Once a teahouse in the 1915 World’s Fair and then a speakeasy in the 1930s, the storied Belmont restaurant The Van’s on the Hill has closed for good.
Loring De Martini, who has owned and managed the restaurant since 1973, shuttered it on March 14 after determining the business is no longer viable due to COVID-19 and associated restrictions.
De Martini had also contemplated retirement in recent years and the pandemic struck him as the time to realize those plans, though several years before he wanted.
“I wanted to go 50 years but I made it to 47 years,” he said. “[The pandemic] was a sign telling me it’s time, I’ve been very successful and I saw the writing on the wall. There’s more to life, I have my family and my grandchildren.”
The property on Belmont Avenue, also home to the Bel-Mateo Motel and a parking lot, is being sold to new owners who plan to redevelop it into both affordable housing and luxury condos, De Martini said.
Project plans have yet to be submitted to the city, but the aim is to redevelop the restaurant into 20 to 25 luxury condominiums, transform the motel into a 125-unit affordable housing building and construct two single-family homes where the parking lot sits, De Martini said.
“I figured that’s a way of giving back that I could do to make the area more conducive to people that aren’t millionaires,” De Martini said of the affordable housing plan.
The former teahouse, a small portion of the restaurant, was built for the Japanese exhibition at the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition, held in San Francisco’s Marina District in commemoration of the opening of the Panama Canal.
De Martini said the historic structure, while not officially designated as such, will be preserved, and the plan is to have it become the lobby for the condo building. A plaque outlining the history of the building will be placed near the entrance.
De Martini also wants to change the address and name of the street on which the restaurant stands to 1915 PPIE — an abbreviation of the Panama Pacific International Exposition — to further honor its history.
A long history
Back to 1915 and after the exposition, land baron E.D. Swift purchased the structure and barged it down the Bay to Belmont, where it served as a private residence for Swift’s daughters for three years, De Martini said.
In 1921, teams of horses and mules pulled the structure up a steep dirt trail to its present location, perched in the hills overlooking the Bay Area.
During Prohibition in 1933, a woman named Elsie Smuck bought the building, named it Elsie’s and used it to sell bootlegged whiskey to friends and acquaintances, De Martini said. The joint was also associated with prostitution and gambling, he added.
Before Smuck died in 1945, she left the establishment to a prominent Burlingame resident and the saloon was turned into an Italian restaurant. Two business partners bought the restaurant in 1947 and renamed it Gevan’s. The partnership was dissolved a decade later and one of the owners retained ownership and changed the name to The Van’s.
De Martini bought the restaurant more than two decades later at the age of 23 for $42,000, almost the entirety of his savings at the time.
“I bought it for the charm,” he said. “There’s a charm when you set foot inside. It’s a cute place and you feel it. It has an understated elegance.”
De Martini added onto the structure over the years, expanding it from the original roughly 400 square feet into the 6,000-square-foot building it is today. That allowed the restaurant to increase its capacity from 28 people to 275 people.
De Martini and his wife could be seen at the restaurant almost every night during his more than four decades of ownership, and there wasn’t a job he didn’t do.
“My wife hosted and I cooked most of the time, but I hosted and bartended too,” he said. “My all-time favorite was to be in the kitchen creating. I loved to create and I had that god-given ability where I created things that the masses enjoyed. I don’t try to go chic and cater to a specific palate. I want it where everyone can say that was good.”
Signature dishes, celebrity guests
De Martini’s signature dishes included the Genoese stuffed pork chop, prime rib, various specialty pasta dishes, Salisbury steak and later, what he called the “fat and juicy half-pound burger,” made with ground New York sirloin.
De Martini said business was almost always strong over the years, and especially in recent years. It was also frequented by celebrities.
After performances in the former Circle Star Theater in San Carlos, legends including Frank Sinatra and Tom Jones regularly dined at The Van’s. Sinatra would eat there twice a year, De Martini said.
“I couldn’t even begin naming the number of performers and I’m talking about people who’d knock your socks off,” he said.
Sports legends including countless San Francisco 49ers, including Joe Montana, Steve Young and Joe Staley; former San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds and General Manager Brian Sabean, were all regulars. Many of them De Martini described as close friends.
“I’ve been blessed,” De Martini said. “I just don’t want to push it anymore.”
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