Restaurateur championed philanthropy, public education

The sidewalks and city blocks that James Abrahamson walked throughout his 87 years of life in San Francisco were the same ones traversed by his father, grandfather and great-grandfather.

The fourth-generation San Franciscan “loved San Francisco — he was very proud to be from here,” said Joan Abrahamson, his daughter. “He loved everything about it. And so he believed in giving back.”

Abrahamson died March 5 in his San Francisco home. He was a community leader, philanthropist and businessman known in all of those realms for his work ethic, quick wit and kind spirit.

He made a living in the restaurant business, first with a restaurant supply store, then owning and managing several Bay Area establishments, including Smak’s Drive Inn, Biff’s Coffee Shop and Rosebud’s English Pub. He also owned the well-known, 24-hour café Pam Pam (and the Pam Pam East, cleverly renamed when it moved just one block east from its original location).

His daughter said her father was proud of the huge cross-section of people who fed their stomachs and spirits at the Pam Pam, which included well-to-do theatergoers and the homeless looking for a midnight cup of coffee.

“It was a very populist kind of place, which is how my dad saw San Francisco,” Joan said.

And even though Abrahamson was the boss, he made a point to get to know everyone in his establishments.

“He knew the waitresses, the busboys, and he was concerned about them, who they were, how their lives were — and they loved him,” Joan said. “That’s how he was. He wasn’t an arrogant boss. He was a very human kind of boss.”

Abrahamson took that success and directed his money and time to supporting causes he believed in, such as Jewish Family and Children’s Services and the San Francisco School Volunteers. He was also a lifelong member of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco.

Public education was at the heart of his philanthropy and volunteerism, his daughter said.

“He was very vocal about not using Jewish philanthropy to fund Jewish day schools — he thought it made more sense for Jewish children to go to public school and go to Sunday school on the side — he felt that that’s what it meant to be a Jew in America,” Joan said.

Abrahamson attended San Francisco’s Galileo High School, and sent his three children to public schools as well. He graduated from Stanford University and served in the Navy during World War II.

Throughout his life, he remained friends with his childhood best friend, Richard Goldman (of Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund fame).

“Jim was always an interesting person to be with, and he had a world of knowledge, a mind like a steel trap,” Goldman said. “It mystified me how he remembered so many details.”

The two men loved sports, and went to the Olympics in Los Angeles in 1932 and 1984, and in Mexico City in 1968. When the men arrived at the track and field arena in Mexico, they were disappointed and surprised by their bad seats and showed the Spanish-speaking security guards a letter from then-S.F. Mayor Dianne Feinstein. It said nothing about letting the men have better seats, but it looked official, and so the guards let them through. They spent the next week sitting in the press box. Goldman chuckled at the memory.

Abrahamson’s daughter, remembering how much her father liked to travel, emphasized that the Olympics had a special place in his heart.

“He really felt that was the way the world would come together,” Joan said. “He thought the culture of sports was a way to a real common understanding, and he was inspired by that whole philosophy.”

Abrahamson is survived by his wife of 63 years, Lucille; children Eric of Berkeley, Robert of Sedona, Ariz., Joan of Los Angeles; and three grandchildren.

In lieu of flowers, the family suggests donations be made to Jewish Family and Children’s Services, 2150 Post St., S.F., CA 94115.

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.