Sandwiches like the customer created 'Uncles' (featuring roasted pork and jalapeños) are the specialty at Davey Jones Deli in Sausalito. (Alan Chazaro)
¡Hella Hungry! is a column about Bay Area foodmakers, exploring the region’s culinary cultures through the mouth of a first-generation local.
There’s a certain feeling of escape whenever I cross the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge into the more affluent areas of the North Bay, where ocean views extend peacefully from the base of Mount Tamalpais towards the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco’s glittered skyline.
Yet behind every Instagram-worthy glamour shot in these high-end destinations, there’s also a blue-collar grit: sailors, dock workers, immigrants, farm laborers, wanderers and the general working class who’ve taken refuge away from the larger nearby cities.
Davey Jones Deli is an example of that — an old-school sandwich shop inside a Sausalito liquor store on the literal edge of land, founded by a man who lives on a boat. It’s where the “waterfront people” go to eat, stock up on fishing supplies and pick up their favorite alcohols. It’s not exactly where you’d expect to find some of the North Bay’s best sandos. But it’s where X marks the spot, and for much of the Bay Area, this quirky nautical eatery is only a short drive (or ferry ride) away.
The veteran sandwich maker and owner, David “Davey Jones” Johnson, is more seaman than landwalker, and perhaps the friendliest pirate soul you’ll ever meet. (He might even draw you a map of the area and label it a “treasure map,” divulging his favorite locations for local walks with ocean views).
“I’m a part of the waterfront, the working waterfront,” he says. “People live on boats and work with their hands. And then there’s the wealth of the hills. But this is part of the waterfront here.”
Inside the shop you can explore crab traps, octopus hooks, snatch swivels, rope and an array of other fishermen’s equipment while waiting to load up on a barbecue brisket sandwich or veggie delight stuffed between sourdough. Afterward, it’s worth wandering around the surrounding area to enjoy the nearby vistas for an ideal lunch. Trust me, even if the treasure isn’t the kind that pirates bury, those views are worth the trip.
Here’s the skinny on how this sailor built a paradise for sandwich lovers in an unlikely hideout.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Alan Chazaro: So Davey Jones isn’t your name, huh? Where did that come from?
David Johnson: Growing up I was David. Dave sounded too much like a farmer from Iowa, where I grew up. After college, I spent four years in South Africa, working. My partner was a fisherman, I was a sailor. We were running a bar in a jungle. He asked me if I’d met Davey Jones. I just said yeah, that I did. So everyone started calling me that.
You ran a bar in a jungle?
Yeah, it was wild. My buddy was building a community and he wanted to create something for backpackers. I just wanted to hang around. We helped out by taking the tourist money and giving it back to the community. I imported my food and sold a lot of local fish. We had a little fish market with peanuts and fruits and things. Off the grid. Heated our own water. We had a hundred people using toilets and showers. We’d compost everything and work with the locals and became self-sustainable. We talk about organic food in the U.S.? That was no comparison. That experience taught me about DIY, build it yourself. Use what you got. The deli is like that.
You’ve been operating Davey Jones Deli for 13 years now — how did that happen? How did you end up in Sausalito?
I kept going back to boating, tried to live in New Orleans, Milwaukee, always on a boat in places that had water. The Great Lakes. All up and down the East Coast. Prince Edward Islands. Boston, Philly, Charleston. The great East Coast cities by the sea. At one point, in 2009, I was working on a yacht in Yoruba. I was on Facebook and got connected to my best friend from high school, who’s now my wife. She was living on a houseboat in Sausalito. I’d never considered it and had never been [to San Francisco]. I said, why not?
At first, I had no idea where I was. I didn’t know Sausalito was a rich city. I just knew there were farms, and I used that to my advantage. I found a reasonable houseboat situation, and my plan was to just sell soup to my neighbors, which I did for a while. [At the time] I would just be breezing through the bait shop to buy firewood, and the owner approached me to run his deli one day. I never noticed it before, to be honest; the lights were always off. It was covered in grease, and I just laughed it off and didn’t take it seriously. But after thinking about it, I went back. I decided to run it my own way, with poetic license. I was a chef at the time. My personal clients were not happy since they thought it was gross. They thought I’d spend a couple of years there and attract investors and just move on, but it has been so comfortable and I’ve been here ever since. I walk to work and it’s a super diverse community — one of the most racially diverse spots in southern Marin. I like that East Coast bodega vibe. It’s loud, fun, unlikely.
When did your passion for food making begin?
It started while working on educational tall ships. There’s one in Sausalito called the Matthew Turner. We take students and scientists out. I actually have a degree in Environmental Science, and I wanted to be a captain at one point. But this one time, we had a terrible cook, and it just destroyed our bodies (laughs). I took over and served some healthier organic foods and inadvertently became a sea cook. It’s tricky with our budget — there isn’t much money in nonprofit, educational tall ships. A lot of wheeling and dealing in port towns. You get creative — meeting fishermen, getting clammers and steamers by trades, finding unlikely food places.
Did you have any cooking experience before that?
