|The tale of how Louis' Restaurant came to be stretches back the good part of a century. It is a story of hard work, perseverance, a loving family and the American dream.
Louis (pronounced Louie) Hontalas came to America from Greece in 1906 as an 11-year-old boy. He lived in San Francisco with his older brother Michael, and for 21 years worked in a variety of jobs. In 1927, Louis went back to Greece to find a bride. Helen Pappakostandino was a 19-year-old girl from Levidi, a small village in southern Greece. Louis and Helen were married in January 1928 and shortly thereafter headed back to the United States by boat. They arrived in New York, took a train cross-country and settled in San Francisco that May.
Because they were poor, they continued to live with Michael. Louis and Helen’s first son, John, was born in December 1928, and two years later they had their second son, Demosthenes (nicknamed Jim by his kindergarten teacher).
With the depression in full swing Louis and Helen worked at Michael’s restaurant, the Cliff Cafe, located on the west side of Sutro Bath’s entrance, right up from the Cliff House.
In 1936, Louis and Helen wanted to open their own café, so they approached the nephew of Adolph Sutro, who owned all the land on Point Lobos Avenue, and asked if they could rent a small piece of property, originally an indoor walkway that connected the streetcar barn to the Sutro Baths entrance. A deal was made, and for the next few months they worked hard to get their cafe ready.
Louis’ Restaurant opened on Sunday, February 14, 1937. Louis and Helen started with just a couple of tables and a few counter seats; their proceeds from that first day were about $20. On weekend days, in addition to offering their regular menu, they would wheel out their popcorn machine and peanut wagon and sell these treats on the sidewalk.
Two years later, Helen had her third son, Constantine (Gus), and as the three boys grew they all helped out at the restaurant. Eventually it became apparent that Jim was most interested in staying with the family business, and he eventually took over management of Louis’.
In 1947 Rachel Lelchuk started working as a waitress for Louis and Helen. She spent more than 55 years on the job, retiring in October 2002. Rachel is considered a San Francisco institution, and generations of customers carry fond memories of being served by “Rosie” with the flower in her hair.
A fire destroyed the streetcar barn next to Louis’ in 1948 and caused extensive damage to the restaurant. It was closed for months as Louis and Helen rebuilt their little cafe.
On June 26, 1966 another fire destroyed the Sutro Baths. Louis’ Restaurant was miraculously saved by the San Francisco Fire Department. Six years later in 1972, Louis Hontalas passed away after a lengthy illness.
In 1973 the National Park Service acquired the land adjacent to and including Louis’ Restaurant. The facility became part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA) and Louis’ Restaurant became a concessioner of the National Park Service. Even though the future of Louis’ operation was uncertain after the acquisition, Jim implemented a major remodel of Louis’ in 1975 in order to enhance the restaurant and customer experience.
Jim’s four children worked at Louis’ starting in their teenage years, and William (Bill) and Thomas (Tom) decided to carry on their family’s legacy. A partnership was formed in 1977 between Jim and Bill, after Bill successfully completed City College’s Hotel and Restaurant program. Tom entered the partnership two years later. Louis’ was issued a concession contract from the National Park Service in 1988. In 1992 the GGNRA developed a draft plan for the Sutro Historic District that did not include Louis’ Restaurant but instead envisioned open space in its location. Thousands of postcards from Louis’ customers implored the NPS to reconsider its plan, and the master plan was amended to include Louis’ Restaurant.
Helen passed away in April 1996, after a long and glorious retirement. She was 87 years old. Her financial savvy enabled her to take many trips, help out her church, and be very generous to her children and grandchildren. Jim retired in 1997 after 59 years in the restaurant business. He still comes by regularly to check things out and to run errands whenever necessary
In 1998, the National Park Service issued a prospectus for competitive award of the Louis’ concession contract, as required by law. The Hontalas family submitted a proposal but, unfortunately, during this same time a new law passed in Congress that changed the rules and regulations for National Park Service concessions. The Louis’ proposal was not evaluated and the Hontalas family continued to operate the restaurant under annual contract extensions.
In February 2010, the National Park Service issued a prospectus for competitive award of a lease to operate the restaurant. The Hontalas family submitted a competitive proposal and in October 2010 won a ten-year lease for Louis’ Restaurant. With this new long-term security, the Hontalas family undertook a much-needed renovation and reopened in August 2011.
Many of our staff have been with us for a number of years and have become part of our extended family. Rachel Lelchuk still comes by to see old customers and friends; she turned 91 in July 2011.
As Louis’ enjoys its 78th year we will continue to work hard to offer our guests great-tasting food at affordable prices, friendly and efficient service, and a view that is second to none!
Bill and Tom Hontalas