San Francisco novelist Herbert Gold called North Beach "the longest-running, most glorious, American bohemian operetta outside Greenwich Village." Indeed, to anyone who has spent some time in its eccentric old bars and cafés, North Beach evokes everything from the Barbary Coast days to the no-less-rowdy Beatnik era.
Italian delis appear frozen in time, rife with homages to writers Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, and the area is dotted with adult-entertainment meccas nodding to North Beach's bawdy history, the modern equivalent of its once-wild sin city legacy. Although the outdoor café tables seem like a contrived scene of European alfresco dining, the real heart and soul of this part of the city remains inside the iconic enclaves, away from the throngs of tourists.
The neighborhood truly was a beach at the time of the gold rush—the bay extended into the hollow between Telegraph and Russian Hills. Among the first immigrants to Yerba Buena during the early 1840s were young men from the northern provinces of Italy. The Genoese started the fishing industry in the newly renamed boomtown of San Francisco, as well as a much-needed produce business. Later, Sicilians emerged as leaders of the fishing fleets and eventually as proprietors of the seafood restaurants lining Fisherman's Wharf. Meanwhile, their Genoese cousins established banking and manufacturing empires.
North Beach was once an almost exclusively Italian American neighborhood, but today the area's premium rental market has driven away what was left of its Italian residents to other neighborhoods. The neighborhood lies alongside a still-robust Chinese community that is now being joined by transplanted yuppie populations. Still, walk down narrow Romolo Place (off Broadway east of Columbus) or Genoa Place (off Union west of Kearny) or Medau Place (off Filbert west of Grant) and you can catch a hint of the Italian roots of this neighborhood. Locals may think the city's finest Italian restaurants are elsewhere, but North Beach has some gems and is, after all, the place that puts folks in mind of Italian food, with addresses worth seeking out despite some kitschy traps.The street foods of choice are bags of focaccia or massive subs from Liguria Bakery, Molinari's, or Freddie's, eaten warm or cold. Random aromas fill the air: coffee beans, cured salami, Italian dolce, and—depending on the corner you've turned—pungent garlic.