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Jun-7-2011

Louis’ Restaurant is going green and organic; major upgrades underway


Renovations began on March 15, 2011 inside Louis’ Restaurant

Last year, the Richmond District’s iconic Louis’ Restaurant underwent an arduous process to get their lease renewed and extended.

The restaurant, which sits perched on the cliff overlooking the ruins of Sutro Baths, has been owned and run by the Hontalas family for 73 years. The restaurant was on a year to year lease with the National Park Service (the diner technically sits on federal land), and federal law required that the restaurant space be put up for bid by other vendors.

After thousands of signatures, a resolution by the Board of Supervisors and lots of public support, the Hontalas family won their bid to keep Louis’ going, earning a 10-year lease for their efforts.

But the lease had significant strings attached, including the requirement that they make major improvements to the physical building and change their food sourcing practices.

The restaurant closed in late November 2010 to begin the renovations, which was required at lease signing. However, the National Park Service was not ready for work to begin, so the start of the remodel was delayed until March 15, 2011. Unfortunately for the restaurant and its employees, that means nearly 8 months of being closed and out of work, as opposed to the original four they estimated.

I got in touch with owner Tom Hontalas who sent me a lengthy list of the changes they’re making to Louis’, which include gutting the dining room and most of the kitchen.

Many of the materials being put into the remodel are green, including new flooring tiles made with 55% recycled materials; they’re recovering most walls with sustainable bamboo siding. They’re using reclaimed wood on a new, second (emergency) exit that goes out the west side of the building onto the sidewalk, and installing LED lights throughout the dining room and T8 flourescent lights in the kitchen and storage areas. Even the new appliances are energy star compliant.

They’re also installing a new fire sprinkler system and recovering all of their existing tabletops, booth and counter seats.

Louis’ will also be ADA compliant after the renovations, offering a single, unisex bathroom with wheelchair access.

On top of all the renovations, Louis’ is also required to change how and where they purchase food supplies for the diner. Their new lease stipulates that all the produce they purchase be certified organic and be sourced within 200 miles of their property. The only exception to this is tomatoes, which can be sourced from a further distance to seasonal availability.

Other requirements for their food sourcing include:

  • all bread, danish, muffins and desserts shall be sourced within 25 miles of the property
  • all meat shall be all natural, hormone and antibiotic free, vegetarian fed, and humanely raised
  • eggs shall be cage-free and sourced within 100 miles of the property
  • all coffee shall be certified organic and certified fair trade

While Louis’ was welcome to choose whatever food vendors they wanted in the past, owner Tom Hontalas says these new requirements are just part of doing business. “We do understand that the NPS wants concessions that share their view as far as offering locally produced, organic, and healthy meals,” Hontalas said.

In addition to changes from their new lease, the owners are also tapping their loyal customer base via their Facebook page for ideas on new menu items and how to improve service. Among the suggestions for new menu items were “lighter green salads”, “healthier menu with local organic ingredients”, and traditional waffles (“The kind with the small depressions, not those “Belgian” kinds”).

All told, Louis’ is spending $500,000 on the extensive renovations. When asked if the restaurant plans to raise their prices after it reopens, owner Tom Hontalas replied, “Due to increased rent, higher food cost, and the monthly loan payments, it is inevitable that our prices will increase. We always felt that we offered our customers a great meal at an affordable price, and we hope that they will still feel the same.”

Louis’ is hoping to re-open at the end of July. If you’d like to track their progress, follow them on Facebook or visit their new website (still under construction).

What do you think of the renovations and changes underway at Louis’? Leave a comment to let us know.

Sarah B.


A photo inside Louis’ before the remodel. Photo by The Tens.


Outside Louis’ Restaurant, circa 1947. L to R: Louis Hontalas, his oldest son, John, Danny Hountalas and Danny’s father, Mike. Danny now runs the Cliff House, also a concession of the National Park Service. Courtesy of Louis’ Facebook page

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9:20 am | Posted under Business | 25 comments
  1. Sara said (06/7/11; 9:58 am):

    Personally, I liked them as a greasy spoon– and I fear the changes will mean higher prices. It was nice to have such an unpretentious place with such a great view in the hood. But I’m still glad they got the lease and will certainly still go there when they reopen.

  2. Bill said (06/7/11; 10:42 am):

    Too bad the Government has become such a Nanny state that they order vendors what to serve. It always was a nice place before. I hope we can afford it, and they will have a long run to recover their costs. They were always there and should have been “Grandfathered’ in without all these costs and intrusion into their operation.

