Larry Clinton/Sausalito Historical Society
In the long list of one-of-a-kind Sausalito characters, Fred Peter’s, founder of Fred’s Place café, is a standout.
Some excerpts from Annie Sutter’s story of Fred’s life published in this paper in November 1985 describe Fred as “tall, lean, dark haired, sporting a drooping mustache, waving his spatula about and chewing on a cigar stub cheerily carr[ying] on conversations with patrons filling the counter and tables, and lining up at the door. He’s going at top speed, tossing out quips, gossiping, joshing with the employees all the while flipping eggs, whirling omelets, frying mountains of potatoes, pouring coffee and ringing the cash register. Fred learned the restaurant business from the top side down, so to speak, as an apprentice in a fine hotel in post-war Germany….”
Annie’s profile continues: “In 1955, I left for the United States,” recalls Fred. “When I got to New York, the immigration agents were all standing there, sorting everybody into lines according to profession. Oh — I was worried if I was ever gonna get work. But when they found out that I was a professional in the restaurant business, I had a job on the spot…it didn’t even seem like working.
All of a sudden —only eight hours a day and people used to say Thank You! After I was working there a few days — I didn’t even speak English yet—and they said to me, ‘Fred, you don’t have to come here on Tuesday and Friday—you’re off.’
I thought I was fired.
“So then I made it to San Francisco. And one day in 1960 we drove over the Golden Gate Bridge and down into Sausalito and into the Mobil Station over there, and I saw the Valhalla. I walked in and said I’m looking for work, and the manager said, ‘you start on Tuesday.’ I walked back to the car and said, ‘let’s unpack, we’re home.’ We moved into the Portofino, right next door with a swimming pool. Life was absolutely beautiful…”
After six years, Fred decided to do something on his own.
“So I decided I’m gonna go into the hot dog business. I looked around for a location and found one that was out of town — I mean FAR. In 1966, Sausalito ended 6 feet after the Village Fair. Bridgeway was a two lane road going out of town and in front of Spring Street, it was dirt and a little white pony was standing there where I went and opened my business… And that’s how Fred’s Place came about. “This was not my business, you know; making hamburgers,” Fred explained. “I can behave myself around frog’s legs, Chateaubriand and Dover sole, but I never
touched a hot dog before. I never cooked any coffee before…The first day I opened, I had the place spotless clean and the first customer orders hot cakes. I was a nervous wreck making this short stack…”
The rest of the story is history. People have returned over and over again to eat breakfast and lunch at Fred’s.
One of the more popular features at Fred’s was a large communal table where a group of regulars gathered every morning. Marin Scope columnist Ralph Holmstad described the scene in December 2002: “Sausalito has an unusual organization. Its name is Stammtisch and it meets every morning at Fred’s Place, the friendly coffee house and restaurant on Bridgeway at Spring Street. The name is German. It means ‘the regulars.’ It refers to a group of friends who take over a big table in a favorite restaurant, talk together, and solve all of the world’s problems. Next morning. they do it again.”
One of those regulars, with a perfect Sausalito name, Dick Seashore, told Marin Magazine that the locals were far from exclusive. Seashore maintains, “We’re friendly. In Germany you have to be invited to sit at a stammtisch table. In the summer here we see German tourists and invite them to join us.” Dick says this organization has two or three women members, and according to Seashore they even “brought in a Republican from Mill Valley to broaden the political discussion.”
Dieter Rapp, a landsman of Fred’s from Germany, was considered unofficial leader of the Stammtisch table. Upon Fred’s untimely death in 1988 at age 53, Rapp contributed a fond remembrance to this paper. Here are a few excerpts:
For many of his customers, Fred’s was much more than a coffee shop. It was home. Boat people, lawyers and courageous tourists alike would quickly take a liking to the particular seating arrangement which was common in Germany and which he would often announce to newcomers in his baritone: “Ve share tables here.” Big, round oak tables drew people from all walks of life together for easy, down-to-earth conversation and a hearty meal.
Rapp added, “Fred loved to relax on his houseboat where he lived for many years before houseboats were the ‘in’ thing, listening to Willie Nelson records played at concert-hall volume, and enjoy a drink or two.” Fred’s houseboat on Issaquah Dock was a log cabin with an oversize arrow stuck in its roof, as if it were under Indian attack.
A houseboat neighbor, George Richardson, bought the place after Fred’s death, vowing “Fred’s is going to stay Fred’s. We’re going to serve the same good food and have the same people coming in.” Since then the place has changed hands a number of times, but the basic ambiance and menu remain consistent. During the pandemic, the tables are smaller and farther apart, and there’s more outdoor seating, but otherwise the place feels the same.