Frank Dunnigan, WNP member and columnist. -

Streetwise - The Ocean Avenue Crawl

by Frank Dunnigan
May 2011

OK, folks, we're back on the road again. We've already made the trek in prior STREETWISE columns up and down Irving, Noriega, Taraval, and West Portal, plus a wide swath through the entire Richmond District. Now it's time to stroll and remember some of the more memorable spots along Ocean Avenue. Like many other San Francisco streets (think Geary, California, Fulton), Ocean Avenue begins somewhere else and covers a lot of territory before finally ending up in the Outside Lands—in this case, just west of Sunset Boulevard.

From early childhood, I remember this street well, since my original pediatrician, Dr. Dwyer (even now, his name still makes me squirm uncomfortably), had his office on Ocean, just east of Junipero Serra Boulevard. This was also the route to Mom's mother's house which was located just two blocks off Ocean. Since the eastern part of the Outside Lands is most often defined as Ocean Avenue and Highway 280, I am taking the liberty of running this little west-to-east excursion all the way to the point where Ocean begins at Mission Street in the Excelsior District, which is just a bit beyond the Outside Lands.

From Sunset Boulevard to 19th Avenue—Once I started S.I. on Stanyan Street, I became friends with a lot of classmates who lived on the short blocks radiating north and south of Ocean, from Country Club Acres, past the old GETs, through Lakeshore Park to Merced Manor and Lakeside. From 1966-1970, there were many visits, much homework, a few after-school shenanigans, and some great dinners taking place in the homes up and down those quiet streets. Sadly, nearly all the parents who played such large roles in our lives during those days are now gone.

Christmas Tree Lot (NW corner 19th & Ocean)—A vacant lot at this site was the long-time home to a neighborhood Christmas tree outlet. This particular one always seemed to have fresher trees and easier parking than the tree lot located at the opposite end of this block at 19th and Sloat, and I'll always remember buying Grandma's last tree at this site in December of 1969. Housing was soon constructed here.

Lang Realty (NE corner 19th & Ocean)—Until the mid-1950s, this building housed the offices of Lang Realty, which was one of the original developers of the 1920s homes in nearby Balboa Terrace. With a four-sided public clock on its tower, the building was prominently featured in one episode of the 1950s TV series, The Line-Up (aka: San Francisco Beat). The structure later became a church, which remains there today.

Stolte Flowers (North side of Ocean, Lakeside Village)—For years, this spot housed the trendy Stolte Flowers, but that disappeared about 1961 or so, to be replaced by a Norge Dry Self-Service Dry Cleaning Center. Outfitted with aqua color machines, customers could dry clean eight or ten pounds of clothing for a mere $2.00 in quarters. The fumes were enough to knock you dead, but kids were always fascinated watching the clothing go through the clean and then the dry cycle in the glass-fronted machines. For many years now, the site has housed a restaurant.

Medical Building (South side of Ocean, Lakeside Village)—Modern 1950s-style medical building with parking beneath. Over the years, I did drop-off and pick-up for Mom and several of her friends and neighbors who had a variety of medical appointments there. It's still doing a steady business as all of us baby-boomers evolve into senior citizens.

Shaw's (North side of Ocean, Lakeside Village)—A red-and-white cousin of the original store on West Portal. In addition to great ice cream (a thin mint, dipped, on a sugar cone, please), Shaw's also had the best rocky road Easter eggs—they surpassed even See's, which is a high compliment, indeed. Gone since the early 1980s.

Town House Restaurant (South side of Ocean, Lakeside Village)—Set back from the street in a small courtyard of businesses, this classic little restaurant has an interior that looks like it might have been the scene for a Busby Berkeley musical production from the 1930s. Now known as Villa d'Este, along with Joe's of Westlake and the Gold Mirror on Taraval, it remains a fine place for post-funeral luncheons, as all of these locations offer good food, a nice atmosphere, a low decibel level that encourages conversation, and that all-important liquor license.

