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Beloved by many, reviled by some, a 93-year-old restaurateur plots her next business move

She's owned restaurants in San Francisco for 70 years, earning accolades and burning bridges along the way. Who is Luisa Hanson?

A smiling elderly person with a headband indoors, viewed through a glass window with reflections, beside a pizza on a table.
A photograph of 93-year-old Luisa Hanson hangs in the window at Luisa’s Restaurant and Wine Bar at 1001 Guerrero St. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

The two signs on Luisa Hanson’s Italian restaurant on San Francisco’s Guerrero Street contradict one another. One blasts, “NOW OPEN!” on a paper sign; the other reads, “Luisa’s Ristorante and Wine Bar Since 1959.” 

How can an establishment be just opened and around since 1959 at the same time? 

The mixed messages, both true, are emblematic of the 93-year-old Hanson. She is one of San Francisco’s least-known and underrecognized restaurateurs, while also being one of its unequivocal legends. To know Hanson is to know her two sides—the warm, indulgent Italian grandma who’s an industry pioneer, and the sharp-elbowed, suspicious businesswoman who’s a bridge-burner. 

Though she was married at 14 and stayed wedded for the next 50 years, her restaurants are her life’s true love, the only romance that’s ever really mattered to her. “This is my sex,” she says, rubbing the restaurant table in front of her on a recent evening. 

Hanson says she unveiled her first restaurant in 1954 in the Castro, and then went on to open and close upward of two dozen more over the next 70 years: Luisa’s, Luisa Continental Restaurant, Mama Luisa’s, Macambo Club and Restaurant, All That Pasta, Luisa’s Pizza and Pasta, Pastella’s Pizza and Antipasti among them. Today, there are only two left: Luisa’s Ristorante and Wine Bar on Guerrero Street and Luisa’s Restaurant on Columbus Avenue. But she’s already making plans for another.

Hanson describes herself as a third-generation cook, taking after her grandmother (who lived to be 105) and her mother (a spry 107), who taught her everything she knows in the kitchen. That’s one side of her legacy; the other can be found in the decades-old articles about community uprisings she’s stirred, the lattice of lawsuits she’s faced and her bankruptcy filing in 2009. 

Yet despite her great genes and her roller-coaster life in restaurants, it’s becoming clear Hanson can’t avoid the inevitable. One day her voice, low and slow like a femme fatale with vocal fry, won’t be telling stories anymore, informing you your husband is “a hunk” and singing the praises of her five-star gnocchi. Her back is stooped, and she has a cane carefully hidden away in her preferred booth at Luisa’s. Someday she will hand over the keys to the empire—but not yet. 

“I quit; I die,” she says. 

Inside a pizzeria, a neon "PIZZA" sign, articles and a photo of a woman with pizza decorate a window. A menu rests on a table.
A photo of Luisa Hanson sits in the window at Luisa's Restaurant and Wine Bar in North Beach. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

To understand how Hanson’s dueling personas live side-by-side, you have to step inside the booth with her—the last one on the left in the back of Luisa’s on Guerrero. There, the matriarch sits, dressed in red, the same color as her famous marinara sauce.

“I hope when I die and go to purgatoria, I’ll be cooking,” she says. Why purgatory and not heaven, you ask? Her eyes sparkle with a joke she’s likely told many times before. “Because I charge too much.” 

Another legend of Pompeii 

Hanson’s family origins sound like myth, a scene torn from a Hollywood movie with stashes of cash and gangsters looming in the shadows. Except Hanson’s story is real life. 

She was born in 1930 to an Italian family that had fled to Libya, one of 16 children, evenly split between 8 boys and 8 girls. Prior to her birth, her father borrowed money from the mafia in a deal gone sideways. “Italians, they don’t read contracts,” she says. 

The family had to leave Italy—quick—so her father sold the family home in Pompeii and moved everyone to North Africa, where Hanson spent the first nine years of her life. 

