“Allen Ginsberg slept here,” the desk clerk said, as he filled my sherry glass at the Hotel Boheme in San Francisco. A 1955 photograph of the late great poet, smiling with Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady in front of City Light’s bookstore, had caught my eye. A scrawled caption underneath the row of rascally looking guys read, “We were just hanging around.”
Last November, my husband and I found that “just hanging around” San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood can still evoke the laid-back happiness captured in that photograph. Like the Beat writers of the ‘50s, we’d been lured to the area by its European atmosphere, which was created by a wave of 19th century immigrants who came for the Gold Rush. The Italians stayed on and opened bakeries, cafes, and restaurants, so it turned out to be a perfect spot to indulge our craving for an Italy fix, without the jet lag or sting of the rising euro.
Between delicious bites, we discovered other appeals. North Beach is Little Italy blended with a boisterous bar scene that originated during the Wild West Barbary Coast days, spiced with the jazzy legacy of the Beat generation.
This mix is packed into a six-by-three-block wedge, bordered by Chinatown, Fisherman’s Wharf, and the Financial District. It could easily be circled on foot in twenty minutes. But we decided to slow down and hang around to the pace of its old world rhythms.
The Hotel Boheme, smack in the middle of Columbus Avenue (the neighborhood’s main drag) was key to making us feel part of the North Beach family. A fifteen-room former transient hotel, it’s been expertly remodeled in Bohemian-chic style.
Our second-floor bay window offered a sidewalk show of locals settling in to read and drink espresso at the Café Greco, camera-toting tourists being lured into restaurants by enthusiastic Italian waiters, and elderly Chinese women in quilted jackets toting bags stuffed with fresh vegetables.
Hanging around, I found not a chain store or Starbucks in sight, but enticing bakeries and shops that have been run by Italian-American families for generations. At Molinari Delicatessen (“Since 1896”), it was a pleasure to mingle with the locals, surrounded by shelves crammed with imported pastas, olive oils, and wines. As we stocked up on souvenirs of house-made salami, our server tipped us off to the best spot for an afternoon pick-me-up: the Caffe Trieste.
Nowhere was the la famiglia spirit stronger than here in the neighborhood’s oldest coffeehouse. We arrived just as its traditional Saturday afternoon concert was starting up and bonded over cappuccino with some regulars. The three-piece band played classics from the Neapolitan songbook, as one by one, each member of the café family took a solo turn at the mike. By the time Pappa Gianni was belting out “Volare,” we were swaying and joining in with the “Can-tar-e, woa-oh-oh-ohh!” chorus. Outside it had become a chilly San Francisco afternoon, but here we’d been transported to the warm soul of the Mediterranean.
That evening, before joining in with the natives and tourists for the great North Beach tradition of barhopping, we opted to check out City Lights bookstore. The landmark literary institution was founded in 1953 to showcase the breakthrough writing of the Beat generation. Though it’s now expanded to three floors, it still retains a subversive Bohemian ambience, complete with creaky wooden stairs and walls thumb tacked with flyers for experimental theater and readings.
We completely lost track of time browsing the store’s mind candy: a large selection of poetry, foreign titles, and literary journals, along with top-choice classic and contemporary books. The customers were equally entertaining—from a fired-up oldster launching into a lefty political discussion with the cashier, to a young couple snuggled on a bench, cracking up as they thumbed through illustrations in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
We slipped into Tosca for a nightcap, where opera played from the jukebox and artsy types filled deep red booths. The house special, called cappuccino, contained no coffee, but rather a mixture of hot chocolate and brandy that was invented as a Prohibition cocktail and remains “what to order” in this spot that’s been around since 1919. It was the perfect nightcap to send us on our way, past the jazz clubs and colorful blinking lights of Broadway, and home to our hotel.
As we crossed the street, a glamorous tourist next to us flipped her shining chestnut mane of hair, turning from left to right to take in the night, shouting out, “Che bello!” Her ecstatic reaction to the North Beach scene would have made any Beat poet snap his fingers in approval.
If You Go:
444 Columbus Avenue
$169 for a double
532 Columbus Avenue
Reservations essential, all credit cards accepted. Expensive.
L’Osteria del Forno
519 Columbus Avenue
No reservations, cash only. Moderate.
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