Tad’s on Powell Street: Putting a stake in the heart of a once-mighty restaurant chain.

On Powell Street, the partly pedestrianized commercial spine connecting Market Street to Union Square, the heart of San Francisco’s shopping district, one encounters a distinctly aged, elaborately colored neon sign.

Powell Street Tad's, one of the last locations

Those of you who might have read my old article on aged commercial signage in urban areas might already know what’s coming. For the rest, you can probably figure it out: the vintage look is a signal that Tad’s Steak House has been here a while. It’s a dining institution.

But a few other features to this sign also stand out: the lesser one is the “broiled” in cursive, which signals to the culinarily inclined that this is not a fine dining establishment. A quick search on the history of Tad’s indicates that the restaurant, founded in 1955 or 1957 (I’m getting mixed signals), intended to cater to blue-collar diners by offering a thinly-sliced, hastily cooked beefsteak and generous side dishes at an affordable price: the cheapest meals in the early days started at $1.09. While a market still exists for affordable steakhouses, it’s rarely the type of outlet that people are seeking in a sumptuous urban setting like Union Square in America’s most expensive city. Budget steaks tend to linger in more suburban settings, further suggesting that Tad’s is part of a fading tradition. And even then, the super low-budget steak chains are similarly scarce. How easy is it to find a Ponderosa or Sizzler these days?

But the other clue on this neon sign is a strange one: look at all those other cities listed. Is there a Tad’s Steak House in Philadelphia, Detroit, Cincinnati, or Chicago? Having lived in or around three of these four cities, I can at least assert that they don’t ring a bell, and a quick search online indicates that no Tad’s exists at any of the more inland locations. The only other remaining Tad’s is in New York City, near Times Square—an area as replete with tourists as Powell Street in San Francisco. But the Tad’s in Manhattan—where the tradition began—is the last one remaining, another location nearby closed several years ago, and the sole survivor on the East Coast doesn’t even seem to have a website. But that one enduring location does still offer that thin, grisly wedge of meat at an inordinately reasonable price by Manhattan standards (a mere $9.09 earlier this year) and no doubt evokes nostalgia among the city’s older generations.

Tad’s was a steakhouse chain long before Ruth’s Chris or Outback where ubiquitous—it might have predated the use of the word “chain” in this context. It surged in the sixties, when the cafeteria style approach appealed more to mainstream middle-class tastes, offering eight locations in NYC alone, with 28 spread across various other parts of the country, including the cities listed in the Powell Street signage. To this day, the Manhattan location offers dessert trays with plastic-wrapped plates, Jell-o cups in stemware, and Tiffany-inspired lampshades presiding over each table. It’s a hybridization of the highbrow and lowbrow where each nullifies the other, resulting in a middlebrow stalemate that just isn’t fashionable except as nostalgia. The Riese Organization—a restaurant and real estate management company (that also strangely lacks a website)—owns the last of the Tad’s Steak House locations, which lurks well under the shadow of such higher profile franchises aggregates as TGI Fridays, KFC, or Nathan’s Hot Dogs. And it appears to be letting Tad’s limp along, appealing either to budget-conscious tourists or its dwindling but loyal long-term customer base.

 

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The Tad’s Broiled Steaks sign in San Francisco should serve a beneficial purpose: signaling (often unconsciously) that the place has stood the test of time. But only one of the other five cities’ locations has lingered on, yet the sign carelessly flaunts them. All it takes is a Detroiter or Philadelphian visiting Powell Street and San Francisco to state: “Wait—we don’t have one of those around where I’m from anymore.” After quickly putting two and two together, they can conclude what I had done before committing to any real research: that Tad’s Steak House is most likely in its final days, soon to devolve to an obscure memory almost as faded as the notion that Chicago once featured a similarly splashy Tad’s neon sign. The restaurant’s only chance of a revival? The hipsters decide that broiled steaks, no doubt served alongside casseroles, are a thing once again. And I can guarantee they’ll serve their Jell-o in stemware, at a far greater cost than a full meal at Tad’s back in 1955 (or 1957).

