Welcome to this re-release of a post that I did a few months ago. Like a director’s cut in film this is a longer, more detailed version of the previous, with more personal anecdotes thrown in.
Looking for a beach at San Francisco’s North Beach? THE San Francisco beach is Ocean Beach but that long stretch of sand along the chilly Pacific is miles away and over the San Francisco hills. You could go a mile or so northwest to Aquatic Park where hardy souls jump into the cold bay waters for a brisk swim. South Beach is, well, south and that’s a marina with no real beach. North Beach? There is no beach at North Beach.
At one time in North Beach you could’ve stumbled onto Beach Blanket Babylon. No beach there though, unless it was on the stage. Beach Blanket Babylon (known informally to friends and fans as BBB) was the title of a bawdy musical review that enjoyed a 45 year run and over 17,000 performances at Club Fugazi in the heart of North Beach. Producer Steve Silver named the show after the Annette Funicello/ Frankie Avalon beach movies of the 1960’s and if you’re familiar with those movies then you’re either old or you’re an aficionado of campy old movies.
BBB was a parody of the pop culture and politics of the times portrayed through the adventures of the main character, Snow White who travelled the world in search of her Prince Charming. The show was most famous for the outrageous hats worn by the characters (In the closing scene, longtime cast member Val Diamond would sing the song San Francisco while wearing a ten foot wide, 250 pound hat depicting the San Francisco skyline). I regret that I never took Cora to see this whacky show that delighted even Queen Elizabeth II in 1983. Still I’m one of the over 17 million people to have seen BBB. I used to sneer at BBB as something of a tourist attraction until 1978 when I was cajoled by my girlfriend Linda into dinner and a performance.
Linda and I were working at Fox Hardware, a retail store in downtown San Francisco when we met. Our’s was a short and interesting little run punctuated by arguments over some of the dumbest damn things. There was the argument in front of a club in Cancun over disco music that had us stomping back to our hotel room separately and then doing the classic pissed off balancing act on opposite sides of the bed. We fought about King Tut; yes King Tut. Being Chinese-American she wasn’t cool with the way the movie The Deer Hunter portrayed Asians. That argument simmered for days. But in the end BBB was something that we did agree on. It was a delight. The show became such a landmark that one block of Green Street in North Beach was renamed Beach Blanket Babylon Boulevard.
Why no beach at North Beach? Originally there was a North Beach beach where the waters of the bay lapped up around what is currently Francisco Street, which is five blocks from the current center of North Beach.
In the late 1800’s, as a part of city expansion, landfill was added along with the construction of docks, wharves, warehouses and all the complimentary industries of sin that are part and parcel with a waterfront; saloons, bordellos and gambling establishments. After all the landfilling, the waters of the bay ended up a good five blocks further north.
The district’s proximity to the docks made it a natural melting pot of incoming immigrants, British, Irish, German, French, Italian, Peruvian, Mexican, Swedish, Canadian, Chinese, Russian and Greek could all be counted as residents, some temporary, of North Beach.
After the 1906 earthquake most of the ethnic groups left North Beach, with the exception of the Italians. Immigration from Italy continued and during the period between the world wars the North Beach population of those claiming Italian descent swelled to 60,000. After World War II the Italian community began to shrink as fewer immigrants moved in while residents began to move to different parts of The City or to the growing suburbs.
Today many of the Italians are gone. I used to enjoy having coffee at Stella Pastry or a sandwich at Molinari’s and enjoy the atmosphere. You could close your eyes, smell the dusky espresso or fruity Chianti and listen to the old Italian men speak rapid fire in the mother tongue and imagine yourself in Rome. That scene has sadly become a rarity now. Still the Italian flavor hasn’t completely left North Beach. Below, the Italian tricolor is visible throughout North Beach.
Pizza, Parmesan, pasta and Peroni. Cannoli, Chianti, caprese and calzone. Italian specialties can be found on just about every block and often available for alfresco dining.
North Beach is home to an abundance of venerable restaurants. Angelo Del Monte was originally drawn to California with the intention of striking it rich in the gold fields of the Sierra Nevada. A failure at mining, he moved to San Francisco where he opened Fior d’Italia in 1886. Fior, still in operation lays claim to being America’s oldest Italian restaurant. I imagine that there are some restauranteurs in New York that would dispute that but I’ll leave it up to them to fight that out.
The U.S. Restaurant, still in operation opened in the 1890’s. The North Beach Restaurant has been serving since 1970.
