North Beach is the true heart of San Francisco. We have so many essential neighborhoods, but for me they are all planets revolving around the corner of Columbus and Broadway.
This is as close as we come to Times Square — a sublime mix of bohemians, bon vivants, buskers, and boozers. The tourists and jetsetters crowd in for good reason. Don’t we all want to feel some authentic licentiousness when we travel?
I have lived here 32 years. These are some grim times like none since 9/11, and unlike those sad days, these stretch on and on. Still, I had the best time I’ve ever had in North Beach just the other day, a Monday afternoon no less.
SUNSHINE, LOBELIA, AND PIZZA
A wonderfully ordinary sun found its way to the pavement, the apocalyptic orange smog long gone. I was sitting in a new dining deck outside Tony’s Pizza Napoletana. A light breeze tickled the lavender lobelia in the planter box next to me. A workman was adding Italian tricolor striping to the corner posts surrounding our table. I was crunching on Tony’s amazing Cal-Italia brick-oven pizza. Saints Peter and Paul Church lorded over everything from across Washington Square. I felt like Marilyn Monroe in my little world at Union and Stockton Streets.
Who would have ever suspected such a delightful scene in the midst of a deadly pandemic? North Beach, which crystallizes so much about San Francisco, teaches us one thing above all else: Make the best of it.
THE DAYS OF KEROUAC
There’s a new energy here now, unleashed by none other than our much-maligned state and local government’s response to Covid-19. The city’s Shared Spaces program has allowed restaurants to instantly colonize sidewalks and parking spots for the price of a stack of two by fours. The state Alcohol Beverage Control agency, despite its Kremlinesque reputation, then brought New Orleans to San Francisco, allowing outside alcohol consumption while dining.
It’s not quite the same easy North Beach booze-fest that wobbled from the upstairs at Vesuvio Cafe to the back table at Specs’ to the early morning Irish coffees at Tosca. Those three joints are all closed right now. Not for long, let’s hope. Let’s not despair in the meantime. North Beach is making the best of it. And it’s not bad.
You can amble into your own little Hell’s Half Acre, even on a slow Monday afternoon, for intimate cocktailing with a favorite waiter at Sodini’s still not much changed since it was known as Green Valley in the days of Kerouac and pals. Better, of course, to try it on a First Friday of the month, when the North Beach business district sweeps the sidewalk seating areas clean and cranks up the outdoor entertainment from 6 to 9 p.m. Grant Avenue north of Columbus remains one of the most exciting action centers, even without Savoy Tivoli anchoring the watering holes.
ESPRESSO, COPPA, AND GOUDA
Here’s a North Beach treasure hunt: Ride the 30 Muni bus, exit at Columbus and Green, walk south to Vallejo Street and stroll east. Grab an espresso at Caffe Trieste (601 Vallejo Street, 415-982-2605, caffetrieste.com) — you’ll need the energy, and dig the vibe at one of the world’s most famous cafes and historical pillars of North Beach. You may encounter Supervisor Aaron Peskin there. Maybe he will tell you about the rescue of City Lights Bookstore, the saga of the wild parrots of Telegraph Hill, or the secrets of the Filbert Street steps. The supervisor considers outdoor dining “the new normal” in San Francisco, and will “be with us for a long, long time, hopefully forever.” I asked what laws would need to be changed to make that so. He and his City Hall colleagues will be looking into that, he said, “We are building the airplane as we’re learning to fly.”
Then walk back toward Columbus Avenue and turn left to Molinari’s Delicatessen (373 Columbus Avenue, 415-421-2337, molinaridelisf.com). The music is likely to be Big Band, salamis swaying overhead as if in time, and plenty of options on the pastas and sauces. Buy a few things for a picnic — there’s an antipasti bar, unique deli meats, and a crew of fresh-shaven young men in crisp green aprons ready to slice your coppa and wrap your gouda. Ask the owner’s son Nicholas about the history of Molinari’s, founded in 1896, and the move to North Beach after the 1906 earthquake. It’s still a comfort in troubled times.
