By Kendra Boutell
On Telegraph Hill, beneath Coit Tower, a wood-shingled castle with a corner turret enchants both San Franciscans and tourists hoping to check out the place—only to find out it’s been closed for a decade. The structure, still known as Julius’ Castle, was built in 1923 by Italian restaurateur Julius Roz and precedes Coit by 10 years. Roz enlisted fellow-countryman Luigi Mastropasqua to design his fairytale eatery at 302 Greenwich Street; Mastropasqua combined elements of Gothic Revival, Storybook and Arts and Crafts architecture to create the whimsical fortress-restaurant, where generations of Bay Area families celebrated holidays and special occasions.
After Roz died in 1943, several proprietors operated the business until it shuttered in 2007. The vacant castle fell into genteel dilapidation. Today, its current owner, Paul D. Scott, waits in the wings, poised to rouse the sleeping beauty. An attorney by trade and resident of Telegraph Hill, Scott purchased the property in 2012. He moved to the neighborhood in 1995 and dined at Julius’ Castle on Christmas. It was love at first sight. “There was a wow factor as you took in the view,” Scott recalls. “The interior was old-school, and the combined effect was unique.”
At the time, music promoter and restaurant owner Jeffrey Pollack (Nick’s Lighthouse) ran the establishment. Before Pollack acquired it in 1980, the hillside icon gained landmark status. For 26 years, the gregarious proprietor hosted an intoxicating mixture of celebrities from entertainment, commerce and politics. “Table 34 was the mayor’s table,“ he says. Huey Lewis, rock band Journey, Robert Redford, Sean Connery and local characters Melvin Belli and Herb Caen were just a few of his loyal patrons. Even thieves appreciated the castle when, in 1986, they stole its most expensive cases of Bordeaux from Pollack’s wine cellar.
The eclectic clientele goes back to Roz’s era. Arriving in 1902 from Turin, the charismatic immigrant first worked in North Beach as a waiter and later managed Dante Restaurant on lower Broadway. When Roz built Julius’ Castle atop an isolated cliff, his customers, including writer and editor Henry Anderson Lafler, followed him there. At the time, Lafler owned the “Compound,” one of the few other structures on Telegraph Hill. The journalist-turned-landlord fashioned five rustic bungalows from post-earthquake scrap lumber and rented them cheaply to artists, poets and intellectuals. In the 1920s and ’30s, these bohemians frequented Julius’ Castle along with the carriage trade who favored it as a discreet Prohibition speakeasy. Dashiell Hammett’s fictional detective Sam Spade took his secretary Effie Perine to lunch at the castle in the 1932 short story “A Man Called Spade.”
Roz served a distinctly Italian menu including green, white and red ribbon pasta. A 1939 city guide described a meal at the castle thusly: “To taste Roz’s fish sauce supreme, his tagliarini, and his banana soufflé is to have a glimpse of an epicure’s heaven.” Patrons also experienced the celestial views of San Francisco Bay from the main floor dining room; the interior featured rosewood paneling purchased from the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Roz lived above the restaurant in an apartment with his wife, Margaret, daughter Julianne and two beloved collies. The dogs greeted customers and rode with their dapper owner in his yellow Chrysler convertible on his forays into North Beach’s Italian community.
While Roz and his regal canines are gone, his legacy continues. After five years of challenges, Scott, Julius’ Castle’s latest guardian, plans to return the restaurant to its previous glory. The building—a target of letters of opposition from nearby homeowners concerned that a potential resurrection would increase noise and traffic—caught fire in 2013. Now with unanimous approval from SF’s Planning Commission, Scott expects to reopen within the year following an extensive restoration headed by preservation architect Mark Hulbert.
Why did the Canada native take up Julius’ Castle’s cause? As Scott puts it, “The inspiration was a tidal wave of people from the neighborhood, the city and the rest of the world telling me how special the place was to them. Whether it was the spot they had their prom, their first date or just dinner with a friend, they all enthused with affection for the restaurant. It quickly became apparent to me in listening to people that the right thing to do was preserve the history. And that’s what I am trying to do—just keep the tradition going, maintaining the magic of San Francisco.”
For the menu, Scott intends to honor the past while elevating the cuisine. We hope that future offerings will include tricolored ribbon pasta accompanied by a fine Bordeaux.