SAN FRANCISCO ●Attractions●Neighborhoods/Shopping
Famous for its Italian restaurants—it is San Francisco's Little Italy—and also as the birthplace of the Beat movement, this bohemian quarter has coffee houses galore.
North Beach Festival June.
Beach Blanket Babylon 678 Green St./Powell St., in Club Fugazi.
Beat Museum 540 Broadway/Columbus.
Biordi Art Imports 412 Columbus Ave./Vallejo St. This delightful little shop is stuffed with handmade classic Italian majolica ceramics imported from Italy. You’ll find dishes and vases and charming little “proverb trays” with Italian sayings.
City Lights Books 261 Columbus Ave./Broadway. Founded in 1953 by beatnik poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who still looks after the business, this multi-level independent bookstore was the first in the country to specialize in paperbacks. Many obscure titles are in its eclectic collection, providing great browsing. Don’t miss stepping into the small-press poetry alcove or traipsing down the creaky wooden stairs into the large subterranean space. Not content just to sell books, the proprietors published Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and continue to publish unusual books. The bookstore was given landmark status in 2001.
DiMaggio Playground Columbus Ave./Greenwich St.
Sts. Peter and Paul Church 666 Filbert St./Columbus Ave., on Washington Square.
Washington Square Park Bounded by Powell, Stockton, Union, and Filbert sts. Dating back to 1850, this small park provides welcome respite with a stretch of grass, benches, and a playground. It’s a good place to picnic, and, If you’re lucky, you might see a group practicing Tai Chi.
a North Beach picnic
●Molinari Delicatessen 373 Columbus Ave./Vallejo St. Located on its present corner since 1912, this Italian deli was established in 1896 and is the oldest in town. It can provide the makings for a great picnic, including made-to-order sandwiches. Dash into one of the Chinese markets for some fresh fruit, then into
●North Beach Baking Co. of San Francisco 1501 Grant Ave./Union St.
●Victoria Pastry Co. 700 Filbert St. for a sweet--perhaps a cannoli or their specialty St. Honoré cake, or maybe some pignoli or brutti ma buoni cookies. Then head to grassy Washington Square.
And that’s picnicking North Beach-style!
Caffe Greco 423 Columbus Ave./Vallejo St. This cozy room with tall ceilings and picture windows looking out to the street is choice for a snack--perhaps a focaccia sandwich, a pastry, and most certainly a chi-chi coffee. Outdoor seating includes sidewalk tables as well as more seating in a “parklet” expanding out into the street.
Caffe Puccini 411 Columbus Ave./Vallejo St., (415) 939-7033. With a name meaning literally “the pooch,” this delightful European-style cafe offers great coffees as well as tasty housemade tarts and cakes to go with them. Diners order at a counter and carry items to their table, perhaps sitting under a mirrored wall lined with a banquette or at one of the tiny tables that fill the rest of the angular room and spill out to the sidewalk. Housemade pastas and panini are also available. A jukebox that hangs on the wall is loaded with opera.
Caffé Roma 526 Columbus Ave./Green St. This atmospheric coffee house is the perfect spot for a slow cuppa cap. It is especially fragrant when the immense 50-pound coffee roaster, which takes up a corner of the shop and is visible from the sidewalk, is in action. The roaster is the size of a small car and turns round and round like a clothes dryer.
Caffe Trieste 601 Vallejo St./Grant Ave. This very cool, effortlessly authentic, always buzzing coffeehouse was a favorite hangout with the Beat Generation and frequented by Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and friends. Bill Cosby and Steve Allen also hung here, Pavorotti sang here, and it is where Francis Ford Coppola wrote part of The Godfather script. Photos on the wall attest to this. It is also credited with having the first espresso machine on the West Coast. In traditional Italian style, the owners perform live opera every Saturday afternoon.