Antoine's Bakery (South side of Ocean, Lakeside Village)—Great neighborhood bakery that for many years produced a delicacy known as Champagne Cake—a light and airy pale yellow-white confection with just a hint of alcohol, topped with a creamy white frosting and gold and silver sparkles. It has been gone for many years, replaced by a series of other bakeries that I have not tried.

Sommer & Kaufman (North side of Ocean, Lakeside Village)—Site of one branch of the classic old San Francisco shoe store, Sommer & Kaufmann, complete with a merry-go-round horse in the window. Kids never minded being fitted for shoes if the outing included a horsie ride. Long gone.

Manor Market (North side of Ocean, Lakeside Village)—Classic neighborhood grocery store dating back to the days before World War II. Now converted to yet another neighborhood Walgreens.

Zim's (South side of Ocean, near Junipero Serra, Lakeside Village)—In the 1950s, it was the Manor Coffee Shop, a cousin to the West Portal site. Sometime in the 1960s, it became one of the dozen or more Zim's outlets in San Francisco, with the grill right there in the front window to lure customers in with the aroma. Unlike the Zim's location at 19th & Taraval, which had only counter seating, this Zim's was much larger, with tables and booths. When I lived in Parkmerced back in 1976-77, a Zimburger and onion rings, picked up on the way home after an evening out with coworkers, often made a satisfying late-night dinner. The location now houses a much trendier eatery, the Lakeside Café.

Bowerman's Pharmacy (Corner Junipero Serra, Ocean, and Eucalyptus)—With its iconic space-like, rings-of-Saturn tower ornamentation, this was the classic neighborhood drop-off and pick-up spot, as in, "I just got off the streetcar, so pick me up at Bowerman's." The store, no doubt, did a good deal of business from those standing there, waiting for rides, as did the adjacent Pacific Telephone public phone (pre-cellphone days, remember!). The building now houses a UCSF medical practice.

Commodore Sloat School (NE corner of Ocean and Junipero Serra)—Long-time San Francisco public elementary school named for John Sloat, the American naval officer who claimed California's then-capital of Monterey for the United States during the War with Mexico in 1846. This has been a San Francisco school site since 1865 when this corner was an extremely remote place, indeed, and many school buildings have occupied it since then. The present auditorium is a holdover from a construction project in the early 1920s, when the surrounding neighborhood was being developed, while the rest of the campus was demolished and rebuilt in the late 1970s, due to safety and accessibility issues.

Bowerman's drugs in the Lakeside Village Medical Building at 2501 Ocean Avenue, early 1980s? Zim's restaurant also visible. - Courtesy of Laurie Berman

Dr. Dwyer's Office (South side of Ocean just east of the PG&E substation)—This was the location of my old pediatrician's office, one of many small medical and dental practices on the south side of Ocean, extending east for several blocks.

St. Francis Assemblies (North side of Ocean near San Leandro Avenue)—Site of St. Francis Episcopal Church, where hundreds of well-dressed teenagers practiced their ballroom dancing skills in the early 1960s. The church is still there, but those teen dancers are now mostly lined up at their local Social Security offices.

El Rey Theater (North side of Ocean near Keystone)—Growing up in the 1950s, I'll always remember this as being one of San Francisco's newer theaters, opened in 1931, during the depths of the Depression, and located opposite one of the entrances to the Ingleside Terraces neighborhood. The last time I was there was in 1970 to see Ice Station Zebra, having walked from 25th Avenue and Ocean with a friend. The theater closed in 1977, and now houses Voice of Pentecost Church.

Legg's Ice Skating (South side of Ocean near Keystone)—This was a heavily-trafficked block in the early 1960s, with a lot of parents doing drop-off and pick-up of their kids here at Legg's, the El Rey Theater, and the nearby Franciscan Hobby Shop. Many young girls practiced here, dreaming of stardom in the Ice Follies ("performances daily at Winterland, Post & Steiner, from mid-June through Labor Day"), while many guys struggled bravely to remain standing. Legg's eventually moved to 11th & Market, at what is now 1455 Market, known from 1978-1998 as the Bank of America Data Center. Following the move, Legg's Ocean Avenue location became a pool hall and was later occupied by Ramallah Hall, and now appears to be a large vacant building.

