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Weekend Escape: San Francisco : A Neighborhood Love Song : A Former Resident Returns to the Sights and Smells of San Francisco's Italian-Flavored North Beach, and Is Elated to Rediscover Its Bustling Cafe Scene

January 09, 1994|PATRICK MOTT | Mott is a free-lance writer and regular contributor to The Times' Orange County Edition View and Calendar sections

SAN FRANCISCO — "Why should I tell 'em?" I would always think when some Southern California prig dismissed North Beach as nothing more than a collection of strip shows, dirty book stores and sleazy front-door barkers. I would nod sympathetically, even cluck solicitously, but my mind's nose would be elsewhere, inhaling the most sensual collection of aromas to be had in all of San Francisco. I wanted to hoard it all, figuratively, and I didn't want everyone to know that I was living on the hill just above the most blazingly olfactory neighborhood in the city.

I had an apartment 10 years ago on Telegraph Hill, up near Coit Tower, but North Beach--the trough between Telegraph and Russian hills and between Chinatown and Fisherman's Wharf--was my real home. It is 99.44% Italian, and spectacular food and drink and open-armed talk are the stuff of life there. You exist from restaurant to cafe to bar, hardly ever calling on friends at home but circulating endlessly "down in the neighborhood," and if you don't find who you're looking for in one place, you move on--and on--until you do, or until you fall in with a crowd you like just as well, or until you're so wired on espresso that you find yourself speed walking all the way to Marin County.

It was a playpen for big people, and after a decade away, I missed it.

But how to go back without feeling like a spy? One of the Union Square hotels would be within easy walking distance, but I wanted to crawl back into the neighborhood as if it were an old afghan. What I wanted was a short stay at someplace small, cozy, within smelling distance of Cuneo's French and Italian Bakery. San Francisco-based Bed and Breakfast International, a booking agency, came through with the Washington Square Inn, at the corner of Stockton and Filbert streets, overlooking the very heart of North Beach. The location was better than perfect, and the rates (from $85 for a room with shared bath to $180 for a room with bath and a view of the square) were within range.

I pulled up in a cab on a sunny Friday afternoon around 12:30, inhaled the North Beach lunchtime air once, and resolved to eat immediately, thoroughly delighted that I could dawdle over my meal without having to hustle back to work downtown. The veal Marsala at North Beach Restaurant more than made up for the lack of inspiration in the restaurant's name, and set me up perfectly for the weekend. Now it was time to get reacquainted with the bohemian core.

There are two main arteries through North Beach--Columbus Avenue and Grant Street--and I decided to stroll Grant, easily the funkier of the two. Grant is the main street running through Chinatown, but when it begins again on the north side of Broadway, it becomes a patchwork of tiny shops, cafes and overhanging turrets.

The bottom of the street, just above Broadway, is the best indication of what you're about to get as you walk up the hill. The infamous Condor Club, where an image of pneumatic stripper Carol Doda once flashed off and on in the night sky above the other aging strip joints on Broadway, is now the Condor Bistro, a completely benign eatery-and-bar combo. A couple of doors away is the far earthier Saloon, a haunt of gonzo journalist Hunter Thompson and locus of down-and-dirty live rhythm-and-blues in the evenings.

It was the venerable Caffe Trieste that drew me, however. Chocolate brown, well-used, beckoning, it hadn't changed one jot in the last decade. Terribly earnest couples in their 20s, in dark clothes and berets, huddle here to rattle newspapers and smoke, and the cappuccino is still the best in the neighborhood. I ordered a big one and settled into a corner and felt the muscles beginning to sag. You linger here. You can't help it.

Eventually, though, I had to get to the twin destinations, only a block or so away, of the City Lights Bookstore and the Vesuvio Cafe, the epicenter of the beat movement. Funkier still than Caffe Trieste, Vesuvio is a gargoyle of a building whose second story has a fine view of the busy Broadway/Columbus intersection. The clientele and particularly the bartenders are friendly and chatty, and we had several good laughs over a pint of Anchor Steam beer, the best draft in the city.

Not so next door at City Lights. I once was bounced from this dingy all-paperback bookstore when I had the effrontery to come in and browse--dressed in a suit--while William Burroughs was autographing books. The radical politics of the shop were still firmly in place and the clerks--young women with pierced jewelry protruding from unusual places and the standard angry young men--frowned obligingly. I allowed myself an indulgence and a nod to bohemian life, bought a copy of "Tropic of Cancer" and felt better about it.

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