In the past few years some "historic" businesses have closed and some historic businesses closed for "remodeling" only to open as a completely different entity. For example, I loved, loved, Bruno & the Persian Aub Zam Zam - I think the new business at that location using the name Persian Aub Zam Zam bears little to no resemblance to Bruno's establishment. I mean, you go in, order a martini and the bartender askes you how you want it??? What's up with that?
Why am I telling you this? Several months ago, Red's Java House announced they were making the first change to their menu in 40 years, they were getting a fryer and were adding French Fries to their menu. At first I was delighted, I asked when this change would take place, I was told "as soon as we make room for the fryer in the kitchen". Then one day I went for lunch and they were closed. Since I work nearby, I have been able to walk by every week. As time went on I became more and more concerned - they were not "making room for a fryer" - they were doing serious renovation; a new roof, larger footprint, completely new kitchen, more indoor seating.
I became more and more convinced that the Red's I knew and loved was gone forever. When it reopened, would the funky tables with the San Francisco collages still be there? Would the burgers be the same or would they be the "gourmet". How could they keep their great low prices when they were clearly spending a bundle on the renovation? Aaaargh! I was facing the death of another San Francisco institution. I became depressed and stopped checking in on the renovation.
Today, after a morning of back-to-back meetings, I decided to get fresh air by checking out the progress on Red's. I approached the curve in the road that would bring Red's into my line of sight with trepidation in my heart. Then, I could a number of people sitting on the concrete blocks out front - it was open!! As I got closer, I could see at least half the patrons were clearly construction workers (or were wearing orange highway worker vests) - their clientele has not changed!! Before I entered the shack, I said a small prayer. I stepped in and did a quick visual scan - the tables are the same (although there are more of them next to the expanded kitchen) and the kitchen has at least doubled in the size, but basically the new Red's is just a cleaner, bigger version of the old Red's.
That left two more tests - the menu & prices and the food itself. As I began to analyze the menu, I got my first scare when I saw "Espresso" then I saw the price "No Way". Relieved, I tried to remember the old combinations and prices. Although I won't swear to the old prices, below is listed some of the new prices and combinations which I think are maybe .25 more (only on some items) -
Double Cheese Burger & Beer - 3.70
Chili & Beans - 1.75
Wine - 1.50
French Fries - 1.25 (new item)
They still have all of their hot dog combinations. On their old menu, I only remember one sandwich/combination, Cheese, that was not burger or hot dog based. The new menu has three new sandwiches Tuna, Deviled Egg and Turkey. They had a soup of the day "Clam Chowder" - I don't remember them offering soup before. They had a blackboard with "Today's Special - double bacon double cheeseburger, fries & beer $5.00".
Wow, their menu seemed to have survived - a few new combinations, but all-in-all it looks like it might be the same Red's I loved. I am starting to feel reassured, especially by the signature shape of the wrapped burgers I am seeing other people carry away from the counter. My last worry is that they've been fancied up with the things like lettuce and tomatoes or who knows what else.
For those of you who have not been to Red's, their burgers were distinctive - a dense, chewy sourdough loaf with mustard, pickles, raw onion and one or two thin beef patties with cheese - that's it. Although there is a counter where you can add hot sauce, ketchup, salt, pepper.
I got to the counter and placed my order "Today's Special" - I thought I'd live large and get bacon on my burger. Then I got my order - a Bud, a paper coffee cup overflowing with fries & my burger. I took my food outside, sat on a concrete block and looked around - the sunshine, the bay, the bridge, the seagulls waiting for me to drop something, Embarcadero traffic and my fellow Red's fans - I realized that life is good and that it was time for the final test.
The fries were good basic fries, the Bud was a Bud. And the burger? Exactly the same!!!!!! It had at least three slices of bacon on it which was new, but its the same chewy sourdough, same cheese, same meat patties, same construction as the old burgers. Hurray!!!
I know some people think Red's is a dive or don't like their burgers and I'll be the first to admit they're not going to win "Best Burger of the Bay" award. But I do say -- Congratulations to Red's Java House for making small, basic improvements without destroying the original character of the joint or alienating their loyal customers by turning "gourmet". In this era of change and uncertainty, its nice to have Red's stay Red's.