San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood is a rarefied collision of good things. Ethnic turn-of-the-century roots, Italian heritage, and beatnik history blend in a freewheeling happy-go-lucky place reminiscent of New York’s Greenwich Village and Little Italy. It’s easy to see why North Beach was voted one of the top 10 neighborhoods in America.
This blog covers North Beach’s legendary after-hours atmosphere. Bars and restaurants drip tourists and young professionals into a dense patchwork of quaint commercial side streets where they mingle with locals attending music shows and nude bars.
North Beach is also literary hallowed ground, immortalized by the Beat Generation of the 1950’s.
In the steps of the Beats, we begin. Drinking, eating, music and revelry are on the agenda, so let’s go.
Getting There is Half the Fun
Walking to North Beach from downtown San Francisco requires you cross a neon chasm of smutty, low-class joints. They’re a relic of the neighborhood’s origins as the famed Barbary Coast. America’s first topless bar took root on these morally deprived blocks.
You know you’ve made it to North Beach when the stripper poles are replaced with these:
The Culture Part
We can’t just skip right to the drinking, you need a mixer…
So, don’t miss the art installation of flying illuminated books outside City Lights Books. They can cause whiplash as you crane your neck for 10 minutes trying to capture that amazing Instagram before finally realizing it should have been a panorama in the first place.
There’s a jovial feel in the neighborhood. The streets are abuzz with activity, feel safe, and have plenty of places for congregating. I found myself chatting with strangers and joining in on group activities.
Uh-oh, looks like some drunk 30-somethings found fireworks. We noticed they were knocking a piñata out of a tree. Why? As they put it, “no good reason at all.”
If you have a chance, grab a ticket to America’s longest running musical revue, Beach Blanket Babylon (located conveniently on Beach Blanket Babylon Boulevard). The show is truly fabulous, taking advantage of our timeless consternation with giant heads and funny hats.
Who Needs a Drink?
We wouldn’t be following the steps of the Beats without said steps being erratic and alcohol-powered.
After taking in some culture, head to Specs’ Twelve Adler Museum Cafe. It’s part bar, part British Museum. Sit amongst strange artifacts and a friendly (if not slightly strange themselves) clientele. We had a blast climbing the walls with our eyes and drinking cheap, cold beer in a can.
We stumbled past an alley with music blasting out of it. For a second, I thought we were on Frenchmen Street in New Orleans.
We moseyed into the joint only to discover a tight space illuminated by a swinging 5-piece band and the stiffest drink I’ve ever been poured.
We had discovered The Saloon, the oldest bar in San Francisco. Established in 1864, it’s famed for surviving the 1906 earthquake because (according to the owner) many of the city’s firemen were patrons.
And when you’ve got the oldest bar in the city, you’ve probably got the oldest bathroom. When I entered this stairwell/bathroom combo, there was a line of men along the right side, all staring down at the star of the show, who was carelessly urinating for an audience of 3. When the next gentlemen dropped his pants and sat down on the toilet, I decided I didn’t have to go anymore.
No night of drinking in North Beach is complete without Vesuvio, Jack Kerouac’s favorite bar.
While drinking Jack Kerouacs’s drink (it’s made of rum, tequila, and OJ, and it fittingly tastes like barf) and sitting in Jack Kerouac’s booth, I looked out onto Jack Kerouac alley to see two hipsters keeping the dream alive! Cross that square off my bingo card.
North Beach Late Eats
We’ve had some pretty stiff drinks at this point. Time to sober up with drunk food in San Francisco. Now here’s the thing: although San Francisco is a big player in the foodieverse, it’s no shining star of late night.
We’re too late at night for Giordano Bros. They just closed so I won’t get to try their Pittsburgh coppa sandwich (Universe: 1, Ryan: 0).
But wait, consolation prize: Giordano’s staff point you to Buster’s up the street. Buster’s cheesesteak passes the visual test: bread looks crunchy, cheese is a melted ribbon, meat is razor thin, ample onions & peppers are there. But upon first bite…it’s a little dry and not salty enough. Damn!
These cheesy garlic fries were also enjoyed more by the eyeballs than the tongue. I bet that glob is still swimming in me somewhere, causing trouble.
But never fear: Golden Boy Pizza, a late-night Sicillian pizza joint around the corner, puts on quite a show for both the peepers and palate. Look for the big neon hand pointing the way. Their front window demonstrates what happens when you cover a brick of focaccia bread with tomato sauce, cheese and toppings (namely, I walk up to the window and say “10, please!”).
Despite visiting Golden Boy twice, I never noticed (among ephemera like their “Al Bundy for President” bumper sticker) the real prize: the Shroud of James Dean.
According to SFGate.com, “the mystical James Dean dishcloth, a Shroud-of-Turin-like remnant of cloth mounted in shrine fashion for all to admire. The grease smudges of smoldering eyes, pouting lip, and dangling cigarette are indeed unmistakable.”
The night has reached its pinnacle. With starry eyes and a fully belly, you’re now free to stumble into bed happy and spent.
What would Jack Kerouac say about a night like this? “Maybe that’s what life is…a wink of the eye and winking stars.”