Leatherneck Steakhouse: Just the Tip of the Marines' Memorial Club

Categories: 'Eat' Extra

Marines' Memorial Club
​When I called MaryAnn Hatlan, director of food and beverage at the Marines' Memorial Club and Hotel, to ask her a few background questions about its Leatherneck Steakhouse -- the subject of this week's full-length restaurant review -- she ended up telling me about the history of the club and the building it's housed in.

"You should encourage people to join the club if they're eligible," she said. Membership is limited to former members of the U.S. armed services with an honorable discharge, as well as active members, who can join for free. "We're a unique environment: a private club, a hotel, and a nonprofit for veterans. We're very quiet about what we do. We don't advertise anywhere, and we're never in the newspaper or billboards."

The rest of the history follows in Hatlan's words:

The Marines Memorial Club was founded in 1946, right after World War II. General [Alexander] Vandergrift and General [Henry] Larsen wanted to have a living memorial to commemoraite those who sacriifed their lives. They didn't want a plaque or a statue, they wanted something that would honor the soldiers and celebrate life. They knew about this building -- it was the Western Women's Club and Hotel, built in 1926 by the San Francisco Womens' Building Association.

This is actually the second structure on this site. The first was built in the 1870s by a French woman who married a local businessman and built a state-of-the-art mansion that was the talk of the town. After 10 years, her husband died and she moved back to France.

The 1906 quake destroyed the house, and the owner abandoned the property. The lot stayed empty until 1922, when the association bought it.

At the time, it was a club and hotel for women, because in the 1920s, women traveling alone couldn't stay at the St. Francis. It was similar to the Algonquin and the Barbizon, two famous women's-only hotels. Leatherneck Steakhouse, as it is today, was the roof deck. I've seen photos of the gals up there sunning themselves.

In 1942, with the outbreak of the war, the navy needed a place to house female soldiers. So they contracted with the club to house them here. Well, where the girls are, the boys are sure to follow. The 10th floor was a restaurant and theater, a real happening spot. Bob Hope did a live USO radio show from the theater. When the war ended, the boys all took the girls and moved out to the suburbs, so there was nobody here.

Generals Vandergrift and Larsen went to the Women's Club and offered to buy it. Then they had the marines send in nickels, pennies, quarters, and dolars to pay for it. They started the Leatherneck Assocation, which bought the building and started the Marines Memorial Club and Hotel. General Vandergrift loaned them the seed money from the PX fund.

When the club opened, the officers got the sleeping rooms on the higher floors, and the third and fourth floors were like a big barracks, with slot machines and bars on every floor. The slot machines paid the mortgage! Somewhere in the 1960s, the board of directors opened membership in the club up to all military personnel. [Ed note: The roof turned into a restaurant around the same time.]

In the 1990s, when Bill Clinton shut down the San Francisco military bases, there went our market share. So the board said the club could allow 49 percent of our business to be non-member driven. But we have to make sure it doesn't exceed that. We want to be viable for our members.

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