Adventures on El Camino: Joe's of Westlake
There seems to be a lot of controversy concerning Bay Area techies in the news this week. Willie Brown went off on a small tirade in the Chronicle yesterday, and the New York Times made it front page news today. There's a boiling frustration over the changes brought on in the city by the influx of wealth from internet success and it's quite an interesting conversation. Not having lived in San Francisco since 2005, I can't say that I have much of an educated opinion on the subject, so I'll leave that discussion to those who do, but I will tell you about a different conflict that does bother me. Not to get all Stephen Colbert on you, but there's a war going on against American values right now that I'm rather tiring of. This frustration of mine does not in any way stem from U.S. nationalism or pride on my end, but rather from the embarrassment I feel for others. It's an attempt by haughty Americans to escape what defines them, hoping to create a new identity that seems more interesting and exotic and cultured and everything that they wish they could be (although, I guess I could also needle Facebook for contributing to that, right?). Food culture in the Bay Area is ground zero for this behavior.
It used to be that American tourists abroad were stereotyped and laughed at for their complete and often-purposeful inability to integrate into a foreign culture. They would attempt to speak English where no English was spoken, they would expect McDonald's on the corner wherever they went, and they were loud, brash, and uncompromising in their demands. The backlash to that type of behavior created a new generation of travelers who wanted to integrate, to blend in, and to be seen as educated in the cultures they visited. They did not want to be seen as "typically American," so they went out of their way to do the opposite. Twenty years later there's a backlash forming against this generation's version of American obnoxiousness. The irony here is that, in an attempt to avoid being a stereotypical American, these people have created an entirely new version of the stereotypical American: the condescending I-can-speak-the-language, I-studied-abroad-in-France-so-I-get-it, never-be-caught-dead-in-an-American-style-restaurant, citizen-of-the-world who understands foreign cultures so well that they often lecture natives of those cultures about their own cultures. It's getting out of control.
Now that I've got that off my chest, let me tell you of an iconic American restaurant with incredible ambiance where you will never in your life run into one of these people: Joe's of Westlake in Daly City.
You will never run into a neo-stereotypical American at Joe's of Westlake because it's absolutely jam-packed with people who do not give a shit about what you think. Last night I walked into a bar at full capacity, brimming with silver foxes drinking vodka cocktails, singing "Volare" at the top of their lungs while dancing to the live Karaoke. The live music, by the way, is played by this man pictured above who must be at least eighty years old, but brushes those cymbals like Max Weinberg in his old Conan O'Brien days. Joe's is pure old-school peninsula: all ages, all cultures, all creeds, all types, sitting together, having a hearty meal, and enjoying themselves.
Joe's is also old-school American-Italian. You start with a cup of minestrone that tastes straight out of the 1980s (in a good way). If you order the filet mignon you don't choose a side salad, but rather a side pasta: spaghetti, ravioli, or rigatoni covered in a delicious, new-world meat sauce. All of the workers at Joe's are unionized. All of the prices are reasonable. All of the seats are full. Every space in the entry is consumed by the forty-five minute wait for a table. Old school martinis with a big fat olive are being whisked around the room by waiters in tuxedos and an old-fashioned line-cook caller sits at the middle of the counter yelling out orders to the chefs. Our server was a grey-haired, delightfully-sarcastic Italian man of about seventy-five. You could tell he loved his job. He definitely contributed to my enjoyment of the evening.
Everything happening around you at Joe's of Westlake in Daly City feels like the complete opposite of what's going on elsewhere at hip and happening new restaurants. Conversations are taking place between complete strangers. People are there to socialize and to exchange stories and ideas. There's no pressure to be authentically Italian, or French, or Vietnamese. There are no hipsters around you being ironic in their love for kitschy Americana either. The clientele at Joe's has been eating and drinking there for decades, some of them since the place opened in 1956. I told my wife, "We should come here every Sunday!" Upon hearing that, the guy next to us at the bar said, "You've only got a few Sundays left. They're closing in January." Sadly, having just discovered this incredible place, we learned it had been bought out by Original Joes in San Francisco and will be closed down until a re-opening in 2015 with new staff and a new menu.
For those looking for an American diner, a place so retro and old-school that you can't even make a joke out of it, then you need to visit Joe's of Westlake within the next few weeks before it's completely lost forever. My search for unpretentious, genuine, and truly unique experiences along the El Camino corridor will have to continue without the presence of what is (or was) my new favorite. Sorry to lose you Joe's. I just met you.