  3. Seth said (06/7/11; 11:43 am):

    This is definitely a case of gov’t interference run amok. If a bunch of bureaucrats want to run a restaurant, then they should just do that on their own dime, rather than telling other restaurants what to do. I’m all for green, organic, buying locally etc but it’s still a free country and the restaurant owner shouldn’t have to feel so constrained in how they choose to earn their livelihood. That said, I’m sure Louis’ management took all this into consideration when they signed the new lease and I wish them all the best!

  4. Mike said (06/7/11; 11:46 am):

    “Their new lease stipulates that all the produce they purchase be certified organic and be sourced within 200 miles of their property. ”

    The Nanny State strikes again. I mean, I get it, imagine if you were a Supervisor in a wealthy city twiddling your thumbs. You’d think up a way to become a busy body real quickly just to feel you had a sense of purpose. ;)

    http://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/features/myths-organic-food

  5. Mike said (06/7/11; 11:46 am):

    Oh yeah, accept credit cards, you cheapskates! :)

  6. Sue said (06/7/11; 1:25 pm):

    Well, it looks like an upgrade to me, and a good thing for all of us. If I must have grease, there’s still the Seal Rock Inn . . . Best wishes to the renovated Louis’, and I’m looking forward to some good eating.

  7. Paul said (06/8/11; 8:17 am):

    I imagine the rise in prices will encourage less locals to eat there as the prices were already a little high to begin with (excluding the great view). The Seal Rock Inn will benefit from this I suppose. Many may not know that the cafeteria at the VA Hospital up the hill is open to the public for breakfast and lunch with cheap prices and a million dollar view of the Golden Gate…and grease too!

  8. amy said (06/8/11; 9:57 am):

    I leave a couple of blocks away and I will happily support Louis’. I was in South Dakota recently, and every business in the smallish town was owned by a family, or individuals who you could meet and shake hands with, and feel connected to the community. I am delighted a place like Louis’ exists, and while I tend toward the hole-in-the-wall, greasy spoon kind of diner (the hamburger place on 9th Ave and Clement, yum), change is cool too. If you live in SF, there are a lot of requirements that are ahead of the curve, and if sometimes that’s what it takes, well, why not? It supports regional businesses and is better for the environment, and the owners don’t seem to mind. Anyway, I’m psyched to have the place re-open and glad they are still here.

  9. TomPaine said (06/8/11; 9:58 am):

    To those complaining about a “nanny state,” such complaints are misplaced here. The government is not placing these restrictions on a random, private restaurant–this restaurant is the government’s tenant. All landlord/tenant relationships have restrictions on what the tenant can and can not do. I am not allowed to smoke in my apartment because my landlord forbids it. My tenants in the condo that I rent to them are not allowed to have a waterbed or fishtank because I forbid it.

    One would hope that political philosophy does not stand in the way of objective analysis of a situation. The mere fact that the government is a party in this story does not make it a story of a nanny-state.

  10. Mike said (06/8/11; 11:13 am):

    TomPaine, you raise a great point – if the government has a vested interest, then you can expect (and should accept) politics, ideology (in this case, the cult of organic food) and whimsical bureaucratic decisions to trump common sense.

    So yes, in this case, as owner of the land, the “nanny state” is well within its rights to impose these requirements that are “ahead of the curve”.

  11. James said (06/8/11; 1:12 pm):

    Oh boy, an opportunity to debate political philosophies using an example right here in our neighborhood!

    This private restaurant has for years been the beneficiary of what is effectively a sweetheart exclusive non-compete deal from the government. The government (we the people and our representatives) is entitled to set rent and impose restrictions just as any other private landlord is. And why shouldn’t it be? Perhaps this restaurant owner would have preferred open bidding on the premises? Isn’t THAT the free market economy at work? Isn’t THAT what would maximize revenue for the government? And besides just maximizing revenue (ie, McDonalds at Sutro Baths!), do we have any other public policy interests that could be served here? Heck yes, and one of those is serving locally grown food. That just happens to be good for other local private businesses too.

    If anything, this is another example of a deal that the government creates primarily to benefit private money-making interests, but with a teeny-tiny dash of public good on the side (healthier food options, environmentally sound building practices). So stop with the nanny state hysteria run amok. If you want to, go buy yourself a plot of land and let anyone move onto it and do whatever they want for as long as they want, and stay the heck out of their way. If you want something from the government (like the exclusive right to sell food on this incredible public land), barter for it. Ask what you can do for it, not what it can do for you.

  12. Sue said (06/8/11; 1:21 pm):

    Right on, James!

  13. Otto said (06/8/11; 5:51 pm):

    Were the requirements that Mike cited as “new lease conditions” a part of the US Department of the Interior’s original bid specifications? Do they apply to all similar bid situations or only to Louis’? How long have they been in effect? Were they arbitrarily imposed at a late date in the bid process? Did the State of California or the City and County of San Francisco impose additional or more stringent conditions whose cost consequences exceeded those of the conditions specified by the owner of the land?

