San Francisco’s North Beach is facing a change in its classic Italian culture as more ethnic restaurants are opening their doors and the future is looking to an expansion of cuisine diversity.
North Beach is commonly associated with tourism and its abundance of Italian restaurants, cafes and bakeries. The neighborhood is located closely to Fisherman’s Wharf and is generally known as a tourist driven area. Although many people may label North Beach as little Italy, the reality is the opposite of that.
“There’s more of a patchwork here. Latinos, Chinese and Americans are all living here in North Beach,” said Milo Francis, front of house manager at Trattoria Contadina. “The percentage of Italians living here is maybe 10-20%.”
The low percentage may be a result of the changing culture in North Beach as more ethnic restaurants have been moving into the area. While many of the classic North Beach Italian restaurants remain, the culture is gradually changing as the area has become home to various ethnic restaurants ranging from Mexican to Asian cuisine.
“North Beach now is really not little Italy,” said Francis. “It’s misnamed.”
In Feb. 2011, Campanula Kitchen and Bar made its debut in North Beach offering a new outlet for American cuisine. The restaurant is located at 701 Union St. near North Beach’s Washington Square Park.
“One of the big things for us is to be able to offer a different type of cuisine or different dining option for the people that live in the neighborhood,” said Jason Henton, general manager at Campanula Kitchen and Bar.
Campanula Kitchen and Bar takes a complex twist to what many may consider a simple dish. For example, the Kobe beef burger includes Calabria chilies and caramelized onions while the macaroni and cheese has applewood smoked bacon and truffle oil.
“I would categorize [the cuisine] as new-American,” said Henton. “There are definitely some Mediterranean influences and some Italian influences.”
Another restaurant serving both Italian and American food in North Beach is Original Joe’s. The restaurant is not a new name to San Francisco and was once located in the Tenderloin district prior to burning down four years ago. Since reopening, North Beach tourists and residents have responded positively to the restaurant.
“[Original Joe’s] has opened up to such a huge welcoming back,” said Leo Varos, executive sous chef at Original Joe’s. “It is the Original Joe’s, there’s not any other one.”
Original Joe’s reopened in North Beach in Jan. 2012 and is located at 601 Union St. In addition to restaurant patrons, fellow restaurants have also shared a positive response to Original Joe’s rebirth in North Beach.
“We in North Beach need another good, fine restaurant,” said Lorenzo Petroni, owner of the North Beach Restaurant.
Although classic Italian dishes such as ravioli and spaghetti are served at Original Joe’s, American dishes are also available on the menu such as hamburgers and cheeseburgers.
“The food is just to die for period,” said Andrew Demary, head valet for Original Joe’s. “The environment inside is unlike anything I’ve seen in the area.”
American cuisine is not the only other type of food that is giving North Beach Italian restaurants competition. Variations of Asian food including Persian, Thai and Indian are also becoming a growing presence in North Beach.
Urban Curry opened two years ago in North Beach and serves a variety of traditional Indian and Pakistani dishes. The restaurant is located at 523 Broadway and has brought a new outlet for ethnic food in an area surrounded by Italian establishments.
Urban Curry offers a unique menu featuring lamb, seafood, chicken and vegetarian dishes. Some of Urban Curry’s traditional dishes include Naan, which is Indian bread, and vegetable samosas cooked with potatoes, peas, and spices.
“People like having Indian food among all [of the] Italian restaurants on Columbus,” said Sher Ali, manager of Urban Curry.
Despite the growing competition from ethnic restaurants that have opened in North Beach, many Italian restaurants are still going strong and remain a viable presence in the area. But, restaurant owners have also taken notice to the change in Italian culture.
“The Italian culture is gone,” said Gigi Fiorucci, owner of Gigi’s Sotto Mare Oysteria & Seafood.
According to local restaurant owners, the Italian culture has changed dramatically today compared to the 1960s and 1970s. Many of the Italian restaurants that remain in North Beach have been open for decades and have been first-hand witnesses to the changes in the neighborhood.
One aspect that stands out about a few Italian restaurants in the area is the fact that they are family-owned and have remained in the family for generations. Trattoria Contadina is a prime example of a long lasting family-owned Italian restaurant in North Beach.
Trattoria Contadina has been in North Beach since 1984 and been passed on to three generations thus far. The restaurant serves authentic Italian cuisine such as bruschetta and gnocchi.
Milo Francis, the front of house manager of Trattoria Contadina, has lived in North Beach for 25 years and seen diversity expand greatly in the area. The diverse ethnic restaurants have not negatively impacted Trattoria Contadina’s business but have had the opposite effect.
“[The ethnic restaurants] have actually helped us,” said Francis. “We’re one of the only surviving family-owned Italian restaurants in North Beach.”
North Beach is place that will always be synonymous with Italian culture, but the increase of ethnic restaurants in the area shows diversity is on the rise. Growing diversity in North Beach will have a positive impact since tourists from all over the world are patrons to the various restaurants. Whether residents or visitors are in search of the perfect meal, North Beach has options both Italian and ethnic to satisfy everybody’s taste buds.
“We don’t really look at [other restaurants] as competition; just adding value to the neighborhood and making it a destination for dining again,” said Henton. “One of the great things about San Francisco is having so many different culture represented.”
Restaurant Challenges in North Beach
North Beach is home to numerous restaurants that face daily challenges of being in the food industry. From obstacles of location to keeping up with the changing trends, North Beach restaurants are constantly on their toes to tackle the next problem that arises.
According to various restaurant owners in North Beach, the most common problem is attracting patrons whether it is first time visitors or long-term residents. Drawing in patrons is essential to any restaurant’s life because without business there is no money coming in.
Opening two years ago, Urban Curry offers a new type of cuisine to North Beach serving Indian and Pakistani dishes on their menu. Despite offering a unique cuisine, Urban Curry’s location has had a negative impact on their business.
“Since we are in the middle of strip clubs, people are afraid to come on this side [of North Beach] for food,” said Sher Ali, manager of Urban Curry. “Even though we are serving Indian food which is different than all of the Italian cuisine around us.”
Another challenge for North Beach restaurants is the raising rent prices. Having a good location is another key factor in having a successful business, but sometimes the options are limited because of expenses.
“Real estate in this neighborhood is through the roof,” said Milo Francis, front of house manager for Trattoria Contadina. “Rents are sky high.”
Family-owned Italian restaurant Trattoria Contadina have been doing their part in supporting local San Francisco businesses, which helps bring patrons into their own restaurant doors.
“We [use] a lot of local vendors and do our research on local creameries, produce companies and wineries,” said Francis.
North Beach restaurants may all be located in the same district, but the daily problems they face vary. By overcoming challenges and obstacles, North Beach restaurants have earned success and a lasting spot in the area.
“We have been very blessed,” said Francis. “We haven’t really had a slow year in the 28 years we have been doing business.”