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20 thoughts on “Tad’s on Powell Street: Putting a stake in the heart of a once-mighty restaurant chain.

  1. Brian M

    Awesome article. I had noticed the place but never pondered the history. My only disagreement is the description of Powell Street as “Sumptuous” LOL.

    Cheers!

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt

      Is there a better word for a district that offer Neiman Marcus and Bloomingdale’s? And perhaps the interior of Tad’s makes a person feel suave and sybaritic, even if the meal offerings are anything but?

      Reply
      1. Brian M

        That’s blocks away, though. Powell Street itself is pretty…tatty.

        Union Square has actually seen better days, sadly. A combination of Teh Intertubes, the social pathologies of San Francisco (one does not feel as fine carrying a package from Michael Korrs or Barney’s New York when one is stepping over needles and feces) and almost pathological rent seeking from landlords doubling rents for no reason other that they can.

        Still, Union square as a whole is still one of the chi chi shopping districts in the area. (I wonder if Stanford Square in Palo Alto beats it, though?

        Again, though, thanks for the interesting history of Tad’s

        Reply
        1. AmericanDirt

          Those do sound like the most plausible explanations…also listed in order of credibility. My last tour there, in April, took me to Maiden Lane, which definitely looked past its prime. I’d bet as recently as 2015 it was still one of the premier retail streets in the country; now it’s half vacant. Sad, but the market will probably correct itself, and it will happen more easily on Maiden Lane (and Powell Street) then elsewhere–unless your three explanation all successfully stymie any real recovery.

          Reply
  2. Anonymous

    I’m sorry, but you (author of this article) are misinformed as to who owns and why the sign has stayed the way it has over the years on Powell St., San Francisco…. the Riese Organization does not nor have they ever owned the Powell St. locale…. instead of fading into obscurity, Tad’s (SF) is moving to a brand new location just around the corner and are taking the sign with them…. ah, the sign… yes, the San Francisco historic commision prevents historical signs from being altered or changed without permission… further, in a public forum, the sign was requested, by the san francisco civic design review, to move to Tad’s new location with only repairs and minor superficial modifications, and Tad’s was also requested to file as a legacy business in San Francisco… one last note, the San Francisco location for Tad’s was the first and now the last Tad’s Steakhouse location in the US (well after Jan 5, 2020) .. this is a matter of public record and California Corporation document prove this … but, the families who have owned Tad’s (SF) throughout the years, have survived and thrived because they are family owners who care about their business, their customers, and the city… though you may not like the sign, there are many of us (including millennials) who appreciate the history and memories a place like Tad’s, with its sign , give to us

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt

      Thank you for the clarification. As for the sign, I have no problem with the aesthetics–I actually like it quite a bit and think that its vintage look could help distinguish the place, since it clearly signals an establishment that has been around a very long time. My only quibble with the sign is that it’s inaccurate, since many of those other cities listed haven’t hosted Tad’s locations in years. I guess the SF Historic Commission still prohibits modifications to signs, even the modification is to correct an inaccuracy, which begs the question as to whether or not the commission may have too much power. Plenty of businesses would object to a regulation that forces them to misrepresent themselves.

