North Beach is a neighborhood that is a big hit with tourists, and also remains well loved by San Franciscans. It's best known as San Francisco's Little Italy, with its high density of check-clothed ristorantes, caffes and Old World delicatessens. It is a popular pilgrimage for fans of the Beat movement seeking the old haunts of Kerouac and Ginsberg. However, North Beach is no relic, and it has much to offer beyond pasta and poetry.
Part of the old Barbary Coast, North Beach has a rich past. iGrant Avenue is the oldest street in San Francisco. In the early days, North Point docks served as a gateway for immigrants from South America, Europe and the Australian penal colonies. It wasn't until the late 1800s that thousands of Italians made the area their stronghold and turned it into the local Latin Quarter. The Italian-American community can also be credited in part with protecting the neighborhood against the fire that swept the city after the 1906 earthquake. According to legend, some enterprising residents cracked open the barrels of red wine in their cellars and saved their houses by draping them with wine-soaked blankets.
Real Estate in North Beach is a treasure to behold. It is both sophisticated, and earthy. Real and exquisite. North Beach, San Francisco is a vibrant and perennially buzzing neighborhood djacent to Chinatown and Fisherman's Wharf.
This vital neighborhood is home to some of the liveliest nightclubs and bars in town. Small boutiques carrying handmade clothing and imported goods dot the streets, particularly on upper Grant Avenue. Though Italian restaurants appear to dominate the dining scene, there are plenty of other good spots to try once you've had your fill of lasagna, with menus featuring Japanese, French and contemporary fusion cuisine. City Lights, original publisher of Allen Ginsberg's "Howl," is still one of the best bookstores in San Francisco, and founder Lawrence Ferlinghetti can sometimes be seen strolling the neighborhood. Then there's Broadway, buzzing with neon and strip clubs and adding an incongruous dash of sleaze to all the culture and history.
Whether prowling for historic landmarks, sampling house-roasted espressos, shopping, clubbing, or chowing down, you'll find North Beach has plenty to offer for both a leisurely afternoon visit and a night on the town.
Washington Square Park: It's a relief to reach this tranquil expanse of green after navigating the crowded, narrow streets of the surrounding neighborhood. Stretch out on the grass or lounge on a bench to observe locals walking their dogs, groups practicing Tai Chi and tourists resting their tired feet. There's also a small playground at the Columbus end of the square. Between Powell, Stockton, Union and Filbert Streets.
Sts. Peter and Paul Church: This towered neo-Gothic cathedral, consecrated in 1924, anchors Washington Square Park and with it forms the center of the neighborhood. The church originally served a parish of Italian fisherman, and a procession still departs for Fisherman's Wharf each October for the annual blessing of the fishing fleet. 666 Filbert Street.
Coit Tower & Pioneer Park: With its magnificent views of the City (especially at sunset), this curious structure has become a favorite San Francisco landmark. It was donated in 1929 by Lillie Hitchcock Coit (an eccentric volunteer firefighter who ran around North Beach in men's clothing) to beautify the skyline. Muni bus #39 takes you up the formidable hill, or you can hike east up the steps on Greenwich.Filbert Steps: Although Telegraph Hill was long ago a rough-and-tumble place that hosted weekly jousting contests, it is now primarily an enclave of privilege. However, a stroll down the Filbert steps gives you direct access to the views and lush gardens that make the location so desirable. Head down the stairs at Filbert and Montgomery Streets, not far from a dainty mural of a poodle, and wind your way through the leafy tunnel of cascading gardens. Keep an eye out for an incongruous flock of green parrots -- they're cherry-headed conures (native to South America), and they make their home on the eastern slope of the hill.
St. Francis of Assisi Church: This historic church, established in 1849, no longer has an active parish, but now stands as a shrine to St. Francis of Assisi. The church is known for its Schoenstein pipe organ and the eleven large murals that grace its interior walls. Free Sunday concerts are offered each week, featuring chamber music, choral music and recitals. 610 Vallejo St. (415) 983-0405.
