February 20, 2018

As you may know, this is my favorite neighborhood.

February 20, 2018

As you may know, this is my favorite neighborhood.

Everyone in San Francisco knows North Beach — maybe you’ve browsed in City Lights before a memorably awful dinner at The Stinking Rose with those cousins that came in from out of town. Or maybe, in another life, you could be found frequenting the louder, more raucous bars on Grant Street on Saturday nights.

But there’s another North Beach, one dripping with history and full of locals who have been in the neighborhood since putting down roots decades back. One that still feels like one of the most inspired, magical parts of the city, summer tourist hordes aside. And one that makes you feel like you’re in on some incredible San Francisco secret, when you know the right places to go. So, here are 26 top bars and restaurants in North Beach, ranging from the oldest of old school to those that are decidedly of-the-moment.

1 Kennedy’s Irish Pub & Curry House

An Irish pub-slash-Indian-restaurant? Oh, indeed. Kennedy’s is the best Irish-Indian, dare we say, fusion spot in town, with a quite respectable draft beer list, an extensive menu of tasty curries, dosas, tandoori, and beyond, and a shockingly expansive (not to mention sumptuously, extensively decorated) space on Columbus. It’s undoubtedly one of the better, more reliable bars for large group gatherings in the neighborhood, if not the city, and tends to feel just chaotic enough to make sense. Food is served late, too, so you can order your beer drinking and curry eating as you prefer. Be sure to check out the sink in the women’s restroom (seriously).

2 La Trappe Cafe

Foggy nights beg for the cozy warmth of La Trappe’s downstairs dining room; the stalwart Belgian beer house is tasty enough that you might find yourself making excuses on sunny days, too. Boasting 15 rotating taps of Belgian and Belgian-style brews and a very extensive bottle list, the city’s beer lovers know that this is often to spot to find some delicious, and hard-to-find rare brews. The food is reliably hearty and delicious — burgers and sausages are tasty, but it’s all about the moules, served with crusty bread and even better when amplified with their crisp-fried frites. The classic mariniere preparation (with garlic, wine and witbier) is standout, as is the konkan, a yellow curry sauce laced with ginger, chiles, and curry leaves.

3 The Italian Homemade Company

Imagine that your Italian grandmother set up shop on Columbus Ave. with the sole purpose of keeping you fat and happy, but with an eye for 21st Century aesthetics. That’s the Italian Homemade Company, a bright-but-cozy storefront specializing in gourmet Italian goods, plus eye-rollingly good prepared food to take away or to to eat at a table by the window with some wine. Choices include consistently excellent fresh pastas — pick your type (pappardelle, gnocchi, ravioli, etc.) and your sauce (butter and sage, bolognese, and more) — giant slabs of lasagna, and piadina, a pliant, yeast-free flatbread filled with salty cold cuts and cheese.

4 Liguria Bakery

Fans have to arrive early to get the goods at Liguria, a 106-year-old San Francisco institution. The family-run bakery specializes in foccacia, and the massive sheets of bread, studded with everything from raisins to olives and even doctored-up, pizza-style, is a simultaneous wonder of airy, pillowy bread and olive oil richness (their green onion version is what makes the sandwiches at Mario’s so excellent). Grab a piece or 10 to take to the park, or buy it frozen to finish off at home.

5 Mama’s

You’ll find lines down the block daily at Mama’s, a legendary brunch spot with an epic wait time to match. The cozy corner restaurant has been keeping the neighborhood in breakfast since the late ‘60s, and their sure hand with giant omelettes, loaded benedicts and over-the-top French toast speaks to their years of practice. Stop by on a weekday if you can — they serve breakfast all day and you’ll likely sneak in without too long of a wait. Regardless, be sure to visit the Bake Shop, where fresh baked loaf cakes, homemade jam, and other sweets are available to go.

