It’s a familiar tale for those who’ve lived in San Francisco long enough when the end of one city tradition must make way for a new one. And with the reopening of the Sir Francis Drake Hotel as the Beacon Grand this spring, the 80-year-old tradition of the Beefeaters has come to an end. But for Eddie Strickland, who wore the red uniform at the Union Square hotel for nearly 20 years, the tradition lives on in a new way: Strickland is hanging his flower-rimmed hats in four San Francisco dining institutions, as symbols of days now gone.
Strickland can trace his path from a doorman at the Sheraton Fisherman’s Wharf to auditioning in front of five managers for the doorman position at Sir Francis Drake Hotel to a cameo (of sorts) in the 2005 Jennifer Aniston movie, “Rumor Has It.” There were lunches annually in December when a group of doormen from hotels across the city would meet up at restaurants ranging from Lefty O’Doul’s to Morton’s to Moose’s in North Beach and Castagnola’s on the wharf. “We would normally get about 35 doormen — and remember now we’re in uniform — so when we go to these lunches where you get 35 guys and all these different colored uniforms and so forth, we would have a blast,” Strickland recalls.
Strickland credits former Beefeater and doorman Tom Sweeney with starting the tradition of leaving behind a Beefeater hat at iconic San Francisco restaurants; now Strickland will end it. Sweeney retired in January 2020 after 43 years, and somewhere along the way, left his hat with the owners of Original Joe’s in North Beach. It was during dinner at that restaurant when Strickland noticed the familiar wide-brimmed hat at the bar. He knew it couldn’t belong to LaBan Wade, another 20-year Beefeater veteran, and figured it had to be Sweeney’s.
Although Strickland and Wade were both laid off in March 2020 when the hotel closed as part of the citywide shutdown, Strickland’s been holding onto his hats until a month ago when he decided to part with them at his favorite spots in the city: So far, Strickland has given hats to 7 Mile House and the Old Clam House, with two others left to gift. “We have rapport over all these years with these restaurants and so that’s how that started,” Strickland says. “And then all I’m doing is I’m ending things, in a way, because there’s no more of us.”
Original Joe’s owners John and Elena Duggan say their family restaurant’s ties to local hotels go back to when the restaurant first resided at 144 Taylor Street in the Tenderloin. “Tom and his colleagues at the door, they had their finger on the pulse of San Francisco in all respects,” John Duggan says. “It was a one-stop shop in terms of getting a real true picture of what was going on in San Francisco.” When the restaurant moved to North Beach in 2012, the Duggans hosted the annual doormen’s lunch, attended by former mayors Ed Lee and Willie Brown. The Duggans can’t recall when Sweeney’s hat came into their possession but agree safekeeping the hat is humbling, and an honor, calling the hotel doormen the “great ambassadors of San Francisco.”
Elena Duggan says the hats are a “classic symbol of Old San Francisco,” synonymous with hospitality in the city. “We look at that hat and it’s just a reminder of who and what we want to be,” she says. “Taking care of our guests and providing the best hospitality and being the best ambassadors we can, in the city that we love so much and have been born and raised in.”
7 Mile House owner Vanessa Garcia agrees being gifted a hat is an honor, acknowledging the selflessness of giving away something so important to the former doormen. “It’s something that needs to be on display, it’s something that needs to be proud of, something that needs to be not forgotten,” she says. “I think it should make people think that they shouldn’t take anything for granted.”
Already, Strickland is thinking about where his last two Beefeater hats will land. The places chosen so far are ones he and Sweeney frequented, places they have a rapport with, and that are San Francisco staples. Old Clam House owner Filomena Florese says it fits that this part of San Francisco history is being housed at one of the oldest restaurants in San Francisco.
John Duggan says the end of the Beefeaters signals the dwindling number of long-lasting San Francisco traditions. “We’re proud to still be relevant and still taking that as one of our responsibilities going forward, representing San Francisco and its history,” he says. In that vein, the Duggans want to host an upcoming doormen lunch at their restaurant, in hopes of keeping that tradition alive.
Some of the hats are in the process of being readied for display: Garcia is planning a display case for the hat at 7 Mile House; the Duggans are safekeeping their hat in their office while they figure out where to display it; meanwhile, the Old Clam House has the hat hanging from the lip of the back bar. But for Garcia, the hat is not just a reminder of the city’s history, but also of the customer service restaurants provide their customers. “It really gives so much satisfaction because it makes me think, ‘Hey, we were not just a restaurant to him, we actually meant something more to him than just a place to eat,’” Garcia says. “I am not here to just feed people, I’m here to create amazing, unforgettable experiences for the people who come to visit — and so that’s way bigger and way more important than feeding people.”