Northside SF
Appetites and Afterthoughts
The Free Lunch … yes, there really was such a thing

F or my last birthday, my barber, a thoughtful young woman named Fe Olivar, who’s been cutting my hair since the days when I had a reasonable amount to cut, gave me a one-gallon jar of pickled pigs’ feet. What a sensible gift.

I dug in. A couple of pickled pigs’ feet with a hunk of bread and a bottle of beer made a great lunch. It not only got my digestion going but my muse as well.

When I was kid during the Depression, many working-class bars still provided what was called a Free Lunch – deserving of capital letters here, I think. They were modest but appetizing affairs served all day long for appreciative customers – cheeses, cold cuts like salami and what we called baloney, occasionally some sliced roast beef or a shank of baked ham, crusty bread, hard-boiled eggs, and of course, pickled pigs’ feet.

I was told by my father, who became a free lunchist in good standing when he first came to this country through Ellis Island in 1913, that astonishing Free Lunches existed in the best saloons of the time.
My father enjoyed relating mouthwatering stories about this saloon bonanza, which was raised to its most glorious and gluttonous form in drinking establishments in New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, and even way out here in the rawboned Wild West of San Francisco. He told tales of Free Lunches laid out on silver trays and chaffing dishes that included iced oysters and clams, bowls of herring and sour cream, savory hot dishes of beans or spaghetti, a leg of mutton or a huge round of rare beef, and sizzling German and Italian sausages with hot mustard in which to dip them. All you had to do to partake was to buy one drink, which in my father’s case was German beer on tap – and you were good to go – down to the end of the bar and help yourself.  

Keep in mind, Free Lunches weren’t exactly a sign of the barkeep’s philanthropy. Eaters drink, but drinkers don’t necessarily eat.

From the 1870s up to prohibition in 1920, when everything came to a screeching halt saloon-wise, the Free Lunch was an institution.

English writer Rudyard Kipling extolled the Free Lunch in San Francisco in the 1890s. He wrote:

By instinct I sought refreshment, and came upon a barroom full of bad salon pictures in which men with hats on the backs of their heads were wolfing food from a counter. It was the institution of the Free Lunch I had struck. You paid for a drink and got as much as you wanted to eat. For something less than a rupee a day a man can feed himself sumptuously in San Francisco, even though he be a bankrupt.

Oh to have been in San Francisco in those great days when the Free Lunch was at its peak. But even in my lifetime, I was able to enjoy at least a semblance of that institution.

When I was a young man, there was a wonderful Irish saloon called Breen’s on Third Street near Mission. It catered to newspaper types – editors and reporters, typesetters and pressmen. Breen’s had a long mahogany bar. My recollection is it was 40 or more feet in length. Acolytes jostled forward and put their elbows on the bar to order a drink. One highball or a schooner of suds on tap allowed you to wander to the end of the bar and load up. There were pickled pigs’ feet of course. And I remember once at Breen’s there was cracked Dungeness crab in case a claw or two struck your fancy.
Alas, Breen’s closed in 1979. I miss the Free Lunches and think of those times as “the good old days.”

I’m afraid the standup, saloon dining experience I write about here is a thing of the past, but I’m hoping it may return. There’s anticipation of this glorious resurgence at The House of Shields down on New Montgomery and The Comstock Saloon at the confluence of Columbus and Kearny in North Beach. And please understand when I say the Free Lunch is gone, I am not talking about today’s shabby bar tricks – a small dish of potato chips, some salty trail-mixy stuff, or the obligatory deep fried zucchini fingers that turn up here and there during so-called happy hour. 

Happy Hour just doesn’t cut it as a Free Lunch. An exception I recall fondly was the famed San Francisco watering hole Paoli’s, at California and Montgomery. It served a real spread in the early evening when young singles flocked there. Paoli’s was a feeding frenzy followed by a tribal mating dance. 

Through my foggy prism of recollection, the world was a more generous place when I was a youngster. Not only could you get a proper Free Lunch in many saloons, but also your butcher gave you a slice of baloney to munch on while he was cutting up oxtails for your supper.

In the fifties I was fortunate to interview Lucius Beebe for the San Francisco Chronicle. Beebe was an American writer, dandy and gourmand who died in 1966. He was staying at the Old Palace Hotel. I met him in the famed Palace Pied Piper Bar. We stood there looking at the Maxfield Parrish mural behind the bar. We each had a flute of champagne, of course. There were a few “nibblies” in front of us.
“How I miss the days of the old Free Lunch,” Beebe said. Then he uttered his famous, all-purpose quote, obviously memorized for just such occasions: “All I want is the best of everything and there’s very little left.” 

Already a saloonist in good standing, Ernest Beyl hopes he has the opportunity to once again become a Free Lunchist. E-mail:

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