A GIFT TO EVERYONE
Head north on Columbus Avenue and turn right on Union Street to Washington Square Park, recently renovated by the city and perfect for a lie-down and free entertainment, musical or otherwise. You won’t mind the buskers and you will love the view from any angle. Add some oyster treats to your picnic at Park Tavern (1652 Stockton Street, 415-989-7300, parktavernsf.com) where Henry, who calls himself the COO — chief oyster officer — is operating the oyster bar right inside the door. He’ll even teach you how to shuck. Park Tavern also offers picnic baskets. Make a note to come back on another night to enjoy the lovely potted olive trees on their dining deck.
Anna Weinberg, owner of Park Tavern, described North Beach as a kind of gift to everybody, even us nobodies. “I love it because it feels like a real community, more so than anywhere else — what an old S.F. neighborhood should feel like,” she said.
Now it’s time to walk over to Original Joe’s (601 Union Street, 415-775-4877, originaljoes.com) one of San Francisco’s most beloved institutions. OJ’s is a place to see and be seen. John Duggan and son John are the consummate hosts, and they host them all from famous residents to local electeds, union heads, working-class stalwarts, entertainers, fishers, hospitality industry workers, madams, and grandmas. Everyone’s the same in OJ’s — important — and the two Johns are the head of an amazing team that makes everyone feel they’ve really arrived somewhere. The younger Duggan sat with me the other day and described how the restaurant community has pulled together like never before to keep the “heart of San Francisco” beating. He says North Beach is the authentic San Francisco neighborhood. And he’s right.
OJ’s outdoor seating wraps around the corner of Stockton and Union Streets and continues almost to the intersection of Columbus Avenue — a big presence befitting a heavyweight in the San Francisco dining industry. And it’s just what North Beach needed. I also think the ambience is tres romantique in an old-school kind of way. Supper here and maybe a viewing for two of Casablanca at home would be the perfect evening, and no need for physical distancing if plans work out.
Across the street from OJ’s is a great friend of the Duggans, Tony Geminagni, in the form of his pizza school and signature pizzeria, Tony’s (1570 Stockton
Street, 415-835-9888, tonyspizzanapoletana.com). Geminagni tells me that once the pandemic hit, folks were looking for something different and discovered his square-pan Detroit-style pizza cooked with Wisconsin brick mozzarella cheese. Try the Grandma pizza, too — Geminagni only makes 15 of those a day — and add in a Noisy Boy cocktail of serrano-infused tequila, or maybe one of the many draft beer offerings.
Across from Tony’s, Acquolina (1600 Stockton Street, 415-781-0331,
acquolina.us) occupies another key corner at the Stockton and Union Streets mashup. The name means “mouth watering,” and the owners claim this is what happens when food is made with “passion and love.” Acquolina’s house-made pasta dishes and antipasti, along with the DJs and local musicians on the street, are about as close to what you’d experience in Rome without risking a couple weeks of quarantine.
RENEWED AL FRESCO CULTURE
Pull yourself away from Acquolina and head one block south to Green Street. North Beach has more decent eateries on this short stretch between Columbus and Grant Avenues than some small towns. Sotto Mare Oysteria & Seafood (552 Green Street, 415-398-3181, sottomaresf.com) has the “best damn crab cioppino,” according to its menu, and who am I to argue? It feeds two. The host, Ria Pesenti, says locals really go for the grilled sand dabs or sea scallop sauté. For something unique, try the Crab Diavolo — cracked Dungeness crab over linguine sautéed in butter, garlic and red pepper flakes.
For an Italian homespun meal served by waitstaff that has been around for decades, check out the aforementioned Sodini’s (510 Green Street, 415-291-0499, sodinisgreenvalley.com). The bar is classic, and someday you may actually be able to elbow your way in like the old days.
