A Taste of San Francisco’s History at Red’s Java House

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Tiffany Pisoni’s job as owner of Red’s Java House is less like managing a restaurant and more like preserving a historical site. 

In our phone conversation, she recounted moving a mop bucket from the patio to a closet and getting questions from upset customers.

“What happened to the mop? It’s always been there.”

The same thing happened when she repainted the walls:

“What did you do? Why do the walls look different?”

“I don’t really own the restaurant,” she told me. “The customers do.”

In fact, some of the long-time customers even have their own secret menu, which took Tiffany by surprise when she first started working. “People would come up and order things we don’t sell and I had no idea how much to charge them.”

Tiffany bought Red’s in 2009 after the previous owners Steve and Maria Reilly decided to retire. She’s been in the restaurant business for over two decades and currently owns a place at Pier 39 as well. Her father, who worked on the waterfront, was the one who saw that Red’s was for sale and told her she should consider it.

Before the Reilly’s, Red’s had two previous owners. In 1955, the McGarvey brothers bought what was originally Franco’s Lunch, a burger joint that opened in the 1930s, and named it Red’s Java House, after their red hair. 

The transfer of ownership from the Reilly’s to Tiffany was a long process because the couple wanted to be sure she wouldn’t come in and remodel the place beyond recognition.

The tiny, historical place on Pier 30 has survived fires and earthquakes, and now, it’s surviving the pandemic.

Unlike most San Francisco restaurants, Red’s never closed back in March. They stayed open for takeout, and at this point in time, the patio is open to seat guests. 

“We stayed open for the community. Red’s is a place where people come together. We felt we owed it to them to stay open,” said Tiffany. 

In a time where routines have gone out the window and nothing feels “normal,” Red’s is one of the few constants in many San Franciscan’s lives. A few customers even leave their own mugs at the bar so that when they order a beer, they can drink out of their own special cups. The restaurant is more than an eatery – it’s a place where regulars have made themselves at home.

Despite its charming age and somewhat ramshackle appearance, Red’s serves everyone from construction workers and bikers to tech professionals. The regulars are the heartbeat of Red’s. They carry the history forward through the years, hanging onto the old San Francisco and the spirit of the burger shop that started out serving sailors and longshoremen.

Since its beginning, Red’s staple menu item has been its cheeseburger served on San Francisco sourdough. There’s no lettuce or tomato on the patty – that’s the way the McGarvey brothers wanted it, and that’s the way the burgers have stayed.

The sourdough bread makes Red’s burger special.

People and community have always been the main focus of Red’s and it shows in the way they treat everyone from staff to those working near the restaurant. Throughout the pandemic, all the employees have remained full-time. “I have given them as many hours as I possibly can,” Tiffany shared.

A COVID-19 testing site recently opened up next to the restaurant, and the healthcare workers stationed there get a 50% discount on lunch. 

Despite job losses and financial difficulties, Red’s customers continue to remain loyal. “The tips are better than ever,” Tiffany said.  “I’m so grateful for San Franciscans.”

Next time you’re looking for breakfast or lunch on the pier, you can dine-in or get takeout from Red’s in order to enjoy a taste of this nearly century-old San Francisco tradition.

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