The restaurants are reopening and we may not need to romanticize their existence anymore, but there is an ongoing longing for a certain place that has brought different areas of life together in San Francisco: Hippopotamus Hamburger, a place that was out of business for 34 years.

Hippopotamus Hamburger (also known as Hippo Burger, Hippo’s, or Hippo) was located in the room that is now a CVS pharmacy on Van Ness and in the Pacific from Falkenstein from 1950 to 1987. Known as Wolo von Trutzschler or Wolo for short, he was a beloved children’s book illustrator and puppeteer.

These Wolo hippopotamus cartoons live on today: they have an online life in unofficial merchandise and rarity auctions. The Hippo is a major vintage San Francisco restaurant logo for several t-shirt-on-demand companies. A Fire King coffee mug featuring Wolo’s hippo girl recently popped up on eBay from a Japan-based seller priced at $ 950. From time to time, and just a few weeks ago, one of the 117,000+ members of a nostalgic Facebook group called San Francisco Remembered would say, “Who remembers the hippo on Van Ness?”

The hippos themselves explain in part why the restaurant is still alive in the Bay Area consciousness. With their big, warm and slightly blushing smiles (and even bigger bums), they would have been perfect for the Instagram era. The theme extended to the bathroom, where toilet seats were shaped like hippopotamus mouths and some happy children went home with a stuffed hippopotamus that some happy adults still have.

But they only explain part of why hippo occupies an oversized place in local memories. Hippo has been a destination for birthday parties and nighttime antics, after-school snacks, after-prom bites, and post-punk shows. It was a cultural icon of its time, filled with fancy burgers, celebrities and children, if not always at the same time.

The cover of Tamara Palmer’s out of print “Hippo Cook Book” published in 1969.


Courtesy Tamara Palmer

“Hippo’s was one of the first gourmet hamburger places in the country, a place that served as a social and cultural hub in the city of St. Francis for nearly four decades,” wrote Ken Garcia for The Chronicle after owner Jack Falvey passed away in 1998 at the age of 84. “It was a place where people gathered after prom, after balls and after bowling … a place that was simple, elegant, copied a lot, and yet never trending.”

The hippopotamus came from the minds of Falvey, a 1929 Lowell High School graduate who had an animal-themed business empire. He was a serial entrepreneur who opened a successful liquor store called the Giraffe Liquor Shop in the late 1940s. He later had the Monkey Inn, a singles bar behind the Hippo.

He was also a world traveler, which is possibly why Hippo had such an eccentric menu with over 50 burgers inspired by international cuisine. While hamburgers were pretty basic in San Francisco and across the country at the time, Hippo’s options included the Cantonese burger with lychee cans from Chinatown, a country-style Japanese Kyoto burger with soy mayo sauce, and a Russian burger with flavorful red cabbage and juniper berries to name just a few. Falvey’s out-of-print Hippo Cook Book, published in 1969 on Nitty Gritty Books by Concord, contains recipes for dishes such as San Francisco curry sauce (which includes apples, curry powder and ketchup) and Iranian salad dressing (with Burgundy wine and three types of vinegar) and A Typical Balkan Meatloaf (with steak, bacon, rice, cinnamon, and nutmeg).

The appeal of the menu lay in its over-the-top creations that weren’t associated with any particular cuisine except flashy Americans. An inflation burger was $ 1 million, and a hamburger sundae – one of his craziest and most famous creations – came with real ice cream. The recipe stacked vanilla ice cream and hot fudge on a burger patty, as well as a sliced ​​cucumber, maraschino cherry, and nuts. Although the cookbook does not contain a recipe for the Hamburg sundae, Falvey reveals the inspiration: a gynecologist with an office across the street. The Hamburger Eisbecher was designed in honor of the desire of pregnant women.

From Tamara Palmer's out of print

From Tamara Palmer’s out of print “Hippo Cook Book” published in 1969.

Courtesy Tamara Palmer

The extensive menu was served on school evenings from 11:30 a.m. to 1:00 a.m. and on weekends until 3:00 a.m. Depending on the hour, Hippo was both a family place and a non-family friendly place. Late at night it was open to crowds coming from music venues, bars, and strip clubs.

During the day, birthday parties were a big deal for kids at the Hippo, says San Francisco-based artist Marsha Vdovin. “They put sparklers on a burger,” she says. “It scared me (as a child)!” And daring friends to try the Hamburg sundae after school or during class was a rite of passage. My childhood request for a Hamburg sundae received a parental veto and last week I finally found out why: Dad is still carrying the childhood trauma of his best friend who embarrasses him by ordering him a Hamburg sundae in front of everyone and how disgusting he is thought it was.

