If you really want to make a friend, go to someone’s house and eat with him… the people who give you their food give you their heart.
— CESAR CHAVEZ
To eat in North Beach is to become intimate with San Francisco’s history
The City’s longest-running bar, Saloon (since 1861), sits a few blocks from the Old World Italian pastries at Stella Pastry and Café. Francis Ford Coppola wrote much of the screenplay for The Godfather at Caffé Trieste off Columbus Ave. Vesuvio Café, a bar across Jack Kerouac Alley from City Lights Bookstore, was the regular haunt of beat poets and authors.
And while local guidebooks would list all of the above as Must Sees, as institutions with history and local flavor, their history won’t tell you what it means to be a part of this tight-knit community living in San Francisco.
Let’s take a look at some of the best North Beach restaurants.
Hole in the Wall, photo credit https://hitwcoffee.com/
This wouldn’t be San Francisco without a trip down the caffeine causeway, and North Beach has your coffee fix covered. Sure, you could head to Réveille Coffee Co. on Columbus for the trendy hipster-minimalism that has swept the city in recent years—and who would I be, to begrudge you a matcha latte?—but if you’re not sitting down for an avocado toast with potential investors, there is better coffee and more interesting company right around the corner.
Caffé Trieste will appear on any tourist’s guidebook as Francis Ford Coppola’s office-away-from-office when writing the screenplay for 1972’s The Godfather, and the café remains a hotspot for local writers. But its history and Italian heritage are deeper than the fictional Corleone family. Founded in 1956 by “Papa Gianni” Giotta, Caffe Trieste claims to be the first espresso coffee house on the west coast, and those decades of experience come through in every cup. They roast the beans themselves, which you can buy at their retail store next door. More than sixty years later, the restaurant is now run by Papa’s granddaughter Ida. Photographs of the family, as well as famous patrons from Michael Douglas to Samuel L. Jackson, cover the walls. On Saturday’s, Trieste hosts a three hour concert, featuring a jam band of local musicians playing everything from harmonicas and bongos to trombones and accordions.
If you need a quick fix on the walk to the office, or on the walk to the bus to the office, you never need leave the comfort of the Union Street sidewalk. Hole in the Wall looks exactly as you would expect; a 27 square-foot installation that Yelp reviewer “Brian M.” calls “one step removed from a Harry Potter closet.” The baristas are friendly community members who wave or say “hi” to passersby, and the menu is efficiently limited. In a rush? Fire off an SMS and your drink will be waiting when you arrive. Notable HITW staples include coconut water fresh from the coconut, for those nursing hangovers, and pookie, a shooter of cold brew concentrate, cinnamon, cardamom, and black tea. On weekends, they’ll make your cold brew coffee with coconut water instead of the regular filtered stuff, for a refreshing boost of electrolytes and caffeine all in one.
Once you’re good and jolted up, it’s time to get some food in that stomach. Your most important meal awaits.
Pancakes from Mama’s. Photo credit: http://www.mamas-sf.com/
Mama’s on Washington Square is, well, right on Washington Square and has been a mainstay for over 50 years. The family business was started by Mike and Frances “Mama” Sanchez in 1964, in place of an ice cream and candy store the couple had been running for 13 years at that location. Not limiting her motherly affection to her eight children Mama Sanchez spread her love to the entire North Beach community. The business remains in the family, passed down to Mike Jr. and his wife Debra in the 1990s, who run the restaurant today. If you’re worried about continuity, fear not. Mike’s son, Mikey, is waiting in the wings.
In certain respects, Mama’s is typical of San Francisco’s best breakfast spots: one Friday morning in early December, the wait was an hour long; on weekends, especially during peak brunch season, you could be in line for triple that. Atypical for most restaurants, however, is Mama’s approach to community. Rather than tolerate the anomie of our digital age, solo diners are seated at any table with an open spot. Your humble writer once shared a table with a former member of US National rowing team. At Mama’s, no one eats alone.
The french toast is not what you’d expect. Rather than light and fluffy, Mama’s uses loaves of banana bread (or cranberry orange bread or Swedish cinnamon bread) that lends a heartier heft to your breakfast experience. The french toast sampler, as you’d expect, gives a sharable taste of each. As with every meal, it’s better with friends.
Oh, and no credit cards here: only cash or, with a $15 minimum, debit cards. Mama don’t want your transaction fees.
If diners are more your style, stop by Mo’s Grill. Mo’s excels at the staples of an All-American breakfast: eggs, meat (bacon, chicken-apple sausage, or spicy Louisiana hot links), country potatoes, and toast. This local haunt won’t blow your mind, but sometimes, at the start of the day, that’s a good thing.
