The Essay

The Essay: Long Live the Tosca Cafe Spirit

By Catherine Bigelow

Tosca, as a bar and neighborhood joint, was truly democratic — a place where no reservations were required for folks to celebrate triumphs or drown defeats. (Thomas Hawk)

When news hit in July that Tosca Cafe would close yet again, there was sadness mingled with a collective shrug — another San Francisco restaurant bites the dust.

That abrupt shuttering by Chef April Bloomfield is a whole other, complicated skein of industry skulduggery and bad behavior.

But what hit me in the plexus were treasured memories of why Tosca, the bar, long-reigned as a venerable and beloved North Beach boîte.

Sure, the gleaming revamped kitchen, with its open-window design, dazzled. Folks hovered against the wall along the bar, awaiting their table and platter of $48 roast chicken for two. But guests weren’t necessarily engaging with other patrons. Instead, the vibe was a more ungracious “Hey, I got my coveted spot. Now you wait your turn.”

The beauty of the old, pre-Bloomfield Tosca was that on any given night, it exuded a magic that derives from co-mingling in a community space: strangers became friends; artists talked about their work while sketching atop a table; a City Lights bookseller recommended an emerging author you’d never read.

“YOU NEVER KNEW WHAT FAMOUS FACE YOU MIGHT SPOT IN THE MADDING CROWD. IT WAS THE PLACE TO FEEL COOL IN, EVEN IF YOU WEREN’T.”

— Christine Hearst

Amid our current climate of self-imposed social media siloing, we’ve lost that mystery of the serendipitous encounter. The palm-held curation of our daily experience — whether it’s the news we read, the hyperinflation of our Instagram lives, or the choice, via apps, to avert most social engagement with the strangers who cook our meals or drive us places — further expands the perimeter of our personal information bubble.

Unlike the plethora of private social clubs (a phenomenon that I desperately hope is on the wane), Tosca, as neighborhood joint, was truly democratic — a place where no reservations were required for folks to celebrate triumphs or drown defeats. Sometimes even, they fell in love.

As a devoted patron of the old Tosca, this second closure was a painful reminder of that 2013 loss when a cavalcade of business misfortunes caused longtime proprietor Jeannette Etheredge to sell her bar to Bloomfield & Co.

So I looked into my own palm and unleashed a somewhat grouse-tinged Instagram post suggesting that Tosca return to its storied bar roots. And I was floored by the number of folks — a majority of locals familiar with both iterations — who agreed.

One friend, Christine Hearst, commented that while the former owners applied some good spit polish to the 1920s-era beauty, the interlopers had painted over what made Tosca special.

“They erased the patina that only comes with time and cannot be imitated, no matter how hard you try,” wrote Hearst. “I still recall that smoky, dark lighting that immediately created an air of mystery when you walked in. You never knew what famous face you might spot in the madding crowd. It was the place to feel cool in, even if you weren’t.”

(A brief side note to editorial types: Tosca was never a “dive” bar. That phrase is too oft employed as a lazy thumbnail. Fine, it was cash-only and perhaps the piano was out of tune. But the place was always clean and the plumbing worked. Even if there was duct tape on a small tear in the classic red leather banquettes, everyone clamored to sit there. OK, I’ve got that rant out.)

Famous faces were part of old Tosca allure. In the early ’80s, when Etheredge bought Tosca from its original Italian American proprietors, it was adopted as a kind of clubhouse by a group of indie filmmakers and actors (Phil Kaufman, Ed Harris, Sam Shepard, Dennis Quaid) working on The Right Stuff.

They were often joined there by director Francis Ford Coppola, who, a few years prior, sauntered up Columbus Avenue from his Zoetrope Studios in the Sentinel Building (City Landmark No. 33), which he later purchased to save it from redevelopment.

Etheredge forged deep friendships with these stars — along with heavyweight politicos, major musicians and blue bloods — whom she protected like a den mother, ushering them into her private back room where they could luxuriate in anonymous impunity.

Sometimes, a regular patron received her nod to join this starry constellation. But a few of her celebs enjoyed the odd mingle, like Bono, who one night sang atop her bar. Some patrons actively alighted at Tosca on the hunt for famous faces. The real thrill of old Tosca was bumping into Bruce Springsteen there on a random Tuesday night.

Within weeks of closing, Tosca was quickly snapped up by a talented trio of San Francisco business owners: restaurateur Anna Weinberg; chef Nancy Oakes and luxe designer Ken Fulk, who swears not much will change interior-wise. Their buy also includes the old Lusty Lady strip club on Broadway, which nestles against Tosca. And they will persist in Bloomfield’s previous plan of transforming it into an arts event space.

In November, this queen of San Francisco saloons turns 100 years old. However, the joint is currently closed as ownership embarks on Tosca 4.0, but they will celebrate the centennial.

Perhaps the social fabric of the city is far too shredded for a revival of publike camaraderie? Or has Netflix become the new version of “night-life”? Or maybe, as author William Kennedy once wrote in Etheredge’s guest book, Tosca will once again fill with “Men of good will, Women of splendid virtue and Creatures of dire need.”

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