The corner diner in Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks exudes unmoored alienation, but the effect of walking into the newly reopened Hamburger Haven at 8 a.m. is something else entirely. Sure, the vinyl counter stools and rows of coffee cups upside-down in their saucers look straight out of the mid-20th-century, but the atmosphere is cheerful and almost overpoweringly sunny, not noirish at all.
Having closed along with just about everything else in March 2020, Hamburger Haven is finally back, serving breakfast and lunch from 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. daily. Owner Roozbeh Falahati scarcely uttered a peep about reopening on Monday, July 11, and neighbors who had spent the past 28 months peering into the windows quickly spread the news.
“We didn’t tell anybody,” he said. “I just put one sign out two days before. I had the cooks here to make sure everyone’s all lined up—but you know how Nextdoor is.”
For the entire first week, traffic was strong and sales were brisk.
“We’ve learned that maybe it’s better to leave every 30 years for two-and-a-half years,” he mused. “Because maybe then people will miss you and really appreciate you.”
With its wood paneling and textured yellow window panes, Hamburger Haven first opened in 1968, a project from one of the guys behind Mel’s Drive-in. He sold it to a guy named Andy, who Falahati’s father, an immigrant from Iran who came to San Francisco to study, worked under and later bought out. The family lived a block away in the mid-’70s and later moved to Marin, but Falahati and his wife are now back in the neighborhood, where he rises at 6:30 a.m. to open Hamburger Haven an hour later—“That’s the beauty of having no hair,” he says—all while juggling a personal-injury and landlord-tenant law practice that he plans to continue.
“We’re just missing one or two more waitresses, and then hopefully I’ll just come in and eat and tell everyone what a great job they’re doing,” he says. “That’s my goal.“
Arguably as much a local treasure as the recently reopened Old Clam House, the other reason for Hamburger Haven's prolonged closure was because the longtime landlord, a bank, had planned an earthquake retrofit. That’s since been completed, and Hamburger Haven’s current landlord is the Chinatown Community Development Center.
That nonprofit “really actually did save the place,” Falahati says. “If it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t have been able to come to fair terms and get a long lease.”
Knowing what his website-free, family-run time capsule means to the neighborhood, Falahati barely touched a thing apart from updating the kitchen and installing taps for Allagash White and other craft beers. But since he quit drinking a few years ago, he had to enlist an upstairs neighbor for some taste-testing. (“He got a little tired after his fifth beer, so he had to go,” Falahati observed.)
Hamburger Haven’s menu, with its patty melt, California omelet and sausage-laden Irish breakfast, remains firmly anchored in approachable comfort food. The only real addition was a berry bowl; most changes were subtractions.
“We were doing a little too much before,” Falahati said. “There are some people who love our spaghetti, but you should be going to an Italian restaurant! You shouldn’t be going to Hamburger Haven for spaghetti and meatballs.”
It’s the kind of spot that lures back people who’ve long since left the city but who go out of their way to stop in on every visit home. Customers sometimes tell Falahati things he doesn’t even remember, like stories about him waiting tables as a kid. But mostly they implore him never to change the diner’s retro look, which is largely a function of his father, who liked the way things were and never sold the place. Now enjoying his retirement, the patriarch still dispenses advice from his home in Marin.
“He likes the way things turned out,” Falahati said, smirking just a bit. “This was the first time my dad said, ‘I’m proud of you.’ You know how it is, the older Middle Eastern dictators get, the nicer they get.”
810 Clement St., San Francisco
Astrid Kane can be reached at email@example.com