      Reply
  3. M Paris

    I used to work at Tad’s Restaurant as a busboy and occasional pearl diver back in the late 1970’s not long after arriving in San Francisco from the East Coast when I was in my early 20’s. I earned $25.00 a day cash and the steak, as well as the chicken, dinners were $3.19 each. The manager at that time was a wonderful guy named Don Levin who served as the manager there for over forty years. He passed away a couple of years ago at aged 91. He had originally come from Seattle, and his dad I remember lived to be 102, and upon his death he inherited a couple of fine looking old Cadillacs. He would occasionally drive around town in one of them – a beautiful 1957 Eldorado convertible, or park it outside the restaurant. Don resided in a big old elegant red brick apartment building up on Washington Street that I visited once or twice with a couple of coworkers.
    The actual owner of Tad’s was a man whom I heard about but never met named Neal Townsend. As the story goes, he and a business partner named Thaddeus (Tad) Allen Key borrowed some money and opened up the first Tad’s Steakhouse on Powell Street in early 1955. It was a stand in line type of restaurant that specialized in selling cheap steak dinners to the public that soon became quite popular; so popular in fact, that Neal’s older brother Donald was encouraged to open up a Tad’s steakhouse in New York a couple of years later in 1957 that met with tremendous success. (Hence the confusion of dates) At one time there were eight Tad’s restaurants in New York City and twenty-eight overall nationwide, but they are all gone now except for the one in San Francisco, which after being in the same location for nearly 65 years is moving around the corner to Ellis Street and practically opposite the famous John’s Grill restaurant. According to a column that I read recently by former mayor Willie Brown, Tad’s was forced to move primarily because the owners of the building had raised the rent to $60.000,00 a month, which amounts to $2,000.00 a day. I haven’t eaten at Tad’s in around 35 years, but I have definite plans to pay a visit to their new abode once it opens. I just hope that they are able to survive there awhile given the less dense pedestrian traffic that travels up that street.

    Reply
  4. M Paris

    As a follow up to my previous post, I thought that I would write a little bit about the building on Powell Street which housed Tad’s Steakhouse for nearly two thirds of a century and is now temporarily vacant as it might be of some interest to a few readers. Back when I worked there as a busboy for about a year I was asked from time to time to bring up needed condiments from the basement such as plastic ketchup or mustard containers. Painted on the inside of the supply door were some old and rather primitive looking colored sketches of various figures that I would notice whenever I went down there to pick up items. So I asked the manager one day about them and he told me that there had been an artists colony who congregated down there for a while back in the early 1950’s. More interesting though was also an old passageway in that basement which if followed for a few hundred feet would lead to a cavern like room that contained an old wooden stage. This I was told had been a speakeasy during prohibition and I would imagine had probably also hosted a few performances put on by the group of aspiring artists. In researching this post I learnt through the internet that the speakeasy had once been connected to the hotel above the restaurant and that it even had a name; it was called The Golden Bubble, and that Dashiell Hammett who was known to be an alcoholic and had lived nearby in the area regularly frequented that little hideaway while working on The Maltese Falcon as well as some other notable works of detective crime fiction.
    Across the street from Tad’s there had been a restaurant called Bernstein’s Fish Grotto, and the outside of that restaurant featured the bow of a wooden ship. The popular fish eatery had opened up back in 1912 and eventually closed it doors in 1981. I now regret having never gone there during the final years of its existence as it was said to be quite an exotic place, but back then it was just a little bit too fancy and also too expensive for my undeveloped tastes. Anyways, sometime shortly after Bernstein’s had closed the wooden bow was placed up on the stage of the abandoned speakeasy as a means of preservation one would guess. It may even be still down there for all I know.
    Tad’s steakhouse had opened up on Powell Street in the spring of 1955, but I was curious to know what type of establishment had been there before, unfortunately however the earliest cross reference street directory that can be found at the San Francisco public library goes back only as far as 1953, at which time the address was vacant. So with a little bit of helpful advice, I ventured up to the office of the History Center on the sixth floor where the librarian there kindly dug up some early references for that address which had been printed in the San Francisco Chronicle. Here’s what she found out: The building that had housed Tad’s for all of the years of its existence had been built back in 1909, just a short time after the Big Quake occurred. The earliest reference that she could find was from 1918 and mentioned that it was the address for the Atlas Taxicab Company who specialized in Pierce-Arrow limousines but at “taxi rates”. I would surmise that a significant amount of their cab fares came from the newly built Golden West Hotel which was located right above and had been built for the Panama-Pacific Exposition. For much of its formative years however the place was a sales outlet for Florsheim shoes; or in other words, it was a shoe store. In September of 1944 though, there was a grand opening for the New York Bar-B-Q Restaurant that specialized in barbeque chicken and spareribs. This lasted until the end of the decade albeit with a management change and also a slight change in menu to include Chinese food whereupon it stood dormant for a few years. It was during this time that the artists colony must have sprung up with some form of permission likely granted by the owner of the building. So when Tad’s first began selling its inexpensive steaks to its customers that location had already had some previous experience in the grilled food business.
    Finally, it may be noted that at virtually the same time that Tad’s was opening up its doors to the public the once renowned Golden Pheasant restaurant just a few blocks up at Geary and Powell was closing their doors for good having begun back in 1896 during the time of the Alaska Gold rush. Hopefully, the new Tad’s will be able to survive for a while and maybe even thrive, after all just opposite it is John’s Grill and they have been going strong at the same address since 1908!

