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Weekend Escape: San Francisco : The Beat goes on in a city steeped in java, poets

December 17, 1995|LYNELL GEORGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER; George writes for The Times' Life & Style section

SAN FRANCISCO — Consider it luck or happenstance, but this bohemian sojourn couldn't have been made on a better weekend.

In the space of only two days, the New York Times Sunday magazine had proclaimed the dawning of a Beat renaissance, and Volvo began television spots for its 850 Turbo in which a silver-haired gent recites Jack Kerouac's most famous "On the Road" mad-to-live soliloquy as he and his blond car mate purr down the road.

I took all this in from beneath the black and white gingham comforter in my cozy digs at the Hotel Boheme, one of North Beach's newest Old World hideaways, a couple stories above tourist-tangled Columbus Avenue. Formerly the Millefiori Inn, the hotel is actually more European than glorified-Beat-flophouse in feel, borrowing as liberally from Anais Nin (sensuous mood, powdery skylight-illuminated vestibule) as it does from Kerouac. Jerry Stoll's 1950s black and white photos lining the hallways recall Kerouac's smoky prose and double as windows on the city's old bohemian scene.

San Francisco has been, for many dusty bohos, the glittering destination, the location to which all "fellaheen streets" worth their salt would ultimately lead. It has played genteel host to a revolving door of self- or media-proclaimed bohemians of all varieties--from Kenneth Rexroth's charmed circle and the Beats, to hippies and slacker Gen-Xers.

The Hotel Boheme pays elegant tribute to that. Its interior is done up in shades of lavender, antique green, terra cotta and, of course, basic Bohemian black. Hanging lampshades, which double as exquisite collages, are festooned with evocations of an era: bits and pieces of old Blue Note Records album sleeves, paperback covers from City Lights poetry books. Going upstairs, we made way for a young woman with magenta hair toting her 10-speed up the narrow staircase, and squeezed past a couple in evening dress and three-piece suit heading down for a night of theater.

We set our bags down in the Golden Gate room (the hotel's largest and most popular, with two queen-size beds but no view of the avenue). "What," we asked, "would Jack and his sidekick Neal Cassady do with an evening like this?" Something a little edgier than checking out a play in Union Square.

Our United Shuttle flight from LAX had touched down about 45 minutes later than promised, so Denise Arell, the wisecracking yet enormously efficient concierge, thought ahead, calling to shift our dinner reservations before we'd even asked. Promising to slip information about neighborhood breakfast options under the door, she tapped at her watch, then hurried us out the door.

In the interest of time, we hailed a cab, the first stop on our bohemian turn through the city: the Tenderloin, and Miss Pearl's Jam House on Eddy Street--a sort of Cha-Cha-Cha-meets-Twin-Peaks extrapolation of Caribbean fare. The "Jerked Chicken" was a pale turn on the fiery Jamaican dish. Far more interesting, the creative list of appetizers: Big Daddy's Oysters Rockafella, Mariquitas (crispy spicy plantains and sweet potato chips), fried calamari accompanied by a hot pepper-garlic dipping sauce. Sidle up to the bar and order yourself a Mondo Margarita, served in a pint glass by the tattooed and pierced barkeep, and sit back and tune in to the weekend's live band--Latin, rock or tropical.


Rising early Saturday, I cut a quick half block down Columbus from the hotel to indulge in the best morning fog-cutter around, Caffe Trieste's good strong cappuccino grande (which can still be had for less than $2 if not purchased to go). It gave me a much needed jump-start for meeting Elaine Sosa, the caffeinated tour guide who would be taking us on something called Javawalk.

Sosa, who convenes her group at the Mark Ruben Gallery in Union Square, (about a 10-minute walk from the hotel) started the tour a year and a half ago to "legitimize my obsession" with the city's coffeehouses--and of course with the drink itself. The two-hour perambulatory (offered Thursday, Friday and Saturday during the winter months; five days a week during spring and summer) winds through Union Square, Chinatown, the historic Jackson Square quarter. It makes pit stops at North Beach cafes for a pick-me-up shot or two, as well as offering a peek inside Thomas E. Cara's, where high-end espresso machines are sold, repaired and displayed as works of art.

After scaling the Kearny Street hill, the final act of Javawalk, we made a stop at Golden Boy Pizza on Green Street for pesto, clam and garlic, and of course spicy pepperoni and sweet Italian sausage, not to mention the veggie slice so elaborate in its offerings that it resembles a Jackson Pollock canvas. You order sushi-bar style: They warm your slice, you sip Chianti from a water glass, then keep ordering as many as needed until you've eaten your fill.

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