Hungry Palate

Capp’s Corner: A saloonist’s saloon

A local classic with Italian family fare
Grab a seat, meet your neighbors, eat at Capp’s ( photo courtesy of capp’s corner)

Capp’s Corner is the North Beach neighborhood’s throwback to a simpler, more salubrious time — a time when devotees chuckled over Herb Caen or Charles McCabe anecdotes about the good old days and the good old places.

Actually Capp’s Corner is one of the good old places — one of the few remaining classic saloons in San Francisco. And we old-timers who hang out there should guard it well like an heirloom wristwatch, making sure it still works and will be around for our progeny to enjoy.

Capp’s Corner is a North Beach sociological artifact — a saloonist’s saloon, which somewhat surprisingly just happens to serve food of a curiously unexpected quality.

You’re not likely to find Capp’s as the site for those socialite snapshots in the Nob Hill Gazette. Instead you will discover louche and loopy neighborhood life where the bar conversation moves jerkily between the banal to the brilliant.

Overheard at Capp’s
Some might say Capp’s Corner takes the word seedy to another level. But let’s correct that. Capp’s is not seedy — weedy would be more apt. Overheard at Capp’s bar: “Do you know what the ultimate rejection is?” Answer: “When your hand falls asleep.” Some of us didn’t get it at first, then it hit like
a sledgehammer.

“Oh, Lord, please protect this poor Irish immigrant.” A plea with upturned eyes, while shaking the leather dice cup.

“I have to go to the DMV to get my license renewed.”

“They’ll never renew it. You might as well get a Muni senior pass.”

Location is everything
Capp’s Corner anchors a short block of Green Street at the western end, between Powell and Columbus. Across the street to the east is the Green Street Mortuary with its famed marching band that sends the departed off to their just rewards with resounding Christian hymns. Almost directly opposite the mortuary is Fugazi Hall, a historic Italian-American social hall built in 1913. In the 1950s the Beat community held poetry readings there, but for many years now Fugazi Hall has been home to Beach Blanket Babylon, the topical musical revue. The gravity of the Green Street Mortuary contrasts sharply with the silly exuberance of Beach Blank Babylon. That gives Green Street a bizarre, only-in-San-Francisco quality. Capp’s Corner is both the beneficiary of that bizarre quality and a contributor to it.

It Hasn’t Changed Much Since 1963
Joe Capp, a character who appeared to step right out of Damon Runyon’s Guys and Dolls, opened Capp’s Corner in 1963. He was a newspaper delivery kid, truck driver, boxer with a broken nose, boxing promoter, gambler, and restaurateur, always with a big black cigar stuck in the corner of his
mouth. Capp’s hasn’t changed much since then.

These days it’s operated in absentia by one-time North Beach denizen Tom Ginella who jets in frequently from his base in Hawaii to see how things are going. Things seem to be going just fine. The luminary, sports-talking bartender is Ray Boatright who listens patiently to his guests’ stories, commiserates when they reveal their problems, and knows the score, whatever the game. The principal waiter, our man Wilson, is fast, friendly and properly Wilsonian. The chef is Mario Soto who has been at Capp’s for many years and around the neighborhood even longer. He learned his kitchen skills in North Beach.

But what about the food?
In the interest of full disclosure, let me state: While the writer of this review is a regular customer at Capp’s Corner and known to be a witty bar-mate but occasionally cantankerous, the saloon’s management and employees were not advised in advance of this restaurant review. And, all meals enjoyed at Capp’s — and there have been many — were paid for by this writer.

Let’s be perfectly clear. Capp’s is not a trendy gastronomic sensation. But it’s not stuck in a culinary torpor either. It’s a classic red-sauce Italian joint with attitude. It serves that red tomato sauce proudly and unabashedly. It will ambush you with its depth of flavor.

Here are several meals to give you the sense of what Capp’s Corner is all about:

Petrale and Roast Lamb
Occasionally my Chronicle lunch-buddy Carl Nolte joins me at Capp’s to talk about old times. Recently he chose the petrale sole with lemon butter, and I opted for the roast leg of lamb (both $11.50 à la carte or $14
with a salad).

We both had Capp’s green salad with kidney and garbanzo beans, beets and — are you ready — iceberg lettuce, all laced with the house creamy vinaigrette. Nolte expressed high satisfaction with a thick filet of sole. My lamb was juicy, a bit pink the way it should be, and had a fine lamby flavor.

Clams, Mussels and Italian Sausage
I’m in the habit of putting considerable trust in Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s judgment on food (not to mention poetry), and occasionally we meet for lunch at Capp’s. I’ve noticed he frequently orders the same dish: linguini with mussels and clams ($9.50). The man knows what he likes, and he sticks to it. When I’ve checked it out it’s been superb — clams and mussels firm and fresh in a salty and buttery brine. My Ferlinghetti lunch one day was penne with Italian sausage, roasted bell peppers and onions ($9.50). Ferlinghetti usually ends his lunch at Capp’s with a dish of spumoni ($3.50), so one day I tried it too. It was fine, not poetic, but then I’m not a spumoni zealot.

A Gentleman Trencherman
James Melling is another of my Capp’s dining partners, and occasionally we eat right at the bar. A North Beach Gentleman Trencherman, Melling likes the penne with pesto ($6.50). I dig into a tureen of minestrone ($3.50) or if it’s Friday, a full-flavored New England clam chowder ($3.50).

Bob Mulcrevy — once a prominent San Francisco saloon proprietor — is a spaghetti and meatballs kind of guy and another Capp’s regular who dines at the bar so he doesn’t miss any of the action. He proclaims the spaghetti and meatballs ($9.50) to be the quintessential North Beach red sauce offering, top-of-the-line sustenance. And I agree with him.

One day while Mulcrevy was digging into his spaghetti, I opted for the grilled pork chop with Marsala sauce ($11.50). The chop was an inch thick, juicy, a bit spicy, and had no resemblance to your boots’ leather soles the way pork chops sometimes do.

The Family-Style Dinner
On those evenings when I stop by Capp’s, I go for the complete family-style dinners, which include minestrone, salad, pasta, and vegetables. And I tend to stick with a short list of winners: osso buco with polenta or the grilled New York steak (both $25.50).

Capp’s Corner: 1600 Powell Street (at Green); lunch Monday–Thursday & Friday 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m., Saturday 11:30 a.m.–4 p.m., Sunday 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m.; dinner Monday–Thursday 4:30–10 p.m., Friday– Saturday 4:30–10:30 p.m., Sunday, 2:30–10 p.m. Closed Tuesdays. 415-989-2589,
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Ratings range from zero to four diamonds and reflect food, atmosphere and service, taking price range and type of restaurant into consideration.

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