When I was a kid there was little reason to go out for Italian. Nonna Maria lived with us and out of her kitchen came the comfort foods of her native Rome. A couple sheets of homemade pasta were dotted with dollops of homemade sausage, zesty with fennel and garlic, and then crimped and cut into ravioli that would bathe in nonna’s homemade sauce. Veal scallopini, osso bucco, pizza, fresh bread, roast chicken, sauces and biscotti all graced our family table. As a breakfast treat nonna sometimes whipped me up a cup of zabaglione with a splash of coffee, served with a small plate of cookies. None of it came by way of a recipe card. The culinary alchemy was all in her head passed down from her mother and nonna before her.
It wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I sat down to dinner in North Beach. It was another Linda thing. She took me to the Gold Spike, one of her favorite places. From the outside The Gold Spike looked like one of those restaurants in the mob movies where wiseguys would meet and talk sotto voce, maybe lure an unsuspecting snitch to be rubbed out in the bathroom in the back of the house.
On the inside The Gold Spike was an odd mixture of chaotic kitsch. and stereotyped Italian -American, with tile floors, plastic red and white checkered tablecloths and all manner of gimcracks for decoration. The walls of the joint, and I use that word in the most loving way, were decorated with business cards and dollar bills pinned up by customers. When you arrived you usually had to hail one of the busy servers to get on the waitlist and then you could hang out at the bar, have a drink and marvel at the decor. With all the clutter, the place was probably near impossible to clean and I imagine dusty as all hell, not that I’ve ever been to hell with a white glove to verify that theory.
Ordering at The Gold Spike was a simple matter given that there were only a few main course entrees on the menu: chicken, an Italian pot roast, and a nightly special or two. But those were just the main courses. Dinner was served family style and it started with a tureen of minestrone soup and a couple of bowls that you could refill until the tureen was empty. Not a good idea since next up was a large salad with the typical red checked tablecloth, Italian staples of kidney beans, pepperoncini, olives and romaine lettuce. Next up was a small plate of pasta of the day and THEN came the main course. Along the way you could load up on garlic bread that oozed butter. At the end of it all you had your choice of ice cream; vanilla, chocolate or spumoni.
Attilio and Natalina Mechetti, immigrated from Tuscany and started their business as a candy store in 1920 while prohibition was in force. While the couple did serve sodas they also provided adult beverages on the sly, likely for “special customers.” After prohibition The Gold Spike became an official, legal bar and then a restaurant. Sadly it closed in 2006.
When Dante Benedetti was a young boy his naps were under the bread box in the family restaurant, The New Pisa, started by his parents Gino and Amelia in 1927. Like The Gold Spike, during prohibition Gino would slip customers some red wine along with a little wink. Dante would eventually take over the restaurant but in his early years and throughout his life Dante was a baseball guy. As a boy he played baseball with the DiMaggio brothers on a lot on nearby Bay Street. Later Dante would teach at St. Ignatius High School before becoming the baseball coach at the University of San Francisco. The New Pisa was, like The Gold Spike, a family style house. I occasionally went to The New Pisa for Santa Clara University alumni dinners. The New Pisa is gone now, the building currently housing the restaurant Sotto Mare.
You could easily get a better Italian meal served to you at any number of restaurants, one of those white tablecloth places where the waiter stares down his nose at you as though judging whether or not you’re worthy of his august attention. North Beach has plenty of fine dinner houses tastefully appointed with fine decor, soft background music and a 25 page wine list. The way I see it, both the campy and the cosmopolitan have their own unique attractions. Sometimes you want to dress up, have a fine meal served with a paired wine that costs 20 bucks to sip from a stemmed glass and sometimes you just want oozy garlic bread and some cheap jug wine to slurp from a tumbler. They both work.
Restaurants line both sides of Columbus Avenue, the busy main boulevard that runs through North Beach and eventually ends at Fisherman’s Wharf. Stroll the sidewalk around mealtime and you’ll probably receive a friendly, or boarderline pushy, little come on from a server to scan the menu.
That’s how we came upon Figaro, a trattoria that became a traditional family favorite. Lunch at Figaro was where we first met our future daughter in law, an event that featured a small mortifying moment of spilled sauce on a shirt front. Not every restaurant is destined to be venerable; most aren’t and in that competitive little pocket of The City that was the case with Figaro which eventually was replaced by another restaurant.
