NEARLY HALF OF ALL meals in America are now eaten in solitude. Think about that number from the Food Marketing Institute for a minute. Because no doubt, you’ve contributed to that statistic. Eating, especially at breakfast, often means grabbing a quick bite solo and eating while standing up. It’s more utilitarian than social.
But that’s not the case for a group of Marin locals. Almost daily, for at least 35 years, they’ve been meeting for breakfast at the unassuming Fred’s Place in Sausalito. Every weekday at 7 a.m. more or less the same attendees are in the same seats at the same round wooden table overlooking Bridgeway, where they eat pretty much the same meal as they had the day before. Every day. 7 a.m. For 35 years.
Imagine going to a restaurant today, then again tomorrow, and pretty much every day until 2051. That’s what’s happening at Fred’s Place.
It must be the most incredible restaurant in the world, right? Well, Fred’s Place is good — people do love it. But it’s not every-day-for-35-years good. Nowhere is. Clearly, this gathering isn’t about the food. It is about the company.
That’s just how Fred Peters wanted it. Fifty years ago when the fine-hotel-and-restaurant-trained immigrant from Germany started a Sausalito hamburger joint called Fred’s Place, he wanted to create a social center as much as an eating establishment — so he also imported the German concept of stammtisch, or shared tables. He wanted a place someone could come in and comfortably sit down with strangers, stay a while and make a few new friends.
Back in the mid-’60s when Fred started his place, Sausalito was a small waterfront-focused happy hippie haven of artists and revelers. It was a bunch of wharf rats mingling with local, soon-to-be-national icons such as Bill Graham, Francis Ford Coppola, the Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin. It was a scene.
Fred himself was a big personality, “a force of nature” on the docks, as one of the current breakfast club member recalls. Those who came to Fred’s at first were just a funloving group who knew each other from the houseboat scene in Sausalito. Since Fred lived on a houseboat, the partygoers often ended up at Fred’s Place for breakfast. Fred’s was their dining room, living room and social hall all in one. “Fred had the foresight to have round tables — perfect for group gatherings and making everyone equals,” the regular says. “Plus there was always room for one more.”
Nowadays, those revelers aren’t out all night and Fred has since passed away, succumbing to cancer in 1988 at age 53, but they’re all still coming into this one-room eatery at 1917 Bridgeway.
If you get to Fred’s early enough, many people at the counter or at scattered tables are wearing baseball hats, hiding groggy faces and messy hair, hoping the day doesn’t find them. But no one at the stammtisch table wears that look anymore. Every person at the table is neatly groomed, bright-eyed and ready to go. “One of the best benefits of the early morning meal is that no one is drinking,” a stammtisch regular named Rodger notes. “People are at their brightest at the start of the day.”
Other than the sturdy metal sign that says “Stammtisch,” you’ve seen tables like this before: round, heavy-worn oak, surrounded by a cast of characters that could easily be mistaken for poker tournament contestants. And like the poker players, those around the stammtisch are in many ways very much alike — all drawn to Sausalito via San Francisco in the ’60s as part of the baby boomer generation that defined San Francisco and later Marin. Now, all wiser, mellower and exuding a confident sense of having been there before: you get the feeling in their faces that there is nothing they didn’t see when they were younger. It was after all, the ’60s and ’70s. This crowd was Marin before Marin was.
As far as I can tell, there’s never been, until now, a photo of a meal taken at this table. That’s not to say the group is tech-averse. Phones are used to Google facts or show pictures previously taken. John Libberton, at 92 years old, has his complete sculpting portfolio on his iPhone, which he shows off frequently. But no one is texting, emailing or posting to Instagram. Any news these folks are getting is likely coming from one of the many newspapers littering the table, not from a Facebook feed on a smartphone.
They go stretches without talking but it’s a comfortable quiet, with their eyes down in their respective New York Timeses, Wall Street Journals, Marin IJs and San Francisco Chronicles, eating their eggs. Then someone will put his paper down, his eyes will light up, and with a little introduction about what he just read, all the papers will be set aside and a new conversation will begin.
