Here come the year-end holidays, and not a moment too soon. Winking lights have been strung up along Upper Grant Avenue in North Beach since early November. Shops like Schein & Schein and Aria have been whetting our appetites for gifts. Ron Spinali at Little City Market has those prime ribs aging in his walk-in fridge. Neighbors are weighing the advantages of turkey, roast beef, or Dungeness crab. And my aphorism for the Christmas season this year is: Never cook a goose.*
CAPP’S CORNER IN DANGER?
My favorite North Beach watering hole is endangered. Capp’s Corner, at the corner of Powell and Green streets, is having trouble renegotiating its lease. Although the landlord claims she doesn’t want to see the 50-year-old saloon and red-sauce classic expire, the terms are unreasonable, and proprietor Tom Ginella might be forced to close the joint. I suspect the un-grand plan at work here is to stick a few high-figure rental units in the Capp’s Corner space.
And as I write this column, news comes that Café Divine, corner of Stockton and Union, is closing. Lease up. Landlord wants a 30-percent rent increase.
Are we seeing the future of North Beach here? If so, it’s not pretty. Why is North Beach one of the most attractive neighborhoods in the city? Because of its character, its characters, and because of its classic saloons and restaurants.
I’m in good company wanting to preserve Capp’s Corner.
“It’s my favorite North Beach restaurant,” says California Governor Jerry Brown who comes for lunch once a month with his St. Ignatius classmates.
“It’s an old-time neighborhood institution and the only place where I can get a dish of spumoni,” says Lawrence Ferlinghetti, himself a neighborhood institution.
“Capp’s Corner is a San Francisco classic — a perfect example of a North Beach restaurant, with a big bar, a wall full of famous San Francisco types, good food, and plenty of it. I remember the days when Joe Capp himself would greet you from his perch by the door, smoking a big cigar. I miss everything about those days — except the cigar,” says the San Francisco Chronicle’s Native Son columnist, Carl Nolte.
“All I want for Christmas this year is a new and equitable lease,” says Tom Ginella.
HERB CAEN IN NORTH BEACH
Do you remember Herb Caen? Well, if you’re of a certain age and love this city without question, you will remember the San Francisco Chronicle columnist who died in 1997. If you are a new and youthful San Franciscan, the name may not resonate.
Pulitzer Prize-winning Herb Caen, who wrote a column about the “glitterati” and just plain folks like you and me, liked to hang out in North Beach. His favorite neighborhood saloons were the endangered Capp’s Corner, the Washington Square Bar & Grill, and Enrico’s over on Broadway — two down, none to go. He would scratch around those joints for news tips that he then put into what he called his “item smasher” — a file of news and ephemera being considered for his next day’s column. But here is something you might not know about Caen. It may come as a surprise. He picked up his own tab and paid the bill. And sometimes he paid yours, too.
UPDATE ON GIGI’S
Last April, in what I call my “Ernestos: Best of North Beach Awards,” I named the mother-daughter duo, Betty and Christina Pesce of Gigi’s Sotto Mare, 522 Green Street, the best waitpersons in the neighborhood. Then a while back, I dropped into Gigi’s to see them, and daughter Christina said, “Well, I guess I won’t be seeing you around much anymore.” That news stopped me in my tracks. If Christina had told me she was moving to Tierra del Fuego, I would have gone home, packed, and taken off for the Strait of Magellan. But no, the young lady just meant she would be working more nights than days under Sotto Mare’s new ownership. The irrepressible Gigi Fiorucci has sold the popular North Beach seafood joint to Richie and Laura Azzolino, North Beachers themselves. Have I noticed any change? Minimally. Sotto Mare is still tops. And remember: If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.
* Unless you have use for a gallon of goose fat.