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt

      Thanks for sharing your memories and that unusual, colorful story of the history of the San Francisco location. And yes, you’re right that the NYC Tad’s that this article references has only very recently closed (https://ny.eater.com/2020/1/3/21046714/tads-steak-times-square-closing-restaurant-nyc).

      I guess that leaves this storied steakhouse chain back to its original location, which is essentially a mom-and-pop, since the SF locations were never part of the franchise. Is there any chance that they’ll salvage the old sign? Inaccurate it may be (with all those other locations listed), it’s distinctive enough that it could be a selling point. After all, when a sign gets to be that visibly old (perhaps dating from just a few years after its 1955 founding?), it’s an unconscious signal to passers-by that the restaurant is an institution. And for restaurants, that’s usually a positive. By contemporary standards, any restaurant that survives more than two years is generally considered at least a reasonable success.

      Reply
  5. Anonymous

    I continue to wait for the reopening of Tad’s, concerned that it eventually really does reappear. I have been a weekly customer for decades. As a teenager in New York, i actually thought it was exclusively an establishment of NYC. Please come back soon!

    Reply
  6. TRH

    The sign has been moved to the new location, the bulbs are now LED, but the neon has been refurbed to look like new.

    People are EAGER for the grand reopening, in the half hour I was there, nonstop waves of passerby kept trying the door. Soft opening anticipated in a few weeks.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt

      Glad they kept that sign! It really was beautiful. Since it’s the only one remaining, maybe it can brand itself as a throwback to a time when low-budget steakhouses were more common and had a vibe all their own. These days, it seems the most successful economic for steakhouses is upper-income bracket. The mega chains for low cost sirloin from the 80s (Sizzler, Ponderosa, etc) are but a shadow of their former selves. From what I could tell, the interiors of Tad’s were dripping with period details–it could ride a wave based on nostalgia.

      Reply
  7. M Paris

    I was over at Tad’s Steakhouse a few days ago to order a breakfast, which due to the Coronavirus pandemic is now open only for takeouts. Due to a cut back in workers I got the opportunity to talk with the new owner of the restaurant. I wished him luck at the new location and then told him that I hope their rent was now quite a bit lower than the $60,000.00 a month that they had been forced to pay at their previous location on Powell Street. When he heard that figure he exclaimed, “Try more like $180,000.00 a month!” Now that works out to $6,000.00 a day just to pay the rent, not to mention at least $15.00 an hour for all their employees, plus high healthcare costs, among other expenses. I then told him that it was indeed a pity that the previous owners did not simply buy the place, but he responded by telling me that the fixture had always been part of the hotel and that the Union Square Hotel had recently been purchased by some foreigners for around 140 million dollars who shortly afterwards jacked up the rent. If what he was saying is in fact true I see no valid reason for such an exorbitant increase in rent as the place has now been vacant for over six months, and I would imagine with the way that things currently are will probably remain that way for a much longer period of time while bringing in absolutely no revenue whatsoever; and besides that, what business could possibly pay that kind of a monthly sum for rent anyways?
    There had been a proposal in the paper made several months ago of charging landlords a fee each month for business space that they own which is left vacant for any lengthy period of time. I for one would like to see such a proposal enacted into law, as then some of those greedy landlords would not be so eager to get rid of long standing tenants by exorbitantly jacking up their monthly rent, especially when it sometimes takes years to find a suitable replacement and particularly in today’s business climate. I just hope that the last remaining Tad’s will be able to survive in an environment in which the food and service industry has been hit harder than any other business sector because of this pandemic.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt

