Food Feature: Beat night in San Francisco

Noshing in North Beach with foggy notions of Jack Kerouac

?"In the window I smelled all the food of San Francisco. Just show me the bluefish spangle on a seafood menu and I'd eat it; let me smell the drawn butter and lobster claws. And oh, that pan-fried chow-mein flavored air that blew into my room from Chinatown, vying with the spaghetti sauces of North Beach, the soft-shell crab of Fisherman's Wharf — nay, the ribs of Fillmore turning on spits!"

Jack Kerouac, On the Road, 1955

When I reread Jack Kerouac's hungry memory of San Fran a few months ago, I could almost taste the city. His longing became my own, and before I knew it, I was headed for the Left Coast, intent on ferreting out his haunts.

North Beach was my destination. The San Francisco neighborhood became home to some of the best-known Beat writers in the 1950s and '60s. I found out that though shades might be in order (didn't all the beatniks wear them?), I wouldn't need a swimsuit or towel. North Beach was left high and dry in the 1850s when the bay was filled in.

A faint Beat lives on in North Beach. Of the few landmarks that still exist, the most important may be the City Lights Booksellers & Publishers (261 Columbus Ave.). It's a rambling bookshop where Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Ken Kesey and owner Lawrence Ferlenghetti used to hang out. The legendary Ferlenghetti is still alive — still writing, still publishing, still bearded, still ...

Uneven floors and worn steps chronicle the history of the famed bookstore. Besides finding books on shelves and stacked in piles, you might come upon an occasional poetry reading (though nothing compared to Ginsberg's notorious performance of "Howl").

Sidewalk cafes are de rigeur in North Beach. Just across the street from City Lights, the Vesuvio Cafe (225 Columbus Ave.) holds fast to its Beat. Back in the day, artists, writers, musicians and vagabonds gathered in coffeehouses such as the Vesuvio to smoke, drink, talk abstractions and write down their stream-of-consciousness philosophies.

Inside, the walls of the two-level pub are covered with paintings, photos and articles from gen-Beat. There's even a poem written on the wall outside and a few neighborhood side streets are named after beat writers.

As Kerouac noted in his rambling book On the Road, the scent of spaghetti sauce wafts through North Beach. Italian immigrants were drawn here in the 1860s, when the neighborhood first became known as Little Italy. Here, Columbus Day is celebrated each year with an Italian Heritage parade. We discovered an endless number of contemporary upscale and old-world Italian restaurants. Gold Spike (527 Columbus Ave.) is a family business and a longtime San Francisco tradition. It serves family-style, six-course dinners. Quite a contrast to the chic and pricey Rose Pistola (532 Columbus Ave.), a happening place on a Friday night. Forget Kerouac's lobster; we drank expensive glasses of red wine, tried sauteed sea scallops and gnocchi with calamari sauce, polenta and brick-oven pizza.

Then, it was bar hopping at Specs (down and dirty, but classic), Tosca (dark, red leather booths, beautiful bar), and Vesuvio, all within a block of each other on Columbus. Grant Avenue two streets away was worth a look at the Savoy Tivoli (1434 Grant Ave.), a popular bar/ cafe that dates from 1907. There are more than a few jazz clubs on this street. Every summer during the North Beach Jazz Festival, bars and cafes along the length of the avenue throw their doors open for an evening of "Jazz on Grant." Compared to the rest of the city, North Beach is a happening night spot; bars, restaurants and strip joints stay open late while the rest of the city shuts down.

These days, the hippy side of town, Haight Ashbury, has become a sleazy version of our own L5P. Not laid-back and cool, daddy-o, but depressed and haunted with the pungent smells of piss and the unwashed. So dirty that my shoes stuck to the sidewalks. I felt clean and Victorian and longed to hold a hankie to my nose. Couldn't snag a taxi out of there fast enough. But reading Kerouac cheered me up as he recalled the great red bridge and the San Francisco fog: "Add fog, hunger-making raw fog, and the throb of neons in the soft night, the clack of high-heeled beauties, white doves in a Chinese grocery window."


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