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Enrico’s Sidewalk Café

The Beat Goes on at Enrico’s

Established as an Italian restaurant in 1959, Enrico’s Sidewalk Café was a place where poets, artists, cops, hookers, politicians, the mafia, celebrities, and everyone in between could coexist (somewhat) peacefully over booze and noodles in 1960s North Beach. The original owner, Enrico Banducci, was an artful fellow with an eye for talent -- he discovered Barbra Streisand, among others. Last year, due to lease problems, the restaurant closed for the second time -- the first was in 1988 -- and regulars mourned its passing.

When it reopened in August 2007 under the ownership of chef Seamus Cronin and restaurateur Christina Deeb (who both ran the show at Venticello for over a decade), patrons wondered whether the new Enrico’s would stay true to its roots, while hoping it would receive a much-needed renovation. Just a glance past the well-appointed patio into the elegant new interior instills confidence in the latest ownership, even if the food is a bit uneven and the front of house staff is desperately in need of more training. The elegant new interior exudes a 1930s, almost Parisian vibe.

Oversized velvet booths flank the patio's fresh looking, white marble tables, and the historic (and sometimes chaotic) bar area is now wisely separated from the dining room by a short, low bar that's reportedly loaded with complimentary apps during happy hour. Refined, cream-colored walls and a cushy new ivory banquette match large, warm, linen-colored ceiling lights, creating a sense of visual calm that was missing from the room's prior incarnation. A small, open lounge area with couches adds a touch of leisure to a space that used to balance a clutch of cramped two-tops; a tall, masculine, dark wood library unit with wine shelving rounds out a corner that used to be a busser station. Bonus: the ladies room got a makeover!

In the mid-90s, Enrico's had reopened under different ownership as a semi-swanky destination for mojitos, oysters and jazz. Enrico's retained its reputation as an artsy hangout on weeknights, while gaining infamy during the dot-com boom as a posh weekend singles scene. As always, the patio offered some of the best people-watching in the city. Thanks to chef Rick Hackett, pastry chefs Noriko Washington and Mary Jo Thoreson, and later, chef Luis Olvera, the kitchen (and even the wine program) began to accrue foodie devotees from the restaurant industry set, even if service was notoriously uneven. Seasonal, local ingredients were a priority, and the California-Mediterranean comfort food menu offered a range of tapas, wood-oven pizzas, and bistro entrees.

At the revamped Enrico's, Seamus Cronin has developed a new American bistro-style menu that covers the classics fairly well, if not in a particularly inspired fashion. The only carry-over from the past reaches way back to the Enrico's Trois Petite Burgers, three mini-burgers with cornichons ($12) -- sorry all ye fans of the smoked salmon bruschetta.

Starters include modern brasserie standards like oysters ($12/half dozen), duck pate, pork rillettes, Caesar salad (this one could use some oomph) and beef carpaccio. The range extends into Cal-Med fundamentals like beet and goat cheese salad, spinach and apple salad with blue cheese and candied walnuts ($9) and fritto misto ($13), a generous tangle of calamari, shrimp and zucchini which were tender, lightly battered and greaseless, although too salty.

The menu features a straightforward selection of wood-oven pizzas such as the Molinari pepperoni and mozzarella pizza ($12), as well as a well-regarded risotto and one pasta: spaghetti with creamy tomato and pork ragout ($14). The thin crust pizzas are pretty good but not virtuosic. Perhaps the most intriguing was the Black Mission and Kadota fig pizza ($13); a scattering of arugula added a satisfyingly sharp note to the classic combination of sweet fig and salty gorgonzola.

Entrees, again, feel familiar. In addition to a grilled flat iron steak with frites ($23), you'll find charred pork tenderloin with Frog Hollow Farm nectarines ($19), and on the night we went, a daily special of petrale sole ($21) topped with heirloom tomatoes and caperberries. Sadly, this dish too was so overpowered by salt that it was rendered inedible. Friends who recently dined on a special of sautéed Chilean sea bass with shaved fennel, scallions and buerre blanc were more impressed, albeit somewhat guiltily, due to the fish's endangered status. Notably, the short ribs ($23) were a solid example of bistro fare: tender and braised in red wine, they were served on a bed of buttery potatoes with gremolata.

But the food (and the spotty service, especially on weekends) is definitely not the main draw at Enrico’s. While the old faces have been replaced by a new staff, you get the feeling that Enrico's is a regenerative organism all its own. Award-winning mixologist David Nepove has moved on to Southern Wine and Spirits, and the denim-clad calligraphy master Ward Dunham, who worked on and off behind the bar at Enrico’s since the early 60s, has retired (unless you drop by on a Wednesday evening when you might catch him inking postcards on the patio to buddies like the scribe to the Queen of England). However, customers will be happy to know that the mojitos are still top-notch and served in pint glasses.

The other reason to hit Enrico’s is the nightly jazz -- there's never a cover charge. Under the direction of Alastair Monroe, founder of North Beach Jazz Fest, the café still is a reliable music destination seven days a week. Mondays you can catch the divine Lavay Smith, who thankfully has retained her regular gig singing sassy standards, and friends speak highly of Tuesdays with the glamorous, talented transgender singer Veronica Klaus.

Ultimately, the people-watching is what makes Enrico’s a fun spot for a date or celebration. One city guide accurately describes sitting on the expansive heated patio as “feeling as though you have box seats at the opera.” Once inside, you may spot old regulars such as Millie (the little old Polaroid lady), who has been a fixture in North Beach cafes for decades. In fact, Millie and her husband are in the painting which dominates the room, depicting the artists and writers who used to frequent both Enrico’s and the Spaghetti Factory in the late 50s.

The new owners kept the painting, which hung in the old Enrico’s for 12 years, as a link to the café’s storied past. Enrico Banducci died on October 9, 2007, adding a glimmer of nostalgia to the recent rebirth of this North Beach landmark. As long as Millie is nursing her coffee at her usual spot, the mojitos keep flowing to the outside patio, and the jazz continues to keep customers tapping their feet, the spirit of Enrico’s will live on.

American Bistro
North Beach

Reservations Essential? Recommended.