Molinari Delicatessen opened in 1896. Above the entrance, its blue and white striped awning reads “Fresh Ravioli and Pasta Factory”, but that’s not why you’re here.
Hanging above the cheeses are the meats: Sorpressata, Hot Salame, Finocchiona (Fennel Cured), Toscano (Garlic Cured—Mild), Toscano (Garlic Cured—Hot), Coppa, and Molinari Salami priced by the one, two, or three pounds. An indelible sign that you’re in a local spot is to watch the clientele. At Molinari, you’ll see it all: Chinese tourists in leather MGM hats; puffy-vested, coiffed-haired investment bankers; gruff developers, shoulder dusted in dry-wall dandruff; an NY transplant, iced-coffee in hand, Hepburn sunglasses, Genesee Brewery Hoodie, earbuds in, face a mask of alert disinterest.
You’ll notice that everyone waiting to order is already holding sandwich rolls—ciabatta, dutch crunch, everything-seeded—with no clear sign of where you might get yours. There’s a bin in the back left corner, so take your number and walk confidently back. When it comes to be your turn, get “the special.” An ex-girlfriend of mine used to say that she hated specials, because, “if they’re so special, they’d be on the menu.” Fair enough, and Molinari has you covered; The “Molinari Special (Italian combo)” gets top billing on the menu. “Everything on it?”, Franco asks, and he means everything. Hesitate now, or been seen confusedly wondering where everyone is getting that bread, and you’ll get a list of every ingredient, each a question. This author, wanting everything, lasted as far as the anchovies, before declining. With a wink, the interrogation was over.
Sit down dinner
Interior of Sotto Mare. Photo credit: https://www.sottomaresf.com/
As you walk into Sotto Mare you’ll meet Rich, the warm and jovial owner and sometimes–maitre d, holding court at the entrance. Asked for recommendations, he’ll jump right into freshness. “Whatever is at the market. Everything is fresh as we can get it. We don’t keep oysters the day after we get em,” he beams. “There’s no oven or deep fryer, everything cooked fresh right in front of you.”
The daily fish on offer changes with the market. The freshest fillets are sautéed and served next to fresh seasonal vegetables. Simple, delicious. The linguini with clams is another classic dish worth a look. If you’re looking to get weird (and you are), try a clam shooter: a tall shot glass Bloody Mary, lemon, and a clam (sans shell.) Take in the family photos that line the walls, push aside your reservations, and down the hatch.
On the way out, Rich shakes every customer’s hand and asks, genuinely curious, how you enjoyed your meal. It’s the little things.
Sometimes you just need a pick-me-up, so head over to Stella Pastry and Café on Columbus Ave. Like many North Beach institutions—and Stella, the oldest bakery in the city, is nothing if not an institution—the specialties are Italian. You’ll find biscotti in almond and anise and chocolate-dipped, flaky palmiers, Italian wedding cookies, and, of course, cannoli. Only here can you find the Sacripantina—in part because Stella trademarked the name and, supposedly, patented the shape—round and slanting upwards like the base of a cone. Sacripantina is composed of alternating layers: rum-soaked vanilla sponge cake and Zabaione creme (egg yolks, sweet cream, Marsala wine, and sherry.) The cake is airy and the cream light; the alcohol burns off during baking, leaving hints of vanilla, lemon, and caramel. Thankfully, all of Stella’s specialties, from Tiramisu to fruit tarts and panna cotta, are available by the slice.
Golden Boy Pizza’s iconic neon sign. Photo credit: Golden Boy’s Facebook Page
If you’re going to be out late in North Beach—and you’re going to be out late in North Beach—then you’ll soon enough feel the pangs of Fourth Meal. While much of San Francisco sleeps early, especially for you New York expatriates, North Beach makes as good a run as you’ll find on the west coast. Sam’s Burgers on Broadway is the spot for classic, no-frills American fare; stick with a double cheeseburger and fries. While Sam will sell you pizza, too, you’re in the wrong establishment for that.
Golden Boy Pizza is the spot for a slice. Those slices, fluffy focaccia laden with toppings and fresh out of the oven, are proudly displayed behind the storefront glass. You’ll find fan favorites—your cheese, your pepperoni, your Meat Lovers or Veggie Combo—but no one comes to San Francisco without a sense of adventure. So order a Clam and Garlic square, pay in cash (they don’t accept anything but) and get yourself back out there.
And if/when you fall in love with North Beach, considering checking out Starcity’s North Beach coliving community so great food will always been at your doorstep. And if you’d like some history with your meals, here’s a great North Beach walking tour for you.