Michael Macrone
Articles & Essays

Straight Up & Con Panna

One Man’s Guide to North Beach Bistros

As one walks along Columbus or Grant Avenue above Broadway, the feeling that North Beach is a little schizo is inescapable. A family neighborhood, an artist community, a flamboyant and racy nightclub district, an ethnic stronghold: North Beach is all of these and more. At the point where all aspects of the neighborhood converge are the local bars and cafes, long among the finest in the city. Many have the flavor of Gold Rush gone Bohemian, or of northern Italian New Wave. One thing is definite: when San Franciscans are looking for fun, they come to North Beach—for the music, dance, dining, spectacle and, of course, the drinking. There are dozens of bars, cafes and cafe/bars in North Beach, and dozens more if you count popular bars at restaurants. For the purposes of the following survey, we’ve limited our scope to establishments that exist primarily to quench your thirst—for liquor, coffee and/or people-watching. Vesuvio is included, but the Washington Square Bar & Grill is not. Anything described here is recommended, more or less; someday, we may run a survey on places not to go, but for now, here’s the cream of the crop. Listings with a star indicate this reviewer’s favorite hangouts.

1. MARIO’S BOHEMIAN CIGAR STORE
566 Columbus Avenue at Union, 362-0536
As the name suggests, the triangular structure across Union Street from Washington Square clings to its late-50s heritage; framed photos above the bar speak of the Bohemian’s history and variable renown. Today’s crowd is diverse in background and age; many are “regulars.” Wine, beer, coffee drinks, sandwiches on focaccia, homemade ricotta cheesecake, polenta & sausage, pizza and other items are served at the bar and a row of cafe tables along the north windows. An intelligent, “civilized” crowd with a history; great atmosphere; often crowded but just as often quiet and relaxed.

2. SILHOUETTES
524 Union at Jasper, between Grant and Stockton, 398-1952
Silhouettes gets hotter and hotter as a weekend “must” for young professionals and semi-professionals in jeans and ties. Silhouettes comprises two large rooms: the front room sports floral-print wallpaper and a large, well-stocked bar, the back room has a dance floor, small bar and pool table. Decor includes old movie posters and old 45s along the molding. The atmosphere is somewhat greek, that is fraternal; 50s and 60s music, especially Motown, is prevalent. A fun place, if a little yuppie; full bar.

3. SAVOY TIVOLI
1434 Grant Avenue near Union, 362-7023
Once a family-style restaurant, the Savoy Tivoli has in the last two years established itself as one of the outstanding cafe/bars in San Francisco. One first notices the two palm trees flanking the entrance to the patio cafe, where a distinctly international set sits nursing draughts of Anchor and coffee drinks at the marble-top tables under lights nestled in frond-shaped chandeliers. The chalkboards outside list a number of caffes all’Italiana, daiquiris, margaritas, sweets, croissants, ice cream and liqueurs. Stepping from the patio into the pool room (“dining room”), one notices statuettes, painted panels, tile floor, paintings and benches; even more striking than the warmth and whimsy of the decor is the stylish (or pseudo-stylish) clientele, Europeans and Americans shooting pool (the best in North Beach, even at a dollar a game) and people-watching. Through an arch is the bar with tables and partitioned booths; a rarely-played piano flanks a great jukebox with everything from Sinatra to Madonna, the Stones to Prince. Drinks are poured with a relatively heavy hand and come at a reasonable price. The Tivoli is the best young-person’s bar in North Beach.

4. GINO AND CARLO
548 Green Street at Jasper, between Columbus and Grant, 421-0896
Gino and Carlo is a loud, boisterous, friendly bar frequented primarily by natives, many of Italian-American descent. Working people ranging in age from mid-20s to mid-40s crowd the long bar sporting a large well and a very large screen for sports events. Trophies flank the entryway and line the bar. Jukebox features a broad selection, from Tony Bennett to Al Green and Abba to Denice Williams. A funky but attractive place.

5. LE BOTTEGHE
Columbus Avenue between Union and Green, 362-2712
Le Botteghe houses in one structure a cafe and shops, the latter vending wares from Italian wines and acqua minerale to espresso makers, books and records. The southern half of Le Botteghe comprises the cafe, offering coffee, beer, wine, soft drinks and mineral water in a clean, white, modern space dominated by a latinate fresco. Trees, fresh flowers, hanging and standing plants, wood columns and light colors create an airy ambiance that is, if anything, too clean. Nevertheless, the coffee is good and the atmosphere relaxed; as a break from the bustle, Le Botteghe is more than adequate.

6. MARA’S
503 Columbus Avenue between Union and Green, 397-9435
The display window of this cafe and pasticceria is undeniably the most tempting in the neighborhood—almost obscenely so. Trays of beautiful pastries and other sweets inspire “oohs” and “ahs” from passing tourists and even from jaded natives. Recommended are the almond croissants, clam and garlic pizza and coffee drinks. No alcohol.

