North Beach Journal

Charlotte and Tony, Angela and Aaron, Caen and Kerouac, North Beach Legacy Bars, and a Wake for Michael McCourt

A few months ago, I reported that an Irish pub would open in North Beach. And it has. It’s called BarNua and it’s located at 561 Columbus Avenue. My informant tells me that’s “New Bar” in Gaelic. You do speak Gaelic, don’t you?

But the great news is that the incomparable, incredible, incandescent Deirdre Black is the daytime bartender. De — we call her — built a loyal following at O’Reilly’s when it was on Green Street. De serves Guinness on tap, of course, and a bloody Mary with a lot of authority.

As to lunch, I have given my vote of confidence to the smoked salmon with dill sauce and house-made potato cakes, fish and chips, and the chicken potpie.


Charlotte Shultz, a young, leggy, yellow-haired gal from Borger, Tex. when I first met her many years ago, came to San Francisco (why not?) and volunteered to work for the city’s film festival. I was the publicist then. I got to know Charlotte, and we became friends. Now Charlotte is the spouse of retired statesman George Shultz.

Charlotte is a mover and shaker whose engine never idles. As protocol chief for our city, she is widely known for her diplomatic accomplishments, and she throws one helluva party. Most of her ideas are right on the mark. But the worst idea she ever had is her plan to erect a life-sized, bronze statue of Tony Bennett on Nob Hill in front of the Fairmont Hotel. The statue would be rigged so that passersby would trigger Tony to start singing “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”

Nob Hill is one of the most beautiful and historic urban sites anywhere in the United States. To clutter it up with a reality Tony Bennett seems a shame and a sham. I love you, Charlotte. Keep up your good work. But if you want to erect a bronze statue of Tony Bennett, why not do it in North Beach in front of Gigi’s Sotto Mare where the crooner likes to have his birthday parties?


Whether Angela Alioto actually stuck a spade in the ground at the groundbreaking and fundraising event in October is in dispute, but what we do know is that her fundraiser for the Piazza St. Francis, Poets Plaza attracted a lot of heavy hitters with heavy checkbooks to fund Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s visionary project.

Also, the mayor was there as were the chiefs of police and the fire department. Good signs.

What wasn’t a good sign is that citizen Aaron Peskin (remember him?) has come out in opposition to Ferlinghetti’s Italianate pedestrian piazza on Vallejo Street between Grant and Columbus Avenues. Naysayer Peskin, who has been running against incumbent Julie Christensen for District 3 supervisor, is on the wrong side of history on this one. The project will be realized and Alioto has the funding lined up to see it to completion, including an endowment for its maintenance. Peskin was looking for voters and thought he found them in a few disgruntled upper Vallejo Street residents who will have to drive one block out of their way to get to Columbus Avenue once the piazza is finished.


The other day an award-winning filmmaker, Michael House, was in town from his headquarters in France working on a documentary on Herb Caen. He prowled around North Beach, as Caen once did, looking for the old joints where Caen hung out that inspired his three-dot items. House stopped by the site of the old Washington Square Bar & Grill — gone. He stopped by Moose’s across Washington Square — gone. Then down to Broadway to the site of Enrico’s Coffeehouse — gone. (Now it’s Naked Lunch, named after the Beat book by William Burroughs.) The only spots the filmmaker found where Caen’s ghost could prowl for his items were Gino & Carlo — still going strong and full of items, and Caffe Trieste, once ground zero for the Beats in the days when Caen coined the word beatnik to identify Kerouac, Ginsberg, et al.


On Thursday evening, Oct. 15, Perry Butler held a dinner party at Perry’s, his landmark restaurant and bar on Union Street, where Michael McCourt once worked as bartender. Guests were members of the McCourt family and some close friends, and it was the kind of evening where they could all let their hair down. Perry recounted a time when a regular customer stayed until closing “doing himself great damage.” The following morning he was back and yelled at bartender McCourt, “Quick two aspirin.” McCourt replied, “What do you think this is — an effing hospital?”

The following day, North Beach — actually all of San Francisco — honored Michael McCourt, the highly engaging, quintessential Irish bartender. First was a funeral mass at Saints Peter and Paul, and then there was an Irish wake at Original Joe’s across Washington Square, where Michael held court behind the bar before he passed. As at all proper wakes, many rose and spoke. I was one of them. I read from the chapter on Michael in my book, Sketches from a North Beach Journal. Michael’s brother, Alphie, flew in from New York City. His eloquence had us all gasping. He wrote a poem about Michael, The Loneliness of the Labor Day Sunday (Michael died over that weekend). Here is a passage from Alphie’s poem:

In a voice left over from a time

When we didn’t need to spend half our lives

Looking over our shoulders and watching the watchers

A time when we could make a joke and not worry about the

lawsuit which these days is sure to follow

A voice left over yes indeed Mike almost outlived his time but didn’t

Living just long enough to set a bad and therefore a really

good and irreverent example

And best of all to leave a legacy rich in stories some real and

some invented and therefore all the more real

Since the teller must not allow the facts to obscure the truth

And that was our brother Michael …

Michael McCourt left us without permission.


And speaking of bars and bartenders, San Francisco Chronicle reporter J.K. Dineen has written a book: High Spirits: The Legacy Bars of San Francisco. In North Beach he singles out Vesuvio Cafe, Spec’s Twelve Adler Place, The Saloon, La Rocca’s Corner, and Mr. Bing’s Cocktail Lounge. All worthy legacy bars. Dineen points out that Vesuvio was a haven for the Beats and for Beat wannabes who came in asking “What did Jack Kerouac drink?” Answer: “Whatever people would buy for him.”

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