      Hi Paris, I don’t know enough about the commercial market in San Francisco but that does sound pretty extreme. But extreme anywhere else is probably status quo in San Francisco. Suffering a 3X increase in rent by moving to a lower profile street (presumably because the new hotel owners were ratcheting up the rent even more) does sound like a pretty grim future for Tad’s and any other restaurant that doesn’t get lines out the door on a typical weekend night. Then again, in that touristy area, lines out the door may also be the status quo for any respectable restaurant.

      I see where you’re coming with the idea of fining tenants for leaving their space vacant, but let’s remember the intrinsic reason they would do this. It’s not lucrative in the short-term; after all, a vacant space is always generating less revenue than an occupied one. The problem is that tax filing for commercial properties allows them to account for depreciation, and a heavily vacant building is worth less (and thus appraised at less and pays fewer taxes) than a fully occupied. Some landlords have determined that it’s more reasonable to remain vacant, lower their taxes, and wait out the slow market cycles so that they can secure a more reliable tenant: a national chain, a restaurant from a successful restaurateur, a bank, etc) that will stay at the location for years, rather than a risky mom-and-pop that could fold after six months. And Tad’s is more like a risky mom-and-pop. Besides, the situations are absolutely abysmal for retail right now, and many landlords may in fact seek tenants but cannot find them because of the economic climate, only made worse from COVID-19. A fee would punish even the landlords who make good-faith efforts to secure tenants–as opposed to the ones exploiting tax loopholes (the real source of the problem IMO), and besides, if the City gets too fee-happy, it will likely have too negative outcomes a) landlords will simply pass these fees onto their prospective tenants, further increasing leasing rates; b) it will become too punitive and people will drive talented landlords/prop managers away from the industry, creating a downgrade in the real estate as a result.

      I wish the best for Tad’s, but it’s a brutal economy right now. After all, the Neiman Marcus just a few blocks away just filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection!

      Reply
      1. M. Paris

        Yes, I certainly see your point about fining businesses for prolonged vacant retail space in today’s economy with so many small businesses struggling to survive. Such a proposal could not be seriously discussed until well after the nation has recovered from the Coronavirus pandemic. Another proposal, and one that I actually like better, is rent control that is applied to small businesses in order to protect them from exorbitant hikes in their monthly rent, such as what happened to Tad’s and I am sure many other establishments. I am truly surprised that with the liberal reputation that the city of San Francisco has long been known for that small businesses are not better protected from greedy landlords. And I don’t see any significant change coming anytime soon.

        Reply
        1. AmericanDirt

          Thanks again for your comment and sorry for the delayed reply. I’ve never heard of rent control when applied to retail, though I’m sure it’s been explored. I just continue to think the notion of “greedy landlords” is vastly overstated. Sure, there are some highly exploitative property managers, but the typical owner of a building like the one Tad’s was on Powell Street is far more likely to be a small biz or a mom-and-pop. Hardly swimming in the dough. Blaming landlords for the high rent–and restricting their right to capitalize–will only squeeze out the run-of-the-mill middle class business owners who can’t afford the regulations. More often than not, this will leave two other tranches: the mega-conglomerates who can afford the new regs (or use their lawyers to challenge them), or those people who find new ways to skirt around the rules unethically, usually by squeezing the tenants (the slumlords). These are what tend to survive in an overly regulatory climate.

