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Original Joe’s Westlake Is a Time Warp to Red Sauce Heaven

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Man devouring a steak while sitting at the counter at a restaurant.
Original Joe’s Westlake is one of the few places where you can get both good steak *and* red sauce Italian. (Thien Pham)

The Midnight Diners is a regular collaboration between KQED food editor Luke Tsai and graphic novelist Thien Pham. Follow them each week as they explore the hot pot restaurants, taco carts and 24-hour casino buffets that make up the Bay Area’s after-hours dining scene.

I never ate the old Joe’s of Westlake, which opened in 1956. As far as I can gather, the Italian chop house stayed perfectly frozen in time for nearly six decades — serving the same char-broiled steaks and heaping plates of pasta to multiple generations of Daly City families. Eventually, the restaurant was sold to the owners of the North Beach Original Joe’s, who lovingly renovated the place and reopened it to much fanfare in 2016.

But even post-renovation, Original Joe’s Westlake still feels like a bit of a time warp. The handsome, low-slung building, with its neon signage and vaguely space-age, curvilinear architectural design, looks straight out of the ’60s, as do the waiters in tuxedos offering to grind fresh black pepper on your linguine. The whole dining room is full of quaint mid-century details: starburst chandeliers and shiny leather booths.

Nor has the restaurant’s popularity diminished. Now, as always, Westlake Joe’s at peak dinner hours is one of the hardest reservations to land on the Peninsula. What I like to do, then, is stroll in at around 10 p.m. on a Friday night, an hour before closing, when it’s usually possible to snag one of the swivel seats at the counter without having to wait. (Prior to the pandemic, the restaurant used to stay open until midnight, but we’ll take what we can get.)

As grand as the cushy, classic mid-century green leather booths are, the counter spots are the best seats in the house, with their close-up view of the finely orchestrated chaos of the open kitchen: six or seven line cooks standing shoulder to shoulder, cranking out dish after dish with no wasted motion. One of them, a thickly bearded chef in a black headband, handled the charcoal broiler where most of the meat cooks — the heart of the whole operation — all on his own like a magician, tending to the hot coals and nimbly flipping the seven or eight steaks that he had going at once.

Illustration: Red facade of Original Joe's Westlake lit up at night.
On weekends, the Westlake location of Original Joe’s is open until 11 p.m. (Thien Pham)

Original Joe’s is your quintessential birthday/anniversary/Father’s Day kind of restaurant, and when I’ve come for big celebratory dinners, I’ve always gotten the 24-ounce bone-in porterhouse: a richly marbled, special occasion-worthy steak. But for a casual, slip-in-for-a-quick-meal-at-the-bar kind of night, the $32 Steak Ala Bruno (one of the old Joe’s signatures) is more my speed. It’s a 10-ounce flat iron steak marinated in garlic, olive oil and rosemary, then char-broiled to a phenomenally tender, juicy medium-rare. It’s fantastic.


Two of my biggest complaints about the Bay Area dining scene are 1) how few proper steakhouses there are, and 2) how difficult it is to find good red-sauce Italian, which constituted one of the four major food groups of my East Coast upbringing. The beauty of Original Joe’s is that those are precisely the two areas where it excels. You don’t even have to convince your dining partner to go halfsies to have them both in one meal; you just need to opt for the ravioli as your chosen side. Steak and plump, meat sauce–laden ravioli. Unspeakable luxury.

There are, of course also pasta entrees, served on comically oversized plates: rich, oozy bricks of lasagna and a child’s Platonic ideal of spaghetti and meatballs (in large enough a portion to feed five children). There’s an unorthodox version of shrimp scampi linguine that comes tossed in a lemony garlic cream sauce.

Even when you’re seated at the bar, Original Joe’s offers the kind of impeccable service that feels both understated and a little bit old-fashioned. To start the meal, we’d ordered a Louie salad to share, and without saying anything, our kindly server had the kitchen split it into two bowls, each one piled high with tiny pink bay shrimp and slices of avocado and hard-boiled egg — the kind of small gesture that made us feel well taken care of.

Looking around a happily buzzing dining room, still more than half full well past 10 o’clock, we saw we clearly weren’t the only ones. Maybe my favorite thing about Original Joe’s Westlake is that it’s that rare “fancy” restaurant — along with House of Prime Rib and a handful of others — that feels both timeless and oddly democratic. It’s not an inexpensive restaurant, and there’s an Old World kind of formality to the servers in their black vests and starched white shirts. But you’ll find more diversity here than you will at just about any of the trendy hotspots a couple of miles north in San Francisco — diners of all ages (with the over-80 crowd especially well represented). All ethnicities. Folks in T-shirts and sweatpants and folks in full-on power suits.

Everyone seemed to be celebrating something. And everyone looked like they were having a good time.

Original Joe’s Westlake is open until 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and until 11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. The restaurant is located at 11 Glenwood Ave. in Daly City.

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