upper waypoint

This 24-Hour Burger Chain Is a Late-Night Landmark in the Bay

Save ArticleSave Article
Failed to save article

Please try again

Illustration: Two men eating a spread of diner food (burger, onion rings, bacon, strawberry pie) while a woman approaches the table carrying more food on a tray.
Nation’s hefty cheeseburgers and glistening strawberry pies are classic Bay Area diner food. (Briana Loewinsohn)

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. This week, they were joined by guest artist — and longtime Nation’s enthusiast — Briana Loewinsohn.

Nation’s Giant Hamburgers and Great Pies probably doesn’t need much of an introduction.

Particularly if you grew up in the East Bay, chances are there was one of these fast food diners in or near your hometown. Maybe it was where your family went to grab a quick dinner when no one felt like cooking, or where the Little League coach would bring the team for post-game burgers and shakes. In high school, you might have spent hours there after school, multiple times a week, just shooting the shit with friends.

And for a wide swath of the Bay, the local Nation’s was almost certainly one of the only places in town where you could order a slice of pie or a full breakfast plate at 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning.

So when we saw that the chain’s original location in San Pablo is still open 24/7, we knew we had to pay a visit. The restaurant opened in 1952 as a tiny, six-stool hot dog counter (originally called “Harvey’s”). The current, and much larger, iteration of the building sits across the street from the (also 24-hour) San Pablo Lytton Casino, and when you pull up after dark, it looks very much like the image of the quintessential diner that I hold in my mind’s eye: a squat, brick-faced beacon in the night, all aglow with red and white neon.

Illustration: The exterior of a Nation's fast food burger restaurant, lit up in neon at night.
The original San Pablo location of Nation’s is still open 24/7. (Briana Loewinsohn)

On a recent Thursday night, the crowd inside was about 40% young families out late with their kids, 40% chatty high schoolers and 20% very hungry middle-aged men (salute to my people), with their diner breakfast plates and chili con carne and banana cream pie spread out on the table like some midcentury still life.


More than anything, it seemed to be a strictly locals kind of place – Nation’s, as a rule, is not much of a destination restaurant. “I guess you guys are from out of town,” the woman next to us in line said, laughing, not unkindly, when she saw us taking photos of the pie case and gawking at the menu with a little bit too much excitement.

If in doubt, you’ll probably just want to order a cheeseburger. So many Bay Area people talk up In-N-Out, our most celebrated SoCal import, that it’s easy to forget that Nation’s is the Bay’s own homegrown — and arguably superior — fast food burger chain.

A Nation’s cheeseburger has its own particular architecture. It has a surprising heft, mostly attributable to the thick, 5-ounce patty, but the main points of distinction are 1) the massive dollop of mayonnaise slathered underneath the patty and 2) the thick rounds of crunchy raw onion that provide a sharp counterpoint to the salty, fatty beef and cheese. (Ignore the wrongheaded people who try to convince you that it’s “too much onion.”) It’s a tasty, well-constructed burger — and if you’re feeling decadent, the fried egg and the uncommonly crispy bacon are both excellent add-ons.

We found the rest of the menu to be a little bit hit or miss. The fries were mediocre. The onion rings, while piping hot, were crumbly and underseasoned, and fell apart when we tried to eat them. The Oreo milkshake, on the other hand, was fantastic, with the ideal, slurpable thickness. And the classic breakfast plates — available in One-Egger, Two-Egger and Three-Egger permutations — are as solid as they come for an after-midnight breakfast option, with properly runny fried eggs and more of that good bacon (even if the hash browns were a bit pale and limp).

Our apologies, though, that we’ve gone this far without talking about Nation’s second biggest claim to fame: its pies.To be more specific, the strawberry pies, which the chain sells each spring and early summer as part of a big seasonal promotion that also features strawberry pancakes, strawberry French toast, strawberry cheesecake and straight-up bowls of strawberries (the quaintest, and most Bay Area, option).

The stunner, though, is the individual-size strawberry tart: a fairly standard pie shell with a mound of whole, fresh strawberries piled probably six inches high, ringed with spray-can whipped cream and coated in goopy red glaze — a pleasing juxtaposition in the way it’s both natural and unnatural. Despite the glop, the luxuriousness of this Nation’s pie is that you’re essentially just eating a whole pint’s worth of surprisingly sweet, ripe strawberries.

I suppose that’s Bay Area diner culture, in a nutshell. And to be able to eat such a pie, and such a burger, at 3 o’clock in the morning? It’s what makes Nation’s a Bay Area classic.

Nation’s has 28 locations in Northern California, mostly concentrated in the East Bay (plus two in Texas). The original San Pablo location at 13296 San Pablo Dam Rd. is open 24/7.

lower waypoint
next waypoint