Places of Another Time

When San Francisco went from sleepy Spanish outpost at the far-distant end of the American continent to the West’s first megalopolis, following the 1849 Gold Rush, the population skewed male, as demographers would say. Boarding houses rented beds, or portions of beds, and centrally-served, plentiful and simple meals to a diverse crowd of sailors, miners (and miner wannabes), soldiers, salesmen, bankers, cops, politicians.

Few still exist, or do so in name only, like the Basque Hotel, formerly an actual hotel with large dining room, now only a restaurant.

Thus began a San Francisco tradition of restaurants that served generous, family-style food. And now, some 150 years later, that tradition maybe breathing its last. Many places have disappeared and the few that remain do not appear to be long for this world.

Perhaps the king of this style of restaurant in San Francisco was the Gold Spike, which closed about six years ago, after a run of 86 years.

It was a meeting place, watering hole, feedbag, diner, neighborhood hall, party venue, lonely hearts club, museum of San Francisco history, and so much more.

My dinners at the Gold Spike were all memorable affairs. I never left without meeting people – visitors and natives alike – hoisting a few drinks, maybe sharing a dinner table. As I understand it, the Spike was unceremoniously tossed out by its landlords, so there was little time for proper goodbyes and thank yous. I do wonder if I’ll ever see those wonderful old photos again, feel the same warmth of welcome, or sit amongst the same oddly diverse crowd.

Another place I loved that has disappeared was La Pantera. The sign is, bizarrely, still there, but the place has long since departed, leaving North Beach a somewhat poorer place.

Also gone is Dante Benedetti’s New Pisa, where I had my bachelor party dinner. The New Pisa, as one reviewer suggested, “…brings to mind the essence of all that North Beach was when ‘Jolting Joe DiMaggio’ was a young man working in his family’s better known restaurant closer to the Wharf.” It was also a place where a young student could get spaghetti dinner for $5, plus a buck for a jelly-jar glass of cheap Italian red.

Two places I’m fond of carry on the tradition, Capp’s Corner and the US Restaurant.

Capp’s food can be up and down, but the atmosphere is always noisy and fun; much of the credit due to its proximity to Club Fugazi’s Beach Blanket Babylon. Pre and post show crowds keep Capp’s fun and lively.

The US Restaurant (US doesn’t stand for United States, by the way) has good food and a great family feeling, reminiscent of the best old Italian restaurants in San Francisco but isn’t really family style. Still, it does my heart good to see it busily occupying its latest spot on Columbus. It is still a great place to meet new friends and take in the smells and atmosphere of the San Francisco that was.

If you try very hard, it is still possible to find original, quirky, happy places to eat in what once was an eater’s heaven-on-earth.

9 thoughts on “Places of Another Time

  1. Great post, Brent. When I moved to San Francisco in 1985,I lived in North Beach and felt like I stepped back in time hearing the old men speak Italian at Washington Square, going to an Italian shoe repair & eating at the restaurants you mentioned.

    My biggest San Francisco restaurant memory however is not a restaurant at all. When I was a little kid we’d visit my grandparents, Gustav and Elise, who lived on Dolores in a two bedroom apartment. Since there was no bedroom for me, I slept in a small bed tucked into a all glass alcove. The alcove faced east. My fondest memory was watching the Hamm’s beer factory neon sign’s ‘glass’ fill & refill with Hamm’s.

    Jumping forward 25 years to the dot-com era, I always smiled when I took clients to interviews at Red Herring magazine, which was located then in the old Hamm’s factory.

  2. When the US Restaurant was across the street, it was a totally different vibe. Grew up going there on weekends with my family. Huge grilled cheeses with oozing mozzarella. Old ladies walking around with sharp knives and taking orders… those were the days.

  3. My Father was a business partner at the La Pantera resturant with Red and Rena Nickoli in the 60’s. We used to make the trek from the East Bay and go for dinner every month when I was a little boy. I remember the resturant packed with people and serving mulit course dinners and cocktails all night long. It’s a thai noodle shop with purple walls now! I just went and had a self guided tour on December 10, 2012. I never realized how much space there was in that building!

  4. La Pantera and Capp’s were my favs. I spent many a Friday afternoon at La Pantera. In fact, I wounder if Joe remembers who took over LP after his Father. I can’t remember the guys name, a single man with a teenaged son at the time. My boyfriend and I went there all the time. Drank too much and too long and ate like Kings, then topped the day off at Capp’s. I remember he ran book out of La Pantera and spent a vacation or two at Club Lompoc. Would love to know what happened to them. When did itThirty years ago. What a blast…

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