Columbus Tower/Sentinel Building: Home to Francis Ford Coppola's American Zoetrope Studios since 1972, this copper-green flatiron building represents a literal slice of San Francisco history. Infamous political boss Abe Ruef has his headquarters here, and the building later housed a radio station and recording studio where the Kingston Trio and the Grateful Dead each recorded. 916 Columbus Ave.
Beat Museum: Kerouac and the life and times of his friends and associates are the centerpiece at this work-in-progress museum, which features a collection of books, manuscripts and ephemera from the days when poets, artists, writers and all the rest made the scene on upper Grant. Besides the exhibits, which are arranged randomly, there are things for sale: books, some T-shirts, buttons proclaiming the wearer to be a Dharma bum. 1345 Grant Ave., (800) KER-OUAC. (Web site)
Lyle Tuttle's Tattoo Museum: Small storefront space displays the body art memorabilia collected by legendary tattoo artist Lyle Tuttle, who rose to fame in the '60s both for tattooing Janis Joplin and for sporting his own full-body tattoo. The museum features flash art (tattoo designs), tools of the trade, photographs, and historical tools such as a wood-block stencil from Borneo and a Mayan tattoo-maker. 841 Columbus Ave., (415) 775-4991.
North Beach Museum: Free-of-charge museum consists of several rooms of pictures and artifacts that tell the story of this neighborhood's culture and history. Learn about native sons such as Joe DiMaggio, writers including Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and the arrival of immigrant Italians around the time of the Civil War. 9-4 Mon-Thu; 9-6 Fri; closed weekends. 1435 Stockton, (415) 391-6210.
Hotel Boheme: Established in the 1880s and rebuilt after the 1906 earthquake, this hotel has been recently renovated in the style of the late-fifties Beat era. 444 Columbus Ave., (415) 433-9111. (Web site)
Events and Festivals
Art in the Alley: A biannual outdoor art event in Kerouac Alley between City Lights Bookstore and Vesuvio. More than two dozen emerging and established artists showcase their work, including painting, photo collage and photography, printmaking, mixed media, art books and jewelry. A live Brazilian ensemble will keep attendees and artists entertained throughout the afternoon. Art in the Alley takes place in the fall and spring, usually the first Sunday of May and October. Current dates, as well as photos from some past events, can be found on the Vesuvio Web site: www.vesuvio.com.
Beach Blanket Babylon: This musical revue has been running so long they named a street after it. Take a cocktail to your seat and surrender yourself to the pop culture references, jokes about current events and the preposterous hats sported by the actors. This is all presented in the improbable context of a modern-day Snow White story. Club Fugazi, 678 Green St., (415) 421-4222.
North Beach Festival: Celebrates the Italian heritage and Beat history of North Beach, with live music, poetry readings, dancing and arte di gesso, or street chalk art. The festival also offers arts and crafts booths and food al fresco. (415) 989-2220.
Oyster and Beer Festival: Great food, with past musicians at the festival included Ireland's acclaimed Sligo's Dervish and Waterford's Danu, as well as the Irish-American group the Young Dubliners. Usually in March, in Washington Square Park, North Beach, San Francisco. Admission is free. (415) 989-6222 or www.oreillysoysterfestival.com.
Albona Ristorante Istriano: Come for personal service and Istrian specialties, as well as a mean fettuccine arrabbiata. Also excellent pan-fried gnocchi, browned ravioli, sauerkraut and sausages, strudel with pine nuts. 545 Francisco St. (at Mason), (415) 441-1040.
Café Jacqueline: Dinner soufflés serve two, and choices include asparagus, spinach or lobster, each with a cheese base. Dessert soufflés must be ordered at the same time as dinner, and do order one, as you will wish you had once you see the heavenly sugar-dusted high-hat concoctions floating by. Peek into the tiny kitchen to see chef Jacqueline herself, puffed cap askew, melting chocolate in copper pans and reaching for an egg from an enormous wooden bowl full of them. 1454 Grant St., (415) 981-5565.
Caffe Greco: Known in particular for its mastery of espresso and cappuccino. 423 Columbus Ave., (415) 397-6261.
