North Beach Journal

The Gentleman Trencherman, the bartender, the barista, the philosopher, the photographer, the cop, and the mama


My buddy James Melling, the Gentleman Trencherman of North Beach as I frequently call him, has a habit. Actually, it’s a good habit, and I wouldn’t want him to break it. He likes to start the day with a half dozen Beausoleil oysters on the half-shell with a squeeze of lemon. Those are the briny ones from New Brunswick. What a sensible idea.

Gentleman Jim is a flaneur. He chooses to wander about the neighborhood from place to place aimlessly — sampling the oysters here and perhaps a slice of pizza there. He washes this all down with a glass of Pinot Grigio or a house red. We try to get together weekly for lunch and to practice a bit of flanerie — two dawdlers dawdling through North Beach.


We usually start early, perhaps around 10:30, at Gino & Carlo on Vallejo just to loosen up a bit with Campari and soda with a brandy float, and some neighborhood gossipy chatter. Because Gino & Carlo opens at 6 a.m., there is much to talk about with the faithful by the time we get there. Only when our need for gossip and sports ephemera has been sated do we walk next door to Gigi’s for the oysters. What we are talking about here is a progressive lunch accompanied by suitable beverages — a kind of moveable feast.

Recently, after the Campari and the oysters, we moved with dispatch to the Liguria Bakery for a slice of focaccia with tomato sauce and a sprinkling of chopped onions. Then we perched in Washington Square Park to scarf and to meditate for a while before moving ahead with our adventure — and it’s always an adventure with the Gentleman Trencherman.


On the day in question, we dropped in to see the Irish superstar bartender Michael McCourt at Original Joe’s and to hear his latest Irish jokes. We accompanied this with a Bloody Mary served straight up in a wine glass — as the gods and goddesses of saloons dictate. Over on Columbus — that dolce far niente Italian avenue — we stopped to chat with Bernardo Quintana, the North Beach street haberdasher, actor, and philosopher. Bernie’s an existentialist and deals in questions of social importance in the neighborhood. I find him a good sounding board, and I bought a couple of shirts from him out of his black carry-on bag. The insouciant Gentleman Jim demurred. He’s more of a Wilkes Bashford kind of guy.


Then it was off to the U.S. Restaurant for the Tuesday special — roast shoulder of lamb and lima beans — and to watch the hot pans flying in the open kitchen. We wound up at Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store Cafe to be anointed with a double espresso by Jessie, the beautiful barista of our dreams.

With that, we called it a day — just another day in North Beach.


I reported in my last column that Mama’s on Washington Square was moving from its site at the corner of Filbert and Stockton where it has been for more than 50 years to the empty Piazza Market at Vallejo and Columbus. Not so! You see even columnists make mistakes. Vince Sanchez, project manager for the Michael Sanchez family that owns Mama’s, set me straight. The Original Mama’s on Washington Square will remain right where it is. The new Mama’s in the Piazza Market space is an expansion. Yes, it is taking a long time to get the new operation up and running — 20 months to date —according to Vince who tells me 50 percent of the new space will be devoted to specialty grocery items.


There’s a new delicatessen expected to open soon in North Beach. It’s aptly named Central Station Delicatessen, because it’s on Vallejo in the same block as the Central Police Station. It will probably get a lot of cop action. And you know what they say — if you find a restaurant where cops, priests, or fancy women are dining, you can count on good food. At least that’s what A. J. Liebling, the great prose stylist for The New Yorker, wrote in his book Between Meals. And I concur.


And speaking of Central Station, James Deignan — known in North Beach as “Jim the Cop” — has retired from the SFPD after 42 years. Like many off-duty and former cops, Jim hangs out at Capp’s Corner. He likes the food. See item above. Yes, I’ve seen cops and priests in Capp’s but if I’ve seen fancy women, I didn’t realize it. I’ll have to check with Jim Deignan.


Recently we lost another good neighborhood restaurateur. He was Wing Tim Yu, the proprietor of Yuet Lee, the Hong Kong-style restaurant at the corner of Broadway and Stockton.


Jimo Perini, the Photographer, hangs out at Caffe Puccini in North Beach. Notice I have capitalized “Photographer” in that sentence. These days everyone is a “photographer,” and note I have put the word in lower case and quotes in this sentence. No, this is not an exercise in punctuation. It’s an exercise in adulation. Jimo, who is 86, is a photographer of the old school. He shoots with a 35mm camera that holds real film and requires him to make decisions on shutter speed, lens openings, focus, and depth of field. He shoots the photos, then develops the film and prints the photos in his darkroom. Jimo’s black-and-white prints sell for hefty prices. His classic book of photographs is called San Francisco Grip. It’s mostly pictures of cable cars and San Francisco scenes. When I ran into Jimo the other day over at Caffe Puccini, we chatted and I introduced my wife. I said, “Joanie, this is the famous Photographer Jimo.” And Jimo, in a courtly manner, rose from his table to greet her. Joanie said, “Ernie says you are a wonderful photographer.” Jimo replied, “I just point the camera and push the button. God does the rest.”

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