My first impressions of North Beach were not entirely positive. I drove down Montgomery, before turning left onto Columbus, driving up the hill and past the famous City Lights bookstore, and the strip clubs on Broadway. The City Lights bookstore helped to define not only North Beach at a specific era in time, but also San Francisco as a city, and destination for writers and poets and creative types. Many of the store’s patrons were likely instrumental in paving the way for the social and political changes of the ’60’s.
The City Lights bookstore did not give me a negative impression about the neighborhood. But all the other businesses arrayed up Columbus did. Italian restaurants, delis, cafes, bakeries and gelato hole-in-the-walls lined both sides of the street for blocks. Places with names like Colisseo, Steps of Rome, Calzone’s Pizza Cucina and Trattoria Pinocchio.
It seemed like the business owners just chose easy names that pandered to Americans’ stereotypical preconceptions of Italy and Italians. I may not be Italian, but I couldn’t help but be a little offended.
I parked in front of Caffe Trieste, a block off of Columbus, where a group of men sat outside engaged in lively conversation. Inside, people were using laptops, sipping coffee, and speaking quietly in small groups. In short, it felt like any other coffee shop in the city. Which was refreshing, normal, expected. Non-offensive.
I sat and had a sandwich at Molinari Delicatessen, where two young hispanic men and an elderly Italian man served up a line of eager, hungry sandwich-seekers, all holding bread in their hands, patiently waiting for their number to be called.
A wide selection of cheeses filled the display cases, salames and meats hung from the ceiling, and canned, pickled, and commercial Italian foods were stacked so high against the walls that a stepladder was necessary to reach the highest items.
While I sat and ate outside, I watched the people passing. It was Monday afternoon, and foot traffic was substantially less than I had experienced on another visit the previous thursday night. Some locals passed by, obvious in their localness through their engaged conversation, quick, purposeful stride, and less-casual dress. A man walked up to Molinaris in a beat-up old grey suit, talking very loudly to himself. Almost nobody paid him any attention.
A prosciutto di parma sandwich later, I was wandering back up Columbus, keeping my eyes peeled for the interesting, unusual, or just plain weird.
I found interesting in short order. Z. Cioccolato, a candy store, attracted me through it’s bright, bold colors and assorted candies. Smelling a photo opportunity I entered to look around.
Individually-wrapped candies overflowed from big, metal-banded barrels. I felt like a kid in a candy store. I spoke to the owner, Mark, who shared that he used to be a photojournalist for the Dallas Morning News before moving to San Francisco, where he “married into” the candy-store business. He took me to the back room and showed me the fudge-making facilities, where two young men, (one an SFSU broadcasting and engineering major) worked staggered 8-hour shifts making their famous fudges (65 different kinds), and chocolate candies.
Mark hasn’t stopped taking photos though- he still takes all the product photos for the catalog and website, and has some photos of a toy robot on the walls of the shop.
At night, North Beach comes alive. Young locals flock to bars off Columbus like Grant and Green, The Saloon, and even the King of Thai noodle house and bar- a local secret where you can get $5 Thai food and $2 pints.
A more upscale, non-local crowd seeks out the restaurants on Columbus mentioned earlier in this post, while locals and tourists of all ages (well, not quite ALL ages) visit the strip clubs on Broadway.
North Beach is a diverse neighborhood that changes drastically in price, crowd, atmosphere, and clientele from block to block.
I look forward to discovering more of the neighborhood’s secrets as the semester progresses.