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A brief neighborhood guide to San Francisco: North Beach

(Note: This is part of my San Francisco neighborhood guide to be published individually, then in its entirety at completion. Also, as a result of the ongoing business restrictions during the pandemic, some of the restaurants and retail businesses I talk about in the guides may close shop with little warning.)

North Beach Like the perfect picture postcard of San Francisco, there’s no mistaking what city you’re in on a stroll through North Beach, and why it’s so popular with visitors. Another reason: its supreme walkability, one of the best in the city (despite four lanes of Columbus Ave); there’s something interesting at every turn. It’s also the most traditional and

established of San Francisco’s neighborhoods – residents have lived here for decades and Italian families for generations – and with the richest history. From the Barbary Coast to the beats, jazz to punk rock, the North Beach scene was instrumental in all of those eras. It’s also home to the first club in the U.S. to go topless (The Condor). Back then, if you were young and hip and seeking excitement, you went to North Beach. Yes, these days it’s a tourist magnet, but it’s not ‘touristy’, and anyway the tourists bring some bustle, and stay mostly to Columbus Ave and the Italian eateries along it. Venture off the main drag and things quiet down a bit, and that’s where you’ll find some of the quirkiest shops in the city, especially along Grant Ave. (or could until recently). The family-run coffee shops and cafés might not be hipster favorites, but there’s no better place to nurse a cappuccino and watch the city pass by. Caffe Trieste is not only filled with characters – on both sides of the counter – it’s the OG of west coast coffeehouses, while Caffe Greco would be my daytime home if I lived anywhere near the area. The same holds for some of the city’s best and most colorful old-school bars, like Vesuvio’s, Mr. Bing’s and The Saloon (the city’s oldest bar and best for live blues). And while restaurants along Columbus are often dismissed as tourists traps, they can be a fun and truly Italian experience (e.g. playful banter with the maître d’). You’ll find the city’s best old-school Italian eateries in North Beach, and the best pizza (Capo’s and Tony’s). Washington Square (state’s oldest park), Telegraph Hill, Coit Tower, Saints Peter and Paul Church, City Lights bookstore, exquisite architecture (the Malloch Building), fantastic views, North Beach has a lot to offer and tops my list as the best neighborhood to visit.

Continue reading A brief neighborhood guide to San Francisco: North Beach

Best coffeehouses in San Francisco part II

The Castro

Café Flore
If this isn’t the best coffeehouse in the city, as defined by the classic third-place mix of work and social gathering place, it’s definitely the most European. And I should add, it’s European-ish without any obvious effort to be so. First off, it’s a coffeehouse in all those ways you want – good coffee, counter service and laptop friendly. But it’s also a café, with a full bar and full kitchen offering decent breakfast and lunch type fare, but without it being about ‘Our Food’ or anything else in particular. It also has sunlight galore, with a glassed-in interior and ample patio and sidewalk table space. You can work freely without pressure, and the setting is great for a casual meetup with friends. Though if you need heavy work concentration, the scene here veers more to the social. There’s also a row of chairs facing the street for the sole purpose of people watching, just like those cafes in Paris. There’s nothing shiny or hip about Café Flore – it’s been around forever (1973) – but it hits all those coffeehouse café notes pitch perfectly. Bonus points for being a neighborhood and SF institution.

Duboce Triangle


Jumpin’ Java Coffee House
The coffeehouse that Craig Newmark (of Craigslist) was purported to frequent, is one of only a couple options in this small, mostly residential neighborhood. But it’s a good one for working, basically a big comfy room of wood-floors and benches where everyone else is also working. It’s sometimes crowded and hard to find a seat, or plug, but otherwise is perfect for setting up office and getting lots work done. It’s also a nice setting on a tree-lined residential street, with a small seating area out front. The other best option in the neighborhood is Duboce Park Café, which is better for socializing, across from the park and with tables outside under several large trees.

Lower Haight

Bean There
Despite the classic play-on-words name, this is my go-to place for the lower Haight. It’s off the main street so a bit quieter, and it’s corner location and wall of large windows lets in lots of light. The residential setting is pleasant, with some seats on the sidewalk under large trees. People come to mostly work, or work together, with socializers gravitating to the outdoor tables. Though the food and drink is mostly standard, it seems to be a notch above the average. My second vote goes to Café International, an old-school coffeehouse you could imagine fitting well in Berkeley. It’s a big open room with threadbare chairs and couches, and likes to wear its ‘international’ on its sleeve; the café where you’re mostly to hear ‘70s era Highlife or Ethiopian jazz.

Upper Haight

Cole Valley Café
When I lived in the neighborhood and had work to get done, I’d usually head here. On the corner of Waller and Cole, it’s away from the craziness of Haight; a pleasant residential spot with big trees outside. There’s also lots of windows and workability, though the hard benches make for a sore butt after a few hours. Another option is Coffee To The People on Masonic, a somewhat ironic name since the owners seem to be dedicated capitalists without much patience for the neighborhood riffraff. But the room is sectioned off in alcoves with comfortable couches, and attractive old skylights overhead. If they extended the hours, I’d come here more.