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Foreign Cinema's Gayle Pirie Reflects on Her Favorite Closed Restaurant

A tribute to Hippo Burger, in essay form.

classics week logoWhen we asked chefs to tell us about their favorite long-lost restaurants, most sent a paragraph or two, but Foreign Cinema chef and SF native Gayle Pirie sent us a whole essay—coincidentally, about Hippo Burger, whose former employees we also profiled for our Classics Week Power Hour. So here's a little Hippo Burger bonus content from Pirie, who spent much of her childhood there.


The Hippopotamus Hamburger Restaurant, a truly psychedelic urban weeknight go-to diner, was possibly the most Warhol-esque of all "pop" restaurants, a truly original vision from native Jack Falvey, a San Francisco original. The vast interior sported giant reliefs of papier-mâché boy-and-girl hippos by artist Wolo, on the east and west walls, and the "subtle" purple, pink and orange color scheme, in big swatches with undulating conical stripes, deeply imprinted my most inner child growing up in San Francisco. Like the Fun House at the Beach, Hippo Burgers continues to haunt my adult style, in the old San Francisco, the cow town, I feel in my blood stream. Here quality, humor, the bohemian life all came together. The interior was like a child's fairytale book, as Wolo was a local book illustrator and puppeteer.

The Hippopotamus Hamburger on Van Ness was a frequent stop for my single mom, who was raising her daughter in the Herb Caen, 7 by 7, tiny metropolis in the late '60s and '70s. The Hippo Burgers had it all: non-stop signature burgers including The Cannibal Burger, a raw burger with raw onions and raw parsley; The Sundae Burger, with ice cream, hot fudge and pickles ("don't knock it until you try it," said the menu); The French Connection Burger, with "a brown onion sauce with vermouth in the French style"; Welsh Rarebit; homemade coleslaw; a "California Casserole." And, for a whopping $110.65 (clearly a joke, since the prices ranged from $1.65 to $2.10), the Liberationburger: a whole roast chauvinist pig cooked chaud-fraud—sliced thin—on a waterbed, served by a California girl with bunches of wild organics on sliced rye. Served by a streaker, add 25 cents. It was kind of like Laugh-In, the NBC cultural satire variety show. Everyone ate there: celebs, politicos, local families, singles on the prowl, out-of-town grandmothers.

A huge copper hood, centrally placed over the long U-shaped bar, was an expensive and gorgeous detail few can pull off today. The owner had a penchant for world-class detail, wrapped in whimsy and sealed with tongue-in-cheek humor.

Aside from the colorful atmosphere, there was kid bling: tiny stuffed purple and pink hippos and other animals in the glass case below the cashier, all designed by Wolo, coveted by children of all ages, and as good as any dessert Hippo offered.

Finally, who can deny the absolute earnestness atop the menu: "If you are not thoroughly happy with your burger, let your server know, and we will replace it immediately!"

Humor, fantasy, quality, and a love of their mission: all of it was the embodiment of this cherished SF restaurant treasure.