6 Victoria Pastry

Sugar rushes are inevitable at Victoria Pastry, a pusher of the sweet stuff since 1914. Sample neighborhood classics like tiramisu and cannoli, or go big with slices of their rich layer cakes. They’re known for their Easter egg-hued Princess Cake (layered with raspberry, whipped cream, custard, and triple sec) but don’t skip the Fedora — the dense, chocolate cake is loaded with chocolate cream and rum. There are a couple tables outside, but these sweets are best enjoyed with a coffee in the park.

7 Little Vine

A pocket-sized shop on the quieter end of Grant Ave., Little Vine has everything you want and nothing you don’t. A thoughtfully curated selection of cheese, charcuterie, bread, jams, and sweets have the makings of a perfect picnic, with a nice array of wines and beers to pair with them. If you’re not feeling the DIY action, the shop offers a daily changing sandwich from 11:30-2:30 pm, or until they sell out, with combinations like Zoe’s pastrami and McVicker’s pickles and La Querica prosciutto, fresh burrata, and quince jam (plus a daily cheese sandwich with Cowgirl Creamery Mount Tam and fig jam). They host regular wine tastings, too, should you need more reasons to stop by.

8 Park Tavern

Big Night Restaurant’s Group North Beach contribution is as immediately likeable as little sister Marlowe, but with a bigger space and a touch of glam. Anna Weinburg and chef Jennifer Puccio’s magic touches are in full force here — deviled eggs, brussels sprouts, and the Marlowe burger reign supreme — with seasonal, “modern tavern” dishes like bone marrow and a wood-fired pork chop with fermented achiote keeping things interesting. The cocktails are consistently excellent, and the outdoor tables overlooking Washington Square Park are one of the more pleasant places for brunch in the city.

9 Don Pistos

Unmarked, save a trio of glowing, red lamps lining the restaurant’s street-level window, always-packed Pisto’s dependably churns out tasty, fresh takes on tacos, ceviche, and enchiladas. There’s also memorable large-format dishes like a whole Maine lobster served with cilantro butter, rice and beans and the must-order hamburguesa, which is marinated with onions and bacon, and topped with guacamole. Pisto’s brunch, and low-ABV takes on margaritas and sangria are worthy of a visit.

10 Cafe Jacqueline

Tucked unostentatiously on Grant Ave., Cafe Jacqueline has quietly been holding court since 1979. The cozy, undeniably romantic restaurant specializes in one thing: Souffle. You’ll still find the restaurant’s namesake, Jacqueline Margulis, standing sentinel in the small kitchen, preparing souffles one at a time and beating eggs by hand. Start your meal with a savory version — choices range from a simple gruyere souffle to one loaded with lobster or crab — but be sure to save room for dessert. The chocolate, lemon, and Grand Marnier souffles are the stuff of legend. Plan on a long, luxurious dinner, and definitely opt for a good bottle of French wine to accompany your feast.

11 Tony’s Pizza Napoletana

Tony Gemignani’s pizza empire has stretched far beyond North Beach, but its heart and soul remains in the neighborhood. Tony’s Pizza Napoletana continues to pack in the crowds, and with good reason — the extensive menu reads like a crash course in regional pizza styles and history (the limited napoletana-style margarita is worth the wait, as is the butter-edged Detroit-style square pie).

Next door, the Slice House is slinging slices of coal-fired New York and Connecticut-style pies and Chicago-style Italian beef sandwiches. Down the street, Capo’s is all about the gut-busting, Chicago-style fare. In brief: When it comes to pizza and its accompaniments, it’s hard to go wrong with any of Gemignani’s restaurants.

12 Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store Cafe

There are no cigars to be found at this cozy corner cafe, but hot, melty sandwiches on pillowy focaccia are in abundance. A bonafide local joint in the midst of Columbus Avenue’s touristy glut, Mario’s is the kind of place that makes you feel like a regular, and inspires you to become one. Skip straight to the focaccia sandwich section of the menu (though the hot, baked dishes like lasagna and cannelloni aren’t half bad) — they’re made using olive oil-rich focaccia from Liguria Bakery, just across the park. The meatball is legendary, but the eggplant sandwiches (both breaded and grilled) are well worth a taste. Pair them with a pitcher of local beer, a carafe of red, or even the house Campari, a mix of bitters and vermouth on ice (asking for the top shelf iteration will earn you a splash of prosecco).

