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Long Live the California Hofbrau, an Endangered Species of Boozy Cafeteria

As Brennan’s in Berkeley closes, the future of the dining tradition looks dim

Tommy’s Joynt/Facebook

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On September 15, just shy of 60 years in business, Berkeley dining institution Brennan’s will shut its doors for good. As with the demise of Union Square destination Lefty O’Doul’s early last year, the closing of Brennan’s is a landmark moment in the slow-motion extinction of a uniquely Californian restaurant concept, the hofbrau. Can it really be auf wiedersehen to these boozy cafeterias?

Think of hofbraus, in the location tradition, as carveries typically offering options across the beef and poultry spectrum: Rotisserie chicken, turkey, pastrami, corned beef, ribs, and roast beef. These beasts came into being during the Post-WWII era, an age of automats and cafeteria-style dining. Following a uniquely San Franciscan tradition of bars that offered “free lunch” to drinkers — a sort of daytime version of Spain’s tapas bars — hofbraus took the cafeteria concept, added a full bar, and charged modestly for food.

Why, in this context, the name “hofbrau” should apply remains a bit of a mystery. None of the extant local examples serves German food, but it’s possible that some of the early pioneers of the genre were of German-American origin, in imitation of German traditions around eating and beer drinking — though the word “hofbrau” in Germany simply means “court brewery.”

Regardless, the idea — and use of the term — spread widely. Out of Northern California, chains including Sam’s Hofbrau (1959), Harry’s Hofbrau (1954) and Chick-n-Coop were born. Along with those came working-class and tourist-friendly stand-alone spots like Lefty’s, Brennan’s, and the still trucking Tommy’s Joynt (1947) on Van Ness. These eateries were and are dusty, lived-in dives where you could buy a full, hearty meal for a couple of bucks, probably involving three-bean salad, and wash it down with a cocktail or two.

Neon at Brennan’s
Thomas Hawk/Flickr

Today’s Tommy’s may cater primarily to the Polk Street drinking hordes, but once upon a time, the hofbrau was where your grandparents and bachelor uncles fed themselves on carved turkey and pastrami, and took home extra rolls wrapped in napkins. And for members of the Greatest Generation who always liked to eat this way, the remaining, diner-like Chick-n-Coop location in Daly City offers a nightly Senior Citizen special for $9.59, including meat, potato, vegetable and a dinner roll.

Of the few remaining hofbraus in the local area, Tommy’s is the only one currently left in SF, and Brennan’s was known to have some of the most appetizing and best-prepared food. Back in 2006, SF food writer Jonathan Kauffman toured a trio of spots including Harry’s Hofbrau in San Leandro for a piece in the East Bay Express, noting then that the concept was nearing extinction along with the generation who created it, and observing that the food is seldom the high point. He said at the time that, at Brennan’s, by contrast, the “corned beef and brisket with barbecue sauce were as tender as could be,” even if everything had a “pinch too much salt.” The same can still be said of Tommy’s Joynt, where an ownership change two years ago has resulted in higher prices.

Update 10/22: Tommy’s current owners clarify that prices were also raised by its previous owners, and that fair, incremental changes in price are inevitable. According to a representative, “there is a reason hofbraus do not exist anymore and part of that is because the costs of running them is high, and despite that we have been able to keep Tommy’s open without drastically raising prices, not even to the level of our competitors or neighbors.”

A sign at Tommy’s Joynt
Todd Lapin/Flickr

Multiple Chick-n-Coop locations, including two in SF, have shuttered, as did a location of Sam’s Hofbrau on Broadway in Oakland (where Luka’s Taproom now stands). Hayward Hofbrau and Chinese, and the long-gone Walnut Creek Hofbrau House, are now but tender memories. The Sam’s chain spread across the state and were ultimately sold off individually. The original location in Sacramento is still there and is back under the ownership of the family of the founder, Sam Gordon — but it’s no longer affiliated with a popular location in Los Angeles that morphed into a full-time strip club.

Over in Emeryville you can still visit the hybrid hofbrau and Chinese food restaurant inside the Oaks Card Club, where every Wednesday is Fried Chicken Night, and where you can order off the Chinese menu 24-7 (hofbrau food stops at 11 p.m.). There’s also Europa Hofbrau in Orinda, which only serves beer and wine. And down in South San Francisco there’s Bogy’s Hofbrau, where the roast beef is always rare and the beets always come from a can.

Brennan’s is calling it quits, citing a rent increase foremost. But as co-owner Margaret Wade told Eater last month, there’s also been a steady decline in business since the ’70s, which she attributes to a decline in cocaine use among her clientele (“You had people circling in and out of the bathroom. That stopped.”), as well as climate change and its impact on people’s cravings for comfort food (“Now, when it’s 68 degrees every day in December and February, it’s really hard on us.”). Brennan’s also isn’t in its original, fully lived-in location — they had to move to fresh digs nearby in 2008 when their original Fourth Street location was torn down to make way for a condo development, and maybe that killed some of the dive-y magic as well.

Ann S./Yelp

For Lefty O’Doul’s, meanwhile, a resurrection of a sort is in the works. A “ballpark buffet and cafe” is bound for the former Rainforest Cafe space at Fisherman’s Wharf. There’s a liquor license lined up, and a representative for the Fisherman’s Wharf Community Benefit District confirmed to Eater that Lefty O’Doul’s Ballpark Buffet and Cafe is indeed headed to a second-floor space at 145 Jefferson above what will be a San Francisco Giants Dugout Store and a Starbucks.

Whether owner Nick Bovis will be able to recreate some of the old-timey, memorabilia-heavy experience of the original Union Square restaurant remains to be seen, but chances are the word “hofbrau” isn’t going to figure into any of the marketing.

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