North Beach Journal

In pursuit of North Beach: A torch song for the good old days

The colorful scene in North Beach circa 1973.

“If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”
— Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, The Leopard

I’m on a rant. So I hope you won’t mind if I rattle on a

bit. Here are some of my thoughts about North Beach in the old days. A kind of torch song for this classic neighborhood, now fast disappearing before our tired eyes.

“It was the best of times. It was the worst of times” — to harken back to Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities. Let’s call this the “Tale of Two Neighborhoods” — one past and one present. Things have changed. And while some things change for the better, others change for the worst. And frankly, I miss those old days.

First, let’s make this perfectly clear: Yes, we still have a few enduring symbols of North Beach — like ancient bugs caught in amber to be examined in the light of day. Consider these: The Saloon, Liguria Bakery, City Lights Booksellers and Publishers, Molinari Delicatessen, Biordi Art Imports, Little City Market, North Beach Restaurant, and Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store and Cafe.


But, now consider this: What we’ve lost over the years is mind blowing.

Capp’s Corner: Yes, there is a gasping attempt to reopen it. And we wish that effort to be successful. But it should never have closed in the first place. The neighborhood is diminished without Capp’s Corner.

The Jazz Workshop: Changing times on Broadway and the advent of rock ‘n’ roll did in this wonderful old jazz club.

Enrico’s Sidewalk Cafe: Enrico Banducci, once considered the “Mayor of North Beach,” went bust.

The hungry i: See Enrico Banducci above. When you go bust, you go bust.

Vanessi’s: Does anyone remember Vanessi’s on Broadway? Sitting at the counter watching the showmen cooks prepare my meal in those hot pans was a religious experience.

Washington Square Bar & Grill: Several iterations of wannabes have tried to revive it but have never made it work.

La Felce: This was my favorite North Beach restaurant. The food was simple, but incredibly good. Can any of you remember the olive oil-dressed pinto beans served with minced onion and parsley? La Felce closed several years ago, but I still remember those beans.

Today, the ubiquitous symbol of North Beach is the pizza parlor. I wonder just how many pizza parlors constitute too many pizza parlors.


And would you believe that Broadway Street once featured fine restaurants like Vanessi’s, Swiss Louie’s, and New Joe’s, and jazz clubs like the Jazz Workshop, El Matador, Sugar Hill, and Basin Street West — instead of dark, sleaze-ball skin joints where the clientele wear their caps in their laps rather than on their heads? I’m excluding the Condor here with Carol Doda coming down from the ceiling on a white, baby grand — that was a classy act.


In the old days, we had three drugstores bordering Washington Square. We called them apothecaries.

At one time, we had three Italian delicatessens in North Beach and enough business for all three. Now there is only Molinari that dates its founding to 1896. In my time, there was also Panelli Bros that closed after 82 years and the Florence Ravioli Factory with 58 years on Stockton Street before a big rent increase drove the brothers out.

There were four meat markets. Now there is only the Little City Market, operated by Ron Spinali and his son Michael. Still going strong after more than 60 years. Now that’s endurance.

The history of grocery stores in North Beach is checkered, as it is in other San Francisco neighborhoods. Many were, and still are, delivery systems for half-pint flasks of booze. Not real grocery stores.


There was an Army-Navy store on Stockton Street where you could buy fishing tackle, first-aid kits, canteens, and jackknives. What a great idea.

Also on Stockton, in the space presently occupied by the Park Tavern restaurant, there was a store that sold elaborate overstuffed furniture that looked like it was designed for (or by) Benito Mussolini.

And, of course, hip readers will remember the Pagoda Palace — now a hole in the ground.

Let’s talk hardware stores. My favorite was Figoni Hardware on Upper Grant Avenue. Of course, I can’t complain too much about its loss, since artist Kevin Brown moved in and named his gallery Live Worms from a sign he found when he cleaned out the place. Figoni Hardware sold live worms for fishing bait.

And there was a workingman’s clothing store a few blocks away on Upper Grant that sold Oshkosh and Can’t Bust ‘Em shirts and overalls for the longshoremen and other blue-collar workers who shopped there.


There were also several bakeries in North Beach, and I liked having a choice. There was Danilo’s, and one across the street, but I can’t remember its name. Still operating are Victoria Pastry Company and Stella Pastry and Café, where the legendary sacripantina cake is still baked — a round sponge cake of several layers with zabaglione, Marsala, rum, and a dash of maraschino cherry juice for finesse.

Then there is the incomparable Liguria Bakery (still the home of the quintessential focaccia bread), and finally the Italian French Baking Company, which closed a while back.

There was a salami factory on Green Street (Columbus Salami, as I recall). You could smell the drying salami all over the neighborhood.

But Upper Grant Avenue still has a few shops that make sense to us old-timers. Aria, Schein & Schein, and Live Worms, come to mind.

So what happened here? The old Italians died off. Some of their offspring sold out and moved to the suburbs. Then rising rents, changing tastes, and sometimes-shoddy products simply got the better of us.


These days, when I get in a funk — as I am while writing this — I like to remember a place that, to me, symbolized everything magical about North Beach. It was the Old Spaghetti Factory, which closed in 1985. Do you remember it? The Old Spaghetti Factory, a wonderful metaphor for the old North Beach, was on Green Street, just up the hill a bit from Grant Avenue. That was the place where a magnificent, brown-skinned, Rubenesque woman named Flo Allen held court when she wasn’t doing nude modeling. If you were truly cool (cool was the operative state we all strived for in those days), Flo would greet you as a spaghetti-fancier with a kiss on both cheeks, pour you a glass of red wine, and make you wait for a while in one of the many old spring-sprung sofas that dotted the large room. The Beats hung out there, as they did on Upper Grant Avenue. And by the way, I miss the Beats. Today North Beach has only ersatz, lower-case beats and wannabe hippies.

There was a feeling of belonging at the Old Spaghetti Factory — a feeling of North Beach comradeship. I don’t get that feeling much anymore.

As I said earlier in this rant, things are changing. And change can be bad. But, then again, it can be good. “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”

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