13 Tony Nik’s

Time travel comes cheap at Tony Nik’s, where for the price of a cocktail (preferably an ice cold martini) one is easily spirited back to 1930s San Francisco. The bar has been in operation since ‘33, and the space — from the checkerboard glass wall to the curving, banquette-lined back lounge — will have you feeling straight out of a film noir. Martinis, Manhattans, and the like are your best bet; stop by for a drink pre- or post-dinner.

14 Il Pollaio

Blink and you’ll miss this no-frills, neighborhood staple on Columbus. Il Pollaio, as the name suggests, specializes in chicken — specifically, juicy, crispy-skinned grilled chicken, available by the half or whole bird. It’s easy to make a meal of chicken alone, but grilled vegetable sides are worth an order, and the french fries are great for soaking up savory chicken drippings. Give the lamb chops or the half rabbit a try if you’re feeling particularly carnivorous.

15 Church Key

The secret is out on this unassuming Grant Street watering hole, but Church Key remains one of the more mellow, and delicious, places to get a beer in the neighborhood. The small, constantly rotating draft list is excellent, and the encyclopedic bottle list will have the wonkiest of brew-heads salivating. Make a night of it and BYOF, and definitely stop by on a Wednesday nights to catch DJs spinning soul tunes on vinyl.

16 Baonecci Restaurant

Prepare to feel like part of the family at this under-the-radar Green Street gem. Baonecci is the passion project of the Gambaccinis, who hail from Lucca, and the menu showcases their well-executed homestyle cooking. The homestyle menu includes pastas and sauces made from scratch and beautifully airy thin crust pizzas are a must (if you’re feeling decadent, consider the sausage and taleggio-topped pie), and rustic starters like ribollita shine bright. The calzone, hand-folded, delicately blistered, and loaded with prosciutto, ricotta, artichokes, and green olives is a decided sleeper hit.

17 Sotto Mare

Gigi Fiorucci may no longer hold court at Sotto Mare, but this Green Street seafood restaurant is still one of the finest places in the land for fresh oysters, Louie salads, and sloppy bowls of cioppino, bib required. Make a reservation or prepare to wait for a table or a seat at the bar at this always-packed, boisterous neighborhood staple — current owners Rich and Laura Azzolino have kept the space exactly the same, including walls laden celebrity photo and nautical-themed kitsch. The menu is similarly, thankfully, unchanged, and centers around daily fresh catches and San Francisco seafood classics. The aforementioned oysters and cioppino are musts, and the buttery scallops and petrale sole are excellent, too (when available). Be sure to save some of your sourdough bread for sopping up the accompanying sauces and cioppino broth.

18 Caffe Greco

Rubbing elbows with tourists at Caffe Greco shouldn’t dissuade you from snagging a table on the sidewalk, ordering a cappuccino, and watching the world go by. The espresso is top notch, and Italian desserts like tiramisu and cannoli are well, and decadently, done.

19 Caffe Trieste

As North Beach staples go, Trieste is almost unbeatable — the storied corner cafe claims to have been the very first Italian-style espresso house on the West Coast when it opened in 1956. It’s timing was fortuitous — Trieste became a gathering place for poets, artists, musicians, and the Beat scene at large. Grab a cappuccino and get working on your next novel (you’ll be in good company — Francis Ford Coppola reputedly wrote the script for The Godfather here, and still sometimes frequents the cafe). Stop by on Saturday afternoons for live music.

20 The Saloon

Never mind the smell — that’s just the scent of 156 years of boozin’, bluesin’ good times. The Saloon boasts the honor of being the oldest continually operating bar in San Francisco, and was saved from the post-1906 earthquake fires by firefighters who were fans of their strong drink and loose women (so the legend goes). The working girls are no more, but The Saloon remains one of the greatest, dankest spots to drink something strong and brown and listen to live blues music, with twice a day performances, everyday.

