UPDATE: The April 29th dinner is now on May 14th and tickets can be purchased here. Thank you so much!
It’s almost time for another San Francisco neighborhood dinner, but first I’m excited to share the full recap with you of our North Beach dinner. What do oysters, shrimp paste, farmer’s market produce, coffee, crustaceans and puttanesca have to do with North Beach? For those who couldn’t make it to our first dinner celebrating SF history and yummy bites I’ve got the whole story for you here…
I’ve written about dining with Feastly before and what a cool experience it is to break bread with other foodies while becoming friends with your chef. It seemed to me like the perfect platform through which to combine some of my favorite things — San Francisco, good food, meeting new people, stories and history. I delved in deep into the history of North Beach, and with a local chef we designed a full dinner where each dish was inspired by a different story from the neighborhood — eating our way through history one plate at a time while hanging out with other food-lovers in Feastly’s gorgeous Mission loft. The North Beach neighborhood is well known for its Italian restaurants and cafes, its Beat history, and Mama’s on Washington Square (love me some of her cranberry-orange French toast), but the area now known as North Beach was part of the original city of San Francisco (called Yerba Buena originally) and has a long, rich history. This is where the gold rush boomed, where the first immigrants from all around the world staked their claim, where men outnumbered women by 90%, where it was cheaper to buy alcohol than eggs, and where some of the most notorious SF characters spent their lives.
What better way to break the ice with a group of strangers than to begin with an aperitif? To introduce our guests to early North Beach history we started with a fresh cocktail inspired the neighborhood’s lawless side. Australian convicts were given a one-way ‘parole’ (i.e. kicked out of Australia so law-abiding British citizens could begin colonizing) right around the time of the Gold Rush in the 1840’s. Australian gangs terrorized young San Francisco — the most notorious calling themselves ‘the Syndey Ducks’ and the heart of their territory called the Barbary Coast, around Pacific Ave and Stockton, where the dance halls, saloons, music clubs, variety shows and brothels were no strangers to almost constant gang warfare. The Australian gangs were so out of control citizens forced a ‘Committee of Vigilance’ to step in where the police force could not take charge. We riffed off a Coastal Collins for the opening cocktail in honor of our Australian outlaws — gin, soda, sugar, and in place of bay laurel I foraged Eucalyptus leaves from the Golden Gate Park.
To welcome our guests we also started with an oyster bar — after all, North Beach used to be right on the water (more on that to come!). Before the Italians arrived in the mid 19th century, North Beach was home to a thriving Filipino community — right around the same time as the Beats were wandering through, who were probably noshing on Filipino cuisine more often than Chinese, as the urban legend goes. To bring in a Filipino element we created a spicy, fruity oyster topper with Bagoong, blood orange juice, ponzu and mangos.
Once our feasters had their cocktails and oysters and everyone was seated we went into the first course. I was pleased to introduce San Francisco’s first documented eccentric to the group — Emperor Norton had humble beginnings as Joshua Norton, a commodities trader who came to San Francisco during the gold rush and turned $20,000 into $200,000 in his first year. Unfortunatley he lost everything betting on the rice trade; disappeared from the public eye for a while, and reappeared as Emperor Norton the First, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico. The city adored him. He was invited to public events, his currency was printed and accepted at bars and restaurants across town, 40,000 citizens attended his funeral, and he was advertised as a pull for tourists to visit the city from around the world.
Emperor Norton’s currency was used as an early Zagat rating. Despite the fact that he essentially lived off of charity, Norton was highly particular about where he ate — only going to the cleanest spots with the best food. Restaurants and bars displayed his currency outside their door to let people know the Emperor approved. At Norton’s time vegetables were the most expensive item around, so for our second course we enjoyed a salad fit for an Emperor — with the freshest seasonal greens including hearts of romaine, heart of artichoke and avocado dressed in a parmesan vinaigrette.
You can’t talk about North Beach without referencing the cities notorious red lights district. Even though 90% of the city were men from for early years, women did come to early San Francisco as well, although few of them were ‘respectable.’ Working in brothels made good money (up to $200 a night, which would about $6000 today), although some women chose instead to serve drinks in saloons, where they more often than not helped drug sailors for later shanghaiing. One thing the women apparently weren’t interested in — opening a laundry business. Gold miners were not the domestic type and would come back into town from the fields to get their clothes done, where they found that it was less expensive and difficult for them to ship their dirty clothes on the monthly cargo ship to Hawaii than it was to get their laundry done in the city. It was cheaper to just buy new clothes, which is why the streets were often paved in discarded shirts at the time.
As a nod to North Beach’s saucier past, the chef whipped up fresh raviolis stuffed with goat cheese, served with a Puttanesca pasta sauce of tomatoes, capers, olives and garlic. I’ll let you look up the origins of puttanesca yourself ;)
For the main event chef Don rounded up freshly caught local crab and steamed on site while we munched on Tartine sourdough and salted butter. It was getting near the end of the season but these Dungenesses were 100% sustainable, super fresh and bursting with buttery rich flavor.
Today North Beach doesn’t technically reach the water, but in the past the area had a shorefront on three sides. Today the spot where our chef bought the crab for that night is on landfill, but the original shoreline looked something like this:
During the gold rush the ’49ers were so eager to get to the mines they literally abandoned their ships in the harbor — which became completely full of empty ships.
After the gold fever burned down, the land around the ships was filled in and these were used as hotels, bars, restaurants, and even homes. As the city was built and re-built over the decades, some of these were torn down but many were turned into foundations and basements, and developers working in old landfill spots are still coming across forgotten ships in the sand today. Recently a ship was unearthed containing a hull full of French champagne — can you imagine the fate of the gold miner who forgot that load behind?
Last but not least we gave Little Italy a sweet shout-out for bringing the first espresso machine to San Francisco at North Beach institution Cafe Trieste. Obviously San Francisco has never been the same since. The chefs prepared their own version of an It’s It with homemade cookies, crunchy toppings, and delicious Mitchell’s coffee flavored ice cream.
My mouth is watering just looking at all these plates again! Thanks so much to MB Maher for putting down his crab cracker and documenting the night for me, and thanks so much to all the adventurers who came out and met me that night! If you’d like to join us for the next Feastly dinner it’s May 14th in the Mission and we will be exploring the history and flavors of the Richmond. This is a less famous and more locally-known neighborhood but it actually features some of the oldest sites in the city; with beautiful architecture, lush parks, a long-lost playground by the sea, and a variety of flavors that we’ll be exploring through a tapas style smorgasbord of delicious dishes including Burmese, Chinese, Russian and Australian cuisines. Buy your tickets here!
Really hope to see you there! Until next time let’s stay in touch over on twitter and instagram where I’m regularly posting photographs and daily discoveries. If you’d like to be notified of new posts head over to facebook or bloglovin’.