7. CAFE ITALIA
708 Vallejo Street between Powell and Stockton, 362-9315
The Cafe Italia is a small, down-to-earth establishment, slightly tacky but truly friendly. Most of the space is given over to a pool table, coin machines, a foosball table and slightly outdated jukebox with Italian pop and pop “new music.” Coffee drinks and light alcohol are served in the din and bright lights. The diner ambiance is unpretentious and appealing. Local crowd.

8. CAFFE TRIESTE
609 Vallejo Street at Grant, 392-6739
Little need be said about the Trieste, a legend since the Bohemian era and still a meeting place for devotees of the culture. Occasionally, the Trieste offers live folk-Italian music, and always offers fine coffees and paste (pastries), sandwiches and other foods. The tile tables are colorful, as is the clientele; somehow, this corner spot has retained its authentic Italian flavor, beat ambiance, and up-to-date appeal.

9. “SALOON”
1234 Grant Street at Vallejo
This semi-pseudonymous bar is distinguished by its live music and hard-edged crowd. Veterans of the 1960s San Francisco rock and roll explosion are often featured on the funky little stage set before a small dance floor. The bullet-proof clientele can be intimidating, but actually the place is very civilized and a lot of fun. A schizophrenic jukebox relies on Janies Joplin et cetera, but also offers Willie Nelson and Irene Cara. Full bar.

10. ENRICO’S
504 Broadway at Kearney, 392-6220
Enrico’s is, if I may risk an archaism, a very hip place. The crowd is, of course, beautiful; this is the most jet-set of the North Beach bars. Fronting the most chaotic and vibrant block in the neighborhood, Enrico’s is the consummate people watching patio cafe, a place to see and be seen. As with the Trieste, little need be said; this “premiere pasta palace” cum high-class soda shoppe draws the fur-and-diamond set like rancid honey draws flies. If this sounds like a pan, perish the thought; Enrico’s is highly recommended—as a classic San Francisco experience of the most ambiguously camp order. Full bar and stained glass.

11. EL MATADOR
492 Broadway between Kearney and Montgomery, 434-2913
The El Matador is, as far as I know, the only bar in San Francisco that shows MTV on a large screen all day long—except, of course, when a major (or even minor) sports event is of greater interest. The hypnotic appeal of rock video is in itself alcoholic, and the large screen above the bar focuses attention (in slack moments) on the top-shelf liquors. Neon beer signs circle the walls, as do what must be hundreds of celebrities’ photos. El Matador in its heyday was a very “hip” (that word again) jazz club; and though it’s fallen on lesser luck, is a fun place and a safe place. Four pool tables, when operative, offer a lot of action. Full bar.

12. SPECS’ XII ADLER MUSEUM CAFE
12 Adler off Columbus between Pacific and Broadway, 421-4112
Approaching Specs’ in the dead-end alley behind the Greek Taverna, you will notice the dress code posted to the right of the entrance: “goggles required.” A bulletin board to the left boasts relevant clips, including one titled “40 Year Old Hippie.” Like everything inside Specs’, these articles are elevated to an almost totemistic status; this twilight-zone museum houses hilarious signs (“Men Aloft: Do Not Energize,” “86 on Clove Fags”) (well, more or less hilarious), eskimo and hippie artifacts, American Indian and African crafts in glass cases, funky photos, camp cultural fossils, Chinese sculpture, et cetera. A magazine rack offers Consumer Reports, United Airlines’ magazine and the New Republic. Flags soften the ceiling in soft lighting, cool jazz punches through the haze, and the bartenders treat you right. A New England mariner atmosphere mingles with beat politics in a down-to-earth ambiance hosting folk of all stripes. If you’re looking for good drinks at a reasonable price, and for American culture with its Oedipus complex exposed, Specs’ is your best bet. Remember, “American Bottoms Are Better.”

13. VESUVIO CAFE
255 Columbus at Adler between Pacific and Broadway, 362-3370
The Vesuvio Cafe, like Specs’, has made an art of mounting cultural artifacts, but has done so slightly more artfully. Although I would hardly call the decor “tasteful,” it’s brighter and a little less funky—for better or for worse. The Vesuvio is also a once and future beat hang-out, entertaining an artier crowd than its sister across Columbus Avenue. Of particular interest are the stained glass and tile facade and the balcony with a view of the bar and of a movie screen on which slides (reminiscent of old mail-order catalog clips) are projected. A mixed crowd, from wanderers to Frenchmen, discusses new films and Romantic poetry. Full bar.

—Michael Macrone

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First published in the weekly digest Key After Dark (1985)

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