> Happy to know you have returned and best of all to your favorite
> place!I should send you on an errand to the Grotto, and have you
> see Bush Man- he
> is still the best laugh I have had in years- and the Grotto has
> great coffee and cheese cake!
Oh, my! Every once in a while, I am forced to realize that when I say "San Francisco," people think of a place completely different than what I know. It's like when I tell people that I grew up near Washington D.C. and they say, "Oh, yes, Washington is a beautiful city." And my first reaction is always, "Huh???" And then I realize that all they've seen is the Mall and the Smithsonian and the White House.
Next time you're in San Francisco, I should send you on an expedition to Specs.
Any more now, even "North Beach" means something different to most people than it does to me, despite being geographically identical. When I google NB, I get mostly sites put up by people whose knowledge goes back a maximum of ten years. They see it as a strip of expensive restaurants. Of course they value the history, because it's a draw for tourists, but it's meaningless to them.
Well, even during the fifties and sixties, NB was a tourist trap. But simultaneously it was the fifties equivalent of Haight-Ashbury (which is also now mostly an expensive tourist trap, with the sorts of shops than seem to have a half a dozen dresses for sale, each priced at a few hundred dollars).
The Persian Aub Zam Zam is still on Haight Street, but they've dropped "Persian" from the name and the surly owner-bartender Bruno is now dead. Bruno who would instantly kick you out if you ordered a vodka martini or said anything about how your martini should be mixed or even if he just didn't like the way you looked. He never gave me any trouble though.
Sometimes it made me wonder though when he'd ask me what I wanted to drink. Why didn't he just take his attitude one step further and say without asking, "This is what you are going to drink. If you don't want it, go to another bar."
The Aub Zam Zam is still a wonderful small bar though. And the jukebox has a marvelous collection of jazz. And if you don't put money in, the bartenders will. I once asked one of the bartenders what sort of music she preferred to choose, and she said, "I just punch in songs at random. Everything on the jokebox is good."
Aside from Specs, if you're willing to go somewhere really sleazy in North Beach, try the Saloon on Grant Avenue (between Columbus and Vallejo). Claims to be the oldest surviving bar in San Francisco, founded around 1860, and the claim is certainly believable. The story is that back then, when it was known as Wagner's Beer Hall, there used to be a trough in the floor running alongside the bar. So customers could piss without leaving their drinks to visit the bathroom. If you visit the men's room, you sort of see why customers might want to avoid it. It does seem to me though that all the slogans on the mensroom wall about that notorious redhead Brenda finally got painted over. Most of them were originally written by Brenda herself before leaving on a trip to Europe, so that people wouldn't forget about her while she was gone. A few others, most notably "Brenda fucked cat + dog," were added by others. Now Brenda has moved on to another city, another bar.
Best time to go to the Saloon is in the afternoon. In the evenings, it's too crowded and the music is too loud for me. If you're a blues fanatic though, you should certainly not miss the Saloon at night. (Sunday afternoons are also good.)
Vesuvio (almost universally called "Vesuvio's"), across Columbus Avenue from Specs, is fairly touristy on weekend evenings. It's the sort of bar that is at its best in the mornings. A little like the bars Joyce used to write about. It's also the place where many of the North Beach literary mafia tend to go after one of those rare events that draws them out. There or Enrico's.
For old timers, I think the whole point of going to Enrico's is the pleasure of being able to once more say, "I'm going to Enrico's." Unfortunately, once one gets there one realizes that it's not Enrico's any more. Or at least that's my take on things. But what would I know? I don't go there. Enrico himself, last I heard, was living in Virginia.
Tosca, right next to Specs, has always been a mystery to me. It's always been very trendy, but in a local sort of way, not so touristy. I go in and wonder, "Why do people come here?" Apparently it's the sort of place that people go because people go there. Lower rank celebrities (and maybe not so completely lower rank). Tosca is famous for their cappuccino. Which has no coffee in it. ("Duh... You must be a tourist! If you want coffee, go to Starbucks.")
I was once talking to a guy (not a celebrity) who used to go to Tosca at a lot, and I asked him what the attraction was. He said, "For me, it was the fact that they had stalls that locked in the restrooms. It was a good place to shoot up." Hmm.... That certainly gave me a different perspective on Tosca.
Tosca's is also notable for its jukebox, well stocked with opera. And when I once took a look at the jukebox (standard operating procedure for me in any bar), I was surprised to find that there were also a number of non-operatic selections. Jazz, I seem to recall.
If not Starbucks (or Café Greco or Café Puccini), for coffee you could go to Café Trieste, across the street from the Saloon. Café Trieste is also a mystery to me. It's another place that people go to because people go there. But in this case the people are the bohemians (i.e. bums, some of whom write poetry or paint paintings) who have been there (or at least it seems like the same people!) since the Fifties. No alcohol, although Trieste may possibly serve beer and wine.
It seems to me that Café Trieste is a bit like the Saloon, but without alcohol. Except that there's a lot more intellectual pretension among the crowd in the Trieste.
Trieste is also notable for the Sunday afternoon open microphone for singers, primarily singing opera. It's a small place, and on Sunday afternoon the crowd often overlows out onto the sidewalk.
There are a lot of references to Puccini in North Beach and a lot of restaurants with Lucca or di Lucca as part of their names. That's because the original immigrants came from a town named Lucca, the birthplace of Puccini and a little ways inland from Pisa.
Only recently did I realize that the name of Hotel Boheme on Columbus Avenue is not a reference to the North Beach bohemians of the Forties and Fifties, but instead to Puccini's most famous opera (c.f. also the well known song by Charles Aznavour).
With friends on Saturday we drove only a few minutes away to Lucca,
famous for its intact Renaissance-era city walls and towering towers
such as the Torre Guinigi, a 130 foot tower that has an ancient oak
tree on top. We strolled along the narrow streets and shopped in the
boutiques, discovering a store with a small, unassuming entrance,
that once inside, led you from one massively large room to another
with stunning frescoed ceilings as palatial as Versailles, filled
with stylish designer clothing and high price tags. We left with
nothing but our photos and memories.