Franciscan Hobby Shop (formerly South side of Ocean near Keystone)—Classic old retailer with airplane and boat models, Plasticville structures for Lionel train layouts, and every other specialty imaginable. Originally opened in 1946 at the location where Red Roof was built in the 1950s, the folks at Franciscan made a move to this site at 1935 Ocean in 1956. Hobbies were rediscovered as we boomers began to grow older, and the store expanded by taking an even larger space across the street at 1920 Ocean in 1988. The site of those orange boxes with the blue and white Lionel logo takes me back to 1962 in a heartbeat every single time that I see one.

Homewood Terrace (North side of Ocean between Faxon and Keystone)—Large wooded property with buildings set back from the street at the end of a long driveway. From 1921 through the late 1960s, the site housed an orphanage run by Jewish Family & Children's Services.

Aerial image taken by "Russell Aerial Foto" about 1928. Ocean Avenue at bottom. - Courtesy of Jewish Family and Children's Services

King's Tots & Teens (NW corner of Ocean and Faxon)—In the 1950s, this store provided First Communion outfits to hundreds of Catholic school kids—the ubiquitous white dresses and veils for the girls and dark suits with white shirts & snap-on bow ties for the boys. Another place, like Dr. Dwyer's office, that always made me squirm uncomfortably, and probably explains why most guys in my generation still have such a strong aversion to bow ties. The building has been home to a number of different retailers over the last 50 years, and now houses a restaurant.

Bank of America (SE corner of Ocean and Faxon)—The building is still there—solid, square and substantial-looking, a 1920s architectural icon for banks everywhere. Sadly, after the 1998 merger with that other bank from North Carolina, B of A's new owners deserted this neighborhood, just the way they did in so many other places. For several years, the building housed the Ingleside Branch of the San Francisco Public Library, though that has now relocated to a new building on the opposite side of the street, a block or so to the east, leaving behind only an empty shell and a FOR RENT sign in a location that once buzzed with neighborhood commerce.

Red Roof Restaurant (South side of Ocean near Jules)—A "modern" 1950s restaurant that was a little more upscale than Zim's, but still serving the same style of American cuisine. The angled red roof & large plate glass windows made it seem a bit like something out of The Jetsons. The chain was founded by SF politico Harold Dobbs, who also owned the iconic Mel's Drive-In chain. The original Red Roof and its California Street twin in Laurel Village both disappeared in the 1970s, with the California Street location being renamed the Sugar Plum, and the Ocean Avenue location going through several transformations before finally becoming a church.

Mohawk Gas Station (North side of Ocean near Plymouth)—As gas stations continue to disappear from the neighborhoods, surprisingly modern buildings emerge on those big empty lots. This location is now home to a brand new structure housing the Ingleside Branch of the San Francisco Public Library, and judging from the crowds, the new place is very popular. The structure seems large but the interior is deceptively small because of a large meeting room, set aside for special events, that sits idle for much of the day. Nice as it is though, it remains a bit sterile and antiseptic, still needing to acquire that "library" smell of paper dust and paste.

Safeway (North side of Ocean near near Brighton)—One of the first "modern" stores in the chain, built in the late 1950s, with a large tile mosaic red "S" in a circle near the entrance doors on each side of the building's front glass wall. In the 1970s, it became a Kragen Auto Parts outlet, and the site is now being transformed into what appears to be housing.

Beep's Burgers (South side of Ocean at Lee)—Tiny corner drive-in/walk-up burger place that opened in the late 1950s, complete with a neon rocket ship sign. It began looking pretty scuzzy by the 1980s, but has had an overall clean-up and a nice resurgence today, with many positive online customer comments. Sadly, though, the original neon sign has been painted over. Hmmm…maybe Woody and WNP could take an interest in some historic preservation here—just like the Doggie Diner head on Sloat Boulevard—and get that rocket ship lighted up and blinking once again!