What’s in a name? Just as there’s no beach at North Beach, there are no cigars, for purchase or puffing, at Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store Cafe which was started 49 years ago by Mario and Liliana Crismani. So why Cigar Store? At one time, and for about 20 years, you could buy and smoke a stogie at The Bohemian Cigar Store. When the government said that tobacco and food don’t mix Mario and Liliana snuffed out the cigars but kept the name.
Located across from Washington Square at one of the districts busiest corners Mario’s is tiny and simple. Sit at the bar or the single row of tables along the wall and have an open faced eggplant (or sausage or meatball) sandwich and a Peroni Beer and then finish off with a steaming cup of cappuccino. Mario’s has been a North Beach institution for 25 years.
In the 1950’s North Beach was the epicenter of the Beat movement and a hangout for the likes of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Ferlinghetti and college professor Peter D. Martin opened City Lights, one of America’s most important independent book emporiums in 1953. Besides being a bookseller, City Lights was also a publisher of progressive and often controversial works. It published and likely hosted one of my favorite authors, Norman Mailer. In an article for The Guardian, Evan Karp called City Lights, “a powerful influence not only on American poetry – with the publication of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl in 1955 – but also on the American consciousness, being the nation’s most daring publisher of independent literature and an epicentre for progressive thought.”
If you’re looking for a place to hang out when you crack open your new progressive book you can walk across Jack Kerouac Alley and have an adult beverage at Vesuvio, a historic tavern founded in 1948 by Henri Lenoir. Located steps away from the iconic bookstore, the two levels of Vesuvio might be the world’s most ideal public house for reading. How could it not be? Vesuvio was one of Jack Kerouac’s favorite hangouts. Other literati who hoisted libations at Vesuvio include Dylan Thomas, Ferlinghetti, and Ginsberg. Story goes that Hunter S. Thompson served as barkeep one day when the owner was at the dentist. One can only imagine that the profits per drink may have gone into negative territory on that particular day.
Not all authors were welcome at Vesuvio. After having misbehaved while at the bar, authors Gregory Corso and Bob Kaufman had their names enshrined on a cement slab (a sort of gravestone) that sits at the entrance. Those whose names have been engraved on that slab are members of a dubious club; individuals who are persona non grata at Vesuvio for life. The barstools at Vesuvio, have accommodated some other very famous posteriors; Bob Dylan, Paul Kantner, and Francis Ford Coppola being among those famous asses (uhh, butts). I would guess that even Mailer, who was often regarded as just an ass, period, and was fond of his cups frequented Vesuvio (but that’s just a theory of mine).
During my Fox Hardware days I was introduced to Vesuvio by my co-worker Julie. Julie lived just up the block from Vesuvio at a time when renting in North Beach was possible on a retail worker’s salary. Many a morning a sleepy Julie would show up at work and grumble “I went to Vesuvio’s last night.” I wasn’t one to talk, nor were some of the other staff. While Julie was having a few at Vesuvio I was probably doing the same thing a few blocks away at The Rickshaw Lounge in Chinatown and another pair of co-workers were doing the same at the punk rock venue, Mabuhay Gardens just a couple of blocks from Vesuvio. Another co-worker, Ray used to spend late evenings at some of the gay bars and Brian, a young man of Irish descent enjoyed The City’s Irish pubs. The following morning it wasn’t unusual for a few of us to trickle quietly out of the store and have a little “hair off the dog,” at the dive bar just down the alley. I guess maybe the store staff had a drinking problem.
There’s an alley between Vesuvio and City Lights. It’s a short alley, only one block but in that short one block you pass from one notable San Francisco culture, Chinatown on Grant Avenue to another, North Beach on Columbus Avenue. It’s a short but absorbing walk down Jack Kerouac (Formerly Adler) Alley. Below, Jack Kerouac Alley, from Columbus to Grant.
I haven’t been to North Beach since March 13th. Seeing COVID-19’s ominous writing on the wall Cora and I decided to have lunch at Caffe Sport, one of our favorites for garlicky Sicilian fare. We considered it a last supper of sorts. We had no idea that less than a week later, the State of California would essentially close up shop. When shelter in place began we’d expected, hoped, that SIP would be a short term thing. It hasn’t turned out that way.
I hope that these businesses are finding a way to stay afloat. I know that Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store is getting by from a GoFundMe. The others I don’t know. I’m looking forward to the day, hopefully soon, that we can once again stroll down Columbus and stop for a pizza or a heaping plate of pasta.