North Beach Journal

The last of Capp’s Corner?

If you run across a restaurant where you often see priests eating with priests, or sporting girls with sporting girls, you may be confident that it is good.” I am indebted for that quote to A. J. Liebling, the famed New Yorker writer in his book Between Meals — required reading for anyone who enjoys good food and drink. I would only add to Liebling’s exacting concept the word “cops.” Cops know how and where to eat, and cops have been eating at Capp’s Corner since the North Beach landmark opened in 1963.

I take the time to lay out Liebling’s axiom because we may have seen the last of that exemplary North Beach saloon-restaurant. And I have personally witnessed priests and cops dining in Capp’s and just plain folks in search of a well-presented beverage, a decent meal, and some conviviality. As to Liebling’s sporting girls, well perhaps — but then, it is difficult to tell.

Tom Ginella has been the proprietor of Capp’s Corner since 1986 when he took it over from original owner Joe Caporale, better known as Joe Capp, a salty North Beach character. Ginella has done a good job maintaining the spirit of this classic. He operates a surprisingly good restaurant. Italian red sauce pastas are excellent. So is the meatloaf. The linguine with clams and mussels is the best to be found in North Beach — possibly in this entire food-crazed city. At Capp’s Corner flavor is never hesitant.

Capp’s Corner is a textbook saloonist’s saloon. Life there proceeds at a measured pace. No one is in a hurry. Patrons feel as though they are characters in a three-act drama with comic overtones. Everyone knows each other. Newcomers are treated like regulars and soon become old-timers.

The antique, mirrored back bar is a beauty. Looks like it came around the Horn on a sailing ship. Black and white photos and drawings of the greats and near-greats cover the walls: Joe Louis, Joe DiMaggio, Vernon Alley, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, cast members of Beach Blanket Babylon, long-gone bartenders, long-gone journalists, and politicians. Capp’s is a memorial to the “long-gones” but “not-forgottens.” At the rear, there’s a neon advertising display by a beer company featuring a clock with a sign reading “Earthquake Time” — its hands frozen at 5:04 p.m. — the exact time of the Oct. 17 Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989.

Speaking of Earthquake Time, I recall entering Capp’s the morning after that catastrophe. There was no power in much of the city. All the bars in North Beach were shuttered, but not Capp’s Corner. Someone had brought in a load of ice from Marin County. And we loyalists were drinking our bloody marys in the morning-after gloom. The sound system was playing softly — big band swing and Frank Sinatra — just as it does today.

If Capp’s Corner goes dark, we all will miss staff members who have become close friends. Bartenders George McCarthy, Randy Harris, Rose Lynch, and Jeff Brown. Waiters Wilson Ton and Nick Aleves. And the cooks who turn out that astonishing food — Fermie Montes and Jose Gonzalez.

Why is Capp’s Corner in danger of closing? Well, you’ve heard this story before — unreasonable rent hike. “It’s one thing to pay market rate,” Ginella told me, “It’s another thing to get driven out of business.”

Capp’s Corner anchors that short block of Green Street at the western end between Powell and Columbus. The street is home to Fugazi Hall, where Beach Blanket Babylon is featured and to the Green Street Mortuary. The gravity of the mortuary, which has its own famed marching band for funerals, contrasts sharply with the exuberant mirth of Beach Blanket Babylon. Capp’s Corner fits right in as a contributor to the only-in-San Francisco street scene. It is louche and loopy and the bar conversation moves happily from the banal to the brilliant.

If Capp’s Corner closes — it could be as early as the end of January or February — priests, cops, sporting girls, governors, mayors, attorneys, business tycoons, socialites, authors, journalists, and poets will be looking for a new place to experience North Beach.

Patrons will long remember the sign displayed near the door: Emergency Instructions: Get your coat, don’t forget your hat. Leave your worries on the doorstep. Just direct your feet to the sunny side of the street!

Without Capp’s Corner, the street wouldn’t be very sunny anymore.


James Melling and I — two North Beach bon vivants out on the town — dined at Capp’s Corner a recent evening then ambled down to the basement nightclub called Doc’s Lab to hear our friend Jessie Silva sing with a band known as the DonCats.

Doc’s Lab occupies the Columbus Avenue space of the old Purple Onion where Phyllis Diller, the Smothers Brothers, and the Kingston Trio once performed. Inexplicably, Doc’s Lab is named for the late marine biologist Ed “Doc” Ricketts’ Cannery Row Laboratory in Monterey, which was not a nightclub but a working laboratory. I suppose the same logic — none — applies here as the name Jefferson Airplane for the 1960s rock band that created the San Francisco sound.


When Melling and I descended to Doc’s Lab to hear Jessie, we ran into wall-to-wall Saturday night North Beach celebrants. Tiny tables were all occupied and it was standing room only. That is until Melling had a word with someone and suddenly — like the famous nightclub scene in the movie Goodfellas — a waiter weaved through the crowd holding a table over his head, plunked it down in front of the stage, found two chairs, James and I were seated, and the show began.

Jessie and the DonCats are somewhat reminiscent of Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons — indie folk rock with a bit of country thrown in. Jessie has a pure, broad-range delivery that reminded me of the Airplane’s Grace Slick. When I told her that later, she deadpanned predictably, “Who’s Grace Slick?” I explained and added that at a White House party during the Nixon years, Slick considered spiking the punch with LSD. Don’t invite Jessie to the White House.

Drop into Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store and Cafe. She works there days.


There are almost daily reports of a long-lost, but now found, 18-page letter that Beat prototype Neal Cassady wrote to Jack Kerouac. Presumably, the letter inspired Kerouac to write stream-of-consciousness prose for his iconic novel On the Road. The letter was to be auctioned to the highest bidder but has been delayed by threats of lawsuits by both the Cassady and the Kerouac estates who want a piece of the action. I say give the letter to City Lights Booksellers and Publishers, which was ground zero for the Beats.

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