Owner Loring De Martini, who took over the restaurant in 1973, shuttered The Van's on March 14, just before the Bay Area's first shelter-in-place order took effect. He had already been mulling retirement for two years and couldn't imagine a viable future for the longtime restaurant during the shutdown, nor navigating the uncertainty of reopening with restrictions.
"I don't want to face that, not after 47 years," he said. "I couldn't stay and make a profit doing 50% of the business I did in January. It's too tough a business to operate off the skin of your teeth."
The Van's in Belmont was a local institution. Photo courtesy The Van's.
De Martini had originally thought he'd retire after 50 years at The Van's, but two "near-death" experiences — first, when he recently survived stage four cancer and then in March when he tested positive for the coronavirus — made him reevaluate.
He's in the process of selling the property, which he said will become condos.
De Martini was 23 years old when he took over the restaurant. He recalled vividly the first time he ever ate there: He was a senior at Mills High School senior on a dinner date before prom.
"I thought, 'Man, this is cute.' It was not fancy in any way. But it was so charming. The building has just a charm to it that I love," he said.
What was originally a 450-square-foot Japanese tea house has a storied history. It was built in 1915 as part of the Japanese Exhibition at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, a world's fair held in San Francisco to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal, according to the restaurant website. When the exposition ended, everything was disassembled except for the tea house and the Palace of Fine Arts, which remains in San Francisco.
The original Japanese tea house that later became The Van's restaurant. Photo courtesy The Van's.
E.D. Swift, a local land baron, bought the tea house in 1915 and used a barge to transport it on the Bay to Belmont, where his two daughters used it as a private residence, according to the restaurant. In 1921, horses and mules reportedly pulled the house up a dirt trail to its present location.
During Prohibition, under new ownership, the house was known as a speakeasy, rumored to have gambling on the first floor. People reportedly used a trolley that ran from San Francisco to Redwood City to get to what was then called Elsie's.
When Prohibition was repealed Elsie's became a legalized saloon, then was sold and became an Italian restaurant called Gevan's, which was later shortened to The Van's.
Photo courtesy The Van's.
De Martini built up the property over the years to an almost 6,000-square-foot restaurant that still served dishes like chicken livers, escargot and bone-in prime rib (and had TV screens installed above urinals in the men's bathroom so customers wouldn't miss critical sports moments).
While The Van's site will not endure as a restaurant, De Martini hopes that the future development will have some elements that give a nod to the property's history. He'd like the footprint of the original tea house to become a common area with a plaque explaining its legacy, and that the address be changed from 815 Belmont Ave. to 1915 PPIE Drive (for the Pan Pacific International Exposition).
"I'd love to have the developers call the building the Pan Pacific building to let my legacy and my love for this whole place live on," De Martini said.
He said the decision to close was bittersweet. He's sad about bringing an end to a unique establishment with loyal, longtime customers but said he's looking forward to spending time with family that he never had as a lifelong restaurant owner. (He said the only time off he's taken in the last 47 years was three days, which he used to get married.)
"The last three or four years have been better than they ever have, ever," DeMartini said of business at The Van's, "but the thing is, I fear for all restaurants moving forward. I don't know how it's going to happen, how things can be OK for restaurants.
"The future is scary," he added.