So are they a group of burnt-out lonely hippies? Hardly. Among the roster are a Ph.D., a medical doctor, a plastic surgeon, a lawyer, an architect, a sailor, an interpreter, a houseboat builder, an inventor, a realtor, a builder, a craftsman, a teacher and many other professionals.
There are no rules for the table. Anyone can talk about anything. One day a stammtischer mentioned to me that he records Rush Limbaugh daily and is a Trump supporter. This proclamation didn’t cause a single head to lift. The liberal side of the table kept reading and the conservative voice kept pushing: “Rush has been the most consistently intelligent voice on the radio for years.” Again, no one responded. They’ve heard it all before. One stammtischer confides that they used to argue some about politics but they’ve learned that no one’s mind is ever changed.
During the month since I first met the group, one member unexpectedly died at age 84. Dieter Rapp, the group’s unofficial leader, acknowledges that at their ages, this is an increasing possibility. Their friend’s immediate absence begged the question, ‘How is this stammtisch sustainable?’ There isn’t new, young blood coming into the group and everyone is over 65.
Rodger, a longtime member who now travels from Berkeley three days a week to join the table, concurs that indeed, there is not much human influx. “If Dieter ever leaves, that would leave a big hole.” Ruth, his partner of 10 years, adds, “If Dieter goes, the group will fall apart.” Dieter, however, says he hopes it will never end.
On any given day members of the group arrive and leave nearly as unnoticed as a server refilling waters. This particular day, by 7:15 a.m., Larry, the plastic surgeon, finished his breakfast, quickly got up and was through the back exit wearing his scrubs.
Soon after, Jeff packed up, Dieter had to run and even John was paying his bill in preparation to leave. There were no real good-byes nor any “when will we see each other agains,” as normally happens when diners at a table go their own ways. These guys already know where and when. Tomorrow. At Fred’s.
Somewhere, Fred is smiling.
WHO IS AT THE TABLE?
DIETER RAPP is an interpreter and translator. Rapp, a child of post–World War II Germany, came to Sausalito at age 30 because it reminded him of French towns on the Mediterranean and stayed to enjoy the weather and liberal scene. He’s been at stammtisch some 40-odd years.
JOHN LIBBERTON, born in New Jersey in 1924 and raised in Chicago, is the oldest at the table. Currently he’s doing some jewelry making and is a sculptor but has been an advertising agency executive and a TV and radio voice-over artist.
RUTH SHELBY was born in Michigan, spent time in the Peace Corps, taught English in Turkey, came to San Francisco in 1966 and began teaching English as a second language. She found her current partner Rodger on eHarmony in 2007 after he mentioned his long friendship with a group of men he meets for breakfast every day. She was impressed.
RODGER MARCH, an Ohio native, arrived in San Francisco in 1962 fresh from the navy. He moved to Sausalito in 1974 and lived on and built floating homes. After just a few weeks in Sausalito, he made Fred’s part of his morning routine.
JEFFREY K. WINN, born in Illinois in 1942, grew up in Ohio. In 1969 he moved to San Francisco to be manager of National Car Rental’s truck division, then moved to Sausalito in 1971. By 1972 he had his own truck rental company, which he sold in 2010.
WALTER G. WESTER was born in 1930 in Santa Rosa and moved to San Francisco in 1960 after a stint in the navy. He traveled extensively for various international business companies until 1982, when he semi-retired and began flying seaplane tours out of Mill Valley.
THE FREEDY ERA: "WHAT DID YOU HAD?"
“Somehow, after 50 years, the spirit of Fred still endures,” longtime customer Dieter Rapp recalls laughingly. “But there are big differences — Fred’s never used to have checks. Fred would come around and in his thick German accent ask, ‘What did you had?’ after you were done eating. You’d tell him and he’d tell you what to pay.”
