The Nite Owl: The Lucky Penny
It’s been a fairly cold summer inside and out this year, but in the past weeks things have warmed up slightly, albeit encased in drizzle. I’m riding the 38-Geary out of the Tenderloin and away from Bus Station John’s frisky disc-y, the Tubesteak Connection where a gaggle of fuzzy men already are all a twitter about Dore Alley and Burning Man on the horizon.
I reach my destination and it glows as it has on so many nights before, its most recent signage claiming fame as a “Breakfast and Steakhouse”. The Lucky Penny is known for many things, but categorizing it on par as Ruth’s Chris or The House of Prime Rib might be a tad of stretch.
Although often lambasted, as eateries of its ilk are want to be, I actually always thought the grub at the Lucky Penny to be on the top of the greasy spoon totem pole, but most times I’ve been here, my taste buds weren’t operating at full capacity. It’s mostly nostalgia, and not so much a hankering for pancakes that has me here at 2 a.m. this time, though.
It was recently made public that the Lucky Penny will join the growing list of greater and lesser SF institutions to have a date with the wrecking ball. Unsurprisingly, condominiums, far out of the reach of anyone who has lived here since the diner opened, will rise on the spot where it now stands, undoubtedly touting 360 degree views and ample parking for newcomers who can’t shake their autos.
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The impending closure struck me unusually hard. To be honest, the Lucky Penny really never shines quite as bright as it’s name promises. It’s architecture is reminiscent of any Carrow’s you might find between Monterey and Oxnard and most of it’s best reviews center around it having parking. Lucky, however, was what you were if you happened to live in the surrounding neighbourhood, as I once did, because it was the only thing open. Bounded on one side by the institutional north end of the Western Addition and the buffeted vastness of the Richmond on the other, the Lucky Penny was a welcome site to my friends and I on many a bleary evening.
In the winter of 2004, after some first rough years in the city, I had found myself happily housed in a drafty flat full of pocho mixies like myself, called La Casa Dulce. I had also had recently started dating a babe with whom I shared similar interests and background and we began something both comforting and oddly intense.
That holiday season, filled with the usual hijinx, was sweet and warm. My beau immediately took to my San Francisco family and we collectively danced from one house party to the next, invariably ending up in the teal tuck-and-roll, red glass and wrought iron-encased booths or seated at the Bakelite counter, studded with its namesake, every one from the year it opened.
Eventually my love affair ended. The feelings were too close and intense for me to handle, and one night I unceremoniously called it off. I cited scurrilous evidence that he was going to run off with someone else and that it would never last. Sadness and shock creased his face and I immediately wanted to take it all back, but couldn’t as he walked off into the night.
Our household came to a close as well. Divergent dreams and personalities began to clash and soon we scattered across the city and abroad.
The place really hasn’t changed much since then. The waitresses are still the same women who have been drowsily and cheerily dishing out hamburgers to drunk USF students for the past forty-five years, some looking like they were delivered by central casting, high teased hair, drawl and all.
As the mist creates halos around the streetlamps outside, I negotiate my hamburger steak and spaghetti. If anything, this place definitely keeps true to the odd cultural combo platters this city’s restaurants were once known for that you aren’t likely to find at Lori’s. It comes with a dish of pea soup that is spring green and redolent with bacon and smokiness. In the wake of the news about the restaurant’s demise, plenty of posts (perhaps by developers?) went up blasting the menu, but all these years later, I have to say everything is just as decent as it was when I was sloshed at twenty-five. No Brazen Head, mind you, but not 7-11 either.
Perhaps our expectations have superseded our infratstucture though. The couple conversing in French, who seem to have tied a few on at one of the Irish haunts on Geary seem quite content to giggle over their onion rings, but the gauzily draped duo behind me seem genuinely confounded that the restaurant carries neither almond milk or bleu cheese.
On the television, a newscaster says that the pontiff stopped in the United States for Burger King. I guess everyone makes odd choices at this hour
Although we didn’t last as lovers, my Mr. Winter ’04 has remained one of my dearest friends. I immediately apologized in the light of the next day. He counseled me through some rough times and he allowed me to discover that, as long as it isn’t some toxic nightmare, friendship can transcend a break-up; that when you value someone, they tend to stay- all the things you can’t see in the fear and anxiety that is your late twenties. Unsurprisingly, he’s now a therapist.
True so of most of la Casa Dulce, time and miles have passed, rifts mended and memories recounted, and family we remain, occasionally throwing the odd house party here or abroad.
I guess San Francisco can be a fickle lover sometimes. She claims to love and value so much- her people, her diversity, her history, but how many times has she broken things off in the middle of the night like a drunk twenty-five year old who wants bright lights and almond milk?
The Lucky Penny isn’t fancy, but it is a landmark to many in the avenues and welcome sight when you want anything but Burger King at 3 a.m. It’s also a nice place for insomniacs to reminisce about fortune, friends, love and loss in San Francisco.
Like, the copper piece itself, we may not miss it ‘til it’s gone.
The Lucky Penny
2670 Geary Boulevard (@ Masonic)
[Inner Richmond/ Western Addition]