On the cusp of World War II, the family moved back to Pompeii. There they opened a pizza restaurant called the Old Pompeii, which was, incidentally, just across the street from another restaurant called the New Pompeii. The war years were, of course, terrible. She remembers eating out of garbage cans and selling souvenirs on the streets of Pompeii at age 13.

A framed black-and-white portrait of a smiling woman next to a wine bottle with a similar image label.
A photograph of Luisa Hanson stands in the window next to her private label wine at Luisa's Restaurant and Wine Bar at 1001 Guerrero St. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

That’s where Hanson, at the tender and all-too-naive age of 14, met her husband, a Norwegian man named Thormod Hanson. “I was so young,” she says. “I thought marriage was just kissing, and I was the best kisser.” 

Hanson’s wedding photo, her face tender and her eyes soft, graces the bottles of the house white wine she sells in her restaurants. She didn’t love the Norwegian, she says, but she never left him. They were married for half a century, until his death in 1997. Despite her penchant for racy jokes—“You have to keep him happy from the waist down,” she likes to say—Hanson never married or had another partner again.

An elderly lady in a red hat and jacket smiles while writing on a yellow paper at a table.
Luisa Hanson, sitting in her favorite booth at her eponymous restaurant on Guerrero Street, sketches out plans for her next restaurant. | Source: Julie Zigoris/The Standard

The restaurants are her life. In front of her is a yellow legal pad where she’s already planning her next one, which she plans to call Luisa Portar Via Al Forno. She already has the menu sketched out. 

Aging in place 

“My mind is 50; my legs are 94,” Hanson says. 

Sometimes, sitting across from her in the booth, you perceive her age more clearly. She lies on her side, her legs propped up to assuage the pain her pills can’t handle. She needs help getting from the taxi she takes daily from her home on Nob Hill. But she is in her happy place, doing her rounds with customers, where she uses her hand on the tables instead of her cane for support. 

“They don’t want me to come in for Valentine’s Day,” she says of her staff, who balk at how much she talks to the customers. “But I sneak in anyways.” 

She was there this Valentine’s Day, roaming the tables as she always does, sitting and chatting with different customers—many of whom were also dressed in her favorite red. Even when Hanson sits alone in her booth, her eyes are on the door, waiting with anticipation for the next hungry mouth to feed. 

A couple with a stroller stands outside a bar with a "Now Open" sign, as street reflections merge with the interior.
A “NOW OPEN” sign at Luisa's Restaurant and Wine Bar at 1001 Guerrero Street contradicts the gold lettering on the window saying "Since 1959." | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

She’s famous for her tiramisu, a pillowy soft and decadent confection that comes topped with a carpet of cocoa, as well as her gnocchi, which she advertises on the menu as the source for all her five-star Yelp reviews (her meatballs have the same claim to fame). Then there’s her beloved red sauce, sweet and tangy at the same time, and her housemade pastas and 14 varieties of pizza. The food is just what you’d expect: homey, comforting, filling—though these days, it is prepared not by Hanson but by her cook of 28 years. 

The Guerrero Street restaurant opened in January, taking the place of Andiamo and the Michelin-starred Aster before that. It’s newly opened, technically—but in another sense, it’s far, far older. 

‘I want to talk about the happy things’ 

Hanson’s personality is reflected in her earrings—one stud, one hoop. You might think the 93-year-old had donned two different earrings by accident. But you’d be wrong. 

“It’s on purpose,” Hanson says, “to show I’m a handful.” 

This Luisa—the handful—is how many San Franciscans have come to know her. The nonagenarian restaurateur has had her fair share of ups and notorious downs over her many years in the industry. 

One of the most controversial lows was her purchase of the John Barleycorn bar in 2006. A beloved Nob Hill institution, Hanson proceeded to raise the rent and force out the bar—an unforgivable act to many locals, who were so enraged they set up a YouTube channel: Stop Luisa Hanson. 

“When you are in business for as long as I am,” she says, “things are bound to happen.” 

