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Two people stand outside a diner at night.

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A ‘Beacon in the Dark’

Get a glimpse into the graveyard shift at Union Square’s Pinecrest Diner, one of San Francisco’s longest-running 24-hour restaurants

Dianne de Guzman is a deputy editor at Eater SF writing about Bay Area restaurant and bar trends, upcoming openings, and pop-ups.

It’s 11:30 p.m. on a Friday night and from a seat at the long counter at Pinecrest Diner, guests can feel the heat from the burners and flattop grill radiating out of the kitchen. A tiny mountain of hash browns sizzles in a corner of the plancha, ready to be divvied up and scooped onto plates for hungry diners. Servers dollop generous amounts of whipped cream onto pie slices or waffles and flit from counter to table and back, pouring hot coffee into the to-go cups of beat cops dropping in from their rounds of walking the TL. It’s a welcoming room accented by the lingering smell of bacon in the air.

The corner of Geary and Mason streets is not the empty Nighthawks scene you might expect. Being inside Pinecrest Diner fulfills the fantasy of a pre-pandemic San Francisco. There are reminders of a more difficult time, like the plexiglass around the register, but this is, once again, a diner filled with activity, serving both daytime customers and night owls. And, at every moment, the Pinecrest staff wields the energy of the busy scene.

A view of the exterior of a diner at night.
Customers in booths at a diner.
A server hands food to people at a diner counter.

Though Pinecrest currently runs on a 24-hour schedule just four days a week — Wednesday through Sunday — owner Peter Foundas remains committed to returning to operating around-the-clock all week. “My mom used to say in Greek, ‘You went to the dance, and now you’ve got to dance,’” he says. “Basically it’s, ‘You’re here. You can’t back out.’ If you put your foot on the floor, you’ve got to stick with it.”

The devotion to serving steak and eggs and stacks of pancakes 24 hours a day goes back to Foundas’s parents. Peter’s father Bill Foundas made his way to the U.S. from Greece via Canada, eventually landing in New York City, where his brothers and sisters all either ran diners or worked in them at some point in their life. After seeing the thriving 24-hour diners there, when Bill and his wife Nikoletta opened their own diner in San Francisco at Powell and Sutter streets, they proudly made it a 24/7 spot, Peter says. Peter was about 3 years old when the diner opened, and, as he recalls, it helped to start a late-night food scene when there weren’t many options. Pinecrest later moved to its current corner at Geary and Mason when their first location’s building sold. It became the place for workers from the nearby hotels to drop in, grab food, and get out. It’s the oldest diner in the area and has even lasted long enough to achieve some unwanted notoriety.

Since Pinecrest’s return to late-night food in October 2022, the restaurant at times commands a line out the door at its peak evening hours. The rebound seemed unlikely when, at the height of the shutdown, Union Square was like a ghost town, Peter says. “It was tough,” he says. “It was nothing that we could have ever predicted, it’s a black swan event. You could blast a cannon down Geary Street and no one would have heard it.”

A mug and a bowl of creamer.

There’s a predictable rhythm to the night’s activities at Pinecrest, says server Anna Torres. Customers come in waves, with rushes at different times. She’s worked at Pinecrest for two years; when the diner first began running a few days of 24-hour service, Torres stepped in to help fill out the revived graveyard shift.

Theater crowds, a byproduct of the diner’s proximity to the American Conservatory and the Curran, comprise the majority of the first wave of evening customers. They’re typically all cleared out by the time 2 a.m. rolls around, and a second wave begins as the post-bar crowds and industry folks who have closed up shop for the night pack into the space. As one might expect, there’s the occasional rowdy customer — but after years of practice, the Pinecrest crew already knows how to handle the situation. Torres credits meditation and motherhood for her ability to mediate between rowdier guests.

In its heyday, Pinecrest’s menu was sprawling, folding in Greek dishes like chicken souvlaki or a Mediterranean combo plate with marinated chicken breast and house-made tzatziki, alongside breakfast and dinner classics like omelets, corned beef hash, and pancakes. When the diner returned after shutdown, however, the Foundases shrunk down the “Bible-sized” menu, as Peter’s wife Sylvia Foundas puts it, to its essentials. The only other substantial change to the restaurant’s offerings was the addition of soju-based cocktails, like their bloody maria and screwdriver, along with beer and wine, in August 2021. “When things get really, really, really back to normal,” Peter says, “then we’ll go back to the old menu — but for right now, this works.”

A cook spoons sauce onto a plate of food.
A plate of food topped with eggs and green onions.
Onion rings and mozzarella sticks next to a deep-fryer.
Apple pie a la mode.

Even after years of owning the diner, Peter and Sylvia still order food for their family there, Torres shares, perhaps a testament to the quality. “That’s one thing I love about them,” Torres says. “They care about [it] so much.” From what she’s seen, the consistency of the food keeps people coming back, especially given that many of the staff and cooks have worked there for years.

Regular Jesse Garcia has been coming to Pinecrest Diner for years since moving to the city. In a short time, he developed a camaraderie with fellow regulars and longtime Pinecrest employees, some of whom he considers friends. His usual order is the steak, eggs, and hash browns, and if he has time, he’ll hang out late with the crew over a drink. “I love the ambiance, and the people there are super nice,” he says. “I know some of the cooks — and it’s like family, actually.”

A man sits in a booth looking out a window.
A woman wipes down a table.
Staff in the kitchen carrying plates of food.

Between 5 a.m. and 7 a.m., the last round of overnight diners trickles in, often construction workers, tourists whose body clocks haven’t yet adjusted to a different time zone, or pilots and flight attendants who want to eat before heading to the airport. It’s a different sort of melting pot, and Torres relishes the opportunity to meet new people and travelers from all over the world. “Sometimes I have the whole restaurant full, and I’m like, ‘holy moly,’” Torres says. “It’s cool, but it makes it worth it, because that last little hour I’m making a cool amount.” The diner is especially a hit with European tourists, everyone mentions, as a slice of Americana.

Customers sometimes ask when Pinecrest will return to a full 24-hour schedule, but the crowds and employee numbers aren’t quite there yet, Peter says. He wasn’t certain how successful things would be when the restaurant first revived 24-hour shifts. He just “put my hands over my eyes and hoped they’d show up,” he says. These days, Peter says Friday nights are more popular than Saturdays — although the inverse used to be true in years prior to the pandemic. Still, he knew the demand for late-night food was growing last spring during basketball season, when those watching the game would drop by at 11 p.m. just as the Pinecrest team was closing up. “The kitchen was closing down and there [would] always be people,” he says. “So then we would try to extend the hours to 12, but we were running into overtime. Then I said, ‘Alright, you know what? Let’s just try two nights a week.’”

Pinecrest eventually added two more days a week to land at the current four-day, 24-hour schedule. Wednesday and Thursday nights aren’t quite busy enough yet, though Peter notes the traffic is decent so they’re not losing money. Still, he’s adamant the restaurant will eventually make its way back. “Being a 24-hour diner, we’re the guaranteed restaurant that’s always got the lights on,” Peter says. “We’re that beacon in the dark.”

The Pinecrest Diner sign.
Booths inside Pinecrest Diner.
A server drops food at a table.
Condiments on a table.
A closeup of the Pinecrest Diner menu.
A young boy sitting at a diner counter.
A cook making a sandwich.
The exterior of Pinecrest Diner.