Caffe Puccini: The Tuscan-born owner of this popular espresso bar added a pasta menu a few years ago and makes all the hearty sauces himself, including a delicious marinara. 411 Columbus Ave. (near Vallejo), (415) 989-7033.
Caffe Roma Roasting Co.: Family business offers freshly roasted coffee and a selection of pastries as a happy accompaniment. 526 Columbus Ave., (415) 296-7662.
Caffe Sapore: Great coffee and the bagel sandwiches have a variety of toppings, many vegetarian, and come dressed up with capers, fresh basil or crisp cucumbers. Fresh quiches, granola and yogurt, and pastries are also available. 790 Lombard, (415) 474-1222.
Caffe Trieste: Best known as the beatnik hangout of the '50s that drew the likes of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, Caffe Trieste's Old World charm remains unspoiled by notoriety. Try a cup of house-roasted coffee or sample the menu of snacks, light meals, and beer and wine. On Saturday afternoons a crowd gathers to listen to the owner and his friends sing passages of opera. 601 Vallejo St. (at Grant), (415) 392-6739.
Capp's Corner: Seems so Italian, you feel like you should show your passport at the door. All meals start with minestrone soup and tossed salad (served family-style) and are followed by spumoni ice cream for dessert. 1600 Powell St., (415) 989-2589.
Curly's Coffee Shop: Curly's fills this niche with its straight-forward American classics, including Denver omelets, pancakes and cheeseburgers. However, even at Curly's things aren't as simple as they appear: the menu also offers Japanese lunches such as donburi and udon with tempura. 1624 Powell St., (415) 392-0144.
Da Flora: Done up in burgundy red, this is one of the neighborhood's most romantic restaurants, and it features delicious handmade pastas. Sweet potato gnocchi is a house specialty. 701 Columbus (at Filbert), (415) 981-4664.
Cafe Divine: The lunch and dinner menu, offered via counter service from the mahogany bar, has starters, salads, panini and oven-fired pizzettas like the Paradiso, with Fontina, mushrooms and truffle oil. Desserts include a warm, gooey chocolate cake. 1600 Stockton St. (at Union), (415) 986-3414.
Estia: Brothers Spiros and Taki Kaloterias, who own the 20-plus-year-old Viva Pizza restaurant, moved Viva Pizza next door (318 Columbus, near Grant) and put Estia in Viva's old space in November 2003. They've brought a chef-friend from Greece to execute a menu that includes grilled octopus, fried smelts, grilled and fried calamari and fresh fish flown in from Greece. His Cypriot lamb and beef burger is encased in caul fat and fried until crisp. Old standbys like moussaka, baked lamb shank with orzo, and pastitsio fill out the menu. 1224 Grant (near Columbus).
Firenze by Night: A charming staff serves consistently good Northern Italian dinners, such as the gnocchi in creamy tomato sauce for which the restaurant is known. 1429 Stockton Ave., (415) 392-8585.
Golden Boy Pizza: It looks like any other pizza counter from the outside, but there's more to Golden Boy than meets the eye. The selection of toppings for the Sicilian-style slices include pesto, clam, garlic, and pepperoni, and beer and wine are available in addition to fountain drinks. 542 Green St. (at Columbus), (415) 982-9738.
Il Pollaio: The chicken that comes off Il Pollaio's grill is some of the best in the Bay Area. And it's the big draw here, where you can get a half or whole chicken to go, or sit down to a friendly but no-frills meal. The chickens are cut down the back and flattened for quick cooking that crisps the skin and doesn't dry out the meat. House-made sausage, burgers and rabbit, along with a trio of basic salads, fries and flan, make up the rest of the menu.555 Columbus Ave. (between Union and Green streets), (415) 362-7727.
Impala: In the space of the former Black Cat, the owners of Mas Sake and Suite 181 are hoping a Mexican-themed menu of appetizers, salads and small entrees just might be what club-goers and other North Beach denizens are looking for. Downstairs, a lounge features bottle service, a DJ and dancing. (-SF Chronicle/SF Gate) 501 Broadway (at Kearny), (415) 982-5299.
