I love Marin Joe’s Restaurant in Corte Madera because it’s got character.  Soul.  And when you push through those two sets of big heavy glass doors, it’s like you’re stepping through a time machine back into the Fifties.  It’s the kind of place where a real man — a John Wayne-type — might sit at the counter, order a steak, and yap it up with the chef who’s grappling meat atop a fiery mesquite broiler.  Waiters with bow ties scramble from table to table preparing Caesar Salads, “Special” Spinach, and shouting “one-side” as they make quick cuts around the crowds at the bar.

Chef and Paul's DadActually, John Wayne DID eat at Marin Joe’s every night for several weeks during the Fifties and he sat at the counter.  Lauren Bacall came by a few times too.   And so did Robert Mitchum.  Rumor has it he got very drunk and caused a stir.

I sat down with owner Romano Della Santina to find out why Joe’s, one of my all-time favorite restaurants, hasn’t changed at all since it first opened in 1954.

He corrects me.  In 1964 they added the banquet room.  In the Seventies they cut the wall-to-wall bar into an ‘L-shape’ and added a piano.  But other than those changes (and a few adjustments to the color of the booths), the restaurant is exactly the same.

And the food?

“The food is still the same as it was 40 years ago,” says Della Santina, who emigrated from Lucca, Italy when he was 17 and learned English while working at his uncle’s restaurant in the Marina district in San Francisco.  “I still can’t speak English,” he claims.

That may or may not be true… but he appears to have done something perfectly right in the kitchen.  For as long as I can remember, Marin Joe’s has always seemed busy.   So I needed to ask “Why”.

When so many other Marin restaurants have come and gone for almost a half a century, why has this particular restaurant endured so successfully?  It’s a Marin Institution.  What’s the SECRET????

Della Santina is quick to answer.  “Because of the quality,” he says.  “When I put the food right in front of you, it’s the Quality.  It invites you to come back.”

Dad and Uncle Adolph (2)

Romano and Adolph Della Santina in the ’50s.

When the restaurant first opened in ‘54, Uncle Adolph Della Santina was the owner and 23 year-old Romano served as his right-hand man.  He remembers: “My Uncle used to say, ‘Don’t advertise.  Don’t do anything.  You give (the customers) good food and you’re going to see the people come back.”

He makes it sound so easy.

Maybe there’s something in that vat of cheese they serve in the bar during Happy Hour.  When I was a kid, I’d heap handfuls of crackers and mounds of orange cheese onto a plate, then wash mouthfuls down with big gulps from a cold Roy Rogers (which I pretended was viciously alcoholic).

A waiter once whispered to me in passing back then that the cheese spread had a secret recipe.

WMarin Joe's - The Lineell, perhaps that’s it then!  So today, sitting with Mr. Della Santina in a booth at his restaurant, I realize My Destiny.  I cannot leave the interview without asking him to make a major revelation.

I look him straight in the eye and say, “Will you please share with me your Secret Recipe for the cheese in the bar?”

He stares back at me blankly.

In his thick no-nonsense Italian accent he says, “We get some cheddar cheese, we add some mayonnaise and a little garlic and lemon and some white pepper and that’s it.”

That’s it?

“Yeah, that’s it.”  He says they’ve been making it that way since the day the restaurant first opened.

Well, mystery solved, I guess.

Next, I wonder how he feels Marin County itself has changed since 1954.   Della Santina, who now lives in San Rafael, sighs and says softly, “I’ve seen a lot of beautiful people, a lot of beautiful customers pass away over 45 years.  I miss those people.”

In general, he remembers how New Years Eve used to be a far more special time.  Customers would show up in their tuxedos and dresses at 10pm and stay until 2am.  Today, he says, New Years is more like any another night.   People are far less formal.

“In my time,” says Della Santina, “People would always go out to dinner with a tie and in a suit.  That’s what I miss.  If you had no tie, they no feed you!”

For more information about Marin Joe’s in Corte Madera please visit their website.


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