★ ★ ★ (+ ★ ★) Joe’s Cable Car doesn’t make a great burger. They make a decent burger. Maybe even a good burger, but it’s not as great as the hype and Guy Fieri would have you believe. I feel bad writing this for a few reasons. Not the least of these is that Joe is right here, working restaurant just as he has for the past 50 years. He’s 75 years old now, and next month the landmark restaurant that bears his name will close for good. Most restaurants don’t make it five years, let alone 50, but Joe kept it in the family, kept it small and made it work.
Judged solely on taste, texture, and appearance, “Joe’s Cable Fresh Ground Beef Steak” is a solid three-star burger, but I’m going to give it five. Three of the stars are for flavor. The other two are for integrity.
If you have the chance to visit Joe’s Cable Car before it closes on March 16 make sure you take a close look. Past all the neon and mirrors and kitsch you’ll see something extraordinary in the the far corner of the restaurant, just next to the kitchen. It’s a butcher shop. While other burger joints are unpacking pre-made patties or cartons of ground beef, Joe is carving and grinding his own. Next, he does two things that defy convention: first, he uses choice cuts of ribeye steak. Second, he trims off most of the fat. Most burgers are about 20% fat but Joe’s are closer to 6–8% (and consequently have about the same number of calories as a chicken breast). The meat is coarse-ground by hand to retain its distinctive texture, dusted with a little salt and pepper, and slapped on a sizzling hot grill. They cook them medium rare, and despite the relatively low fat content Joe’s burgers are plenty juicy. They’re not oh-my-god-you-have-to-try-this good, but they’re certainly a few cuts above your typical diner burger.
Aside from its longevity, its butcher shop, its family ownership and Joe’s personal hand in everything, perhaps the most remarkable thing about Joe’s Cable Car are the reasons behind its closing. Joe’s isn't being forced out of operation by an opportunistic landlord (though rumor has it the shop will be demolished to make way for new condos). Sales are strong (up to 2,000 burgers a week), so it’s not a money thing either. Nope, Joe’s is closing for just one reason; It’s time.
“I’m 75 years old,” Joe Obegi explained in a recent interview with Inside Scoop, “I have health problems. I didn’t want to suddenly get in big trouble and close overnight. So we decided to pick a date...and now we know.” In the interview he goes on to explain that he has a number of regulars and tourists that drive considerable distances for the Joe’s experience. “I just don't want to disappoint anyone,” he says.
Not only can we respect that, but it made our burgers taste just a little bit better too. It takes a lot of courage and a lot of humility to close a business. It takes even more to close when you're still on top.
The Creative Lesson
But the unique lesson here is about self-awareness. Every career has its arc. To varying degrees every creative practioner has their emergence, their ascendance, their peak, and their plateau. Most, unfortunately, also have their demise—that slow awkward retreat from relevance usually evidence by an ever-tightening grip on nostalgia.
At the recent AGI conference in London, Rick Pynor asked Peter Saville why he stopped designing Album covers. “I’m 50,” Saville answered, “Designing album covers is a young man’s game. I have no business doing that anymore.”
Youth isn’t always the answer, and I have great reverence for the wisdom that comes with time and practice. Sometimes that wisdom includes having the perspective to quit while you’re on top.