I cooked my way through college. I didn’t just work anywhere. I was interested in particular scenes and worked my way through some cool restaurants. I picked up knife skills, things like that. I had The Joy of Cooking memorized by the time I was on the sea. I started working at a vegetarian restaurant back then near the university. Imagine quinoa in Iowa in ‘98. Seitan burritos. Things like that. It’s not like today. We were next to a university, and here I am in the courtyard serving shiitake corn soup and people are asking me about sodium. We had some really challenging customers. But you take that to sea. You can’t have everything you want. And food should make you feel well emotionally, spiritually, economically, physically — you shouldn’t live on a militant diet forever. Chicken dumplings will get you right, know what I mean?
We’re here to nourish people and give. It’s all about giving. Whoever is trying to prove themselves with food, I’m not interested. My 75-year-old neighbor will roast the hell out of a chicken, that’s what I’m into. The best food is at home, hands down. I only go to restaurants when I’m lazy or for social reasons, maybe the food makes me feel good.
Fish — that’s a restaurant here in Sausalito — it makes me feel amazing. It’s sustainable with crazy views, but don’t go in the middle of a rush. Hit that up in the side hours.
You have creatively named sandwiches on your menu with a notable array of options — from the housemade hummus in the “Vulcan Wrap” to the veggielicious “Kerouwhack” or the BBQ brisket and bacon in the “Mr. L.” Where do these original names and ideas come from?
I hate sandwiches named after famous people like athletes (laughs). These are named after staff workers and former employees. Each one reminds me of them. Mr. L was a staff member here, who was re-entering society. He would just make sandwiches. Kerouwahck came from a fun guy, Pinky — he wanted to become a vegetarian, so he made that [sandwich] as a savory and sweet affair. These workers pretty much invented the sandwiches themselves using my kits. Some of them were jokes. A guy came in the door once and stared at all the ingredients on the menu for about 10 minutes, then ordered his sandwich. We named it after him, and will name them [after customers] if they’re fucking clever. [That particular customer] just looked like someone’s uncle, so that’s what we named it “Uncle’s.”
We only have two rules here. Rule #1: no fire, no fryer. Rule #2: no additives or preservatives. That’s why we’re not in the salami game. I like it, but it’s not very healthy.
San Francisco is famous for its sourdough loaves. Where does Davey Jones get bread from?
Our local bakery is Bordenave [a 105-year-old bakery in San Rafael]. Their bread is local; they’re our neighbors. Sourdough rolls are hard, and if we’re putting 16 ingredients in, it just squishes out. We rip most of the bread out of the middle to add more spinach, sprouts, cucumbers, nutrients. We can stuff delicious veggies over the bread. [Bread is] just a wrapper. The business of sandwiches is an expression of self. Dr. Jones is a bit different — we don’t do sandwiches at all.
What’s Dr. Jones?
It’s private catering I do on beaches, barbecues on the waterfront or on boats, picnics on Angel Island, that sort of stuff. I do it all around Sonoma, Napa — outdoor cooking. The deli can only pay my bills, and I like to travel internationally, so I like to cater. We have a website called Port and Provisions that just highlights our catering cohort, nothing serious. We don’t answer emails or phones. I just like being an outdoor chef. It’s not a company, just me and some chef friends.
What’s the secret for making a perfect Bay Area sandwich?
Well, here’s a secret: Sandwiches are not really a passion of mine. I make them a lot when I travel, especially at my mom’s house. It’s lazy food. There are sandwich aficionados on Instagram, and I love that they love it that much. But I don’t go out of my way for a sandwich. When I was trying to figure out what the deli was, I was doing smoothies, porridge, quiche, lasagnas.
One night, I was working late and the sandwich gods whispered in my ear and said, “Bro, you’re a sandwich deli.” When the sandwich gods speak directly to you, you listen. At that point, I started to wonder about the world’s best sandwiches: the Reuben, Cuban, so on. I started out making the famous ones. I got busier and had too many ingredients so had to pare it down. We have no fire, no frying, no additives here.
It’s not really about the sandwiches; I’m just a pretty good cook, and I’m nice to my people, and that is more magic than anything. I thought I might work in environmental remediation or environmental justice at one point but got no responses to any of the several hundred applications I sent out. It was like a “whoops” when I became a chef. It’s been comfy though — no commute, space for my catering. [The food industry] can be very brutal, so I have to also take care of myself. Watching those rotator cuffs (laughs).
Immigrants come here and build a restaurant or work in kitchens, and we [Americans] tell our kids that it’s not honorable to sweep or mop — that being in food isn’t honorable. But my uncle once told me that the only honorable work on this planet is food — farming — and it’s true. They’re the only real producers. Everyone else is just taking and being a user. I don’t think there’s any honor in the craft of charging subscription fees (laughs). I’d just like people to honor chefs and the kitchen rather than hoping kids can do something better. Food is our first basic need.
Davey Jones Deli is located inside New Bait Shop Market (1 Gate 6 Rd., Sausalito). The deli is open daily from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. (or until sold out).
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