Calzone’s 430 Columbus Ave./Green St. Reflecting the colors of the Italian flag, walls reaching up to a high ceiling here are painted dark green and decorated with colorful Italian cooking products. Diners seated at marble tables downstairs enjoy up-close views of sidewalk traffic, while some upstairs diners are entertained by overviews of the downstairs diners. Favorite appetizers are light and crunchy deep-fried calamari and fresh tomato bruschetta. Misshapen pizzas are baked in a wood-fired brick oven, and delicious calzone (pizza turnovers) are also available. Housemade lasagna and gnocchi, a hamburger, and freshly made fettuccine ribbons, orzo, and angel hair pastas are also on the menu.
For dessert, Stella Pastry and Cafe is just next door. It is famous for its trademarked sacripantina cake, described by Gourmet magazine as “a San Francisco concoction of cream, air, and magic . . .”
Comstock Saloon 155 Columbus Ave./Kearny St. Located on a corner, this saloon-bar has been open since 1907. Walking in the doors is like stepping back in time. Hanging from the high ceiling, old-time Asian paddle fans cool the air, and comfy oversize booths line the wall. Live music emanates from the hidden mezzanine, generally beginning around 7:30 p.m. and lasting for hours. GQ ranked this spot as one of the top cocktail bars in America, and my to-try drink list includes the Blood and Sand (Scotch, sweet vermouth, orange, and cherry liqueur) and the Cherry Bounce (Bourbon, cherry brandy, lemon, Angostura, Champagne). The menu is short but includes plenty of appetizers, plus a burger, roasted chicken, and mushroom pot pie.
Giordano Bros. 303 Columbus Ave./Broadway. In good weather, the best seats are at one of the few tables outside. They’re tucked away from the sidewalk and provide spectacular views of North Beach street action. Diners step up to the bar inside to order up a legendary Pittsburgh truck driver’s “all-in-one” sandwich—made with a slice of Italian bread topped with the filling of choice, french fries, coleslaw, and another slice of bread. A bit unwieldy, but tasty and filling. That’s the simple menu, though soda, beer, and cookies are also available. Musicians jam here often.
Henry’s Hunan 924 Sansome St./Broadway. Once upon a time this was a tiny, obscure restaurant located in Chinatown. It seated 29 people. Then it was described in The New Yorker as “the best Chinese restaurant in the world.” Lines formed, and it was no longer possible to just saunter in and sit down at one of the few tables or at the counter, where half the pleasure was in watching the cooks in action. To satisfy demand, the restaurant moved to this huge warehouse on the outskirts of North Beach, which seats 314 and permits instant seating once again. The kitchen uses unsaturated oils, lean meats, and skinned chicken, and it uses no MSG or sugar; salt-free dishes are available. The unusual Diana’s Special consists of spicy meat sauce and lettuce sandwiched between two deep-fried flour pancakes. Harvest pork (a traditional dish fed to farm workers and pallbearers to give them strength), hot and sour chicken, and bean sprout salad are all especially good, as is the cold chicken salad mixed with shredded cucumbers, shiny noodles, and peanut dressing. Specialties include excellent fresh seafood dishes and unusual house-smoked ham, chicken, and duck cured over hickory wood, tea leaves, and orange peels. The distinctive hot bean sauce--a combination of fermented black beans, powdered red peppers, garlic, oil, and vinegar--is available to go.
Mama’s on Washington Square 1701 Stockton St./Filbert St. No credit cards. Diners wait in a usually long line to enter this cozy, cheery spot on a corner of Washington Square. However, once inside the hassle is over. Orders are placed at a counter from which the kitchen action is visible, and then diners are seated by their server (no fighting for a table!). Breakfast choices include blueberry pancakes, thick French toast made from various breads, a variety of omelettes, and tasty Florentine eggs prepared with fresh spinach. Lunch brings on salads, sandwiches, hamburgers, hot dogs, and a zucchini and cheese frittata. Delicious desserts and fresh strawberry creations--even out of season--are a house specialty.
Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store Cafe 566 Columbus Ave./Union St.
North Beach Baking Co. of San Francisco 1501 Grant Ave./Union St.
