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‘Our view was better than Cliff House’: Diner family shocked it may never reopen

Tom Hontalas, former co-owner of Louis’ Restaurant, stands outside the iconic 1930s coastal diner. | Garrett Leahy/The Standard

When he learned there were no plans for his family’s former restaurant to reopen, Tom Hontalas was at a loss.

“I was shocked,” said Hontalas, former co-owner of Louis’ Restaurant. “You’d think they’d want to make some money.”

Greek immigrants Louis and Helen Hontalas opened Louis’ Restaurant on Valentine’s Day in 1937, and for the 83 years it was open, three generations of the Hontalas family dished out classic diner fare including burgers, sandwiches and pancakes, served up with stunning ocean views.

But the National Park Service is not looking for a new business to take over Louis’—unlike its seaside neighbor, the Cliff House.

Inside Louis’ Restaurant, looking through the iconic coastal diner windows | Garrett Leahy/The Standard

“I think our view was better than Cliff House’s. You could see the whole Sutro Baths, Seal Rock [and] the Marin Headlands,” Hontalas said. “It’s a good location, and it would be nice to see what someone would do with the spot.”

Shutting Down

The demise of Louis’ was brought on by the pandemic—the restaurant was ill-suited for outdoor seating due to the steep sidewalk and chilly weather. Take out was a no-go, with courier services’ high commissions being too costly for the business. The family didn’t want to take credit cards either, as their diner had always been cash-only, Hontalas said.

“Maybe someone who was new might have wanted to change things around, but at that point in our lives, that’s not where we were,” Hontalas said.

Tom Hontalas, former co-owner of Louis’ Restaurant, looks through the window of the iconic 1930s coastal diner. | Garrett Leahy/The Standard

The lease for Louis’ was set to expire at the end of 2020, and with the uncertainty of when it would be able to reopen, the Hontalases decided to shut down, seeing it as the only financially sound option.

Remembering Louis’

Louis' Restaurant in 1967 | Courtesy San Francisco History Center/San Francisco Public Library

Tom Hontalas began working at the restaurant in 1968, one year after his brother Bill. They each started out at 10 years old washing dishes, but by the late 1970s they were partners in co-owning the restaurant along with their father, Jim, who passed away in 1997.

Now that the building stands empty, all that remains of Louis’ are memories.

Louis’ regulars knew waitress Rachel Lelchuk well, she worked there for 55 years, from 1947 to 2002. She worked the opening shift every day, Hontalas said. She always remembered her customers’ orders the next time they came in. She passed away in 2016.

Louis’ waitress Rachel Lelchuk worked there from 1947 to 2002. | Courtesy OpenSFHistory/Sunset Beacon

“She had hundreds of regulars,” Hontalas said. “She was as much a part of Louis’ as the Hontalas family.”

She didn’t have a car, so Jim, and later Tom, would pick her up from her 46th Avenue home in the Sunset at 4 a.m. to open the restaurant.

Another thing that made Louis’ special was its enduring family business ownership, across three generations, Hontalas said.

Louis and Helen Hontalas (left) work while Jim Hontalas (right) sits inside Louis' Restaurant in the 1940s. | Courtesy OpenSFHistory

“Being with your family can be tough, but when my family or my brother’s family came by and you got to see them open up the restaurant, that was always nice,” Hontalas said.

On Valentine’s Day, what would have been Louis’ 86th anniversary in 2023, Hontalas texted his family in remembrance of the restaurant’s history.

“I texted my siblings, and they said, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe it took me this long to remember. It’s our anniversary!’ and I just thought, ‘Thanks Louis’—you made a lot of people happy,’” Hontalas said.