  14. joshua said (06/8/11; 9:18 pm):

    On the loui`s restaurant sign it says family owned since 1937, which means that it was part of the sutro baths / cliff house neborhood that was developed,owned and operated by Adolf Sutro. This means besides the cliff house, this is the last operating restaurant that Sutro built. As you may or may not know, the GGNRA acquiared the land and all buildings on it in 1971. In my opinion this is much more then a simple lease, this a historic site just as the cliff house is. The point of the GGNRA acquiring the land was to solidify that land and historic buildings be proserved for future generations, not to push them out of bussness or force them to change they way they cook,prepare or where they purchase their produce. It is a real shame some pricks in the park service want to make an impact on a 70 year old + bussness that this neborhood should be proud of. I dont know how they were able to acuiare or buy out loui`s fourty years ago but it is really too bad they got their hands on this great establishment.

  15. Louis’ Restaurant going green | Way Out West News said (06/10/11; 3:04 pm):

    [...] Anyone headed out to hike the Coastal Trail in San Francisco has a place to feel good about tanking up. Louis’, a 70-year institution, is undergoing a makeover that includes a green renovation of the cliffside restaurant and  a menu change to locally sourced, organic foods (tomatoes excluded). Apparently some of these changes were pushed by the National Park Service, which recently granted the family-owned business the right to remain. [Read more - Richmond District Blog]. [...]

  16. tyler said (06/10/11; 7:15 pm):

    Green and organic? Oh great, just what we need more of- sterile beige atmospheres of sickly surly pasty vegans.
    Don’t get me wrong- I treat the earth with respect, bike to work, compost, and eat healthy and organic whenever possible, but I can’t stand trendy. I hope to God they don’t go the trendy Valencia st. route and keep their soul.

  17. jdh said (06/11/11; 11:20 am):

    So, they actually have to start purchasing, cooking and serving REAL food as opposed to the frozen, processed, overpriced slop they’ve been peddling for decades? What’s so wrong with that??!!?

  18. orion said (06/12/11; 5:43 pm):

    when folks whine “nanny state” at something like this, it reminds me of a toddler who has been scolded for eating the dog food, now grown up and still not over it.

    i haven’t eaten there in fifteen years, a view with good service and your average gunk on a plate, but now i’m looking forward to it.

  19. joshua said (06/14/11; 7:55 pm):

    Hey orion, Do you happen to be Gay? Liberal? or just a complete Nitwik. I guess you just have to much time on your hands worring about organic food and what other people eat, GET A LIFE!
    The first time I went there was last year and the food was delicious, the staff was friendly and honest, and it had a relaxing atmosphere. The one thing was it was Hell of expensive, between the omlett, orange juice, and whatever else I had it came to over $20. The people that say Ummm… is this Organic??? are either screwed up people that want to live forever, or anal people that truly have no life, hate their job, and just a drain on society.

  20. Rooty Toot Toot said (06/15/11; 11:26 am):

    Please keep the root beer floats! If you don’t, I won’t be back.

  21. Local links: Free Peet’s coffee, beach art, streetlight survey, local history & more | Richmond District Blog of San Francisco (richmondsfblog.com) said (06/20/11; 5:05 am):

    [...] Comedian Margaret Cho counts Louis’ as one of her favorite breakfast places in SF. She’ll be thrilled when they reopen. [...]

  22. Famed SF Restaurant Reopens | Yum Blog | San Francisco Food and Restaurants | SF Station said (08/5/11; 12:55 pm):

    [...] June, the Richmond SF blog had a nice piece on the renovations. The restaurant closed last November to begin work on improvements. The blog [...]

  23. Eat the Week: Off the Grid’s Curry Fury, Crème Brulee Cart Keeps On Truckin’, Thieves Take El Rincon, and Ritz Carlton Gets a Facelift » Poor Taste San Francisco said (08/5/11; 6:32 pm):

    [...] The Hontalas family, who have owned the restaurant for 73 years, completely gutted the interior and included many sustainable materials in the new dining room. Along with the décor changes, the menu underwent an upgrade. According to [...]

  24. mikie said (09/28/11; 10:15 am):

    Going over there today. The old spot was really old and it was a greasy spoon, but what a view. I guess if I have to pay more $$ it is for the view. I hate it when some government agency tells owners what to serve and where to buy it..

  25. Ernest said (12/20/11; 12:51 pm):

    I hope the best for them. The view is spectacular. I liked the old greasy spoon look and feel. I definitely feel the government was out of control in forcing these changes. No more hash browns and prices are now very high. $5.95 for one pancake seems outrageous but I understand that they need to pay for all the renovations and the rent.

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