Join us for Tag Along, where local writers, artists, food authorities, and celebrities lead us to the best food and drinks in their favorite Bay Area neighborhoods.
Spending an evening making appearances at North Beach’s classiest establishments isn’t just for politicians. For Jon Moscone, chief producer of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and son of the late Mayor George Moscone, it’s just another Thursday night.
Moscone was born in 1964 in the Sunset District but grew up south and east on Mount Davidson. So while the West Side is home, when it came to eating, North Beach was the place for his family. “We existed in North Beach. It was central to my growing up,” Moscone says. He remembers his dad as a “civic dude,” who deeply enjoyed the Italian food of San Francisco. “He loved to take us out to dinner,” Moscone says. “The San Francisco restaurants I go to are rooted in relationships.”
Of course, as anyone familiar with San Francisco history knows, the late mayor was assassinated in his office on the same day as Harvey Milk in 1978, when Jon was just 14 years old. In the decades since, his dad has become lionized in a myriad of ways: Officials named the city’s largest convention center and an elementary school after him, San Francisco punk band Dead Kennedys condemned the mayor’s killer in their rendition of “I Fought the Law,” and Jon’s play Ghost Light details the impact his father’s murder had on his life.
Through it all, the relationships Jon Moscone maintains with the businesses in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood, and with his family, have persevered. Take a trip down memory lane as one of San Francisco’s living legends visits the restaurants that fed one of the city’s greatest political icons and continue to feed his family today.
Original Joe’s Restaurant
601 Union Street
The first stop is the neon-lit Original Joe’s restaurant, open since 1937. It’s a corner spot a block from Saints Peter and Paul Church and has been a favorite of Moscone’s since he was a kid. Growing up, his family would drive down the hill to West Portal to eat at Westlake Joe’s, right on the hump between San Francisco and Daly City.
Moscone drinks only Gibson martinis, a slight variation on the classic that comes garnished with an onion instead of an olive or lemon twist, and “perfect Manhattans” served very cold. He also orders enormous prawns, which Moscone insists must be eaten with Tabasco and a squeeze of lemon, and a dish of beef and spinach ravioli. But the main attraction is steak alla Bruno, an off-menu item named after one of the restaurant’s chefs that was once served at the Westlake Joe’s. Moscone grew up loving the bloody steak, and it’s just as tender as he remembers.
Moscone still comes to Original Joe’s with his mom Gina Moscone to reminisce, and they’ve celebrated her birthday there for the last six years. Gina goes there once every two weeks. He says both he and his mom love the restaurant for staying true to its roots despite the passing years. “The folks at Joe’s hold space for a San Francisco that has existed for a long time,” Moscone says.
North Beach Restaurant
1512 Stockton Street
The intimidating and impressive exterior walls of North Beach Restaurant, which opened in 1970, sport huge paintings of grapes. Walking in, the host tells Moscone his mom was there just the weekend before with Nancy Pelosi, a testament to the enduring ties between the political elite and old-school San Franciscans. “She’s a classy lady,” Moscone says of Gina with a smile, settling into a seat by the window.
This pseudo-political institution, long popular with the who’s who of San Francisco, was George Moscone’s favorite restaurant. Or at least, that’s how his son remembers it, recalling a photo of his dad, grinning, that used to hang over George Moscone’s go-to corner spot in the dining room. “They named a meal after my mom,” Moscone says. “The veal scallopini alla Gina.” In fact, when the restaurant reopened after its pandemic closure, Moscone noticed one of the family’s favorite dishes, calamari vinaigrette, had been taken off the menu. “My mother asked where it went,” Moscone laughs. “And they were super sweet and put it back on the menu.”
A plate of melon with prosciutto comes to the table, and its appearance alone is arresting. The play between sweet and savory is both refreshing and uplifting, and pairs nicely with an order of bruschetta. The meal’s crescendo comes in the form of the calamari vinaigrette, each bite light and springy, like something that might have been prepared right on the dock of a coastal Italian town.
North Beach Restaurant owner Lorenzo Patroni was one of the late mayor’s best friends, not because of their political similarities, but despite them, Moscone says. “Shows the power of food to bring people together,” Moscone says. “My dad loved having a seat at the table. He loved being the mayor.”
242 Columbus Avenue
Moscone’s husband Darryl Carbonaro arrived on a bike at the North Beach Restaurant, joining the party for the final destination for the evening: Tosca, a bar that’s haunted North Beach since 1919. Tosca sports the best parklet in North Beach, and the interior, red-lit with a long bar, evokes the better parts of Twin Peaks Black Lodge. It was designed by James Beard-nominated restaurant architect Ken Fulk, whose distinctive style fits right in among the old brass of North Beach.
Finding stools at the sprawling dark-wood bar, the bartender, who says he’s been working in the service industry for more than 22 years, pours shots of bourbon. “Italian desserts are notoriously terrible,” Moscone says. “This is dessert.” Though Moscone is there for a nightcap only, Tosca’s known for its powerful prix fixe, featuring Tuscan fried chicken, oysters, pork belly, and, of course, fresh pasta. Following a string of ownership changes, the historic restaurant’s now under the ownership of experienced San Francisco restaurateur Anna Weinberg (Park Tavern, Leo’s Oyster Bar) and partners.
In Moscone’s eyes, North Beach feels much like it always has, even with its newer developments. “San Francisco is a small town,” he says. “And it holds onto singular things. That’s memory, and that’s important and lovely, even if it’s not reflective of the world I live in now.” Some things are worth leaving behind but there are some things, like calamari vinaigrette, that can stick around.
Update: April 6th, 2022, 10:05 a.m.: This story has been updated to reflect that Original Joe’s in North Beach is not the original location of the restaurant. The first Original Joe’s restaurant opened in 1937 in the Tenderloin neighborhood.