North Beach Journal

The Cellar, legacy businesses, and Elvis Christ has left the neighborhood


In the spring of 1957, poetry and jazz co-mingled as an art form in the Cellar, a basement nightclub in North Beach. The Cellar, 576 Green Street, is long gone and so is the experiment of combining jazz and poetry. However, a few days ago Sam’s Grill, which has a pleasing habit of calling attention to days gone by, featured a program called “The Beat Goes on at Sam’s Grill.” It recreated the jazz with poetry experiment in North Beach undertaken by Kenneth Rexroth and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. In the Sam’s Grill recreation, Robert Hass, former poet laureate of the United States, now a distinguished professor at UC Berkeley, played the role of Rexroth. Other readers were Brenda Hillman, prize-winning poet from Berkeley, and poet-attorney John Briscoe. I played Ferlinghetti. The jazz accompaniment was handled by Noah Griffin, press secretary for former mayor Frank Jordan, and talented, in-demand vocalist, whose scat singing provided the proper tone for the evening.

What were my qualifications for being in such august company? I look like Lawrence Ferlinghetti, seem to be catching up with him in age.

Rexroth scholar Ken Knabb dropped this one on me after the event: On one occasion before reading his poetry, Rexroth said, “Well, what would you like tonight, sex, mysticism, or revolution?” A woman in the audience replied, “What’s the difference?”


I ran into Gigi Fiorucci recently and asked what he was up to these days since he sold his seminal North Beach seafood restaurant, Gigi’s Sotto Mare, to Richie Azzolino back in 2014. For a while Gigi had been working as bartender in his son’s restaurant, Mike & Tony’s, in Mt. Shasta. This is a two-part story. Part one: Gigi’s son fired him because he served too many drinks on the house. Part two: Gigi, a prodigious restaurateur, is opening another restaurant, Piedmonte, in Mt. Shasta. It will be Gigi’s 14th restaurant: Among them — Montclair, Mayes Oyster House, Caesar’s, and Sotto Mare. Let’s charter a bus and go up there for the opening.


My favorite North Beach saloon, Gino and Carlo on Green Street, has been named a San Francisco legacy business. Do you know about San Francisco’s legacy business program? It’s available to longstanding stores, restaurants, bars, and galleries at risk of being priced out of the market. The businesses must be at least 30 years old, have contributed to the neighborhood’s history, and agree to maintain their identity. The city has a fund to benefit both the property owner and the establishment. Financial incentives include rent stabilization grants.

Among other North Beach legacy businesses are Specs’ Twelve Adler Museum Cafe (1968), Macchiarini Creative Design and Metalworks (1948), Caffe Trieste (1956), and City Lights Booksellers and Publishers (1953).

And standing in the wings waiting for legacy business approval are these North Beach establishments: Canessa Gallery (1966), Tommaso’s Ristorante Italiano (1935), Vesuvio Café (1948), Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store and Cafe (1971), Sodini’s Green Valley Restaurant (1906), Columbus Cutlery (1964), Graffeo Coffee Roasting Company (1932), Liguria Bakery (1911), Little City Market (1940), and Cafe Jacqueline (1979).


As readers will recall, I am a hot dog connoisseur. So the other day I dropped by the mother ship — Costco — to do a bit of on-the-spot research. I was not disappointed. I worked tirelessly at the chopped onion machine, one of the great inventions of the 21st century. Two things make Costco’s hot dogs special: chopped raw onion (hence the onion machine) and neon green sweet pickle relish. For me there are only two places in San Francisco for hot dogs: Buster’s in North Beach and Costco at 10th and Harrison.


No, I don’t usually do obits in my Sketches column. But in this case let me make an exception. My friend, the street artist Elvis Christ, a wonderful madman whose real name was Kevin Arnold, died recently.

Elvis Christ was a sidewalk poet. He used the North Beach sidewalks to communicate his poetic — frequently political — social concepts. When he got a brilliant idea, he scrawled it on masking tape and stuck it on the sidewalk. Try this:

Fame is nothing but an ego trip for those with enormous inferiority complexes.

While the best men wrestle with the enormous complexities, the worst yearn for power and prominence.

Elvis Christ was a guy who wore his heart on his sleeve and taped his brains to the sidewalk.

Elvis, we need you now.


“Don’t fear mistakes. There are none.”

— Attributed to Miles Davis

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