Burma Star, Cafe Jaqueline, Cafe Tosca, Caffe Trieste, Finnegans Wake, Francis Ford Coppola, Kent Nagano, Marlon Brando, Mission District, Molinari's, North Beach, San Francisco, Tadich Grill, The Godfather, Tommaso's, Vesuvio Bar, Women's Building on 18th St
I’ve been pulled back in my memory to my Aunt Lorraine today. With the news of the passing of Mickey Rooney, I’ve day dreamed of old stories she told me of her waitress years in Hollywood. She’d worked at Armstrong Schroeder’s on Wilshire Boulevard. It was THE all night haunt of Golden Era Hollywood.
She enjoyed telling me that Mickey and Judy Garland would flip an order of mashed potatoes onto the ceiling using long teaspoons at 3 AM. But she loved him as a customer and he was a generous tipper (yes, Jack Benny was cheap).
So I’ve been dreaming of restaurant memories with her and my parents. Which brings me to the Old School places of San Francisco.
I have a by no means inclusive list of old haunts and watering holes of the Barbary Coast. But in particular for my international readers, I’ve got some of the undisputed high points of Old School San Francisco places. Since pictures are worth a thousand words, here’s hoping my photo gallery of spots helps you dream of soon visiting America’s Paris, San Francisco.
Let’s get started with Tadich Grill which has been open continuously since the 1849 Gold Rush.
The place is still packing in lunch customers like there is no tomorrow. The waiters, God bless them, all wear jackets, seem gruff but aren’t and the lighting is Craftsmen Era rich and dark. Private booths (from an era when privacy meant sex and drugs and deals) line the restaurant.
And they invented the Crab Louie! It’s still great. We split ours for lunch. And get there when they open unless you like waiting.
The story of Tadich Grill is steeped in old political intrigue. Though all the participants are pushing roses, the motto for the restaurant still is emblazoned with pride on their window. So when you go, take time to read the lore on the menu.
Yes, I’m nostalgic today about my Aunt Lorraine. Thinking about old restaurants does that to me. As does thinking about Marlon Brando. You see, both my mom and my aunt waited on him, sometimes daily, at 20th Century Fox. He mumbled his order as well as his lines. But he commanded attention and everybody knew it. Screaming “Stella!!!!!” in a torn up T-shirt was still in the air, as was “I coulda been a contenda!” from On The Waterfront, as was HUAC. My mom got a lot of the brunt of Desiree, Brando not wholly loved as Napoleon, with in character hard to hear lunch orders. She needed a helmet a few times over Mutiny on the Bounty. But she always went to see his movies, including Apocalypse Now. Mom knew he was a giant every time she saw him, no doubt about it.
Which brings me to Francis Ford Coppola and North Beach. Where didn’t he write the screenplay to The Godfather?
If you look at the photos above the jukebox, he’s there with the owner as proof of his inspiration in this Beat Generation sanctuary. Which had the FIRST espresso machine on the West Coast. I don’t think I’m having a cappucino anywhere else!
And if you want one of the best pizzas in the U.S., if you want to go to where Coppola might still make pizzas on Sundays for his friends, you’ve got to go to Tommaso’s at Kearny and Broadway. The oven has been there since 1936. The cioppino is smooth and elegant. And honestly, with my wife from New Jersey and family ties to New York City and Boston, the cannoli at Tommaso’s is to die for. No reservations, dinner only so get there when they open and if Al Pacino walks in, leave!
And what is Italy without opera?
One caveat – San Francisco is a drinker’s paradise. What bistros are to Paris, bar establishments are to San Francisco. No one is lonely here, if you know what I mean. So the subject of bars and San Francisco would need an encyclopedia. The town invented Irish Coffee, after all. And the martini eventually came out of the Gold Rush, by some accounts.
OK, my caveat is out of the way.
Tosca, the bar, not the opera, is yet another old hang, across the street from City Lights Bookstore. They have a legendary Old Cappucino with armagnac, whiskey and chocolate from Dandelion Chocolate Company. A lot of booze with great chocolate. The glasses are lined up late at night and by chatting with our bartender, we got a few tastes of premium mezcal for being friendly. The food looks great, but we had just been at Tommaso’s for dinner.
Not to be outdone, do what we did on St. Patrick’s Day. Go across the street to Vesuvio’s Bar, curl up with Joyce’s Finnegans Wake and soak up some serious Beat Generation vibe.
Speaking of Finnegans Wake, yes I’ve read the book cover to cover in a straight line. The best literary investment of my life. I performed the West Coast premiere of John Cage’s Muoyce Two: A Reading Through Ulysses at my last LA International New Music Festival. Cage spent a great deal of his life grappeling with Joyce’s day and night masterpieces. I’m planning a future blog on WHY Finnegans Wake is essential to read if you want to fall in love with Cage. More on this later.
But in San Francisco just bring your copy of the Wake to Cole Valley. Order a highly symbolic drink. The Best Bloody Mary in the World is at Finnegans Wake, the bar that is. And find a Joycean version of the Hail Mary or Our Father in the Wake to go with the cocktail with vegetables.
Back to North Beach.
Do you need a sandwich? Then go to Molinari’s, they’ve been at it since 1896. And like the Soup Nazi in Seinfeld, there are rules. Go to the counter after you have selected your bread for your sandwich. Molinari’s has everything Italian. No wonder Coppola is at home in San Francisco (Zoetrope is down the street and his winery is, well, in Napa Valley).
North Beach is Italian but don’t be fooled. That’s not all that is there. I’ll cover Chinatown in another post but there is a French restaurant that is a must. A place that only does souffle. I’ve never seen it in France either, let alone in the barbaric lands of North America. The souffles are of course for two so it’s ideal for a romantic evening. The waiters are note perfect, Scott from New Jersey and the Other Guy with the Handle Bar Moustache. And Jacqueline, the owner of this labor of love with the most tricky dish of all.