21 Molinari Delicatessen

Satiate your cravings for loaded Italian sandwiches at Molinari, a veritable temple of cured meats, cheeses, and olive oil-soaked condiments. The old school deli is a prime spot to load up for a Washington Square Park picnic — grab a number, pick your bread, and watch the sandwich magic happen. It’s hard to go wrong with the Renzo Special, a loaded combination of prosciutto, coppa (hot or not), milky fresh mozzarella, and sweet sundried tomatoes, though some swear by the chicken parmesan and the grilled focaccia sandwiches. They’ve got fresh pasta on offer, too, along with pre-made lasagna and eggplant parmesan to cook up at home, and wine.

22 Il Casaro Pizzeria

One of the newer entries in the North Beach pizza scene, Il Casaro has quickly become a favorite thanks to their airy-crusted, leopard-spotted neapolitan-style pizzas, bright space, and focus on milky, creamy fresh mozzarella (il casaro means “the cheesemaker”). The pizzas are a must-order, of course — the eponymous Il Casaro with grana padano, mozzarella, mushrooms, and prosciutto is excellent, as is the classic margherita — but it’s worth saving room for antipasti like roasted cauliflower with garlic, capers, and Calabrian chile, and fried “Cibo de Strata,” or street food, like fried fior di latte mozzarella and potato croquettes stuffed with ‘nduja.

23 15 Romolo

As alleyway bars go, 15 Romolo sets a nearly unbeatable gold standard — the former Basque Hotel is still churning out some of the greatest cocktails in the city, with knockout food offerings to match. Keep it straightforward with a Sleepy Jean (chamomile-infused bourbon, nectarine compote, lemon, and bitters) and a burger, or dig deeper into the bar’s excellent sherry offerings, available as flights or suggested pairings with dishes like smoked paprika-kissed octopus and duroc pork belly. The cozy, low-lit space is easily one of the sexier date night spots out there, and Romolo’s Punch Drunk Brunch remains one of the best under-the-radar brunch options around. A real-deal jukebox and a photobooth don’t hurt things, either.

24 Tosca Cafe

In 2014 Two New Yorkers — chef April Bloomfield and restaurateur Ken Friedman — lovingly restored the now 97-year-old restaurant with such care and attention that the gritty-glamorous feeling of Beat poets and brandy-drenched eccentrics remains (as do some of those eccentrics). Only now chef de cuisine Josh Even’s glowing open kitchen produces a craveable menu of rustic, seasonal fare centered around fresh pastas, nose-to-tail antipasti and mains, with stand-out cocktail and wine lists to boot. Save room for the House Cappuccino — the new school iteration swaps coffee for Dandelion Chocolate ganache spiked with armagnac and Buffalo Trace bourbon. Tosca serves food until 1 a.m., making it a go-to industry favorite; grab a seat at the bar for the true North Beach vibe.

25 Specs’ Twelve Adler Museum Cafe

As institutions go, few are more venerable, or beloved, than Specs’. It’s been tucked in a tiny alley off Columbus (right behind Tosca) since 1968; its owner, Richard “Specs” Simmons (named for his signature glasses) still lives in the neighborhood. The museum descriptor comes from the bar’s incomparable decor — petrified animals, messages in bottles, photographs, posters, skeletons, and beyond cover the walls and loom over the rickety tables. Specs’ feels like a museum of a different sort, too — one that showcases the grungy, boundary-pushing North Beach of old. You’ll undoubtedly run into the movers and shakers of that time at the bar; if you’re lucky, they’ll regale you with stories of the old days over cold beer, a wedge of edam cheese, and a basket of saltine crackers.

26 Vesuvio Cafe

Channel your inner Beatnik and throw back a few at Vesuvio, a two-level bar that’s been slinging drinks since 1948. Kerouac himself was known to spend considerable time at Vesuvio (and missed meeting with Henry Miller because of it, so they say), and the bar maintains its no-frills charm when it’s not slammed with tourists. Vesuvio is best on weeknights — grab a table in the upstairs window and let your poetic inclinations take over.