Joanie's Happy Days Diner: Joanie's serves good-tasting breakfast and lunch fare with an old-fashioned feel. Breakfasts center around pancakes, eggs, bacon and sausage, and lunch dishes also tend toward classics: burgers, hot dogs, sandwiches and thick milkshakes. 1329 Columbus Ave. (between Beach Street and North Point), (415) 928-4343.
L'Osteria del Forno: The fresh-baked focaccia thin-crusted pizzas and milk-braised pork are divine. 519 Columbus Ave. (between Union and Green streets), (415) 982-1124.
Mama's on Washington Square: Mama's popular menu items include the Monte Cristo, eggs benedict and 10 types of French toasts, made with sourdough baguettes, banana bread or wheat bread. Regulars also rave about the house raspberry jam. 1701 Stockton, (415) 362-6421.
Michelangelo Café: The entrees of fresh fish and baked pasta dishes, ceramic pitchers of wine and view of the park all contribute to a satisfying experience. 579 Columbus Ave., (415) 986-4058.
Molinari Delicatessen: This popular, Old World deli has been in business for more than 100 years. Options range from the classic pastrami to the more adventurous South Beach sandwiches, which combines artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes, turkey and provolone. The shop is crowded with gourmet Italian groceries, including dried porcinis, fresh gnocchi, olive oil, regional wines and the famous Molinari salami, which hangs from the ceiling in three-pound logs. 373 Columbus Ave. (at Vallejo Street), (415) 421-2337.
Mo's Gourmet Burgers: With 11 burger combinations on the menu there's something for almost any taste. Mo's also has Gardenburgers, salads and American breakfasts with all the sides. 1322 Grant Ave., (415) 788-3779.
Rico's: The "Popeye" burrito, is stuffed with fresh raw spinach, mushrooms and mozzarella cheese, and the menu features smoothies, mango-pineapple salsa, and desserts like apple pan dowdy. Even the spicy breakfasts and char-grilled carne asada tacos have a healthy touch: a freshly-chopped pico de gallo salad on the side. 943 Columbus, (415) 928-5404.
Ristorante Ideale: A good choice if you're looking for an Italian meal that's hearty but not heavy, in a contemporary setting. The menu features classic dishes updated with innovative flavors. Try the prosciutto-wrapped pear and mascarpone as a starter. 1309 Grant Ave., (415) 391-4129.
Rose Pistola: Top chefs come and go at this upscale restaurant, but the pasta is consistently excellent, especially those with seafood. Also excellent wood-fired pizzas and buttery risotto. Desserts give high note to meal. 532 Columbus (near Green), (415) 399-0499.
Sam's Hamburgers: This dark and greasy diner serves perfectly charbroiled hamburgers, fish and chips, pizza and other heart-clogging favorites. 618 Broadway, (415) 391-1539.
Sushi Hunter: If you're looking for a restaurant where standing on your table and doing endless sake shots with the staff is the norm, then Sushi City is your place. 1701 Powell St., (415) 296-8889.
Sushi on North Beach: Great sushi. Sit at the bar to get Chef Katsu Matsuda's recommendations and learn more about the 40 premium sakes the restaurant offers. 745 Columbus Ave. (between Mason and Filbert Streets), (415) 788-8050.
Sweet World: Visit the ice cream and tapioca bar, or choose from salted kumquats, Hello Kitty chewing gum, preserved white prunes, liquoriced olives or any of the other not-of-this-nation items. 601 Broadway, (415) 989-1228.
Tommaso's: Serves pizza with eclectic toppings like sea scallops, as well as classic pepperoni and pasta dishes like lasagna and ravioli. Affordable carafes of wine and baskets of crusty Italian bread round out the meal. 1042 Kearny St., (415) 398-9696.
Trattoria Contadina: It's up the hill from the bustle and crowds of North Beach, but that doesn't make getting a table any easier. This is some of the best Italian food in the area, with old favorites like veal scaloppine and fresh gnocchi and risotto. 1800 Mason St., at Union St., (415) 982-5728.
