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Unassuming Red’s Java House a small gem by the bay

Red’s Java House sits on Pier 30, just off the Embarcadero in San Francisco. It has been in the same spot for more than 60 years. Its specialty is burgers. The seagulls like it, too.
Red’s Java House sits on Pier 30, just off the Embarcadero in San Francisco. It has been in the same spot for more than 60 years. Its specialty is burgers. The seagulls like it, too. Sacramento Bee file

From the outside, Red’s Java House looks like an old boat, worn down by the wind and water of San Francisco Bay.

The paint on its walls is peeling, and the red and white sign on its roof is flecked with green. Its interior, with low ceilings and minimal floor space, is even more like that of a small vessel. It feels like this waterfront eatery could float away from Pier 30 and cruise across the bay.

But Red’s has been in the same spot for more than 60 years, and shouldn’t be leaving anytime soon.

Red’s resistance to change is one reason why it’s a favorite of San Francisco locals and visitors, including TV foodie Anthony Bourdain. While the unaffiliated Java House on Pier 40 caters to modern California tastes with acai bowls and smoothies, Red’s still won’t put lettuce or tomato on its burgers.

Despite its name, coffee is not a specialty at Red’s Java House. It is best known for its burgers, which are grilled to order and served on San Francisco sourdough rolls. The tangy, chewy bread forces you to slow down and savor the beef. Go all-in with a double cheeseburger ($8.72). Veggie burgers are available for those looking to avoid meat.

Red’s also serves breakfast every morning, featuring items like pancakes, egg sandwiches and, on weekends, corned beef hash.

It’s worth visiting Red’s just for its fantastic waterfront location. You can spend a tranquil morning eating breakfast by a wide window, watching the sun burn off the fog from the bay. Or you can catch some afternoon sun on the outdoor patio while sipping an Anchor Steam beer. Just be wary of hungry seagulls, who might swoop in for a bite of your food.

Pier 30 has been a popular food destination since the Great Depression, when Franco’s Lunch began serving burgers to longshoremen and sailors. Tom “Red” McGarvey and his brother Mike bought Franco’s Lunch in 1955 and gave the restaurant its current name.

Waterfront redevelopment has threatened to shut down Red’s in the past, but the San Francisco Giants’ AT&T Park has proved to be a major boost. Baseball fans come by Red’s for food and beer before every game. The Golden State Warriors’ new arena, scheduled to open in 2019, should bring in even more business.

Red’s is a living relic from another era, long before startups and waterfront condos, when shipping was the heart and soul of San Francisco’s economy.

Its no-frills approach to food reflects the industrial environment of that time. Today, it’s a refreshing change from modern San Francisco. While a double cheeseburger might not be nutritious, a brief escape from the chic, high-tech city will do you good.

Joshua Mandell: 916-321-1076, @joshuamandell

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