Do yourself a favor and go to Cafe Jacqueline.
So splurge, make a reservation (the place is Paris size so 12 to 14 tables maximum) and you’ll find it on Grant Street beyond Caffe Trieste. The wine list is perfect. She’s from Bordeaux, not Napa mes amis, and it shows. And the wine by the glass price is reasonable. We went simple with a leek souffle and splurged with a Grand Marnier dessert souffle.
We might not have Paris, but we can always have Cafe Jacqueline!
Let’s move to the Mission District. Not very touristed, controversial with change, adorned with the best dining innovation now in San Francisco, and home to the most murals of any city in the world. I’ll blog later about the Clarion Alley Wall of Shame, Balmy Alley, the various other murals in the Mission and will give you a glimpse of much more to come with the Women’s Building on 18th Street.
And when visiting the Mission murals, all over town, keep poking your head around the sides of buildings.
Do you need great healthy vegetarian Mexican food? Then say thank you to your mother in the Mission.
Did I mention there were a LOT of murals in the Mission? Take a look at the entry way to this fantastic and healthy restaurant.
Finnegans Wake not your cup of tea? Not to worry, San Francisco will accommodate you accepting a copy of Dubliners or A Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man at the Phoenix Bar.
Coffee? The loudest San Francisco cry of all is for Phil’z. Which started in the Mission. Hipness is not confined to North Beach.
Thank God Phil Silvers is invoked and celebrated inside.
You might ask yourself, how did I come to know San Francisco so well and hold it so dear? After all, I’m from LA, was born in West Hollywood and now live in Pasadena. My last blog explained a little about my wife’s legendary great uncle Louis Freedman, so check out that post if you are curious.
But two of our dearest, most beloved friends are in San Francisco. Burma Star on Clement St. in the Inner Richmond neighborhood will allow me to give you a clue after a brief exposition.
Jan and I have known Kate since 1979 at Tanglewood. We feel like blood relatives. Most all of my work is now on iCloud, so location is a thing of the past. Kate and Harry were on their way to Myanmar and offered us their home for a few weeks. Besides this blog, I’ve been encouraged to write a book about my thoughts and observations directing Southwest, its work in Mexico and Southeast Asia and the development of Los Angeles at the turn of the 21st century. These encouragements are from some trusted good friends who are themselves respected authors and journalists. A few weeks in San Francisco was perfect to get the strategies in order.
And Kate’s father Francis is a direct link to new music’s history. A violinist for 40 years in the Chicago Symphony, the day Kate was born he was almost late to a concert. He was rushing backstage and the whole orchestra knew they were expecting. Fritz Reiner looked at him before starting the concert from the podium.
“Boy or a girl?” That was Kate!
Francis studied in Budapest with Zoltan Kodaly and Bela Bartok. He was concertmaster of the Berlin Opera when Hitler came to power. Hungarian Jewish concertmasters were not in vogue so Reiner, a good friend from the old country, eventually brought him to Chicago. And he also turned pages for the world premiere of Bartok’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion.
Bela Bartok. He’d asked Francis to do him a favor because the piece was not easy to follow and he knew Francis wouldn’t get lost. Still gives me chills!
So back to restaurants. To think of Kate and Harry in Burma we checked out Burma Star. I would RUSH there on Clement Street. Have the Rainbow Salad, the Tealeaf Salad, the yellow chicken soup. Burma has two imposing neighbors, India and China. The chicken soup is a fever dream of India and China meeting in a bowl, transformed into a Burmese world.
But I mentioned another of our closest friends. Though he isn’t there as often as he likes, Kent Nagano still keeps digs in San Francisco to chill out. He once described our friendship as one “where we’ve grown up together.” He’s on my advisory board, and in real ways helps with a lot of decisions. We met at the Monday Evening Concerts but my wife and he shared working with Sarah Caldwell and the Boston Opera Company together. Kent and Jan go back further together than I do with my wife!
So put it all together and San Francisco is a second home, a safe place to be with trusted friends guiding the way. I’ll have more spots, murals, ideas and plots soon. A great walk through Chinatown and much more on the Mission.
So yes, dream of North Beach, the Mission, Chinatown, Inner Richmond, the Beat Generation, the Grateful Dead studying with Stockhausen and loving Elliott Carter, the Kronos Quartet, Stimmung, Berio’s Folksongs, Howl, Kerouc, Coppola, the Gold Rush of the 19th century and the Summer of Love in the 1960s. Because the rush is still there. We’ve left our hearts in San Francisco.
And thinking of seeing Hitchcock and Vertigo at the Castro brings me home to Los Angeles and my reverie regarding the passing of Mickey Rooney. James Stewart, the male lead of Vertigo, saved my mom’s job at Chasen’s one night. She was serving a Baked Alaska and it slid right off the tray into his lap. She picked the right guy, Stewart was gracious and all was forgiven.
There is magic in California. Here’s hoping you’ll visit soon. We live here but I think everybody needs to visit the End of the Western World from time to time. So we can figure out What’s Next? for a better future in a confusing world (thanks for allowing me the allusion to Elliott Carter’s opera, but after all talking about his music for our next festival in Big Sur was a motivation for this trip in the first place).
More to come on San Francisco. And don’t worry – I’m not going to ignore Los Angeles in future posts. After all it’s a town that’s on the back of my hand. And Disney Hall is an inspiring symbol for classical music in the 21st century. Probably the only one there is of recent vintage. Put the two towns together and you’ve got a great story and a great backdrop for life on Planet Earth.
Best, best, best,