In 1984, when I was still in high school, there was a huge five-alarm fire that leveled Piers 30 and 32 in San Francisco. They say the flames were so hot that they melted fire trucks and buckled the street as they reached hundreds of feet into the night sky. Miraculously, a tiny shack on the edge of Pier 30 that sold burgers and beer to hungry longshoremen and blue collar workers survived this devastating fire. In the shadow of the Bay Bridge, Red’s Java House still stands to this day is going strong after close to 90 years in business.
For the most part, Red’s is exactly how I remember it from when I used to frequent the little greasy dive back in the late 80’s. Today, a mix of downtown workers in suits and tourists have replaced the dirty dock workers that would tip back longneck bottles of Bud by the case in the early afternoon. Back then you could score a double cheeseburger and a Bud for $2.75 or you could just buy a ton of beer with your friends and get hammered. The Bud was always better than the burger, if that gives you any indication of how bad the burger was. But come on, it was only $2.75. Needless to say, the prices have gone up in the past twenty years, but not as much as you would think. The inside and exterior are locked in time. Old pictures of scenic San Francisco, naval ships and even a few pictures of the big fire fill the walls and are also incorporated in some of the tabletops. It feels like boathouse and has spectacular views of the bridge.
I haven’t eaten at Red’s for close to 10 years so I thought it was about time to get back in there and see how things are. As I walk up to the entrance, the smoky aroma of greasy burgers billows from a vent. Yum. The menu hasn’t changed much except for the addition of fries, fish and chips and a couple specials, other than that, its burgers, dogs and beer. Yeeeehaw. I went for the double cheeseburger ($5.50) but had to pass on the brew. Sigh.
From the order window there is a good view of the griddle as rows of the big thin patties sizzle and splatter grease. The stories that grill could tell. A paper package resembling a small football was delivered quickly and now I’m ready to visit my burger past. Like I said, Red’s burgers used to be pretty bad. The patties were usually thin and really dry and more often than not were completely lost in the sourdough roll that they use for a bun. I was pleasantly surprised as I opened my double cheese to see two patties bulging out of the roll along with two good slices of nicely melted cheddar cheese. The roll acted as a sponge and was doing a great job at soaking up the grease.
The first bite was nothing like the Red’s from yesteryear. This was actually damn good. It was as greasy as Fonzie’s hair, but good. The slightly pink beef was flavorful and full of juice. They do not offer lettuce or tomatoes, just mustard, pickles and chopped onions. The simplicity of mustard and pickles (I didn’t get the onions) really works for this burger, as does the sourdough roll now that they have matched the meat size to the bun. That said, I would think twice about getting a single, might be more bread than meat.
I would have never guessed that I would have enjoyed Red’s as much as I did after having my fair share of dry burgers on big ol’ pieces of bread in the past. Red’s is a very cool spot with a rich history and thankfully they have a better burger than before. Do yourself a favor, get a beer with your burger, you’ll be glad you did.
Red’s Java House
Pier 30 – Bryant Street & Embarcadero
San Francisco, CA 94105
Hours: Monday – Friday 7AM – 6PM
Saturday – 9AM – 4PM
Sunday – 9AM – 3PM