A sign reading "Luisa's Ristorante Wine Bar Since 1959" beside a traffic light, with building and sky in the background.
Luisa's Ristorante and Wine Bar at 1001 Guerrero St. took over the space that used to be Andiamo and the Michelin-starred Aster. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

When asked about this element of her backstory, Hanson’s eyes turn dark and her face stormy. In an instant, she transforms—going from the warm nonna who had welcomed me into her booth to a distant and evasive keeper of omerta. “I want to talk about the happy things,” she says, waving away thornier questions, “like my cooking.”

It was at this point that Hanson stopped participating in the story, refusing to answer calls or further questions and instructing her granddaughter to rescind a previous on-the-record interview. Hanson’s warm welcomes turned to scowls. The other Luisa emerged.

Glimmers of that Hanson have created a paper trail that includes liens, disputes and lawsuits. She snatched headlines when she doubled the rent on Elena Jurado’s Mission coffee shop, Que Tal, back in 2013, a move that ultimately forced the beloved local hangout to close. Hanson won’t talk about those chapters of her history, nor her subsequent filing for bankruptcy for 2009. Instead, she alleges her tenants sometimes don’t pay the rent when she has a mortgage to keep up with. 

“Many people, they try to take advantage of me,” Hanson says. 

While Hanson once owned numerous properties in the city, she said the building at 1001 Guerrero St. is the only one still in her possession. 

Most recently, a former server at Hanson’s Columbus Avenue restaurant filed suit against her, alleging wage theft.

“She can butt heads with people,” said Hanson’s granddaughter Erika Trejo, who owns the pizzeria Anonimo in Sacramento. “It’s her way or the highway.” 

Yet the other side of Hanson’s legacy is, indeed, a happier thing. Trejo traces her own start in the restaurant industry directly to the example her grandmother set for her. 

“She taught me how to take care of customers and how to never cut corners,” she said in an interview before her grandmother asked her to stop talking to The Standard. 

Most of Hanson’s restaurants contain some version of her name, and her face appears everywhere: on bottles of wine, on photos on the wall in her Columbus Avenue restaurant, on newspaper stories in the bathroom. Yet while Trejo calls her grandmother an inspiration, she went in the opposite direction when choosing a name for her own restaurant. Her pizzeria means “anonymous” in Italian. 

The business makes the woman

Trejo’s favorite story about her grandmother revolves around her arriving in San Francisco with $15 to her name and turning to selling cigarettes on the streets. People would get mad at her and tell her to move along, but Hanson would simply move further down the block. 

“She fought her way since she came here from Italy,” Trejo said. “She’s a spitfire, and I love her to death.” 

Four people posing for a photo, two men on the left, a woman on the right, with another man partly behind her. They are smiling, dressed in formal wear.
A photograph of Luisa Hanson, right, is seen in the window at Luisa's Restaurant and Wine Bar at 1001 Guerrero St. Many images of Hanson adorn her two restaurants. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

Hanson’s intensity is likely key to her survival, the secret sauce that has kept her going in an often cutthroat industry for so many years. And while she can be demanding and suspicious of her employees (if they call to ask if she’s coming to the restaurant, she assumes they’re trying to close early), she can also be generous. Hanson says she once helped her chef of 28 years with a down payment for his Noe Valley home. 

“People think it’s easy to open a restaurant,” Hanson says. “But it’s very hard.”

And that, in some ways, has made Hanson a hard woman. Or perhaps, she’s exactly the kind of woman who can survive 70 years of owning restaurants in San Francisco. I think about that yellow legal pad I saw her with when I first met her. A smile curled over her lips as she jotted down ideas for her next restaurant, one she later told me wouldn’t be her last. She’s always searching for the next opportunity, even at 93. 

“Do you make good money?” Hanson asks, slipping comfortably into her nonna persona. “You should open a wine bar. I could consult on the menu.” 

This story was updated to include a lawsuit filed in the days before publication.