North Beach’s best
Famous for its Italian restaurants—it is San Francisco’s Little Italy—and also as the birthplace of the Beat movement, the North Beach bohemian quarter has coffee houses galore.
North Beach annual event
North Beach Festival
In June. Free.
This granddaddy of street fairs was established by a committee of Beat generation artists in 1954 and is said to be the country’s very first. It features Italian foods, sidewalk cafes, traditional Italian sword-fighting demonstrations, bocce ball games, and a variety of entertainment.
North Beach attractions and shops
The Beat Museum
540 Broadway/Columbus. Fee.
The late, great, and beloved San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen is credited with coining “beatnik” in 1956 to describe the followers of the Beat Movement who hung out in the coffeehouses of North Beach. This cool museum has existed before in a variety of venues, including a traveling bus. Now in the back of the former Figone hardware store, it displays book collections, manuscripts, and ephemera from Beat legends such as Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The merchandise in the front retail store is almost as interesting as the artifacts in the museum itself.
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.
Co-founded in 1953 by Peter Martin and beatnik poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who still looks after the business until his death in 2021, this multi-level independent bookstore was the first in the country to specialize in paperbacks. It now includes hard covers. 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. he bookstore was given landmark status in 2001.
Cobb’s Comedy Club
915 Columbus Ave./Lombard St.
This popular club features live stand-up, plus a full bar and dinner menu. Dining in guarantees best seating, but all seating is good. The pre-show dinner menu includes delicious, well-spiced entrees such as achiote-rubbed chicken and grilled halibut. A cafe menu served during the show includes popcorn shrimp and calamari, crispy Dungeness crab rolls, a focaccia burger, and an ice cream sundae topped with housemade butterscotch and fudge. This building has been a nightclub since it went up in 1923, and USO shows here wowed World War II troops with big band music
At top of Lombard St. Fee.
This 210-foot-tall tower (approximately 18 stories) located atop fashionable Telegraph Hill offers a magnificent 360-degree view that includes the Golden Gate and Bay bridges and Lombard Street. Resembling the nozzle of a fire hose, it was built in 1933 as a memorial to the city’s volunteer fire department. Colorful murals painted on the ground floor walls in 1934 depict area activities during the Depression. They were controversial at the time because of left-wing political content. More murals on the second floor depict people playing sports. Admission fee includes an attendant-operated elevator ride to the top. Parking is extremely limited.
Visitors can take the 39 Coit bus up, then walk down the Filbert Street Steps (keep an eye and ear out for the wild parrots that live in this area—made famous by Mark Bittner’s book and movie, “The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill”–and for Napier Lane—made famous by Armistead Maupin’s novel, “Tales of the City”) and see some charming 19th-century cottages as well as the Grace Marchant Garden, exiting onto Levi Plaza near Battery Street.
Columbus Ave./Greenwich St. Free.
This simple spot is where the late baseball legend Joe DiMaggio played in his youth. Kids love it here. The playground is currently under construction and scheduled to open for play in early 2016.
Saints Peter and Paul Church
666 Filbert St./Columbus Ave., on Washington Square.
Topped with a pair of ornate spires, this wedding cake-white Roman Catholic church was completed in 1924. The interior holds a gold domed painting of Jesus by Ettore and Giuditta Serbaroli. Though Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio were actually married in a civil ceremony at City Hall, a famous photo shows them cuddling on the steps of this church. It is interesting to notice that the street address is the sign of the devil!
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. It is interesting to note that this park isn’t square, is not on Washington Street, and has a statue of Ben Franklin–not George Washington.
North Beach restaurants
plus bars, coffeehouses, bakeries, and delis
916 Kearny St./Columbus.
An original Francis Ford Coppola production, this flagship cafe site is located in the historical wedge-shaped Sentinel Building that houses Mr. Coppola’s American Zoetrope production company. The Roman trattoria-style menu includes Neapolitan pizzas, Argentine picadas (like tapas), salads, and some pastas and sauces from the Coppola product line.
423 Columbus Ave./Vallejo St.
This cozy room here 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
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. Comedians 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.
155 Columbus Ave./Kearny St.
This corner saloon-bar has been in business since 1861. For a while it was known as the Andromeda and served as a gathering spot for boxers. Walking through the doors is like stepping back in time. The ornate mahogany bar has been in service since 1907. Old-time Asian paddle fans hang from the high ceiling cooling 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. 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), but another popular choice is the Barkeep’s Whimsy (the bartender chooses what you drink). The food menu is short but includes plenty of appetizers, plus a burger, roasted chicken, and mushroom pot pie.
Mama’s on Washington Square
1701 Stockton St./Filbert St.
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. Mario’s is most famous for their delicious meatball and eggplant sandwiches. More description and images.
373 Columbus Ave./Vallejo St.
Located on its present corner since 1912, this old-school Italian deli was established in 1896 and is the oldest in town. It provides the makings for a great picnic, including made-to-order sandwiches. Salamis are cured with various flavors. My favorites are finocciona (fennel cured) and toscano (garlic cured). A customer favorite, the Dutch Crunch bread disappears fast. It can get quite crowded here; be sure to take a number as you walk in. After, dash into one of the Chinese markets for some fresh fruit.
North Beach Baking Co. of San Francisco
1501 Grant Ave./Union St. A great sour dough that has a crunchy crust and is soft inside, French bread, and rolls are baked here in very old brick-lined ovens. More description and images.
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.
Specs Twelve Adler Museum Cafe
12 William Saroyan Pl., (415) 421-4112.
Open since 1968, this divey bar has ties to the Beatnik era. It is in an alley across the street from City Lights Bookstore. A sort of museum of curious displays includes a collection of ivory carvings and an eclectic collection of ephemera and oddities from all over the world. Drinks are basic cheap, but don’t take too long deciding when ordering. Keep it simple–beer or hard booze–and don’t make the mistake of ordering a “silly” drink. If you want frou frou, go next door to Tosca. Food choices consist of cheese and crackers.
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 California-grown garlic as possible. (In fact, for their two Sticking Rose restaurants–the other one is in Beverly Hills–they use 50 tons of garlic each year!) 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 gift shop in front sells all things garlic. Note that this restaurant is owned by locals and, while it is wildly popular with tourists, it is also patronized by a herd of locals.
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.
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 (Bob Dylan ordered tea). 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.
Victoria Pastry Co.
700 Filbert St.
Add 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!
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.)
North Beach hotels
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.
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.
(www.berkeleyandbeyond2.com; copyright Carole Terwilliger Meyers)