          Given that SF already has plenty of people finding ways to skirt the rules–those deliberate vacancies to depress their property values and pay less in taxes–perhaps that’s really where we should be seeking the change? Easier said than done, I know, but at least it doesn’t result in a situation that causes more of the middle-class squeeze. San Francisco, and all of California, have suffered enough from that already…

          Reply
  8. M. Paris

    I would hardly consider the building at Tad’s that was on Powell to be a small business or Mom and Pop type of operation as it is part of the Union Square Hotel which is worth a lot of money. Driving them out by dramatically raising their rent was pure foolishness on their part in my opinion as they lost a very stable customer. I guess they know what they are doing though, by letting it lay vacant and keeping it that way indefinitely.
    Back around 1981 I was walking along near the beginning of Powell Street and there was a sign posted outside a small shop that said “Going Out of Business”. The proprietor happened to be standing there so I talked with the person and said to her, “Why are you going out of business there’s lots of customers passing by around here?” She replied by saying, “ I know there is, but the new landlord just raised my rent from $400.00 a month to $1,500 a month and I can’t afford too pay that kind of money”. I told her that I was sorry to hear that and wished her luck in the future. I have run into several other instances since then of small time proprietors being forced to move due to either excessive rent demands by their landlords, or by simply refusing them as a paying tenant anymore. The Lafayette Coffee shop is one such example, they were at the same location on Hyde Street since the year 1928 as the sign on their now vacant establishment notably states, but according the head waitress they were forced to move after an Oriental bought the building and subsequently told them that they didn’t want them there as a tenant anymore. They have since moved to a smaller place on Larkin Street and I usually visit them about once a week and hope that they are able to continue to stay in operation as a result of the great loss of regular customers due to the Coronavirus pandemic.
    I myself am a firm believer in sensible rent control where the rent goes up but only proportional to that of inflation, and also in protecting businesses from being evicted for no reasonable purpose. If new owners don’t believe that they can make enough profit when they purchase a certain property then they shouldn’t pay such a high price for it in the first place. That is my philosophy at any rate, but as you pointed out there must be some sort of legitimate reason why small business owners are not protected from being financially gouged by their landlords as there is no city in the United States that is more liberal than San Francisco and yet the business climate is not very hospitable to those type of businesses, with high minimum wage rates and mandated healthcare expenses that make it even harder to stay financially afloat besides the high rent – which may be one reason why I see so many vacancies in different parts of the City. Take Care Now.

    Reply
  9. BR549

    I remember eating at Tad’s in Cincinnati when I was about 8 years old. My parents would take my brother and I on a Friday night. There was a big window at the front of the restaurant and the grill was right next to the window. While standing in line to get in, you could see flames shooting up near the ceiling. I thought it was a good steak dinner. I believe the price was $1.29 in 1962. We moved away from Cincinnati when Tad’s closed.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      I checked back on the website, and, much to my surprise, Tad’s seems to have survived the pandemic! It moved a block or two away, off of Powell, retained the terrific vintage sign, and potentially rebranded its interior more in keeping with a fast-casual look, combined with sports bar TV screens. I’m not sure that’s a great decision, since it immediately means that its ambiance competes with dozens of other fast-casuals that have a more established presence and a more innovative menu.

      In this day and age, it almost seems like it would be better for Tad’s to harken back to its poor-mans-luxury ethos–interiors that are sumptuous but economical, and therefore a bit tacky. The prices these days are akin to what I remember from places like Sizzler or Ponderosa growing up. But since this model is basically critically endangered (Tad’s is the only one left of its kind), it’s basically a total novelty in 2021.

      Reply
  10. Antonio Perales

    Around 12 to 15 years ago a friend and I stopped on Powell in front of Tads, and while we were discussing whether to eat at a favorite spot again, and looking in the front window by the cooks, we saw the ceiling cave in on the diners heads amid a huge cloud of white dust. Figuring an upper floor had perhaps flooded and was the cause, we marched on and never ate there again.

    Reply

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