Feature: Cozy Time

Theresa & Johnny’s and Marin Joe’s offer more than comfort food

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Caesar salads prepared tableside are a speciality at Marin Joe's in Corte Madera. Courtesy of Marin Joe's.

Comfort food means different things to different people—but regardless of the dish, it should be nourishing, come in generous-sized portions and as our mothers might have said, it should “stick to your ribs.” Two Marin institutions, Marin Joe’s and Theresa & Johnny’s, have been serving up their unique brands of familiar, nourishing food to happy customers for decades.

Massive portions, homey environs and plenty of good old American kitsch is what you’ll find at Theresa & Johnny’s on Fourth Street in San Rafael. This longtime favorite still has lines out the door, and a waitlist on Saturday and Sunday mornings.

Theresa & Johnny’s is the kind of place that if you go for breakfast, you won’t be hungry again until dinner. Their giant breakfast burrito is chock-full of scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage and hash browns, and it’s smothered with sour cream and a fresh-made salsa. Not everything is quite as gigantic as the burrito, but hearty and heavy is the ticket here. Aside from fresh fruit bowls and fresh-squeezed juice, most of the food is of the you-better-not-be-on-a-diet variety.

Leslie Burnside has owned the restaurant since 2004. A formally trained chef, Burnside worked for the original owners (Theresa and Johnny), and then bought it and kept the name. It is her collection of impressive memorabilia that adorns almost every inch of the space. Unique porcelain salt and pepper shakers sit on the tables, and a vast collection of various hot sauces line the front counter alongside a set of Simpson dolls. Road signs, car grilles and pendants line the walls, and a running ticker tape spells out humorous tips, like the warning that if children are unattended they will be given an espresso and a free puppy. Chunky wooden round tables and mismatched chairs provide seating for almost 50.

Corned beef hash, Monte Christo and pastrami sandwiches are also wildly popular at the cash-only breakfast/lunch spot. “We import our pastrami from Brooklyn,” says Burnside, who reports that they go through 1,000 pounds a week.

Perhaps their most well-known breakfast item is the truly original crispy french toast, deep-fried in rice oil with a filling that includes vanilla ice cream—making it sweet, rich and creamy. Four generous pieces of nicely cooked bacon accompany the dish.

Specials include out-of-the-ordinary concoctions like a grilled cream cheese sandwich made with tater tots and pickled jalapenos. Often these unusual inventions are named after loyal customers who order them on a regular basis.

Drink options include milkshakes, sodas, a selection of beer and the always-celebratory mimosas. Come hungry to Theresa & Johnny’s, or plan to take home a doggy bag. There’s a reason that this classic American place is so popular: It’s comfortable, inviting and serves up fresh, familiar food—in hefty portions.

Theresa & Johnny’s, 817 Fourth St., San Rafael; 415/259-0182; theresajohnnys.com.

Equally beloved is family-owned Marin Joe’s in Corte Madera, which has been around for 64 years. Adolph Della Santina opened the restaurant in 1954 with his nephew Romano, and today Romano’s two sons Paul and Ralph run the always-busy establishment.

Romano Della Santina’s sons recall their father’s commitment to the restaurant. “It was his baby—he was always there and made sure to greet everyone who came in the door,” says Paul, the younger of the two brothers; they’ve run the business together since their dad passed away two-and-a-half years ago at the age of 86.

Between its location (right off the freeway in Corte Madera) and its sprawling interior, complete with multiple seating options, a piano bar and open kitchen, Marin Joe’s is clearly of a different era. Some longtime institutions would begin to tarnish with age and lose appeal, but not this one. Marin Joe’s’ old world charm, and genuinely welcoming vibe continue to draw multiple generations every night of the week.

Each night the open kitchen offers customers sitting at the bar a firsthand look into the hot, demanding art of working the grill. Even for non-meat lovers, it’s an impressive display of culinary expertise, physical stamina and showmanship. For the ultimate Marin Joe’s experience—take note—this is where the action is.

Equally impressive are the Caesar salads prepared tableside. There aren’t many places that offer this kind of old school, personalized service anymore—Marin Joe’s is one of the few.

The menu is massive and includes everything from liver and onions, petrale sole and veal scaloppini to prime rib and boiled tongue (on Wednesdays only). Soups, salads and sandwiches are also offered, but anything prepared on the mesquite grill is consistently a solid choice—especially the burger.

Marin Joe’s is a good example of a restaurant that offers so much more than just food. Once inside, one feels as though they’ve been scooped up into a large familial embrace, complete with all that comes along with a boisterous and happy family.

Marin Joe’s, 1585 Casa Buena Drive, Corte Madera; 415/924-1500; marinjoesrestaurant.com.

Clearly, comfort food embodies much more than simply ingredients and dishes. Both Theresa & Johnny’s and Marin Joe’s provide diners with a certain nostalgia that might conjure up feel-good memories and tastes. And whether the food is good or bad, it doesn’t much matter. If the environs and food make us feel nourished and content, then its comfort food. These two restaurants deliver in spades.

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