I’m conflicted about North Beach, San Francisco’s traditionally Italian neighborhood and popular tourist destination. It’s where my father grew up and his father before him. My great grandfather, an Italian immigrant and photographer, built both his home and studio there. I lived in the city for several years and North Beach is where I’d go to eat or drink. But when it comes to recommending typically popular tourist spots, I’m not the guy to see. My slant is select, and based on years of repeated visits at specific haunts and restaurants.
An excellent starting point for any North Beach visit is climbing either Telegraph or Russian Hill. San Francisco offers ridiculously beautiful views at almost every turn, and you need only start hiking to discover them.
Russian Hill borders North Beach to the west and is home to the famously crooked twists of Lombard Street and the precipitously steep drop of Filbert at Hyde. Lombard generates more postcards, but Filbert allows the chance to observe reluctant motorists eke their way up to the paved cliff and either back up or continue over with considerable caution. A stop at the San Francisco Art Institute is worth your while as you work your way down the hill. Jerry Garcia and Annie Leibovitz both graduated from the school and Ansel Adams was on the faculty. The Diego Rivera Gallery off the main courtyard boasts an impressive mural by the artist. There’s no better view of North Beach and the waterfront than from the Art Institute roof.
Approaching North Beach from the east and Telegraph Hill is an equally solid choice. From Coit Tower you can see the Golden Gate and Bay Bridge, Alcatraz, Nob Hill, Russian Hill, Aquatic Park and the Financial District. Walk down Greenwich Street (pronounced the same as “sandwich” by old Italians) on the western slope and make a left turn down Grant, beginning your descent to the neighborhood. Grant, between Filbert and Green Streets, features a great assortment of eclectic shops and old wooden apartment buildings. The Savoy Tivoli is a nice spot for a drink, provided it isn’t Friday or Saturday night and overrun with hammered kids from the suburbs. It is spacious and possesses a European flare, including billiard tables and open-air patio with efficient heating allowing for comfortable people watching on any chilly San Francisco evening.
The Italian-French Baking Company is a nice spot for a regular cup of coffee and a pastry. Sit at the small window counter with a newspaper and pass as a local. Peek in the side door of the cavernous oven facilities and breathe in the freshly baked bread. Or, for a cappuccino, try Caffé Trieste. The Trieste is where Francis Ford Coppola reportedly wrote much of his screenplay for The Godfather. It’s a permanent hangout for various grizzled North Beach types who put in impressive hours hunched over single caffeinated purchases regaling one another with tales of days that never were. While Trieste coffee is perhaps the most famed in the city, I prefer that offered at the nearby Caffé Greco. The Greco is more roomy and nicely situated for observing North Beach foot traffic. Their Greco Grande cappuccino can’t be beat and they feature an ample selection of tortes, tiramisu and sandwiches. Italian newspapers hang from wooden racks on the wall for the bilingual and determined poseurs.
While I’ve never actually spotted Francis Ford Coppola at Caffé Trieste, I have seen him digging in at Il Pollaio and it bolstered my opinion of the man considerably. Il Pollaio features grilled chicken prepared Argentinean style in a casual family setting. Ample portions and reasonable prices are among the considerable charms. While its cramped interior doesn’t provide for a romantic evening out, the grilled chicken has an almost narcotic quality. Pork and lamb chops are also an excellent choice. Il Pollaio is also one of those rare places where a single diner can enjoy a meal while not feeling conspicuous – particularly if he procures one of the coveted small window seats. It’s the perfect spot for ravenous non-vegetarian tourists looking to fuel up and push on with their remaining tour of the neighborhood.
Or try Sotto Mare; an oyster counter and relatively new entry in the North Beach restaurant scene, though its proprietor Gigi Fiorucci has been around for years operating such famed San Francisco establishments as Mayes Oyster House and the Double Play Bar and Grill. It’s a great destination for an authentic taste of old North Beach. Sit at the long marble counter and share your thoughts with diners on either side. The menu is limited to fresh catches: one-dollar oysters, sand dabs, crab louis and clam chowder. Gigi is a culinary ambassador to the neighborhood and works the grill belting out Italian opera songs with impressive pipes. Peruse the pages of old high school yearbooks and check out the photos on the wall for a sense of generations gone and a time when names like Dimaggio made their living from the sea. Just around the corner is St. Peter and Paul Cathedral, which, despite popular misconception, isn’t where Joe and Marilyn tied the knot. City Hall holds that honor.
For a more sophisticated dining experience, North Beach Restaurant is the place to go. It’s a favorite for San Francisco business types and couples looking for an evening out. Vaulted ceilings, Venetian granite and Carrara marble lend decorative class and the Tuscan cuisine cannot be beat. For an appetizer, the house specialty, calamari vinaigrette, is consistently tender and a refined antipasto alternative to fried calamari. None of the entrees disappoint nor does their exhaustive wine list. While not exorbitantly expensive the food is a cut above, and you should expect to pay accordingly.
