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Izzy Gomez’ Café in San Francisco

by James R. Smith

Portuguese-born Isadore Gomez was a Barbary Coaster with a different tack than most. Izzy always followed his heart rather than a quick buck. He opened Isadore Gomez’ Café in 1930 at 848 Pacific Street, a somewhat rundown café focusing on the new Bohemian movement and its artists. Three principles ruled Izzy’s life: “When you don’t know what to say, say nothing”; “Life is a long road, take it easy”; “When you come to a pool of water on that long road, don’t make it muddy; maybe you’ll pass there again, and you’ll be thirsty.”

Izzy’s Café was a gathering place for aspiring artists. Famed writer William Saroyan, himself a regular at Izzy’s, immortalized the place, its characters and their situations in his play, The Time of Your Life. Gomez prided himself on the fact that no one left his place hungry. Izzy’s big heart and expansive nature earned him friends at every layer of San Francisco society. He gave away meals to writers, friends and those down and out that caught his eye. The 300-pound tavern keeper, wearing his ever-present black fedora, served great food - thick steaks, crisp fried chicken, huge platters of French-fried potatoes and big salads, all presented with good homemade grappa at two bits a glass, available even during Prohibition.

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Isadore "Izzy” Gomez, Tavern Owner, 1940.

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Demolition of Izzy Gomez' bar on Pacific Avenue in 1952.

Prohibition San Francisco was the wettest town west of St. Louis, but it also consistently had the best booze. No bathtub gin, grain alcohol mixed with flavorings in the bathtub, or rotgut, the alcohol all came direct from Canada to San Francisco Bay or to Moss Landing. The city drank the best Scotch and Canadian whiskies as well as the finest French wines and Champagne that could be had.

Izzy’s may have opened during Prohibition but the city police looked the other way by orders of San Francisco Mayor Sunny Jim Rolph, Chief of Police Dan O’Brien and District Attorney Matthew Brady, each of whom didn’t believe in the great experiment and wouldn’t support it. The police allowed an owner one speakeasy. If he had two, he would go to jail. This helped to keep organized crime out of San Francisco. Many of the Feds were on the take at five dollars a week but Izzy didn’t pay or was raided by one who didn’t take bribes. The Feds caught him selling grappa-laced ginger ale highballs at his “soft drink stand,” local vernacular for a bar. Pleading guilty, Gomez did three months in jail rather than pay the $500 fine.

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Workman peeling off the mural in Izzy's bar.

Composer Sterling Sherwin wrote the song, Down at Izzy Gomez, published in a songbook for the 1939 World’s Fair on San Francisco Bay. Izzy’s gained international fame and he basked in his good reputation. Life Magazine recognized him as one of San Francisco’s most colorful characters in 1943. Unfortunately, having served time for running a speakeasy, Izzy suffered the one glaring blot. He diligently but unsuccessfully endeavored to erase that black mark up until his death in 1944, even writing to FDR. Izzy’s Café held on for a while afterwards but eventually fell to the wrecker’s ball.

Today, Izzy’s Steaks & Chops, a restaurant chain, pays tribute to the famed San Francisco tavern keeper and his café that helped define the heart of the depression era.

James R. Smith is author of San Francisco's Lost Landmarks and the upcoming books San Francisco's Playland at the Beach: The Early Years, and California Snatch Racket.