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Opinion

Let’s toast the return of Tosca Cafe

photo: ynotjetlag / panoramio.com

When Sean Penn intercedes to save a North Beach landmark, I sit up and take notice. One assumes Penn has more pressing things to do — like going to bat for UNESCO’s Haitian Relief organization, or acting in award-winning movies, which he does with regularity. But we’re happy to note that saving Tosca, Jeannette Etheredge’s classy North Beach saloon on Columbus Avenue, was a high priority with him.

Tosca was about to go under and Jeannette Etheredge, who ran it for more than 30 years, was distraught. There were those who spoke darkly of Tosca becoming a strip club. That fizzed for a bit, then fizzled. Several months ago Penn, a Tosca regular, got in touch with some buddies in New York, Ken Friedman and his chef-partner April Bloomfield, who operate the Michelin-starred Spotted Pig, a Manhattan hotspot. And faster than you can say shazam, it was a done deal. Not only did Tosca continue as a beloved North Beach saloon, but also when it reopened last month there was a dividend: a new and improved Tosca that also served food. Under Etheredge, Tosca — its full name is Tosca Cafe — only served booze, ambience and attitude. Under Friedman and Bloomfield the booze, ambience, and attitude continues, but the pair has added Italian cuisine, what they describe as “rustic Italian fare.” No reservations. Service until 1 a.m. How’s that for a success story?

A CAPPUCCINO OF CONVENIENCE

All of this news makes me wish Sean Penn lived in North Beach. We need him. His head is screwed on straight. Imagine him saving Tosca. I wonder if he could have saved the Pagoda Palace Theater. But enough celebrity adulation. What’s the rest of the Tosca back story?

Tosca dates to November 1919, when three Italians came to San Francisco after World War I and decided to open a bar in North Beach. They named it Tosca after the daughter of one of the founders. They opened the bar, and less than two months later they received a monumental jolt — Prohibition went into effect. What to do?

One partner took off to Healdsburg to operate a brandy still. The others imported two espresso machines to steam the milk to add to the brandy. Soon, they were off and running with a house cappuccino — chocolate, steamed milk, and brandy. It was a cappuccino of convenience. The hell with Prohibition.

A NORTH BEACH SANCTUARY

And so Tosca has survived to this day. It made it through the Volstead Act, the Depression, World War II, the Beats, the Hippies, the Willie Brown era, and on it goes — and it still serves the house cappuccino.

Jeannette Etheredge has a fascinating family history that reads like a John Le Carre novel. Her mother, Armen Baliantz, was born in Manchuria. Her Armenian parents fled to Russia and later to China to escape the Armenian Genocide of 1915–17, the Ottoman government’s extermination of its Armenian minority.

Her mother married import-export businessman Aram Baliantz in Tsingtao, China, where Jeannette and her brother where born. During World War II, the family wound up in a Japanese prison camp where they spent four years. Later they spent two years in a refugee camp in the Philippines. A woman of great conviction and courage, Armen Baliantz then undertook the long journey to San Francisco and the happy sanctuary of North Beach.

THE CONSTANT WHIFF OF CELEBRITY

The concept of sanctuary is apt when reflecting on the history of this North Beach watering hole. The near-legendary Back Room at Tosca has been a sanctuary for Etheredge’s special “friends” and harder to gain access to than the Vanity Fair Academy Awards bash. Sean Penn, of course, had an all-access pass. So did Francis Ford Coppola, Philip Kaufman, Sam Shepard, Johnny Depp, Ed Harris, Hunter S. Thompson, Norman Mailer, Bono, Nick Nolte, and Nicholas Cage — just to skim some celebrity cream off the top. Nick Nolte played pool there wearing only hospital greens and granny glasses. Philip Kaufman huddled in a corner working on scripts. Bono was so taken with the North Beach landmark that he opened a bar in Dublin called Tosca.

What actually was in the famed Tosca Back Room? A pool table and the constant whiff of celebrity. Under the new ownership, we are told that the Back Room has become a storage area and perhaps a banquet room. But don’t believe it. It will continue to be a private haven for North Beach slumming celebrities. If I’m wrong, I’ll stand a round at the bar at Capp’s Corner. If I’m right, you owe me one.

A HIGH AUTHORITY

And that brings up a curious right-coast, left-coast difference. In New York, restaurants and saloons go to great lengths to display their celebrities. At joints like the much-missed Elaine’s on the Upper East Side, Woody Allen and other seemingly shy folks were seated prominently in the front of the house so the rest of us could ogle them. And when I was a lad hanging out in that quintessential New York saloon Toots Shor’s, one could see Ernest Hemingway at the great oval bar near the entrance. Or perhaps Jack Dempsey. Jackie Gleason was on hand to guzzle martinis by the half gallon and to display his wobbly Jackie Gleason shuffle.

But here in San Francisco we pretend to hide our A-list celebs like cloistered Trappist monks who murmur only to themselves and to a higher authority. In the case of Tosca, the higher authority was (and I assume still will be) Jeannette Etheredge.

A LOVER OF BALLET

But how did Jeannette Etheridge acquire so much juice with our culture icons — pop and otherwise? She can thank her mother for that. Shortly after Armen Baliantz arrived in San Francisco, she opened her own restaurant at Sansome and Jackson using an emerald ring for bank loan collateral. Later the restaurant moved to Pacific and Battery. She called it Bali’s and soon it was the in spot for a diverse group of dancers, writers, and filmmakers, and of course their hangers-on and wannabes. Baliantz, a beautiful and scintillating woman, was a ballet enthusiast and she loved to cosset the stars. She befriended Rudolf Nureyev when he defected from the Soviet Union in 1961. And she became a close friend and confidant of Mikhail Baryshnikov. Everyone who was anyone — as they once gushed in the society columns — turned up at “Madam Bali’s.” She was beloved. She held court with caviar, champagne, and Russian vodka. Her rack of lamb, marinated in pomegranate juice made The Godfather genius Coppola — an Armen Baliantz acolyte — almost weep with joy.

Daughter Jeannette grew up in this regal milieu. She got to know the cast of characters in her mother’s life. Then in 1980 Armen convinced Jeannette to buy Tosca. She said it was the first bar she entered when she came to the United States, and she grew to love it. For several years, Armen and her Bali’s restaurant shared the North Beach spotlight with Jeannette’s Tosca saloon. Bali’s closed in 1985. Armen Baliantz died in 2007.

Soon Tosca with its coveted Back Room became hallowed ground. And it looks as though it will continue to be just that. Thank you Sean Penn. Now, how would you like to open a theater in North Beach?

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