• The Financial District


As Thomas Hontalas cleaned out the restaurant he shared with his brother, it was hard to fathom that his 83-year family legacy was coming to an end.

"I'm trying to process not having this business I've been working at my entire life. I started working there when I was 10 years old," Hontalas told CNN. "I kind of feel lost right now."

Louis' Café, which sat on a San Francisco cliff overlooking Ocean Beach, was started by his grandfather at the end of the Great Depression. Through World War II, devastating fires and threats of demolition, Louis' held his grandfather's name and stayed in the family through three generations. 

Until the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, KCRA 3 News reported.

Coronavirus shuttered much of the U.S. at the outset of the pandemic, and the hit on restaurants was especially devastating. A recent study showed that nearly two-thirds of New York restaurants could be out of business as soon as January without government aid.

Already, several restaurants across the U.S. that weathered the economic chaos of the Great Depression to become fixtures in their communities have not been able to withstand coronavirus.

Hontalas' grandfather, Louis, brought his 19-year-old wife on a ship from Greece to the U.S. in 1928 — right on the heels of the Great Depression. Their family grew quickly, and they did everything they could to make it through their first years.

By the end of it, they had Louis'.

But it was not smooth sailing from there. World War II soon followed and brought rationing. In 1949, the building adjacent caught fire, damaging Louis' as well. Then in the 1960's, the building was bought, and Hontalas said the new landlord threatened to tear it down to build condominiums. When a fire broke out in the Sutro Bath's nearby in 1966, Hontalas said it was a "miracle" Louis' didn't burn down.

Through the threats of destruction, Hontalas' grandfather, his father and then he and his brother kept Louis' afloat with their great view, their good food, their fair prices and their people, he said.

One of which was Rachel Lelchuk, a Russian woman who wore a flower in her hair and could sell a piece of pie for breakfast, Hontalas said. She started working at Louis' in 1946 and stayed for about 55 years. Customers would wait for a table just to make it into her section, he said.

And then coronavirus hit.

"On March 16 — it was a Monday — we opened our doors for business and there was no one around," Hontalas said. "We closed that day around noon."

Later that day, California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that restaurants would not be allowed to remain open. Even at the time, Hontalas said he was suspicious that this wouldn't be going away any time soon.

"I never encountered anything like this and neither has anyone else," he said.

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