North Beach Pizza 1462 Grant Ave./Union St.. Lacking pretension and finesse, this cozy corner restaurant serves an unfussy kind of pizza with an excellent crust in a relaxed, easy atmosphere. The pepperoni and cheese and the spicy hot sausage versions are both particularly tasty, and a salad tossed with creamy house Italian dressing is the perfect accompaniment. An outstanding cannelloni is among the pasta choices, and both barbecued ribs and chicken plus a submarine sandwich are also on the menu.
Original Joe’s 601 Union St./Stockton St. If you’re wondering where everyone went, it might be to dinner at Joe’s in its new digs (it was formerly off Union Square on Taylor St.). It hustles and bustles--even in early evening. Diners can sit in the expansive cocktail lounge, in a dining room with windows to the park, or in a clubby back room filled with roomy red booths and a view of the exhibition kitchen. Menu favorites include the Joe’s hamburger (made with two patties, mesquite broiled, and served on Boudin sourdough bread), a rich chicken cacciatore, and a delicate lemony filet of sole picatta. The steaks, chops, and fish come with sides of either ravioli, spaghetti, hand-cut fries, or unseasoned veggies. A good starter is a superb fritto misto with deep-fried calamari, lemon rounds, and olives. Service can be slow, so plan to enjoy a couple of the well-priced classic cocktails ($6); I favored the Manhattan with two brandy-drenched cherries. And I was in bliss with the rich, rich butterscotch pudding dessert topped with caramel sauce and a huge dollop of crème.
Rose Pistola 532 Columbus Ave./Union St. In a modern setting with sleek decor, this comfortable Italian trattoria produces top-notch Ligurian-style fare. The enticing menu changes twice daily and includes wood-fired pizza, housemade pastas such as pappardelle with pork sugo, entrees such as delicate whole petrale sole grilled with white beans and fennel, and vegetable sides such as grilled broccoli di cicco. Appetizers usually include a creative bruschetta, and desserts something tasty and beautiful like a blood orange panna cotta atop an oat cake. Meals begin with house-cured olives and ciabatta bread, and sometimes service is by the effervescent waiter Harry, who brings joy to the experience at no extra charge. Service is family-style. A full bar serves colorful cocktails, and live jazz adds to the atmosphere on weekends.
The Stinking Rose 325 Columbus Ave./Broadway. A warren of unusual rooms awaits garlic lovers here, as does some delicious food made with as much garlic as possible. A don’t-miss item is the bagna calda, consisting of tender, soft, almost sweet cloves of garlic served with bread for spreading. Among the winning dishes are wild mushroom-roasted eggplant lasagna, 40-clove garlic chicken, and delectable Silence of the Lamb Shank with Chianti glaze and fava beans. For dessert, the truly adventurous can try garlic ice cream! For those who still haven’t had enough, a tiny shop in front sells all things garlic.
Tommaso’s 1042 Kearny St./Broadway. In 1935, when this spot was known as Lupo’s, it was the first restaurant to bring pizza from New York City to the West Coast. (Pizza was introduced to the U.S. at the Lombardy Pizza Restaurant in New York City in 1905.) And for quite a while it was the only restaurant in the entire U.S. to prepare all of its baked foods in a genuine oak wood-burning brick oven. (In fact, world-renowned Chez Panisse in Berkeley used this oven as a model for their own oven, which then began producing a trend-setting gourmet mini pizza.) Movie director Francis Ford Coppola has been seen dashing in from his nearby office--sometimes to chow down from the menu, other times to whip up his own creations in the kitchen. Seating in the cheery cellar consists of both a large community dining table and smaller tables in semi-private compartments separated by wooden partitions. Wall murals dating to 1935 depict scenes of Naples and the Amalfi Coast. Any of the marinated salads--broccoli, string beans, or roasted peppers--makes a good starter, and the crusty bread is excellent for soaking up excess marinade. The menu offers almost 20 kinds of pizza featuring a superb thin, crisp-yet-chewy crust and several calzones (a sort of pizza turnover), plus pasta, seafood (baked coo-coo clams are a specialty), veal, and chicken entrees. Desserts include cannoli, spumoni ice cream, and housemade tiramisu.
