North Beach Journal

The times they are a changin’ in the old neighborhood

From left: Donald Ellis, executive editor Grizzly Peak Press; Ernest Beyl, Marina Times columnist; Tony Serra, noted San Francisco attorney; Nancy Peters, former executive director City Lights Booksellers & Publishers, and the still-youthful Lawrence Ferlinghetti celebrate Ferlinghetti’s 96th birthday at Capp’s Corner.


The evening of Tuesday, March 31, I sat in the bar at Original Joe’s in North Beach with my friend, San Francisco Chronicle columnist Carl Nolte, and our wives, waiting for word that the lease allowing for the continuation of my favorite neighborhood saloon-restaurant, Capp’s Corner, had been signed.

Wrangling and squabbling over the lease had been going on for more than a year. At last, (we believed) this uncertainty would end. Even as we sat in Original Joe’s, attorneys, landlords, and tenants were meeting to sign the lease. Soon Maureen and Tom Ginella, the longtime proprietors of Capp’s Corner, would join us. We would pop a bottle of champagne and celebrate.

Then the axe fell. Tom called with the bad news. The deal had gone south. Tom told me he and Maureen wouldn’t be joining us for that celebratory champagne. He said more impossible demands would force Capp’s Corner to close Sunday, April 19, the final day the iconic North Beach joint would welcome customers.

As I said in my April Sketches column, I am an optimist and I thought my beloved neighborhood hangout would be around forever. Not so! Things change, and not always for the better.


Brian St. Pierre and Mary Etta Moose, wife of Ed Moose who was also his partner in the long-gone Washington Square Bar & Grill, wrote a book in 1981 called The Flavor of North Beach. It was a guide to dining out in the neighborhood, listed Italian delicatessens, bakeries, and other food shops, and offered a few recipes by restaurant cooks. The book cost $5.95 and was a bargain. The Flavor of North Beach has been updated, and I bought one the other day on Amazon for a penny. Yes, a penny. How’s that for a bargain?

The original book listed 29 North Beach restaurants. Among them are 20 that are no longer operating. Maybe you remember some of these: Amelio’s, Gold Spike, Green Valley, Jovanelo’s, La Felce, La Pantera, Little Joe’s, New Pisa, Swiss Louis, Vanessi’s, Washington Square Bar & Grill — and of course, the latest casualty, Capp’s Corner. And I don’t even want to think about the Italian bakeries, butcher shops and delicatessens we’ve lost over the years.

So if you have a penny to spare, you might want to get the updated version of the book. Things change so fast around here it will soon be out of date.


Recently I met our new District Three supervisor and her pup, Porter, at Caffe Puccini in North Beach. I like her. She’s energetic and a fresh voice in the neighborhood. We need that. I also like that she comes without debilitating political baggage. Lack of experience in politicians does not alarm me. Too much experience in politicians does. The more experience a politician has in office, the more alarmed I become. Frequently with political experience comes an attitude of “whatever works for me, my political cronies, sponsors, hangers-on, and the crafty lawyers — that will be my agenda, like it or not.” Julie Christensen doesn’t lack experience. She’s worked with City Hall for years as a community activist, but she is untarnished by trickery that often creeps into the political system.


My favorite bartender Michael McCourt, who holds court at Original Joe’s, celebrated his 79th birthday in February. He gave us all a bit of a scare recently. He went through a sticky patch health-wise. As I write this, McCourt is back on his feet and holding court at O.J.’s again. On the same day that McCourt gave me the good news, I heard that another Irish celebrity bartender — Seamus Coyle — most recently of Gino & Carlo, went to that glorious heavenly saloon. This saloon-centric city just can’t afford to lose any more bartenders — Irish or not.


Speaking of things changing, Lawrence Ferlinghetti turned 96 on March 24. We held a birthday party for him at the late, lamented Capp’s Corner in North Beach. He was in fine form. I always thought that the older you get the more conservative you become. That’s not the case with Ferlinghetti. At 96, he continues to be a challenging radical presence speaking out against a war mentality, corporate greed, and the inanities of our political system. Good for him.

At lunch he told us he has a book coming out this fall (published by Liveright & Company, a division of W. W. Norton): Writing Across the Landscape: Travel Journals (1950–2013). It features Ferlinghetti’s purposeful wanderings in Cuba in the throes of the Castro revolution, Franco’s Spain, Soviet Russia, Nicaragua under the Sandinistas, as well as adventures in Mexico, Haiti, and North Africa.

What else is new with Ferlinghetti? He’s writing a novel. When I asked if it is set in San Francisco he replied, “It’s set in the world.”

This brings to mind a favorite line from the Bob Dylan song “My Back Pages”: Ah, but I was so much older then / I’m younger than that now.

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