North Beach Journal

The Beats, Upper Grant, the martini, and Live Worms

Not long ago I heard from Ryan Russo, a young guy who operates Walk SF Tours. He liked something I wrote for my Sketches column and invited me to tag along on one of his tours, The Beats in San Francisco. Sounded like a good idea, so I met Ryan at the Beat Museum on Broadway and did his walk with a small group of tourists. I learned a lot. Ryan, who lives in North Beach, has done his homework, and is a personable and knowledgeable guy. He’s been in San Francisco for seven years. “I followed a woman here from my hometown, Houston, and it didn’t work out,” he told me. Houston’s loss is San Francisco’s gain.


On Ryan’s Beat tour we visited the Beat Museum, City Lights, Vesuvio’s, Jack Kerouac Alley, the site of the old Hall of Justice where the “Howl” trial took place, and a couple of Chinatown restaurants the Beats favored. Then we cut up to Broadway and over to Montgomery to look at the building where Allen Ginsberg wrote Howl. Then it was over to Upper Grant to reminisce at the sites for Beat hangouts: the Coffee Gallery, the Co-Existence Bagel Shop, The Place — and the crash pad where Jim Morrison spent an uneasy night long ago. Then over to the site of the Cellar on Green Street where Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Kenneth Rexroth recited poetry to live jazz. And so it went. I’m not giving you exact locations here because I think you would love to tour with Ryan.

If you want to spend a couple of hours with him on the Beat tour, it operates Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays, starting at 1 pm. Reservations only ($30 per person) online at or 415-779-5879. A fluent French-speaking guy, Ryan also operates A Pied tours for Francophiles. Same contact numbers. The other tours are Chinatown and North Beach Tasting Tour ($59) and the Gold Rush Drinking Tour ($69).

And by the way, Ryan gave up a Silicon Valley tech job to hang out in North Beach, researching the Beats and offering walking tours.


Clearly Upper Grant Avenue, where the Beats hung out, is not your grandmother’s white-gloved, department store or your Mill Valley girl’s suburban mall. It’s a gutsy few neighborhood blocks of bars, restaurants, and idiosyncratic shops where shopkeepers sell funny stuff. And “stuff” is defined loosely. I once almost bought a doctor’s tray full of turn-of-the-century, anatomically correct glass eyes that I thought might work on my coffee table from the collectibles shop Aria.

Grant Avenue — which now stretches from downtown through Chinatown and North Beach and clear out to the Northern waterfront — began as Calle de la Fundacion (Street of the Founding) in those early days when San Francisco was just a sleepy village. Later it was named Dupont Street for a prominent naval figure of the time, Rear Adm. Samuel Francis Dupont. The Chinese called it Dupon Gai. After the 1906 earthquake and fire, the name was changed to honor Ulysses S. Grant, the Union’s great Civil War general and our 18th president. Don’t call it Grant Street, by the way.

Upper Grant Avenue will forever be linked with the counterculture and memories of pot, red wine, jazz, poetry, and just plain sounding off about the state of affairs, the affairs of state, and all that.


Let’s have James Thurber open this paean to the martini: “One martini is all right. Two are too many, and three are not enough.”

I have a buddy, Jerry Gibbons, who was one half of the celebrated ad agency Pritikin and Gibbons back in the fifties. Jerry is a straight-up martini sort of guy. And when I saw him the other day, we toasted our longevity with a couple of big ones — with lemon twists but no olives. “Never an olive in a martini,” Jerry said decisively. “And never with vodka and never on the rocks.”

That got me musing over the arcane subject of martinis. There’s a considerable amount of scholarship asserting that the martini began life in 1874 as the “Martinez,” named after the old Gold Rush town across the bay on the south side of the Carquinez Strait. Barnaby Conrad III wrote a marvelous book on the martini in 1995 and raised the martini flag for Martinez, which has a brass plaque claiming origin.

Conrad’s father, Barnaby Conrad II, was a friend of mine, and as a devotee, I lifted many a martini mouthward in his classy club El Matador on Broadway.

This musing got me started on a delicate research project to answer the question: Who makes the finest martini in North Beach? What I concluded was this: George McCarthy, bartender at Capp’s Corner, makes the best martini. A more proper verb in this case would be “create.” George is a creator. Here, in his own words, is how he does it:

“I pour a good gin into my cocktail shaker and add a tiny drop or two of vermouth — or none at all. I always stir my martinis, unlike James Bond who preferred them shaken. Shaking lets in too much air. You don’t want to drink air, do you?”


A high point to anyone’s visit to North Beach is a stop at artist Kevin Brown’s Live Worms gallery at 1345 Grant Avenue. And if you don’t know why it’s called Live Worms, you haven’t been reading my columns. The news is Kevin is taking a break to paint and travel. His painting buddy Paul Fujii will be in residence and will continue to show Kevin’s work, his own work as well as that of other artists.

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