Tosca Cafe is one of the most infamous drinking dens in North Beach, living at the crossroads of Columbus and Broadway since 1919 (skip the math: the restaurant and bar is now 102 years old). Unfortunately, instead of getting to celebrate its 100th birthday in high style, those last couple of years saw Tosca go dark: The restaurant closed amid sexual assault allegations in 2019, then got a fresh start with a new dream team of local restaurateurs, but they were only able to open for takeout in March 2020, when the city was in full lockdown, and outdoor dining in November 2020, right before the second surge.
All told, it’s now been nearly two years since fans could swing through the double doors with gold lettering, belly up to the burnished bar for a house cappuccino, settle into a red booth for red sauce comforts, or slide into the infamous back room for a private party. But lest we forget — Tosca originally opened on the heels of the Spanish Influenza, and now it’s pulling through coronavirus. Tosca is back. It quietly reopened for indoor dining this past month, luring longtime fans back through the dimly lit bar and into the den of its iconic black-and-red space.
As announced, the all-star trio of new owners is chef Nancy Oakes (Boulevard), restaurateur Anna Weinberg (Marlowe, Leo’s), and acclaimed designer Ken Fulk, the visionary behind the Weinberg’s restaurants, among others. “It’s a place that’s part of San Francisco lore,” Fulk says. And as much as the three wanted to reopen Tosca with a bang, given how the city is slowly reawakening, the team decided to “let it quietly be what it’s meant to be, without too much fanfare. Trust me, I’m a gentleman that likes a good party, so we will certainly have some in the future. But we decided just to open the doors and let the world back into Tosca.”
Fulk says that restoring Tosca’s historic space was “utterly different” from his usual projects, which are usually dazzling transformations of homes, restaurants, and hotels (he’s literally working on a sky lounge for the Chrysler Building right now). But in this case, “I didn’t want my personal mark on it,” he says. “That was not the goal. We wanted Tosca to be Tosca.” When the owners got the keys in summer of 2019, he says that the restaurant was in reasonable shape, although it had suffered “a bit of a slow demise.” They made minor updates and improvements: Getting the kitchen functional. Repadding the banquettes with real leather, reupholstering the barstools, and replacing cheap light fixtures. They took down what Fulk affectionately calls the “bad wine wall” with ‘90s-style racks, deemed “not Tosca worthy.”
But much is staying the same, preserving the original character. For instance, Fulk did reupholster the legendary backroom in damask, where Sean Penn allegedly shot a bullet hole in the wall (which the actor has denied). But he took photos and rehung every single piece of art in the exact same spot. He matched “the patina of the place,” so any new brass that went in was burnished and won’t look shiny or out of place. They didn’t aggressively sand down or strip the mahogany bar, just gave it a good polish to shine up the deco details. They buffed the original vinyl floors, something the designer says he would never dream of installing in a new restaurant — he was very tempted to put in beautiful red-and-black Italian marble. “It would have been beautiful, but it would have been too nice.”
The jukebox and the piano are staying, and the team is actively trying to tack down the original cappuccino machine, or at least one from the same era. The biggest change is still to come: A mural that will be painted across from the bar, in that long narrow hallway, which has been commissioned to Rafael Arana, whose work also appears at St. Joseph’s Art Society. And one more small detail: When the sidewalk was replaced out front, they did add a new mosaic at the entrance.
Fulk says it might sound easy, but it was hard work — it’s actually easier to rip out and completely redo a bathroom than trying to refresh an old one while preserving vintage details. “But visually, the goal was to make it look like the best version of itself,” he says. “The whole point was to not screw it up. Tosca is Tosca, and we didn’t want to muck with that.” He says that not many designers would ever design a restaurant that way today, but he loves the unusual shape of the space, which is almost menacing: the way you slip inside and have to make your way through the bar before entering the “incredibly dimly lit” cave. “We had to keep it as a joint,” says Fulk. “Tosca is a joint, and there are far too few of them left, that serve really good drinks and delicious food, without being too precious.”
The menu has expanded slightly since Eater SF last checked in. It’s still a fixed price menu at $75, starring Tuscan fried chicken and fresh pasta, which is currently a gnudi cacio e pepe topped with nettles and ricotta, with the option to add on meatballs in a spicy tomato sauce and upgrade to a Flannery beef porterhouse covered in mushrooms and drenched in herb butter. The wine list comes courtesy of Italian wine expert Shelley Lindgren (A16), and of course, they are still pouring the house cappuccino. The team did recently add brunch on Sundays, for all those who love to breakfast on carbonara and coffee cocktails. And for those who still feel more comfortable sitting outdoors, the parklet on Columbus offers red-and-white checked tablecloths with green vines and twinkle lights strung overhead.
Tosca Cafe is now open for dinner Thursday through Sunday, and for brunch on Sunday, with reservations for outdoor and indoor dining.