The Charms of San Francisco's Columbus Avenue

A walk down Columbus Avenue appeals to Italophiles, gourmets, café hounds, literati, and bohemians.

Columbus Avenue, illus. by Michael Klein

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It's been a long time since San Francisco's North Beach was primarily Italian, but evidence of that heritage endures along the diagonal avenue known as Columbus —Cristòforo Colombo to Italians. Be advised to move hedonistically slow and enjoy la dolce vita here. From the green at Washington Square, cross Union Street to Mario's Bohemian Cigar Store Cafe and savor a focaccia sandwich. (We recommend the eggplant.) Strolling along Columbus, follow the espresso-scented trails into any of the cafés—Roma, Greco, Puccini—where bohemians and hipsters alike uphold the tradition of caffeine-fueled discourse. At Stella Pastry, take the cannoli. And sit outside.

At nearby Biordi Art Imports, owner Gianfranco Savio will show you the finest Renaissance-style ceramic work from such renowned sources as Gubbio, Orvieto, and Deruta. La Raccolta also offers Italian ceramics as well as artisanal pastas, candies, and spices.

Most redolent of the old days is Molinari Delicatessen, with 108 years in the business of selling hefty sandwiches, pasta, prosciutto, provolone, baccalà—everything Italian immigrants brought to this country.

Mangia—eat—is what you do here: L'Osteria del Forno, Caffe Macaroni, Original U.S. Restaurant, Steps of Rome, and Rose Pistola are a few of the fragrant eateries you'll find. And then there's City Lights Bookstore. Born with the Beat writers, it stands in proximity to some of the oldest hangouts of that culture: Specs (a bar frequented by die-hard literati) and the bar-cafés Tosca and Vesuvio.

WHERE IT IS San Francisco's North Beach. The most interesting part stretches from Jackson to Union streets.

WHO WILL LIKE IT Italophiles, hedonists, gourmands, café sitters, literati, barflies, hipsters, and bohemians.

WHEN TO GO Sunny days or any old time, though summer brings throngs of tourists.

Illustration by Michael Klein

This article was first published in May 2004. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

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