Courtesy of Tommy's Joynt

In praise of the hofbrau, the disappearing cafeteria-style food courts where you can stack your plate with meat, potatoes and extreme amounts of hot brown gravy.

Illyanna Maisonet
September 15, 2017

Between the single working parents and just plain destitution, it wasn’t unusual for me to take most of my meals at the school cafeteria, which provided breakfast and lunch to children of low-income households. I don’t have those classic memories of slop plopped onto my tray by gnarly lunch ladies with hairy moles, though—just images of grilled cheese sandwiches with bread smothered in margarine, lightly toasted and cemented together by two Kraft singles; Salisbury steak (or turkey or Swedish meatballs) with gloopy gravy and instant mashed potatoes; and of course, cartons and cartons of milk.

But my favorite thing to eat at school were piroshkis. Introduced by our Eastern Bloc lunch ladies, these hand pies were gigantic oval gut bombs, stuffed with ground beef, onions, potatoes and garlic, then fried to a burnt sienna; the dough always left a gritty, oily residue on my fingertips. I’d eat two on campus and save one for later that night as a bedtime snack. (This habit might have been one of the many reasons I was sent to fat camp.) There seems to exist only one place that resembles the cafeteria of my youth, one place that has something for everyone: the hofbrau, a rambunctious dining hall offering simple, affordable, delicious food. The hofbrau might be a European idea, but after it arrived in the U.S. in the 1800s and later became a Northern Californian tradition, the concept evolved into a piece of iconic Americana.

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The perfect hofbrau, a pleasing combination of vintage food and architecture, makes you feel like you’re stepping back in time: long wooden bars, wooden tables, dim lighting, plush red carpet and exposed wooden beams. People aren’t there to graze on microgreens arranged on a hand-thrown ceramic plate inside of a well-lit terrarium. Here, patrons are greeted by a long row of gigantic meat roasts, piles of sides and old-timey salads kept behind glass cases. After you grab a tray and slide it down the buffet, a skilled carver thinly slices your protein of choice in one swift motion. The carvers never do a zig-zag; they place the bottom of their carving knives against the roast and drag the knife towards them until the tip of the blade separates the slice of meat from the roast, and the two-pronged fork holds the meat steady while it is being carved. Then your plate is loaded with equal parts dark meat and white meat. Or maybe you prefer a mighty turkey leg, as though you were at King Arthur’s round table or just meandering at the Renaissance Faire. They ask if you want gravy on your turkey. You do. You take a few steps to the side and request mashed potatoes. They ask if you want gravy on your potatoes. You do. Your other side is sage dressing and cranberry sauce. Of course, most of the plate is now various hues of brown, most of the plate being smothered in hot brown gravy and one corner of bright red cranberry sauce peeping out. Your tray is heavy.

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You have the option of a simple side salad, but why take up that prime real estate with leaves? There are glistening mounds of roast beef, prime rib, green beans and piles of fresh rolls beckoning along the line. Side-step to the beverage fountain, side-step past the desserts counter—because the caloric value of your gravy-covered, open-faced turkey sandwich seems like a lot—side-step to the cash register, then re-consider your side-stepping the desserts. Going back to retrieve a dessert is inevitable…maybe that chocolate cream pie? Pay. Sit. Then dig in. Stack the fork with a little bit of everything on the plate to curate a perfect bite: a little bit of the tender turkey, herbed dressing, buttery mashed potatoes, gravy, cranberry sauce. You can take a cue from the pros: men who work in offices toss their ties over their shoulder, careful not to waste a drop of roux and stock on their badges that deem them professionals in another life. Here, it’s Thanksgiving every day, but without the family drama.

My first memory of a hofbrau goes back to the 1980s, to a summer when my mother was particularly broke and needed a place to charge a meal. We wound up at Sam’s Midtown on the corner of 17th and J streets in Sacramento. The buffet line was to the right, and there was a bar straight ahead, with mirrors behind the liquor bottles, strategically arranged with the most expensive brands in the front, less expensive in the back. A steam table stretched out toward infinity, on which a pyramid of prehistoric sun-tanned turkey legs sat sweating their juices under a heat lamp, protected by a piece of glass. It was the first time I’d laid eyes on a turkey leg outside of Thanksgiving. To my surprise, my mother allowed me a turkey leg and mashed potatoes with gravy. Not to my surprise, she made me eat green beans. She ordered a plate of turkey—white and dark meat—dressing, mashed potatoes, gravy, a fresh roll and cold carrot salad with raisins. We sat down at a high table with barstools, both happy with our choices, eating like elites.

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The word “hofbrau,” which translates to “court brew,” once described breweries that had connections with the German monarchy. As there was no German monarchy in America, hofbrau-hauses began opening in the States shortly after German immigrants started arriving en masse in the 1800s, promising imported beers to homesick ex-pats. The hofbrau that laid the groundwork for the modern version was opened by John Iffland, a German immigrant, in Newark in 1888. The name “hofbrau” stuck because it’s what German immigrants modeled their beer halls after, and no one else would know the difference. The postcards advertising Iffland’s hofbrau-haus reveal long wooden bars, plush red carpet and exposed wooden beams. When Iffland died in 1917, his hofbrau-haus died along with him—the business proved increasingly unprofitable as anti-German sentiment rose during WWI, and German beer became impossible to import.

Not long after Iffland opened his hofbrau-haus in 1893, John Kruger created a buffet-style restaurant with a massive array of food options, modeled after the smorgasbords he’d seen while in Sweden. Kruger revealed his creation, which he called a “cafeteria” after the Spanish word for coffee shop, at the Chicago’s World Fair. It was so successful that Kruger opened a series of small cafeterias around the Chicago area. In 1898, William and Samuel Childs iterated on the cafeteria concept with Childs Restaurant, which let you slide your tray along the length of the buffet on rails, making it easier to pile food high on several plates at once. They insisted that everything be bright and white: servers in white, white subway tiles, white counter tops, setting the standard for what a modern, sanitary restaurant looked like.

When Tommy’s Joynt (1101 Geary Blvd., San Francisco) opened in San Francisco in 1947, the mid-century hofbrau revival began. Tommy’s remains the quintessential hofbrau, beloved by locals and tourists. While many hofbraus have since been bulldozed, there are still a handful of locations where faithful locals line up every day: Harry’s Hofbrau (14900 E. 14th St., San Leandro) in San Leandro, California, and Sam’s Hof Brau in Sacramento (2500 Watt Ave., Sacramento). Sam’s Sacramento, still popular today despite nearly closing this summer, opened in 1959. Its exterior is wrapped by a large neon sign advertising its namesake, and the 7,000-square-foot interior offers a comforting autumnal color palette: rust herringbone tile floors, red jacquard velveteen wallpaper, wood panels, large wooden beams on the ceiling, wooden bar.

I do my part to patronize places like Sam’s (and they make it pretty easy.) I know that when I walk in, the buffet line will be immediately to the right, a steam table stretched out toward infinity, on which a pyramid of sun-tanned roasts sweat their juices under a heat lamp, protected by a piece of glass, waiting to be carved at my request. My plate will be loaded with an open-face turkey sandwich: equal parts dark meat and white turkey meat, mashed potatoes, sage dressing and gravy with one corner of bright red cranberry sauce peeping out.