ("Don't knock it if you haven't tried it," instructed the menu.) Ritchie remembers lots of boys ordering it as a dare. Another carnivorous option: The Welshburger, which was "knee-deep in a robust rarebit blended from aged cheddar and draft beer."

At any given time, 50 different hamburgers were offered on the menu. A gigantic open grill, under a copper hood, could cook hundreds of burgers simultaneously. The meat was ground and delivered by Sunlight Butcher, and trimmings from steaks were cut into the hamburger meat to get the right fat content, reveals Tim. On any given day, patrons at the 280-seat restaurant easily gobbled down several thousand pounds of meat, he says.

By today's standards, Ritchie guesses Hippo would be one of the top-grossing restaurants in the city, pulling in $8 million in revenue (prices would have "1s" in front of them today, he says). As a joke, the offerings included a $1,000 Encounterburger (Star Wars was the rage at the time), "served with the force" and "about as sexy as R2-D2," according to the menu.

Plates resembled ceramic but were plastic, because so many got thrown around the quick-turning orange and black formica tables. The black carpet, made up of squares, was frequently replaced to erase the smoke smell.

The scene was a cross-pollination of customers: "You could be sitting next to a mayor on one side and a lunch-bucket kind of guy on the other," says Tim. The staff was also a vast cast of characters.

Jack had a knack for giving serious ex-convicts a leg up and would hire them, often as cooks. (That program soon ended after one took an axe off the wall and chased the manager up the street, says Tim.)

Also on the payroll: a sprinkling of teen boys from rich Pacific Heights families.

Ritchie was one of them, and pulled out all the stops to land a coveted summer job at Hippo. While at boarding school, Ritchie sent Jack a postcard fibbing about his age (14 at the time), and landed the gig. His experience that followed summed up the no-rules, free-for-all society of the day.

Ritchie worked the 8 pm-4 am shift by age 15, borrowing his sister's car to drive from his Presidio Terrace house and parking illegally in the red zone on the street.

His roles ran the gamut, including busboy, dishwasher, prep cook, cashier and host. "I learned to be quick on my feet and deal with the public," he says.

Tim got into the biz even younger, at age eight, over Christmas vacation, when his dad told the head busboy to "put him to work." Tim walked away that day with five bucks and "was hooked." He worked off and on until Hippo closed, joking his first ten jobs ranged from bussing tables to managing the restaurant.

The scene changed drastically by the hour. Early in the day, Hippo served mostly families, and was the place to celebrate a kid's birthday, Ritchie recalls. As the night went on, a line formed for the 2 am bar rush. In those days, Polk Street was a tougher area, and transvestites, hookers, cops, judges and the political crowd all rubbed shoulders. During the police strike of 1977, Hippo was held up twice by armed robbers.

In the early 1980s, Jack hung up his hat and Tim took over, while still in college. But running Hippo simply wasn't what he intended to do for the rest of his life, he says. (He dabbled in politics, and now owns local property management firm Hanford Freund.)

When Hippo was finally put down in 1987, the blowout closing party spanned three nights. The giant 3-D hippo went extinct with the shutter (a potential adoption at an ad museum fell through, and it was demolished). The space has since housed a Gap, a Hollywood Video, and now, a CVS. Aside from the crazy memories, all that remains of Hippo are menus, trinkets, buttons, T-shirts, and a Hippo cookbook on Amazon.

As for Tim Falvey, he stopped eating meat about six months ago. "I'd already eaten enough hamburger meat by age 10 to last me a lifetime," he says.


2025 Van Ness Ave, San Francisco, CA 94109 (415) 353-5702 Visit Website