Driving into the parking lot at Harry’s Hofbrau in San Leandro, I noticed something spinning in the glass case next to the front door. Lit up with infrared lamps, which cast a ferocious pink glow, the thing twirled begrudgingly on a vertical spit like a fat, headless pole dancer. Was it a bird? Was it a plane? No … wait, it was a bird: a twenty-pound turkey, slowly roasting under the lights, juices dripping into a pan recessed into the floor. That, I’m told, is the house specialty.
This week, I paid tribute, or maybe just cash, to three of the last outposts of a classic culinary tradition in California: the hofbrau. Sam’s Hofbrau in Oakland, the Hayward Hofbrau and Chinese, the Walnut Creek Hofbrau House — all have closed in recent years. The Hofbrau in downtown Oakland turned into a bistro (Luka’s), fer chrissakes. Now only a handful are left in the East Bay. As the generations that popularized the hofbraus age, these once-flourishing restaurants are going with them. And after a number of hofbrau meals, I’m not sure it’s a bad thing.
According to Kevin, author of the food blog Dive (DiveFood.blogspot.com), California-style hofbraus began springing up soon after World War II. Many of us born after the Greatest Generation have long been puzzled why hofbraus don’t seem to serve much German food. We may puzzle a while longer, because no one has written the definitive book yet (though Kevin did author the definitive Wikipedia article). In Germany, a hofbrau is a beer hall where, to keep patrons from passing out too quickly, the owners also serve roasted and sliced meats. San Francisco always had its own tradition of feeding drinkers for free, as the Harry’s Hofbrau Web site mentions. In the late 1940s, some enterprising restaurateur decided to build a bar in the same building as a restaurant that specialized in large hunks of meat carved to order. The concept caught on quickly, and through the 1950s and ’60s, hofbraus spread up and down the state, with the largest concentration in the Bay Area.
Austria-born Harry Kramer jumped in on the trend in 1968 with his first Harry’s Hofbrau in Redwood City, and the savvy Kramer family still has four locations. Harry’s San Leandro is typical of all that is hofbrau: It’s big enough to host three family reunions at once, and the walls are covered in folk paintings, photos of old San Leandro, and neon beer signs. Customers line up at the cafeteria-style counter, where the men man the carving station and the women manhandle the salads and desserts. After the impressive sight at the front door, I passed over the roast turkey, but there were still a dozen kinds of meats — pork loin, roast and corned beef, frankfurters — as well as hot sandwiches and enchiladas to choose from.
As at all hofbraus, to buy our beer, my friends and I had to take our tray to a booth and then pay separately at the massive bar across the way. The middle-aged barkeep left her patter with the couples lined up along the bar to offer us sips of a German beer in order to sell us on it.
She was great, but the food wasn’t. The only thing we finished was the pink-centered roast beef coated in a thin, salty “jus.” In a separate bowl, a mashed-potato atoll peeked out from an ocean of brown package gravy. My corned beef — one of the few guilty pleasures I’ll admit — needed to cook for another hour or two before I would actually have enjoyed it, but the accompanying carrots, baby potatoes, and steamed cabbage wedge were fresh and perfectly done. The recipe for the enchiladas must have come from a 1965-era Betty Crocker cookbook. My friend Denise said her father would have loved it. She left half on the plate.
The smaller-scale, galley-shaped dining room at Oaks Card Club in Emeryville fits all the hofbrau criteria: cafeteria-style line, roast turkey and meat-and-potatoes fare, separate bar and food stands. Of course, there are folks rolling dice on the bar, and customers on their way to and from the tables, hopped up on poker fever. Oh, and Chinese food. There’s a kitchen in back that does to-order breakfasts, burgers, and stir-fries and noodles.
The Oaks was doing better business than anyone else I visited, but the food was one big leap of faith above inedible. The best thing I tried on two visits was the violently orange (but creamy) mac ‘n’ cheese, which seemed to be a cross between homemade and Kraft. Actually, there was a decent sliced smoked pork, which hovered between Southern and Chinese-style barbecue, but the rest — the fatty spare-rib stew, the bland fried rice, the stuffing from a box, the soggy sweet-and-sour something (I think it was pork) — was so bad I left hungry.
Brennan’s, on the opposite side of the highway from the yuppie part of Berkeley’s Fourth Street, has grown on me over the years. I used to pooh-pooh the dark green walls and wood paneling, the old-timey cafeteria line, the emptiness of the room, but after visiting Harry’s and the Oaks, Brennan’s set the gold standard for what a hofbrau should be. Built in 1959, it isn’t going away, but may soon move down the street when developers tear it down to build a condo complex.
Brennan’s roast turkey might have been a touch dry and a lot of the dishes might have had a pinch too much salt, but I enjoyed all the food we ordered. The corned beef and brisket with barbecue sauce were as tender as could be. The top of the mac ‘n’ cheese had crusted over in the oven, and the insides were cheesed up with the genuine stuff. Everyone at the table loved one of the daily specials, a bowl of braised lima beans with a moist, cured ham hock rising like a monolith. The servers and bartenders were all friendly, and the guy carving the meats looked like he was auditioning for Grey’s Anatomy or ER, so intent was he on doing it with flair.
At Brennan’s, I could finally see how cafeteria-style dining might appeal to the Greatest Generation, weaned on the New Deal and the war. A restaurant to match the glories of industrial America: You moved through an assembly line, staffed with honest workers, and emerged with bountiful food. You didn’t go to be treated special; you went there because it was comfortable, so you could have two or ten beers and a laugh with your neighbors.
Kevin has a theory that the Pluto’s chain of counter-service restaurants, which debuted in the late 1990s and now has locations around Northern California, has successfully updated the hofbrau concept to appeal to younger tastes. I think the changing demographics of the working and middle classes in the Bay Area has something to do with the disappearing hofbraus. Asian buffets and taquerias now draw the working man and woman. So do national chains with billion-dollar ad budgets. Perhaps a few hofbraus will be savvy enough to survive. But if you want to be sure your kids taste California history, better take them to one soon.