Mario's Bohemian Cigar Store Cafe, 566 Columbus, San Francisco
I have quickly come to learn two things while cafe-hopping in San Francisco. First, everyone I talk to is from east of the Mississippi. Pittsburgh. New York. New Jersey. Boston. New York. New York. Connecticut. Dayton, Ohio. Eeks! Dayton, Ohio? Bet he's glad to be here. Second, these very same folks are all tickled pink to be in San Francisco. They all tell me what a beautiful city it is and how free-spirited it is and how you have the ability to say or do whatever you want in our little town. How lucky they feel to be here. And how they'll never leave. Is this the caffeine talking or are these people really smitten with our town? Probably a little of both. If you start to doubt your reasons for being here, go out and have a cup of coffee. You'll feel better.
So I pop into Mario's Bohemian Cigar Store Cafe in North Beach, not their new location on upper Polk. The first thing that always strikes me as I walk in the door is that the door is too small. It looks like half a door. I feel like if I eat too many pastries I won't fit through the door. I have come to Mario's on occasion with people who were considerably larger than me. They always look worried when they walk through the door.
This place has been here forever. It was a men's card club at the turn of the century. Italian men, mostly. Playing cards, smoking cigars. As the story goes, the men from the neighborhood (manly men, I'm sure) would stop by, play a few games, smoke, drink, talk about how to fix the world and how the little lady was doing and the kids, too. They would bring along their empty jugs of wine, which they would refill behind the counter before they headed home. Pretty neat, a filling station for wine. And the women never came into this place. It's not like there was a big sign on the door that said "NO WOMEN ALLOWED." It was just filled with men, and that was no place for women to be. Until 1971, when Mario Crismani bought the place, and his wife and daughter started working behind the counter. Then the women started coming in. Good thing. I like coming here.
The cafe is long and narrow. A skinny place. The bar runs the length of the cafe, a nice wooden bar with lots of stools. Across from the bar are a handful of tables, eight to be exact. The tables are up against the windows. Aah, the windows. Everybody talks about the windows. They may be the best thing about this place. Mario put the windows in after he bought the place because he thought it was too dark. The windows face Washington Square Park, the heart and soul of North Beach. And they let in some terrific light. Thanks to Mario, women can come into the Bohemian Cigar Store, have a cup of coffee and enjoy the view. I haven't met this guy but I like him already.
Mario's daughter Julie runs the cafe. She's always there during the week. Her mom still does the baking for the cafe. This stuff has "mom" written all over it. I've tried the lemon ricotta cheesecake and the apple turnover. To die for. Food is a pretty good reason to come to the Bohemian. In a small corner of the bar, the most incredible focaccia bread sandwiches are prepared. The bread comes from the Liguria bakery down the street. They top it with sausage or meatballs or frittata or lots of other things. Put some cheese on it and throw it in the oven. What you get is a warm, chewy, delicious sandwich. And it's really big, which means you can share it or have it all to yourself. The coffee is also good here. They don't brew regular coffee, they just do espresso drinks with Graffeo coffee. It's tasty, not too strong or bitter.
The Bohemian is an unpretentious place. Nobody decorated this place, at least not intentionally. There is the usual collection of family photos that you'd expect in a family-run place. They mostly hang over the bar. A lot of them look like they were taken at Christmastime. Over the photos is a large mural of San Francisco. It must have been here forever, because it's pretty faded. Coit Tower is in the mural, and there seems to be a plume of yellow smoke rising out of the tower. I ask the waitstaff about this and nobody seems to know why. To the left of the mural is a large photo of Mario playing...bocce ball. Guess he's not into card games. I don't think anyone got dressed up to come to this place. I like that. The fellow next to me mentions that the cafe doesn't open until 10 AM. "Oh, so they don't do breakfast," I remark. "That is my breakfast time," he says. Guess I'm an early riser.
You don't have to comb your hair to come to the Bohemian. We all need a place like that. And be sure to check out the pastries in the plexiglas case. They arrive around 11 AM every day. If you come here and don't try them, you wuz robbed.
© 1995 Elaine Sosa