Cheers: Tosca Cafe's 90th Anniversary
Tosca Cafe, the most jaunty of the city’s gin joints, is also well-known as a destination for the celebrity set.
But last night in North Beach when Jeannette Etheredge celebrated the 90th anniversary of her beloved bar, the place was jammed with that most local of breed: San Franciscans.
Generations, in fact, gathered to raise a glass to this historic watering hole -- from cops, politicians, artists, ribald raconteurs to ballet dancers, theater folks, ink-stained wretches and the jet set.
“People often ask why I introduced my legislation for a day honoring Harvey Milk at Tosca Cafe,” said State Senator Mark Leno, of his bill which is now law. “And I always answer, ‘Tosca is my good luck charm: It’s the name of Milk’s favorite opera and Sean Penn’s favorite saloon’!”
Last night, everyone had a favorite memory to share about this storied saloon: Peter Getty fondly recalled his 21st birthday that Jeannette hosted at the bar. Joe Tobin took his wife, Edith Tobin, there on their first date where they played pool in the backroom. North Beach locals Ruby and Ben Tom got engaged there.
“My wife and I were standing at the end of the bar near the door,” said Tom, pointing across the long mahogany plank. “54 years ago in November, that’s where I asked Ruby to be my wife.”
This Tom family tradition lives on: six years ago, their son stood in the same hallowed spot and proposed to his wife.
Tosca Cafe was founded in November 1919 by co-owners Baldo Francesconi, Ugo Perry and Fred Landi. But, oops: Prohibition became the law of the land in January 1920. So the bar morphed into a neighborhood Italian restaurant.
It’s always been a family place: lore has it that in the early ‘60s a scraggly Bob Dylan and a barefoot Joan Baez were asked to leave.
That mythic scenario, however, would’ve never happened had Jeannette then owned the bar. She became the third owner in 1978 when Fred Landi’s son, Al Landi, wanted to retire and sell the business.
“Tosca was the first bar I ever went to,” said Etheredge. “I loved it exactly how it was and promised Al that if he sold it to me, I wouldn’t change a thing.”
From the nicotine-stain patina which cling to its walls to the red-leather banquettes, the old joint’s Hopper-esque vision, indeed, remains.
The one thing she did add was the storied (yet elusive) backroom which is reserved for friends (both celebrity and non-celebrity) of Jeannette and her nephew and biz partner, Peter Ridet.
Surveying the backroom last night, film wizard George Lucas looked around at the walls which are lined with photos of Jeannette’s bold-faced friends and film posters.
“I guess a Star Wars poster wouldn’t exactly work in here,” remarked Lucas, with a slice of wry.
Also in the back room? None other than Mayor Gavin Newsom. As we chatted, his Chief of Staff Steve Kawa joked, “Look at that! Who says our mayor won’t talk to the press!”
Wielding our notebook, we looked Mayor Newsom square in the eye and posed our hardest-hitting question: “Mayor Newsom, you look fabulous tonight! What are you wearing?”
Newsom then joined the throng and presented Jeannette with a Mayoral Proclamation declaring November 19 as Tosca Cafe Day in San Francisco.
The proclamation also included a teasing whereas: “WHEREAS, sometimes people do indeed want to go where everybody knows their name and, at Tosca Cafe, if you don’t know who Winona, George, Hunter, Rudy, Lauren, Francis, Lars or Sean are, then you obviously aren’t a regular.”
In fact it was “Rudy” (for newbies, that would be Jeannette’s late friend, the world-famous ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev) who drew dancer Momchil Mladenov to Tosca after the Suzanne Farrell Ballet soloist recently performed at Zellerbach Hall.
“Nureyev was a hero of mine,” explained the Bulgarian native. “I came to Tosca for the first time about two weeks ago because I wanted to visit the places in San Francisco that he loved.”
Mladenov lives in New York. But when Jeannette invited him to the anniversary party, he flew back out for it.
And the party? It was swinging. But not with the usual sounds of the bar’s opera-laden jukebox. Instead the old piano was rockin’ to tunes pounded out by pianist John Allair, a talented Marin musician who plays for folks such as Van Morrison.
A Stanlee Gatti-designed floral arrangement stood tall over platters teeming with nummy nibbles from nearby Molinari’s and Liguria Bakery. Ann Getty supplied bounteous batches of her famous chocolate chip cookies. Veteran Tosca plank-man and author Robert Mailer Anderson paid tribute to his favorite bar with a gift via his talented sister-in-law RNM chef-owner Justine Miner. 'Round midnight, she and a small crew arrived like a band of flash-mob caterers delivering mounds of late-night gourmet noshes from her restaurant.
Among these scene-sters? founder Francesconi's daughters, Martha and Tosca; DA Kamala Harris; Neighbors such as Twelve Alder Place owner Specs Simmons, Tommaso sibling co-owners Carmen and Agostino Crotti, Vesuvio co-owner Janet Clyde, Bix owner Bix Biederbeck, House Restaurant owner-chefs Angela and Larry Tse, North Beach Restaurant owner Lorenzo Petroni and Beach Blanket Babylon Producer Jo Schuman Silver; Jeff Hays and his wife, producer Carole Shorenstein Hays; film critic David Thomson and his wife Lucy Gray; culturati Tom Luddy, Dale Djerassi, Dorka Keehn; literary lights such as City Light’s Paul Yamazaki and McSweeney’s publisher Oscar Villalon and the St. Mary’s Med Center crew including Margine Sako, Dr. Robert Murray and Sister Joanne.
Inside Jeannette’s miniscule office which, like the backroom is papered with photos of the famous, she keeps an old ledger of jottings from some of her bold-faced customers. Within those pages author William Kennedy penned a most apt paean of Tosca as peopled by, “Men of good will, Women of splendid virtue and Creatures of dire need.”
“Tonight is a perfect night!” enthused Etheredge, of the celebration.“This place isn’t just about famous people. What I love is that all the people here are the regulars who love Tosca Cafe.”
Check out more photos
Mayoral Chief of Staff Steve Kawa, Gina Moscone and Mayor Gavin Newsom