Fred’s has never been that lonely coffee shop immortalized by Edward Hopper’s painting “Nighthawks.” Fred’s widow Christine saw to that. As the building owner, she made sure new leaseholders didn’t change things like pictures on the wall or the seating policy.
“When the current owner of Fred’s bought the building we were scared,” Dieter admits. “Luckily he was smart enough not to change the character of the place. He made it better — new windows, new chairs, more food options … but the spirit is the same.”
WHAT DOES BREAKFAST AT THE STAMMTISCH TABLE PROVIDE FOR YOU?
Dieter: Friendship, entertainment, feedback, information and a sounding board for ideas.
Rodger: I like to have someone to talk to and share the morning paper — someone who will listen to my stories and laugh at my jokes. I like bright, witty, topical conversation with friends who know my history, and I know theirs. While I have that at home with Ruth, I still come in for the communal chats.
Jeff: Friendship and stimulation. There are some good minds at this table.
Ruth: A sense of belonging to an elite club of intelligent people who are a source of friendship and information.
ARE YOU FRIENDS OUTSIDE OF BREAKFAST AND WERE YOU FRIENDS BEFORE THE STAMMTISCH?
Rodger: In times past, for 10 years or so we had group Christmas dinners, canoe trips, summer solstice picnics on Mount Tam and significant birthday parties. I met all of these people at Fred’s.
Dieter: Years ago we sometimes went on camping trips together; now contact is mostly limited to the get-togethers in the morning. But we played together quite a bit. For me, most of the friendships developed at the stammtisch table.
John: Not in my case.
Ruth: I met everyone when Rodger and I got together. We occasionally see each other outside of breakfast — we may have dinner together with another couple. I do email several of them as well, either to send an interesting forward or on some stammtisch business. In years past we used to go to Dieter’s house for a pumpkin-carving evening with dessert afterwards, and for many years we had a Christmas dinner together in a nice restaurant.
WHAT ARE CONVERSATION TOPICS?
Ruth: We tell stories from our past and bring up problems we have with our neighbors, dogs, government, etc. We ask things like “where can I get my brakes, toaster, shoes fixed?” Asking if you saw the game yesterday is common, but sports aren’t big. There is a lot of “how was your trip.” There is never any swearing, off-color jokes, complaints about aches and pains or grumbles about our spouses.
Dieter: I grew up with a stammtisch. When Mom said go get Dad I knew where to go. The concept of gathering at a public place is something I was born with. You talk about events, health concerns, personal experiences, local and international events — pretty much everything except politics if I can avoid it.
Jeff: The news, responsibilities, projects.
Rodger: Travel, news about our jobs, law problems, real estate, movies, art shows and museums, some construction stories and problems. We reminisce about the past, sailing and boats. Little is said about sports, aches and pains or politics.
DO YOU FEEL GUILTY IF YOU MISS A BREAKFAST? DO YOU FEEL LIKE YOU ARE MISSING ANYTHING?
Dieter: Yes! Coming home to Fred’s from anywhere in the world feels right.
Jeff: I don’t if I just miss a couple of days. Everyone sometimes has things to do.
Rodger: Yes, the table is a continuous movie, quite current and topical, and something is always happening.
Ruth: I know Rodger does. It’s a big part of his social scene. I don’t like to miss when someone comes back from a trip. Dieter especially has interesting stories to tell.
HOW HAS IT CHANGED?
Dieter: Fred’s has pretty much stayed the same over the decades. Owners changed, personnel changed, but the essence of the place remained — a local hangout with a cozy feel and good food. The “we share tables” motto brings people together. Sausalito has changed as well. There are more young families with kids. Also, now there are more tourists and many more bicycles.
Rodger: There was some change in atmosphere when Fred died, some change in decor when Steve took over, as well as the menu. But most notably, the table is getting smaller (at one time we had a mailing list of 45) and now there are fewer women at the table.
Ruth: When I joined the table there were other women coming from time to time. Now I’m the lone female unless Dieter’s wife comes.