In the eighty plus years since, Red’s has changed hands a handful of times—first in the 1950’s to carrot-topped brothers Tom and Mike McGarvey (who renamed it after their ginger locks) then again in 1990 and 2009. All, by the way, were San Francisco natives. The Pier 30 dive—halfway between ATT Park and the Ferry Building—is an enduing landmark with a bay bridge view and a very satisfying burger.
Their signature double cheeseburger is made with two thin all beef patties, grilled in mustard and draped with perfectly melted American cheese. All burgers come topped with chunky pickles and thickly-diced onions. Regular burgers come on a standard bun, doubles are served on San Francisco sourdough. The latter is definitely the way to go. The bread has the elastic chewiness of good sourdough. Chewier rolls have the frustrating tendency to squeeze out their contents (unless you eat them like this), but the rolls at Red’s are oversized and because there's no lettuce or tomato to slide around the sandwich holds up fine. It's a warm, hearty, gooey handful of deliciousness. The onions and mustard give it a bracing pungency. The pickles and sourdough a mild tanginess. There’s ketchup and hot sauce on the table if you want it, but honestly the burger is great on its own.
The walls at Red’s Java House are covered with framed photos and newspaper clippings—souvenirs of San Francisco past. I happened to sit at a table below a series of photos showing my neighborhood in the 50’s, just before my house was built. Back then our street wasn’t even a street—just a grassy hillside above some wetlands that would soon be drained and filled in the name of progress. Like the hills and the wetlands, The City has changed a lot since then. The aforementioned ballpark (built in 2000 to look like it was built in the 20’s) has had three names and numerous expansions in just 14 years. The Ferry Building, which predates Red’s, has also seen numerous transformations—from an active transit center, to office space, to a bustling restaurant and shopping arcade. San Francisco itself has morphed into different incarnations of itself time and time again. Through it all, though, Red’s has remained focused, and humble and small. It feels like a real place, a place with an honest sense of history and a sincere sense of self.
The Creative Lesson
I’ve run my own design office for ten years now. We’ve always been three people and we’ve always worked from a home office. People often ask me when I’m going to move to a larger office, when I’m going to hire more employees, when I’m going to grow the business. In short, they’re asking, “When are you going to change this thing you love into something else?” The answer is, I’m not.
Growth works for some people and it’s more or less The American Way. Sometimes, though, success depends on not growing, on not chaning. Sometimes it depends on remaining small enough that you can stay close to the work, close to your customers and close to your life.