North Beach Journal

Plebian food for plain folks and my favorite vegetable

In a recent column, i attempted to entertain readers by repeating a few lines I picked up while eavesdropping in North Beach. I was probably entertaining only myself, but never mind. Here’s a new offering for you to consider.


Question: What do you call a bunch of nuns — a school, a flock?

Answer: Nun of the above.

Question: What about a bunch of monks?

Answer: Monkey business.

O.K., O.K., I hear you. I’ll stop listening to this kind of stuff.


Lately I’ve been thinking of reinventing myself as a chef and opening a restaurant in North Beach. It can’t be that difficult, can it? I’ll just serve good food — stuff I like. I’ll call it Plebian Food for Plain Folks. Catchy name! The menu will include beef stew, pot roast, meatloaf, meat balls and spaghetti, and maybe some Polish sausage with sauerkraut. Do you know there are only a couple of places in the neighborhood where you can get sauerkraut? They are Albona Ristorante Istriano, down on Francisco Street, and Buster’s on Columbus Avenue, where the master griller will add some to your hot dog if you want it. I always want it.

And by the way, in my new plebian food restaurant there will be no fancy foam sauces, no deconstruction, no seaweed, sticks or stones, edible dirt, or infant vegetables applied to your plate with tweezers — and no quinoa, no kale, no kelp.


The other day I was having lunch at Sotto Mare and Melissa Lavelle was serving me. I said to her: “Are you the ‘sweet’ Melissa that Gregg Allman wrote the song about?”

She said she was indeed.

“Interestingly there’s a Melissa over at Original Joe’s who also thinks she’s sweet Melissa,” I said.

Ah, the sweet Melissas.


Marijane Pierson — the joyously salty, silver-haired, North Beach goddess — had a birthday recently and decided to give herself a party. The neighborhood cognoscenti turned out at Betty Lou’s for the event that began at 1 p.m. and was still going on when I left at 5 p.m. Marijane’s birthday party may just have been the defining gathering of North Beach insiders. More than 75 bartenders, saloon patrons, retired cops, poets, and painters, and solid, working class muckety-mucks were there to wish Marijane a happy birthday and to eat their way through Betty Lou’s menu from oysters to clam chowder, from Mike’s wok crab to sand dabs. When I left, there were rumors of the imminent arrival of linguine with clams and mussels.


I went up to Nob Hill the other evening to check out Osso Steakhouse — USDA Prime or certified Angus. I wanted a big steak. There are several fine places for steaks in North Beach, but none as fancy as this Osso joint. It’s owned by the same folks who operate Calzone’s and the Stinking Rose on Columbus Avenue in my neighborhood. I went for the bone-in ribeye. Splendido! There’s a 28-ounce Porterhouse, too. I’ll try that next time. My favorite vegetable is steak.


Poster as Process is the name of an exhibition by award-winning artist-illustrator John Mattos that will open April 7 at gallery-shop Terrific Street, 1534 Grant Avenue. Mattos, a North Beacher, did the poster for the 1991 superhero film The Rocketeer. It was selected as one of the 100 best movie posters of all time by the American Film Institute. At 8 p.m. the same evening, Terrific Street will screen The Sniper in the alley behind the gallery-shop. It was there that much of the 1900 noir movie was shot in 1952.

And, by the way, Terrific Street was named after Pacific Avenue, the Barbary Coast hotspot known for its jazz and other pleasures.


A while back I was on a nostalgia trip, and I wrote a column about places I miss in North Beach. I’m still on that trip so I thought I would lay out another loss for the neighborhood. Broadway once had really classy entertainment. In the couple of blocks between Kearny Street and Columbus Avenue there were four or five jazz clubs featuring major artists.

One that I still miss is Sugar Hill. Basically a blues club — Broadway’s very own jook joint — Sugar Hill was operated by a woman named Norma Aston. She was a tall string bean of a gal from the Midwest who came to San Francisco for the action.

I was a regular at Sugar Hill. I dug the blues, and I dug Norma.


On the bill at Sugar Hill were such giants as Big Mama Willie Mae Thornton (you may remember she wrote “Hound Dog”), Lightnin’ Sam Hopkins, John Lee Hooker, and Eddie (Cleanhead) Vinson.


Norma heard about a New Orleans blues guy named Razorblade Toogaloo Shorty and she booked him. But before Blade (that was his nickname) could make the date at Sugar Hill, he was shot full of holes by a rival for a damsel’s hand. They had an old-time marching band funeral for him.


Etched into the sidewalk on Union Street between Columbus and Stockton in capital letters is the word modesty — looks like it was done with a stick or a finger when the cement was wet. It’s either a bold woman’s name or a call to action in louche North Beach.

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