Beep's Burgers at Lee and Ocean Avenue, 2002. - WNP Photo

City College MUNI Loop (North side of Ocean adjacent to SFFD)—As City College began expanding, MUNI had a great idea to run the K-Ingleside streetcars into an off-street area parallel to Ocean Avenue, with its own concrete boarding islands. Shelters and benches were provided, and the site gave students easier access to the school than from a concrete platform in the middle of a busy street. Sadly, the loop was closed and the land put to other uses during one of MUNI's rebuilding programs in the 1970s. The college itself, for many years, a single mammoth building, has undergone extensive expansion in the last two decades with multiple new campus structures, some of which now front onto Ocean Avenue on the property just east of Phelan Avenue, opposite Lick-Wilmerding.

San Francisco Fire Department (North side of Ocean just west of Phelan)—New fire house built in the late 1950s to replace the one at the northwest corner of Ocean & San Jose. As first graders at St. Cecilia's, we were taken on a field trip here, circa 1958-59. Even then, the crew still had the traditional Fire Department mascot—a spotted Dalmatian that was a hit with all of us. As our visit was wrapping up, most of the girls became very upset, fingers in ears, when an alarm came in and the trucks roared out noisily in a cloud of dust, while most of the boys were sorely disappointed, some crying, that they were not invited to ride along with the crew.

Lick-Wilmerding High School (South side of Ocean at Tara)—This was a new structure in the late 1950s structure, with additions built over the next few decades. For many Catholic school boys headed to S.I., S.H., or Riordan, taking the entrance exam at Lick was a rite of passage in the spring of 8th Grade. Lick's test was always scheduled a few weeks earlier than the tests for the other high schools, and parents who wanted to make sure that their sons had a good chance of getting into a chosen school signed them up for Lick's test as practice—many of the guys I saw there in early 1966 eventually became my classmates at S.I. that fall.

MUNI Yard (SW corner of Ocean and San Jose Avenue)—Now home to MUNI's Curtis E. Green Light Rail Center, the site has long been a MUNI maintenance facility. Until the early 1970s, there was an enormous metal contraption, several stories tall and resembling a giant funnel, painted black, near the Ocean Avenue side of the property. That disappeared with the construction of the new facility for Light Rail Vehicles, circa 1980. Anyone know what that old piece of equipment was used for?

Vacant Lot (NW corner of Ocean and San Jose Avenue)—This was once the location of a pre-1906 neighborhood fire house, vacated and torn down in the late 1950s, after completion of a replacement several blocks west. Despite the addition of some trees and benches over 50 years ago, little has been done, and this site, tucked in beneath the large and open fields of Balboa Park, remains one of the tiniest and most unwelcoming corners in all of San Francisco.

Tic-Toc Drive-In (SE corner of Ocean and Cayuga)—One of just a handful of SF drive-ins in pre-McDonald's days, and among the best in town when one of the few other choices was Burke's at the corner of Market & Church. Circa 1964, there was a fatal shooting of a high school student at Tic-Toc, and this location was immediately declared to be off-limits to most teens by their parents. The site later became a child-care facility.

Arthur Treacher Fish & Chips (SE corner of Ocean and Alemany)—Tiny place that opened circa 1970, named for the old-time actor and one-time sidekick on Merv Griffin's afternoon talk show. The place has now morphed into Beijing Restaurant.

Granada Theater (Mission Street opposite the start of Ocean Avenue)—An Excelsior District cousin of the Parkside Theater, complete with a similar looming vertical red neon sign announcing its name to the world. I remember going there with Grandma to see Unsinkable Molly Brown in the early 1960s. The place began losing customers in the 1970s, and was closed by the end of 1982. The building now houses a Goodwill Thrift store. The old sign is long-gone, though the façade's architecture remains, clearly indicating to passersby the ghost of a once grand old theater located at the very beginning of the street that marches west through so many San Francisco neighborhoods to its eventual terminus in our beloved Outside Lands.


Contribute your own stories about western neighborhoods places!

Page launched 29 May 2011.

More by Frank Dunnigan

Save SF History