Noe Valley Voice November 2006

Bob Johnson--The TAMALE in our Midst

By Lorraine Sanders

When Bob Johnson moved into the neighborhood, there were streetcars running down 24th Street and Playland-at-the-Beach was the place to go on a sunny day off. KRON-TV had just begun broadcasting, Elmer Robinson held court in the mayor's office, and Alcatraz still housed real inmates.

"I would drive around here, and I just loved this neighborhood. Then it was more of a working-class neighborhood. It was more blue-collar," Johnson remembers.

The year was 1949, and Johnson had just completed an apartment building at the corner of Sanchez and Liberty streets in his favorite San Francisco neighborhood. He bought the lot in 1946 for $4,000 and spent another $40,000 constructing the three-unit building. Johnson, 96, still lives there today.

"It's my spot," he says contentedly. He loves the area so much that instead of leaving his idyllic outpost to travel around the country, he encourages his relatives to come visit him. Though he never married or had children, Johnson counts his many nieces and nephews as his own.

You might have seen this car enthusiast zipping around Noe Valley in his impeccably clean, red-as-candy Mercedes SLK 320 convertible (yes, he still drives). The car sports a vanity plate that reads TAMALE, a word that suits Johnson in more ways than one.

Yes, Johnson was in the tamale business. His father opened the first Johnson's Tamale Grotto in Sacramento, but relocated to San Francisco in 1912, when Johnson was just 2 years old. Young Bob grew up on Capp Street, close to the family's restaurant at 20th and Mission. When his father died in a 1918 automobile accident, Johnson's mother continued to operate the tamale parlor.

After graduating from U.C. Berkeley in 1933 and doing a short stint for the city in a social services job, the younger Johnson took over the family business. He eventually opened a tamale restaurant in the Sunset and a third in the Westlake Shopping Center. The Sunset location, on the corner of Vicente and 24th Avenue, was one of the first to offer home delivery in the area.

A tangy recipe for tamale sauce was the main reason the Grotto thrived, says Johnson. "It was a recipe that we developed over trial and error. We worked on it for many years until we finally got it right!"

In 1975, Johnson sold the business and retired.

Although he no longer cooks, Johnson still harbors an affection for good food. If you rise early, you might run into him at Herb's Fine Foods on 24th Street, where he heads each morning for breakfast with several other loyal regulars.

"Herb's is like a second home to me," Johnson says in earnest.

He also enjoys stopping by Martha's Coffee, Savor Restaurant, and Noe Valley Pizza, and strolling down 24th Street to people-watch and look at the shops' window displays--the very same things he enjoyed doing when he arrived in the neighborhood so many years ago.

"It was the main shopping area in those years. [There were] families walking along with dogs on leashes," he says.

Today, the street has much the same vibe, except for one thing. So many solo dads with infants and dogs in tow is certainly a sign of the times, says Johnson.

Whether he's roaming inside or outside the neighborhood, Johnson likes to take stock of the city's architecture. He even knows the names of all the tall buildings in downtown San Francisco. That may not sound like such a surprising feat when you learn that Johnson thought nothing of walking from his family's restaurant in the Mission to the Ferry Building, and then along the Embarcadero to Fisherman's Wharf and back, while he was growing up.

"When I was a kid, I would never walk. I would always run. That's what they told me," he says.

These days, Johnson often drives around town, stopping to take a walk at Ocean Beach, Golden Gate Park, or the Cliff House. While at home, he likes to challenge himself to a game of chess on his electronic chess board. Painted models of favorite cars line the shelves in his living room, and a framed photo of a Lamborghini hangs in his kitchen.

So what's the secret to his longevity?

"I always did exercise. I ate right, and I gave up smoking when I entered the Army," he says. "I guess I have good genes."

From his corner apartment on his building's second floor, which boasts 180-degree views of the eastern cityscape, Johnson has witnessed the surrounding neighborhood emerge from a quiet swathe of overgrown empty lots and family farms into one of the most desirable residential areas in the city. He has watched as skyscrapers appeared and eventually came to dominate the downtown skyline. He has lived in San Francisco through the 1939 World's Fair (which he attended at least three times a week for the entire year it ran), the Beat Era, the swinging '60s, the shocking murders of Harvey Milk and George Moscone, the Loma Prieta Earthquake, and most recently, the dot-com boom and bust.

San Francisco may have grown and changed over the past 100 years, but Johnson says there is one thing that has stayed the same about life in the City by the Bay.

"You can be yourself. You can do what you want to do. You're free," he says.

Bob Johnson is just one of hundreds of longtime residents who are the key to preserving Noe Valley's past. In November, the Friends of Noe Valley will celebrate Noe Valley History Month by gathering to share old photographs, music, and memories. The history celebration will be held on Thursday, Nov. 9, from 7:30 to 9 p.m., at St. Philip's Parish Hall at Diamond and Elizabeth streets.