2315 Clement Street, San Francisco CA 94121 (map); 415-221-5262; billsplace.qpg.com
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: A quirky menu and excellent milkshakes make for a good neighborhood spot, even if the burger comes up a bit short
Want Fries with That? They come standard
Price: Hamburger, $7.30; Bill's Cheeseburger #1 (cheese + one slice of bacon), $9; Carol Doda burger, $9.80
Yes, those are olives sitting atop my Bill's Place burger, and there's a story there, but first, some background information.
Bill's Place—"Home of the Hamburger"—opened in 1959 and still maintains plenty of '50s-era charm. The soda fountain counter lined with spinny-stools and the riot of red-white-and-blue decoration in the front window immediately made us feel transported out of the twenty-first century to a kinder, gentler time. After we watched our waitress stop at one table to show off a picture of her grandchild and then rush over to hug a little girl who had stopped in, not to eat but just to say hello, we peered out the window to see if we had somehow landed among white picket fences and manicured lawns.
The standard burger that gets served in these environs lives up to the old-fashioned vibe. Bill's Place grinds its beef fresh daily, and serves it in 1/3-pound patties on conventional, toasted sesame seed buns with mayo and the usual fixings. Nothing fancy, but they manage to keep some pink at the center of their patties and melt their cheese until it pours over the edges of the burgers, and they offer the option of adding tasty griddled onions should you desire. Their burgers, which could use more juice-generating fat in the grind, don't warrant a crosstown trip, but they work well enough as a neighborhood stop before you head off to the sock hop.
To go with their standard burgers, the Bill's Place menu features a long list of burgers named after celebrities, most of which feel rather obscure if you weren't born in San Francisco during the same year the restaurant opened. At least, Jack Hansen and Beverly Sills weren't celebrities in my own sphere of knowledge before I visited Bill's Place. Nor, for that matter, was Carol Doda. However, the menu provides brief bios, and so I learned that Ms. Doda earned fame for introducing topless dancing to San Francisco. ...Enter the olives.
Bill's Place honors Ms. Doda by delivering two hamburger patties—served topless, of course—with an olive sitting at the center of each one. I suppose you could argue that those olives represent the martinis that Ms. Doda's customers would drink while they watched her perform, but I have the hunch that Bill's Place means to be a bit more literal in how they chose to celebrate her. We may have traveled back to the '50s, but this is still San Francisco in the '50s. Truthfully, beyond the gimmick, the most interesting part of the Carol Doda burger was figuring out how to eat it—fork-and-knife, or massive double-burger?
If Bill's Place has scandalized you with its olives, let the generous milkshake redeem your faith in its wholesomeness. As the menu tells you, they proudly make their shakes with Dreyer's ice cream. Well, no need for fancy, newfangled ice cream; these shakes taste just like an old-fashioned one should. One order filled two fountain-style glasses, and then some.
French fries at Bill's Place get hand-cut on the premises. In this case, I wished for a bit of modern technology, as decent frozen spuds would have beaten the pants off the Bill's Place offering, which came out with more styrofoam than crispness to their texture. Onion rings had been fried a bit too hard, but they proved to be a better option.
San Francisco still has plenty of clubs that feature topless dancers, and Ms. Doda is still in the city too, running a lingerie shop. But if you'd like to pay homage to Ms. Doda's legacy in a more virtuous fashion, consider getting your milkshake at Bill's Place.