North Beach Food Tour
I light up when visitors to SF ask me for restaurant recommendations. I instantly start fantasizing about epic dates, leisurely lunches, and indulgent treats. Then I crash, like a child on a sugar rush, with the reality that visitors to San Francisco have only a few opportune meals to take in the cities food scene.
It’s the same for me. When I visit a new place food is top of mind. I build long lists of all the places I want to try and barely scratching the surface. Even in San Francisco, I have a hard time keeping up. Which is why I decided it was time to play tourist (gastronome style) with Avital Tours.
Avital, a progressive food tour company, showcases San Francisco neighborhoods through four-course meals. Each course takes place at a different local haunt. They offer tours of a few San Francisco neighborhoods. There is a Mission Food Tour, a Union Square Cocktail Tour (which I have plans to go on with some fellow barflies) and a North Beach Food Tour.
North Beach is great, but I have tunnel vision when I’m there. I know that Tosca is praiseworthy and that Cigar Bar has some of the sexiest cappuccino foam in town. I’ve spent afternoons at Trieste & Vesuvio attempting to channel great writers of the past. And I’ve braved the line at Mama’s, but that’s about the extent of it.
So when I met my tour guide Tolan, outside the San Francisco Italian Athletic Club, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Our group was made up of tourists from as far as the UK and SF residents alike. With food as a common denominator, I knew I was in good company. What I didn’t know was that this tour was going to be about a lot more than food.
Three hours later I was stuffed, had a new fascination with the Barbary coast and felt reinvigorated by the stories of my city.
The format is this: you meet your tour guide at an easy to find location. Visit four neighborhood restaurants and a few landmarks. Storytelling is woven throughout the tour, giving you a sense of the chefs and restaurant owners that shaped and continue to shape the neighborhood. Unlike some food tours, Avital serves hearty portions. The storytelling/walking components are both fascinating and essential in aiding digestion. Come hungry.
Stop 1: Sotto Mare
Sotto Mare is a family affair. Husband and wife team and North Beach natives, Rich and Laura, purchased the hotspot in 2014. Their kids are also partners in the restaurant. They cook up Italian seafood dishes based on family recipes.
Our group had the Cioppino, which only makes sense since San Francisco Italians invented the dish. It’s real deal cioppino, not the lazy man stuff found around town (where the crab has been removed from the shell). We strap on bibs and go full force cracking crab legs and sucking out mussels. Our group of 8 can hardly make it through 2 bowls, as an appetizer, before our jeans start to buckle. Apparently, it’s the smallest size.
Stop 2: Park Tavern
We stroll passed an epic line at Mama’s. The out of towners are understandably curious, but one huckleberry fritter from Park Tavern erases any FOMO. Oh… did I mention the bacon deviled eggs?
Stop 2 ½ – Neighborhood Stories
Tidbit- There oldest bar in North Beach dates back to 1856. Most of North Beach was destroyed in the 1906 fire and rebuilt. The saloon, which housed a brothel, was so important that firefighters saved it first.
Stop 3: Original Joe’s
Deep red leather booths and a felt board menu dominate the space, which radiates old-school charm. The food matches the mood. They serve eggplant parmigiana. Honest Italian flavors that bring together time and place.
Stop 4: Gelateria Nai
North Beach → Italian → Gelato
It only makes sense that we would end our tour at Gelateria Nai. This family owned shop is a Bay Area success story. They source all their ingredients locally. From the chocolate of TCHO to the spirits of St. George and the roasting techniques of Blue Bottle, each scoop of gelato tells a different story.
When you live somewhere, it’s easy to get stuck in the mundane. We often forget the stories that give a city its heart. Tours are a great way to see a place through fresh eyes and give yourself new reasons to fall in love with where you are. Bonus points if those reasons involve food.