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Dining in North Beach, Nob Hill, and Russian Hill
One of the city's oldest neighborhoods, North Beach continues to speak Italian, albeit in fewer households than it did when Joe DiMaggio was hitting home runs at the local playground. But the Italian presence in the markets and cafés is deliciously unmissable.
Columbus Avenue, North Beach's primary commercial artery, and nearby side streets boast dozens of moderately priced Italian restaurants and coffee bars that San Franciscans flock to for a dose of strong community feeling.
Nob Hill, the most famous hill in a city of hills, is known for its iconic hotels—the Fairmont, the Mark, the Ritz-Carlton, the Huntington—though only the Ritz-Carlton's Parallel 37 is a destination for diners and the cocktailing crowd.
Nearby Russian Hill, which rises from Columbus Avenue, has few restaurants on its peak and higher slopes, but packs in scores of kitchens and cafés, especially around Polk and Larkin streets, as it descends to Van Ness Avenue.
OK, doughnuts aren't the healthiest food, but if you're gonna splurge, why not make it count with the award-winning dough rings at the no-frills Bob's Donuts (1621 Polk St., near Clay St. 415/776–3141). However you like 'em—cake, glazed, raised, sugared, or apple-studded—Bob's makes them 24 hours a day. They're fried in small batches, guaranteeing that every bite is fresh and delicious.
The casual bites to be found in this neighborhood are plenty. The century-old Molinari's (373 Columbus Ave., at Vallejo St. 415/421–2337) makes classic Italian sandwiches to order—mortadella, salami, prosciutto—that are great for toting to a bench in nearby Washington Square Park. So, too, does the aptly named Petite Deli (752 Columbus Ave., between Filbert and Greenwich Sts. 415/398–1682), a one-woman operation where the customers rave about the egg-salad sandwich and the Turkey Delight with cranberry sauce. You can also grab hot Italian beef sandwiches, house-made corned beef, or a New York–style slice from the city's only coal-fired pizza oven at Tony's Coal Fired Pizza & Slice House (1556 Stockton St., near Union St. 415/835–9888). If you prefer to eat indoors, grab a table at the modest Mario's Bohemian Cigar Store (566 Columbus Ave., at Union St. 415/362–0536), which no longer sells cigars but is known for a hearty meatball sandwich on focaccia.
For good coffee, take a seat at the more than half-century-old Caffè Trieste (609 Vallejo St., at Grant Ave. 415/982–2605), where you may also be serenaded by local opera singers. Or grab a sidewalk table at Caffè Greco (423 Columbus Ave., near Vallejo St. 415/397–6261) to enjoy espresso and one of the better versions of tiramisu in the neighborhood.
The southern edge of Nob Hill bleeds into the mean streets of the Tenderloin. But hidden here are some Vietnamese culinary gems, especially on Larkin Street. That's where you can find Bodega Bistro (607 Larkin St. 415/921-1218 2:H6), one of the neighborhood's most popular Vietnamese restaurants, along with Pagolac (655 Larkin St. 415/776-3234 4:A6), and the famous chicken pho ga at Turtle Tower (631 Larkin St. 415/409-3333 4:A6).
And for Dessert
Jacqueline Margulis makes only one thing at her small, charming Café Jacqueline (1454 Grant Ave., between Union and Green Sts. 415/981–5565): tall, airy, gorgeous soufflés, both savory and sweet. She bakes up classics like bittersweet-chocolate, strawberry, or Grand Marnier—in addition to one with seasonal fruit—all of them with creamy centers. Each soufflé serves two–four people.
For more creamy goodness, grab a buttery scoop of gelato at the venerable Gelato Classico (576 Union St., between Stockton St. and Grant Ave. 415/391–6667), a slim spot with just a counter and rarely a place to sit. Every flavor—and there are many—looks delicious, and the patient staff hands over a taste to curious customers—which, face it, is everyone. The coppa mista, a wild swirl of vanilla, chocolate, pistachio, and rum gelatos, is a house specialty, and a good way to satisfy the craving for multiple flavors.
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