Trattoria Pinocchio 401 Columbus Ave./Vallejo St. This corner spot set in the heart of North Beach offers both indoor tables with a great sidewalk view through large windows as well as outdoor sidewalk seating with heat lamps that brings you even closer to the street action. Our waiter was Italian and charming and took care of things. The kitchen makes fresh pastas (ravioli, gnocchi, lasagna, and fettucine) and desserts daily; don’t miss them. We started with a plate of four exquisitely tasty bruchetta topped with chopped tomato. I thought both my own blissful ravioli stuffed with housemade sausage and topped with a mushroom white sauce and my companion’s meat lasagna were equally delicious. The menu also offers thin-crust pizza, calzone, saltimboca, piccata, osso buco, scampi, and cioppino. Servings are generous. Though we each chose a glass of a different Italian wine, there is a full bar and a selection of cocktails, and instead of one of the enticing desserts, we shared a refreshing housemade limoncello digestif. Free jazz is scheduled on Monday nights from 7 to 10 p.m.
Vesuvio Cafe 255 Columbus Ave./Jack Kerouac Alley, near Broadway. Located next door to City Lights Bookstore, this popular Beat Generation serves just drinks, no food. The gin and tonic is reputedly quite good. Dylan Thomas, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Bob Dylan are among its past customers. Sit on the main floor under the 1913 pressed-tin ceiling, or opt for the tiny upstairs area offering windows to the street for great people watching, and do check out the restroom.
XOX Truffles 754 Columbus Ave./Greenwich St. San Francisco was the chocolate capital of the U.S. in 1870 due mainly to the fact that it was the only place in the country where the temperature was such that chocolate wouldn’t melt. In this teeny, tiny cafe, the owner/chef can often be viewed hand-making the delectable petite-size chocolate truffles. Choose from an array of 27 flavors— including peanut butter, Earl Grey, and even vegan soy. (Chocolate truffles were named after the truffle fungus because of their physical resemblance.)
image courtesy of venue
San Remo Hotel 2237 Mason St./Chestnut St. 3 stories; 62 rooms. All shared baths. Restaurant. No pets. No parking. Tucked away in a quiet residential neighborhood between Fisherman’s Wharf and North Beach, this family-owned and -operated Italianate Victorian hotel was built by the founder of Bank of America just after the big earthquake in 1906. The reception area and the charming, comfortable, European-style rooms are upstairs, reached via a steep and narrow staircase. With their lace-covered windows and mish-mash of antique furnishings, rooms are situated off a warren of narrow hallways made cheery by well-placed skylights and many have views of famous city landmarks. With the exception of a rooftop penthouse featuring a great bay view, all rooms share baths; half have sinks in the room.
Downstairs, venerable Fior d’Italia is the oldest traditional northern Italian restaurant in the U.S. It has moved locations six times since it first opened in 1886 and continues to serve a very good four-course, fixed price dinner in a dining room featuring white-painted embossed tin ceilings. Try the classic fried calamari, signature salad, osso buco, housemade pastas, zabaione with berries for two, and cannoli.
image courtesy of venue
Washington Square Inn 1660 Stockton St./Filbert St. 2 stories; 15 rooms. Evening snack, continental breakfast. No pets. Self- parking & valet. This charming North Beach gem features a super location that permits easy coffeehouse hopping, and it is just a few blocks from an uncrowded cable car stop. Each room is decorated individually and furnished with English and French antiques. Several choice rooms in the front have bay windows overlooking Washington Square Park and the beautiful Sts. Peter & Paul Church, the bells from which are heard tolling the hour. Amenities include down pillows and comforters, and a morning newspaper is delivered to the room. Wine and hors d’oeuvres are served in the cozy lobby, and breakfast can be delivered to the room.