With sidewalks lined with bistro tables and a pervading Old-World character, North Beach is the most European of San Francisco’s neighborhoods. The vibrant district is regarded as the city’s Little Italy and former home of the finger-snapping Beatnik scene of the 1950s. Today, the black berets are gone, but a bohemian spirit still lingers in its cafes, bars and shops.
Before the Beats, Italian immigrants helped define North Beach as The Little City in the early 20th century. Their legacy can be seen in spots like 105-year-old Liguria Bakery, where freshly baked focaccia sells out every afternoon and Molinari Delicatessen where hefty Italian sandwiches are assembled against a backdrop of hanging salamis and basket-woven Chianti bottles.
Recent Italian transplants Mattia Cosmi and Alice Romagnoli continue that tradition with Italian Homemade Company, a market and deli that specializes in from-scratch pastas and cassoni, enclosed flatbread sandwiches stuffed with meatballs, mozzarella and ricotta cheese. Across the street, Piccolo Forno fires up thin crust pizzas like the Capricciosa, layered with prosciutto, egg, artichokes and olives.
Lines can run long for the masterful pizzas at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana, whose namesake owner, Tony Gemignani, is a World Pizza champion 12 times over. Gemignani’s second eatery, Capo’s, is a loving homage to Chicago pizza joints with deep-dish pies preceded by complimentary bowls of pasta fazool. For old-school atmosphere with Italian-American favorites like veal scallopini, head to Original Joe’s where the big red booths could host the entire Rat Pack. A vintage jukebox and flickering candelabras lend Tosca Cafe a romantic atmosphere for enjoying saucy, off-menu meatballs sopped up with hunks of salt-flecked, rosemary focaccia.
When you’ve had your fill of chicken parmigiana, Park Tavern pairs cocktails with smoked deviled eggs and one of the city’s best burgers. On charming Grant Avenue, Henry’s Hunan has tongue-tingling dishes from China’s Hunan region, Tamarind Hall goes beyond pad Thai with contemporary takes on the street food of Thailand and Chubby Noodle serves up hip-hop and Asian mashups like Korean tacos in a fun, boisterous dining room.
After dinner, stroll the neighborhood’s many Italian bakeries such as Stella Pastry & Cafe contemplating a glass case full of confections including a delicate sacripantina cake. French newcomer Le Chat Rouge feels like a rustic Parisian bakery brimming with flaky pain au chocolats and colorful macarons.
Soak up North Beach’s spirited street life over a coffee and pastry at a sidewalk table at Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store & Cafe. Down the street, Beacon Coffee & Pantry is the neighborhood’s third-wave coffee spot with Sightglass pour overs sipped in a sleek, minimalist space. Craft beer buffs will appreciate the encyclopedic menu at Church Key, a cozy temple to all things hoppy.
With a dimly lit interior crammed with curiosities, Specs’ Twelve Adler Museum Cafe resembles the type of watering hole Indiana Jones might frequent. Next door, Devil’s Acre stirs up craft cocktails in a stylized apothecary setting.
Grant Avenue, one of the city’s oldest thoroughfares, is chockablock with colorful storefronts that invite window-shopping. Aria Antiques is like browsing a Parisian flea market, jeans specialist AB Fits stocks stylish men’s and women’s fashion and Therapy delights with clever accessories and home decor. A visit to North Beach wouldn't be complete without a stop at City Lights, the storied independent bookshop and publisher that was a regular hang for the Beat generation.
If you’ve got kiddos in tow, check out the fantastic, newly renovated Joe DiMaggio Playground, complete with bocce ball courts and named for North Beach’s famous native son. Joltin’ Joe and new bride Marilyn Monroe snapped their wedding pictures at Saints Peter and Paul Church, the striking twin-spired edifice that fronts wonderful Washington Square Park. The park’s sprawling green expanse begs for a picnic and nearby Little Vine can set you up with a basket filled with goodies like cheese, bread and charcuterie. Walk it off with a steep but short hike to Coit Tower where fascinating Depression-era murals and breathtaking views of the city never get old.