If my experience at Il Pollaio is extensive, my father’s familiarity with Caesar’s Italian Restaurant qualifies him to be on the board of directors. He has sat at the same booth for several decades, under his childhood photo hung on the wall. The picture, along with another childhood shot of my grandfather dressed as Napoleon, was taken at my great grandfather’s studio. Caesar’s is a throwback to the fifties and features an exclusively male and almost exclusively Italian wait staff. Watching uniformed waiters navigate swinging kitchen doors is part of the experience. Though loud when crowded, the large interior absorbs much of the noise. Caesar’s is truly a family spot and while it slants toward an older crowd during the week, the weekends see large tables of several generations eating together and sharing memories.
If you still have room after dinner, Mara’s Italian Pastry is just a short walk down the street from Il Pollaio and offers everything the discerning cannoli connoisseur desires.
Finding a place for a cocktail or beer in North Beach is about as difficult as tracking down a fat person at Disneyland; bars of all description present themselves at every turn. I prefer to keep things simple and stick to the triangle of Specs, Tosca and Vesuvio – all within easy stumbling distance of one another on Columbus Avenue.
Specs (officially Specs Twelve Adler Museum Café) sits at 12 William Saroyan Place, a small alley just off Columbus, between Broadway and Kearny. The bar got its name from proprietor Richard Simmons who, despite preferring his shorter moniker, could never be mistaken for the effete exercise guru. He lives across the street, has an eye for the ladies, and at 78 covers more of the neighborhood than most of his patrons. Specs does much of his own drinking at Gino and Carlo on nearby Green Street, reaffirming that bar’s North Beach standing. His own saloon features a merchant marine motif and enough dusty relics on the walls to earn the “museum” part of its name. Try a slice off the large wheel of Fontana cheese kept behind the bar, served with saltine crackers. The place serves strong drinks and is lacking in neither character nor characters. Check out the glass display case to the left of the bar featuring an old newspaper clipping recounting a drunken midnight boating mishap involving Specs, a few of his cronies, and the local coast guard.
Turn left on Columbus immediately outside of Specs and you’re at Tosca Café, a fine establishment despite its Hollywood-pandering tendencies. A private back room with billiard table provides shelter for VIPs fleeing the riff-raff. Sean Penn sightings are not uncommon if you care to look up from your Irish Coffee. The interior is dark but tastefully lit with high ceilings. Bartenders sport short white jackets and ties adding an air of class. Two huge old fashioned, chrome-plated cappuccino machines anchor either end of the vintage bar and a Wurlitzer plays opera and Frank and Dean favorites. Try a House Cappuccino, which really isn’t a cappuccino at all but a soothing combo of hot chocolate and brandy. Avoid weekends to skip the throngs of twenty-somethings trying to spot Nick Cage and pushing their distilled spirit limits.
Vesuvio Café is a well timed jaywalk across the street from Tosca and Specs. Less coordinated pedestrians will want to use the crosswalk at Broadway. Adjacent to City Lights Books, the establishment cultivates a literary mystique and was a preferred hangout for famed Beat Generation writer Jack Kerouac. Photos of Kerouac, Neil Cassady, Bob Dylan and other fifties and sixties icons hang on the walls. The intimate upstairs area features great street views and a birds-eye vantage of the bar action below. Table service can be slow and the bartender will request that you use it if not sitting at the bar. A gas-lit chandelier and an antique slide projector (operational and complete with vintage slides projected over the bar) add to the ambiance.
Despite the mass suburban exodus of many original Italian residents, North Beach is still the preferred San Francisco destination for diners and drinkers, locals and tourists alike. Visit on a less populated week night, score a much prized parking spot, and you’re on your way to better understanding of a significant chunk of the city’s history.
What & Where:
San Francisco Art Institute (800 Chestnut St; 415-771-70210)
Savoy Tivoli (1434 Grant Ave; 415-362-7023)
Italian French Baking Company (1501 Grant Ave; 415-421-3796)
Caffe Trieste (601 Vallejo St; 415-392-6739)
Caffe Greco (423 Columbus Ave; 415-397-6261)
Il Pollaio (555 Columbus Ave; 415-362-7727)
Mara’s Italian Pastry (503 Columbus Ave; 415-397-9435)
Sotto Mare (552 Green St; 415-398-3181)
St. Peter and Paul Cathedral (666 Filbert St; 415-421-0809)
North Beach Restaurant (1512 Stockton St; 415-392-1700)
Caesar’s Italian Restaurant (2299 Powell St; 415-989-6000)
Spec’s Twelve Adler Museum Café (12 William Saroyan Pl; 415-421-4112)
Tosca Café (242 Columbus Ave; 415-986-9651)
Vesuvio’s (255 Columbus Avenue; 415-362-3370