Victoria Pastry Co.: In business since 1914, this neighborhood institution is one of the city's oldest bakeries. The shop is best known for its cakes of liqueur-soaked sponge cake, whipped cream and custard and specializes in wedding cakes. 1362 Stockton St., (415) 781-2015.
A. Cavalli & Co.: An Italian goods store that has been in business since 1880. Shop for Italian newspapers, magazines and books, as well as such essential supplies as pasta makers and espresso machines. 1441 Stockton St., (415) 421-4219.
AB Fits: Eclectic clothing store specializes in European and Asian designer jeans. Once the owner knows you're in the market, he won't rest until he's found the perfect transfiguring pair, seemingly made to fit you alone. 1519 Grant Ave., (415) 982-5726.
Alla Prima Fine Lingerie: Specializes in European lingerie. The hand-painted shop sign depicts a voluptuous hourglass corset, which tells you all you need to know about the dainties indoors. 1420 Grant Ave., (415) 397-4077.
Biordi Arts: The owners have been importing handmade and painted Majolica pottery from central Italy for more than 50 years. Shipping is available if you buy too much to carry. 412 Columbus Ave., (415) 392-8096.
Broadway Cigars and Liquors: Located among the strip clubs and sports bars, this market is distinguished by its selection of imported cigarettes, from pastel pink Nat Shermans to Bali Hai Naturales. 550 Broadway, (415) 397-1310.
City Lights Bookstore: Lawrence Ferlinghetti's shop opened in 1953 and still has one of the best collections of poetry, fine art tomes and political rags in the city. Feel free to linger and ask questions. 261 Columbus Ave., (415) 362-8193.
Knitz and Leather: Shop for unique leather jackets and bags and handmade sweaters and scarves for men and women while the proprietor knits up new designs before your eyes. 1429 Grant Ave., (415) 391-3480.
MAC: The proprietors of MAC (Modern Appealing Clothing) fit a wide range of designs specializing in local San Francisco designers. Styles include retro fashions as well as modern, urban looks. 1543 Grant Ave., (415) 837-1604.
Macchiarini Creative Design & Jewlery: The handmade pieces here are modern, with tribal and African influences, and the family has played a significant role in San Francisco art history. 1453 Grant Ave, (415) 982-2229. (Web site)
15 Romolo: Slip around the corner to tiny Romolo Street to find this darkly glowing speakeasy, part of the Hotel Romolo. Blue velvet booths and abundant candlelight envelop the crowd in a posh urban ambiance. The jukebox is known for its frequently updated selection. 15 Romolo St. (in the alley between Broadway & Vallejo and Grant & Kearny), (415) 398-1359.
Bimbo's 365 Club: Rita Hayworth got her start at this supper club and speakeasy in 1931. Today, you can hear live music acts ranging from the Temptations to Jewel to up-and-coming indie rock bands. The club's retro aesthetic extends to the women's restroom, where plush velvet seats and individual makeup mirrors decorate the lounge area.1025 Columbus Ave., (415) 474-0365. (Web site)
Broadway Studios: Offers dance lessons ranging from swing to tango in its lofty ballroom, and frequently features rock acts and DJs. Check out the two bars and swanky lounge. Located upstairs from the Velvet Lounge. 435 Broadway St., (415) 291-0333.
Columbus Cafe: Divey sports bar popular with local workers has one of the best happy hours around: Two-for-one draught beer (there are at least 10 to choose from) from 5-8 p.m. every day, including weekends! The scene is lively, friendly and hard-drinking, and the atmosphere is dominated by TV screens and noise. 562 Green St., (415) 291-0818.
Fuse: This hip bar can be pleasantly uncrowded during the week, despite being granted hot spot status by InStyle magazine. On weekends there's a line out the door and no room to breathe once inside. The house cocktails are large and creative 493 Broadway, (415) 908-3600.
