Tag Archives: Capp’s

North Beach

28 Nov


(This piece resulted from inspiration provided by my friend and blogger Karen Fayeth.) when she wrote about an enjoyable

Change: "Halal Trattoria" featuring pizza, curry and naan. But continuity still: food has always been central to the North Beach experience

evening in San Fransisco’s North Beach.

Continuity: Gino & Carlo. 100 year old North Beach dive

If San Francisco were only North Beach, it would still be San Francisco;  San Francisco without North Beach would be somewhere else.   Over the years, the City’s Italian enclave has contracted and changed, but it’s core reains, as real and welcoming as ever.




Low rents are just a distant, mythical memory.

Originally populated by immigrants from Sicily and the Mezzogiorno who

The best salami anywhere. One of the old line businesses still running.

had come to fish the bay, a community grew that met all there needs, and drew others attracted to good food, low rent, and stunning views.

I was seven, up with my folks from LA when I first remember going to North Beach.  My mother had an old bachelor Irish uncle who had led a rough life of ups and downs, following the gold rushes in Australia and the Klondike, busting cattle up around Lassen, and over around Tonopah.  He remembered the 1916 eruption vividly.  During the war, he had finally settled down to a job in the merchant marine, and ended up with a decent seaman’s pension.  He had a small apartment on Upper Grant, with a view of the Bay and Alcatraz.  We spent a part of the afternoon with him instructing me on the nomenclature, cargoes, destinations and origins of the vessels cleaving that heartbreakingly blue bay.

Most of the places on this stretch of Green Street have been there for decades, and some even longer. I had friends who insisted on going to Caffe Sport for the Sicilian seafood, but the waiters were insufferably rude, so much so that their antics appeared often in Herb Caen's columns in the Chronicle.

Later we took him to the Gold Spike, one of those family style eateries of

The Gold Spike closed some years ago. I appropriated this image from Devin Mc Cutcheon's lovely memoir; like me, and countless others, he knew he was a San Franciscan before he ever got there.

which there were many then, providing food and company for not only the large Italian families on a night out, but the many single men, Italian and Basque mostly, who lived in the boarding houses around there. My mother had an unmarried cousin, also Irish, who traveled the world as an English teacher and governess, and she had just come in on Matson from Australia via Honolulu. It was an evening full of traveler’s tales from her, my grand uncle and my former merchant seamen dad. I knew then that I would one day live in San Francisco, and it was to me the gateway to the world beyond its horizon.


Tosca: Smoky red light and opera. Ther always seemed to be a bearded guy in a beret trying to impress a woman of a certain age dresed in formal black and pearls.

When I started college in Santa Clara, some fifty miles to the south in ’67, it was obligatory to go to Broadway in North Beach and see a topless show.  The semi nudity had been a nationwide sensation the year before.  Later, some wine, cheese, and fresh bread were a cheap date meal in the park before going on to Winterland or the Filmore. In late spring North Beach evenings would be alive with hippy freaks, beatnik holdouts, and prom goers in from the suburbs for dinner before the big night at the Mark or the Fairmont.

The Condor Club, on Boadway's "Silicone Strip," where Carol Doda unvelied her massive implants.

In the early seventies I did move to “the City ” and for a while led a rather solitary life as I worked in lowly jobs.  North Beach was a place where one with little money could idle away hours and days in the park and then dine decently for a few dollars, at Places like the U.S. restaurant, and then drink in a café until late.  A favorite of mine was the Bohemian Cigar store, later tarted up a bit, but entirely genuine then.

The Bohemian Cigar Store is actually a small cafe. Elderly Italian men congregated there to read the papers from Italy, play backgammon and chess, or just stare into their apertivos. They did sell a selection of American cigars. No smoking today, not even on the sidewalk in front.

The attractive matron behind the bar, a north Italian blond, would when the urge took her, break into an aria as the old men who filled the place drinking coffee, red wine , playing dominoes, and reading weeks old Italian newspapers, stopped and listened, then applauded quietly, but sincerely,
She was usually the only woman there.  One rainy night, two young women came in the door, flushed with the excitement of a night out, gaudy but fetching in the kind of late, high hippie style of the moment – scarves, layers and colors, india print, and little at all in the way of foundation garments. They were there just to buy cigarettes. The old men‘s faces lit up with what I would

Now just another bump and grind joint, The Hungry I once hosted beat poets, and comedians like Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, and Woody Allen, as well as jazz and folk acts in the late 50s and early 60s.

describe as a benign lust, not at all offensive. Quite kindly, I thought, as the girls preened a bit, adjusted their wraps, displaying bare arms and a bit of bosom.  They smiled, and one of them gave a saucy wave as they left.
In time, with a decent  job and more income, and a collection of college friends working in town, North Beach became a favorite destiatin for weekend fun, with food, drinks and

U.S. Restaurant. The bread was always a bit stale, but you could eat for south of five bucks in the early 70s.

entertainment all in a compact area.

Late, boozy nights.  When the weather was warm, it didn’t matter that the next morning was a work day. A “Warm San Francisco Night” is never to be wasted.  Up on Grant, the Saloon had rock and booze; and the outdoor tables at Savoy-Tivoli were always thronged with gorgeous women.  Green Street throbbed to the Latin rhythms coming from Cesar’s club.  For later night reflection , there was Tosca on Broadway, with it’s dark wood bar and paneling, plush red banquettes and a juke box stocked with opera and bel canto. At 1:55 am, a mad rush to a combination liquor and porn store on Grant for a six or a bottle to keep the fun going.

In additon to great family places, and elegant date restuarants, North Beach has always had a place for the solitary tipler. This place had a jukebox loaded with 40s and 50s ballads, and a collection of old rummies that seemed to live there. I peeked in recently, and it looked like the same cast as in my youth, except that I would fit in nicely now.

Crusty loaves, sweet pastries

For anyone with a yen to travel, but short of the fare, North Beach at the confluence of China Town and little Italy, was a city trip abroad.  A walk up Stockton Street past the fish markets and Peking Duck places was a taste of Kowloon; cross Broadway as the scents changed from pungent Asian to Italian coffee and pastry. You could stock your pantry for the culinary voyages that stood in for the ones you couldn’t yet take in the real world

Capp's on GreenStreet and Vallejo. For me, a faorite for family dinners and boys nights out. I had my 40th birthday celebration here. One afternoon, I was drinking early, when a couple in full bicycle regalia stopped in, demanding Evian to go, wrinkling their noses and commenting loudly at the cigarette smoke. The bartender served them, then gave me a light, and rolled his eyes as he tapped half an inch of ash off his Camel. Who had the last laugh?

Later, my college buddies and I liked to buy a jug at Coit Liquors, sit in the park at night, talking, drinking and smoking late as the windows of the down town towers, and the cheery lights of cozy apartments, all seemed to hold our not yet lived stories; everything and anything was possible.  One could commune with  spirits of the Beats, who had dreamed here too, before they found their ways, or disappeared entirely, to drugs or drink, or ordinary lives.

Over the years, we’ve returned there many times, lately looking back, not forward, but one thing that for me hasn’t changed is that North Beach is and always was, about dreams, dreams of life, yet to be lived, or lived well and sweetly past.

We will pass from the scene, but North Beach will remain, and others will follow us there, to live and dream, as did those before us.