“It was kind of a working-class experience, just part of being a kid in San Francisco,” says Gayle Pirie, owner and cook of the popular Mission District restaurant, Foreign Cinema, of Hippo.

At night, Falvey’s role as a social person in the city came into play. His business and philanthropic endeavors were a staple of the late Herb Caen’s columns in both the San Francisco Examiner (1950-58) and The Chronicle. Caen called the hippopotamus a “glorified Glamberger Jernt” when covering the opening night on May 31, 1950, referring to the fact that notable locals had made its debut.

The Hippo Burger restaurant on Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco on November 23, 1983 with a hippo sculpture on the wall.  The hippo was a popular place to eat from the 1950s to 1980s.

The Hippo Burger restaurant on Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco on November 23, 1983 with a hippo sculpture on the wall. The hippo was a popular place to eat from the 1950s to 1980s.

Susan Gilbert / The Chronicle 1983

Later on, people like Bing Crosby and ballet stars Dame Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev were known for going to restaurants, according to news clips and the cookbook.

“Dame Margot and Nureyev came in, ate a hippie burger, then went to Haight-Ashbury and were unlucky! How lucky! “Falvey joked in his cookbook, referring to her arrest in San Francisco for attending a cannabis found party – an incident that The Chronicle later described to” The Great Haight Ballet Bust of 1967 ” called.

“The great Tennessee Ernie Ford ordered a Diet Steak and plugged us in for his national networking show,” Falvey continued. “Bing Crosby only eats a simple hamburger – as does Pat Paulsen.”

The restaurant was also a magnet for criminal high jinks, according to crime reports published in the Examiner. In 1964, an employee was robbed with a cash box by two men at gunpoint and locked in the boiler room. Three years later, Falvey was robbed of $ 800 and handcuffed in the restaurant. SFPD tried 24 keys before finally loosening the handcuffs.

Falvey recognized the universality of the restaurant in his cookbook. “Actually, everyone in San Francisco eats at the Hippo,” he wrote. “I suppose that’s the interesting and charming part of this hippo-style restaurant business. You can sit next to a black panther or a priest, an opera goer in a white tie or a hippie, a worker in dirty overalls, or an entire Japanese camera click group. “

Despite Caen’s affection and the restaurant’s beloved status, the Hippo wasn’t exactly a critical favorite of The Chronicle’s grocery department.

From Tamara Palmer's out of print

From Tamara Palmer’s out of print “Hippo Cook Book” published in 1969.

Courtesy Tamara Palmer

The hippo “looked like a slice of Disneyland had been broken off and flown to nifty San Francisco,” wrote former Chronicle restaurant reviewer Patricia Unterman in 1983. The simple, charcoal-grilled burger of a third of a pound was solid and satisfied her after-work cravings , but she didn’t like the sauce burger options and awarded a star for the food.

“One of the great things about the Hippo is that it stays open late,” she concluded.

Still, Hippo represented a moment in the food industry where “international cuisine” was popular, Unterman, now a restaurateur, said of the Hippo after recently being shown a copy of her 38-year-old review. “It wasn’t about authenticity, but it was fun and it was a real cultural moment I remember.”

Elsewhere on the menu were things that might be common today, such as burgers without rolls and tartare, a plate of raw ground beef, cheekily referred to as a “cannibal burger”.

And Pirie of Foreign Cinema said Hippo also had tiny hippo toes printed on their restaurant in the Mission District. She developed recipes from the cookbook (out of print copies of which are available online for about $ 30), including a riff about the relish made from diced cucumber and homemade ketchup. The sauce on the burger in the Foreign Cinema is also inspired by Hippo.

From Tamara Palmer's out of print

From Tamara Palmer’s out of print “Hippo Cook Book” published in 1969.

Courtesy Tamara Palmer

Falvey also had “incredible integrity” when it came to his burger methodology, says Pirie – using tactics like grinding fresh meat every day and not pressing the burger on the grill to keep the juices in place. “I would say the Hippo burger didn’t inspire the Foreign Cinema burger, but aspects of our signature burger are inspired by the Hippo’s integrity,” says Pirie.

When Hippo closed, Caen fondly remembered walking past a place so many San Francisco locals grew up in.

“Thousands of local children had their first burgers there when children before them had their first sundaes at Blum’s,” he continued. “Where else can you get a decent burger (with mayo) for under $ 5, plus free on-site parking and unfortunately no waiting for Jack? The hippo with its great Wolo logo was ahead of its time, but never became a trend. Was that the problem? “

Certainly Caen was teasing again. Thirty-seven years in the San Francisco restaurant business is a huge success story, and Hippopotamus Hamburger lives on in spirit.

Tamara Palmer is a freelance writer, professional DJ, and editor of California Eating, a website and the occasional print zine. Email: [email protected]