You’ll have a lot of fun sitting in the turf-clad, wine-barrel-equipped street space of Belle Cora (565 Green Street, 415-872-5451, thebellecora.com). Talk about a pandemic-driven turnaround — Belle Cora had a seating capacity of about 10 bar stools before Shared Spaces became a thing. Now the restaurant has twice as many tables.
Like many hardy restaurateurs all over this town, nobody here plans to give up the great outdoors. The young Belle Cora general manager, Nils Marthinsen, says he wants to “take back the streets,” because patrons have fallen in love with the renewed al fresco culture of North Beach. Nils plans to augment that culture with open mic nights that include more music, plus comedy and whatever else the neighbors think might be fun along with the wine and craft beer selections.
Another Green Street fixture with tunes in mind, Golden Boy Pizza (542 Green Street, 415-982-9738, goldenboypizza.com), claims it’s where “it’s hip to be square.” Golden Boy opened in 1978, so not only is it a Legacy Business, but it has surely helped seal many a deal in coupledom. That’s where Mr. Kat Anderson took us on our first little date together. I remember later telling my dad that the golden boy took me for a Golden Boy. I guess we were meant for each other.
NIGHTCAP PUB CRAWLING
By now it’s probably getting late. For a nightcap, head east up Green Street to Grant Avenue. At the corner of Grant Avenue and Vallejo Street, check out the rustic dining stalls at The Showdown (1268 Grant Avenue, 415-772-0933,
pourguys.com). There’s a 60-inch TV mounted along the sidewalk usually tuned to a Giants’ game. This is the former home of the historic La Pantera Cafe, in a building constructed in 1888. Nowadays the place is owned by Pour Guys, Inc. (Tony, Joey, and crew), which also owns the Tempest and Connecticut Yankee in SOMA and Potrero Hill, respectively. Get the Pantera Smash Burger (double wagyu beef patty), duck fat popcorn, and Mother Bronson cocktail.
Just saying “duck fat popcorn” suggests it’s about time to call it a night, but we saved more for next time. Try, for instance, a bit of New Orleans meets downtown Berkeley, otherwise known as the hodgepodge of street seating and dining decks at Grant Avenue and Green Street. Mo, namesake of Mo’s Grill (1322 Grant Avenue, 415-788-3779, mosgrill.com), has been perfecting his version of diner fare for 33 years. And — news flash — Mo opened another place, Maykadeh (470 Green Street, 415-362-8286, no website), in the old Spaghetti Factory space only two months ago. Yes — an opening during a shutdown. Check out the lovely patio in the back on a sunny day and enjoy the chelo-kebab koobideh or the chelo-kebab chicken koobideh, known as Iranian street food according to the host, Ali.
Be sure to include in your pub crawl Tupelo (1337 Grant Avenue, 415-981-9177, tupelosf.com), which appeals to my Southern upbringing, and Maggie McGarry’s (1353 Grant Avenue, 415-399-9020, maggiemcgarrys.com), a classic Irish pub. Both places are perfect for a brew or two.
Finally, who doesn’t love a comeback story? Let’s welcome Portofino Cafe (1318 Grant Avenue, 415-400-5776, no website), braving an opening during this pandemic. Locals will remember that Portofino, established in 1937, used to be on Columbus Avenue. It closed in the 1990s, but the owner’s son, Frankie Balistreri, raised in North Beach, wasn’t ready to let it go. “It’s everybody’s dream to open their own restaurant,” Balistreri says. Check out Portofino’s succulent seafood salad, a mountain of shrimp, crab, avocado and other veggies your nonna wants you to eat. And perhaps more important, because you’re on this treasure hunt, share some of your pieces of eight. We all need it.
Kat Anderson is a 25-year Marina resident and co-owner and operator of Word A Cafe in the Bayview District. She’s a reformed lawyer, S.F. Recreation and Park commissioner, and lover of foods that can be eaten without forks. E-mail: [email protected]