A North Beach Excursion

June 3, 2008

Sip a latte with a pastry at a romantic outdoor café or indulge in a huge pasta meal with local 
or Italian vino. Or in the evening stroll down Columbus or Grant Avenue and enjoy the live music scene. 

A Walk Down Columbus Avenue
North Beach is a bustling neighborhood with great architecture, many cafes, and a vibrant nightlife. Around every charming corner there's excitement; it might be a group fashionable young locals, an old-fashioned funeral march or a troop of street entertainers. The spine of North Beach is Columbus Avenue, a wide boulevard that slashes through the northeast corner of the city from downtown's financial center to Fishermen's Wharf. Columbus is reasonably flat, unlike most of the neighboring streets, so a leisurely hike down Columbus is recommended for all ages.

Columbus begins where it intersects with Washington at the base of the Transamerica Pyramid; the pyramid along with Coit Tower defines the skyline of the neighborhood. Here Chinatown touches the financial district but if you stay on Columbus you'll soon ease into North Beach which technically begins on the north side of Broadway. However Francis Ford Coppola's Flatiron Building that's also home to the Coppola-Niebaum Café is worth a second glance.

Before crossing Broadway visit City Lights Bookstore, the famed Beat generation/free speech landmark.If drinks are your game, duck into Vesuvio's, a bar with a trove of Beat memorabilia. During the Fifties, it was here and in little clubs lining Columbus that the Beat generation melded jazz with raw, gritty poetry. At City Lights you can still post messages on a bulletin board and protest just about anything.

Unless City Lights is your final destination, cross Broadway, sidestep Big Als, one of the few remaining strip joints along Broadway, and go to Italy. Grab a sidewalk table at Cafe Greco or hang a right on Vallejo and take in a classic San Francisco coffee house, Caffe Trieste at 601 Vallejo Street. One of the advantages of the Columbus sidewalk cafes is that on nice days you can sit outdoors and watch motorists vie for parking spaces while an array of 
local characters guarantee amusement.

If you do wander down Vallejo to Caffe Trieste, take a stroll up Grant Avenue. Along this narrow street, shops and bakeries punctuated by saloons and bars are the norm. On the other hand, for a special treat have dinner at Café Jacqueline at 1454 Grant, a candle-lit French restaurant that serves the best soufflés west of Paris. If Italian is what you want then turn the corner at Green or Union and there's North Beach Restaurant on Stockton Street or Fior d'Italia on the corner of Stockton and Union or Rose Pistola at 532 Columbus. For an excellent family-style meal there's Capp's Corner at Green and Powell or Albona on Francisco… Moose's on Washington Square… You get the idea. Spend weeks dinning only in North Beach and you'll have a great meal at a different restaurant every day.

At Union and Columbus is Coit Liquor, a North Beach wine store that offers tourist and locals great wines and liquors at discount prices. Across the street, you'll discover the Bohemian Cigar store, a European espresso bar – this my friend ain't Starbucks – all that's served is original and delicious.

The view from here is Washington Square, a delightful urban park that's more a stage for locals and at times the itinerant than an urban playground. Overseeing this green oasis is Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral, the center of one of the oldest parishes in San Francisco.

Coit Tower, sitting atop Telegraph Hill, trumps the church's spires. At this juncture you may opt to climb Telegraph Hill and visit Coit Tower or, using the ubiquitous Transamerica Pyramid to navigate, turn around and stroll up the other side of Columbus or continue onto Fishermen's Wharf.

If you choose the latter you'll pass – no you won't pass it – because the aroma from Graffeo Coffee will suck you inside. They've got just two kinds of beans, somewhat light and real dark but it's the best coffee south of Seattle. Their friendly service and that aroma are going to make you buy a bag of beans.

I would be remiss not to mention the Shrine of Saint Francis of Assisi Church at the corner of Vallejo and Columbus. Just be amazed at its spires against the Northern California blue sky.

This North Beach excursion is a romantic, original San Franciscan experience. Don't pass it up day or night or if time is a factor combine a one-half day walking tour of Chinatown with North Beach.


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