Gino & Carlo: Gino & Carlo's cheap martinis and homemade Italian food bring big crowds. Although unofficially "owned" by a cast of regulars, newcomers are treated like old friends. Opens at 6 a.m. to accommodate early birds and late-shift workers, has pool and pinball. 548 Green St. (between Grant and Stockton), (415) 421-0896.
Kennedy's Irish Pub Curry House: A few blocks from the "Little Italy" heart of North Beach, Kennedy's is a bit of a local secret. When you've tired of cappuccino and opera music, sample the unlikely combination of pleasures of this Irish pub. 1040 Columbus, (415) 441-8855.
La Rocca's Corner: While tourist spots proudly advertise "Se habla Espanol" or "Il parles Francais," the sign at the entrance to this old Italian bar only promises that "English is Spoken." 957 Columbus, (415) 674-1266.
The Purple Onion: Phyllis Diller, the Kingston Trio, the Smothers Brothers and even Maya Angelou got their start at this veteran of the SF comedy scene, which was restored and reopened in 2004 by Stephanie and Mario Ascione, owners of the upstairs restaurant, Macaroni Sciue Sciue. The plan is to have stand-up shows twice a month to start, perhaps more frequently as things get rolling. (For a schedule see www.caffemacaroni.com.) Expect "more jokes about politics and penises," a "no-drink minimum" and a cash-only policy for tickets, which will be just six bucks. 140 Columbus Ave., (415) 956-1653.
Rosewood: Any bar that pours Hoegaarden beer on tap is all right with me, and Rosewood is one of these bars. It also serves a nice selection of cocktails and some very expensive champagne to its patrons, typically thirtysomethings who like their hip-hop strong, with an international flavor. Each night of the week boasts a different style, such as French hip-hop on Wednesdays and urban electric music on the first and third Thursdays of the month, with some top-notch DJs spinning, and the place consistently draws a large crowd. 732 Broadway St., (415) 951-4886.
The Saloon: Nestled on the corner of Grant and Fresno sits the oldest bar in the City, a Barbary Coast relic that opened in 1861 as Wagner's Beer Hall. It's the size of your living room and beaten up like an old pug, but it's a friendly place to locals, suits, Euro-trash and the occasional toothless wench having a spirited conversation with herself. They have great live blues bands every night, free on weekdays and a nominal cover on weekends. 1232 Grant Ave., (415) 986-7666.
Savoy-Tivoli: Though overrun by tourists and drunk twenty-somethings on the weekend, it's still good for a weekday pint or glass of wine. This neighborhood institution opened in 1906 as a sailors' boarding house, and was the home of Beach Blanket Babylon in the '70s. Today, the huge covered patio, old-fashioned wooden bar, four pool tables and the occasional Elvis impersonator still make the Savoy-Tivoli worth a visit. 1434 Grant Ave. (near Green), (415) 362-7023.
Specs Twelve Adler Museum Cafe: Specs has been home to a menagerie of misfits, from strippers and poets to longshoremen and merchant marines. You can order a foofoo drink here, but it will come with a brass plaque from a ship's boiler that reads "unfit to drink." If you want a beer, dry wit and good stories, this is just the place. 12 Adler Place, (alley off Columbus, between Broadway and Pacific), (415) 421-4112.
Tosca: Jukebox-generated arias fill the air at this moody, spacious bar, where the décor includes a mural of Venice in the large back room and pictures of Robert Mitchum in the ladies room. As evening approaches the bartender lines the long wood bar with a queue of coffee liqueur drinks, the specialty of the house. 242 Columbus Ave., (415) 391-1244.
Vesuvio Cafe: Around since the early '50s, this old Beat hangout still attracts an artsy crowd. The two-story space is cozily lit with hanging lamps and decorated with a flea-market jumble of photos paintings and curious objects. On the balcony upstairs, small tables overlook the bustle of Columbus and narrow Jack Kerouac Alley, where the face of the "On the Road" author himself looms up from the muraled wall. 255 Columbus Ave. (at Jack Kerouac Alley, just south of Broadway), (415) 362-3370. (Web site)