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article imageOp-Ed: San Francisco burger place mourns loss of waitress who died at 96 Special

By Jonathan Farrell     Nov 8, 2016 in Lifestyle
San Francisco - Every so often we are reminded that things that seem permanent and forever are only "on loan" to us. And, that we should not take anything for granted.
This can be said of places like Louis Restaurant. To locals it is a landmark. and in a manner of speaking, it has been there "forever." It has seen many changes over the years and not to long ago was in danger of closing. But it bounced back, much to the delight of so many people who know it well.
Even so, Louis’ overlooking Ocean Beach is sad to announce that long-time employee Rachel (Rose) Lelchuk died on Oct 21. She was 96. Louis’ Restaurant was very much a part of Lelchuck’s life as current owners Tom and Bill Hontalas told this reporter while on assignment for The Richmond Review/Sunset Beacon. They spoke of her remarkable longevity and love of life. “She worked here for almost 60 years,” said Tom.
He and his brother Bill are the third generation of the Hontalas family to operate the diner-like spot on Point Lobos near the ruins of Sutro Baths. Before WWII the area known as Ocean Beach was an amusement park/boardwalk; much like what Coney Island was to the East Coast. To San Franciscans and those in the Bay Area it was simply known as "Playland-at-The Beach."
Before radio, television and of course computers places like Playland-at-the-Beach were the only venues for family entertainment. It also served as an affordable vacation getaway, even if only for a day. Gradually, as the years went by after WWII, Playland-at-the-Beach faded, giving way to housing developments. Louis' is one of the last remaining remnants of that era. The Hontalas family with Louis' Restaurant has been like an anchor amid a sea of change. Someone like Lelchuk was stable, a mainstay that built more than a career: she was community.
“Rachel didn’t talk about her past much," said Tom and Bill’s father Jim Hontalas. Yet Jim said, “Rachel told us she was born in Russia in 1920. I surmise that due to all the turmoil that was happening there at that time, especially later on with all of Europe moving closer to war, her family fled. The exact reasons, I don’t know. They ended up in China, in a place called Harbin. Rachel was among the last to leave Shanghai in 1939. She was 19 and her parents had sent her to the United States to live with relatives.”
Looking up the city of Harbin on maps and info on Wikipedia, the ancient city is the capital and the largest in the Heilongiliang province of the northeastern region of China. Often referred to as the 'Ice City,' Harbin was long ago, a rural fishing village along the Songhua River. But once the railroad pushed its way through the area in the 19th Century, Harbin became a major city. It has a detailed history with Eastern Europe. After the Russian Revolution in 1917, many Russians fled to Harbin and settled there.
Russian settlement reached a peak in the 1920s and as the '20's came to a close, Harbin was invaded by the Japanese in 1931 under its imperialist expansion quest for more power in Asia. This might explain why Lelchuk's family sent her to the U.S.
Jim noted that Rachel arrived just three years after Louis’ first opened in 1937, “that’s the same year the Golden Gate Bridge was completed,” he said. Playland-at-the-Beach was at its zenith. “Sutro had just opened an ice skating rink and she liked to skate there," he said. "And, afterwards Rachel would come into our place to eat.” Louis and Helen, Jim’s parents (and Tom and Bill’s grandparents) invited Rachel to work. “At first it was part time on Sundays. But then during WWII Rachel worked full-time. You know, at first in those days, she would come all the way out here from Oakland. I think she was living with relatives there."
Rachel married John Drobshoff and they eventually moved out to the Sunset District on 46th Ave near Kirkham. “They had no children, but we and the restaurant were her family,” Jim said.
“She worked all her life," said Tom. "Even after her husband died in 1988. And she liked working, Rachel would often put in nine to 12 hour days. She was a Godsend,” he added. "In later years she cut back to part time." Lelchuk was so well-known that the San Francisco Chronicle had a little feature about her a decade ago. "She worked until 2001 when problems with her legs made it too difficult to continue," Tom said. "Rachel will be sorely missed by the many customers who also became her friends."
A celebration of her life will be held at Louis’ later this month. For details see the official obituary posted at the San Francisco Chronicle web site.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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