Remembering San Francisco Restaurateur and Former GGRA President Rolf Lewis
Renowned San Francisco restaurateur and former Golden Gate Restaurant Association President Rolf Lewis, a pioneer in the development of Ghiradelli Square, died Nov. 22, 2015, of natural causes. He was 91.
Arriving in San Francisco as an immigrant with nothing, Mr. Lewis went on to open Rolf’s Since 1960, an elegant restaurant on Beach Street featuring gourmet cuisine and a panoramic view of the Bay. He was later was inducted into the GGRA’s Hall of Fame, benefiting the GGRA Scholarship Foundation. He built a national reputation in the industry and beyond, becoming a Director Emeritus with the National Restaurant Association.
In a tweet, the GGRA called Mr. Lewis, who donated $8.5 million to a Marin university to give back to the country that so openly welcomed him, “a great champion for the SF restaurant industry.”
Photographs of Mr. Lewis proudly meeting with former Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, and the late Commander-in-Chief Norman Schwarzkopf lined his office walls.
Not bad, he liked to say, for a young German who came here with only hope in his pocket.
His Old-World European charm and twinkling blue eyes delighted guests and his business acumen won the respect of colleagues in an era that included legendary San Francisco restaurants Ernie’s, Scoma’s and Chez Michel (now Gary Danko).
“Rolf was the ultimate gentleman,” said former GGRA President Al Petri, owner of Alfred’s, who called Mr. Lewis his mentor. “He made everyone feel welcomed and at ease. At the same time, he was a serious and successful businessman.”
During the widespread growth of the 1950s, Mr. Lewis recognized opportunity near Ghiradelli Square, then a deserted cannery warehouse district. At the dawn of the new decade, he boldly opened Rolf’s Since 1960. With his wife Nanette as hostess and his brother Chef Heinz in the kitchen, Rolf’s quickly became one of the city’s premier dining spots and pioneered development of the area.
Early celebrity regulars included SF Chronicle columnist Herb Caen and actors Bing Crosby and Glenn Ford.
Mr. Lewis later partnered in notable San Francisco restaurants including Sutter 500 (with acclaimed chef Hubert Keller) and Café Majestic.
A member of the Olympic Club in San Francisco, Mr. Lewis was a tenacious tennis player. He credited his lightning-quick steps on the court to an earlier amateur boxing career.
Mr. Lewis was an adventurous traveler, as comfortable mixing cocktails behind his iconic bar as he was skiing a glacier in New Zealand, riding a wild horse in Mongolia, and cruising to the North Pole aboard a Russian icebreaker.
He was preceded in death by his wife, Nanette, who died in 2007. He is survived by daughters Jennifer Lewis of San Francisco and Karen Olson of Sonoma.
The family requests that donations in Mr. Lewis’ name be made to the Golden Gate Restaurant Association Scholarship Foundation / In Memory of Rolf Lewis, 220 Montgomery St., Suite 990, San Francisco, CA 94104.