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Coffee with character in North Beach.

The small coffeehouses in this San Francisco neighborhood are standing strong

NO POETS, NO coffeehouse." Thus did one North Beach local distinguish the neighborhood cafes from coffee-bar chains looking to open up in this San Francisco neighborhood.

It was in North Beach's coffeehouses, owned mostly by Italian families who had settled there, that the beat movement took hold some 40 years ago. Many of these bohemian havens still exist today and are cherished by neighborhood residents. So when a recent change in a city zoning law made it easier for coffee-bar chains to lease property, residents rose to the defense of their cafe culture. After much negotiating, North Beach became one of a few city neighborhoods where a public hearing is still required before a new shop can serve its first cappuccino.

North Beach is awash in coffeehouses. One three-block stretch of Columbus Avenue alone boasts a dozen. Each place has a unique clientele and atmosphere, though all offer a full menu of espresso drinks, pastries, and sandwiches. It's the little extras that will help you decide where to get your caffeine injection. Take Caffe Trieste, founded in 1956 (601 Vallejo Street; open 7 A.M. to 11:30 P.M. Sundays through Thursdays, until 12:30 Fridays and Saturdays). This place is packed on Saturday afternoons at 2. Sure, the crowds come to sample espresso made from Trieste's own roasts, but the real draw is the live music performed by the Giottas, the cafe's owners. Fabio, the bandleader, is on accordion, Mama is the soprano, Papa Johnny's the tenor, Gianfranco's the baritone, and Sonia dabbles in country-western tunes while waiting on tables. Don't forget to visit the annex, where they roast beans daily.

Grab a sidewalk seat at Caffe Puccini (411 Columbus; open 6 A.M. to 11:30 P.M. Sundays through Thursdays, until midnight Fridays and 12:30 Saturdays) to catch all the action on the neighborhood's main drag, or lounge inside below the ominous portrait of maestro Giacomo himself. The cafe is bright and airy and offers a selection of beautiful tortes and cakes made on the premises. Opera blasts from the jukebox in the corner, and on a nearby shelf rest the many volumes of The Puccini Progress--pages of poems, fiction, and drawings contributed by famous and not-so-famous regulars.

In its third location since its founding in 1956, Caffe Malvina (1600 Stockton Street; open 7 A.M. to 9 P.M. Mondays through Saturdays, until 5 Sundays) has chosen well. From the high ceilings and brass chandeliers to the marble-topped bar and tiled floor, every inch of this shop is elegant. In addition to lighter offerings, Malvina has a full menu of entrees including pastas and pizza. For sipping, we enjoyed the doppio moka ($2.85), made with two shots of espresso from Malvina's own roasts.

If you don't like crowded places, don't visit Mario's Bohemian Cigar Store Cafe (566 Columbus; open 10 A.M. to midnight Mondays through Saturdays, until 11 P.M. Sundays). Background music is barely audible over the lively banter at packed tables and the bar. But this corner cafe makes a great latte and has the best view of Washington Square Park and Saints Peter and Paul Church. In true Italian fashion, Mario's serves only espresso drinks (no brewed coffee), and a great plate of polenta ($7.75) is available on Thursdays.

North End Caffe (1402 Grant Avenue; call 415/956-3350 for hours) is distinguished by its hip young staff and patrons and by the price of an espresso: $1, at least two bits less than at other cafes. Loud, usually contemporary music (a live band plays Thursday and Sunday evenings) keeps the place hopping. There's seating on two levels at tables of varying size. Grab a stool at the edge of the mezzanine to take in the action and the mural on cafe life painted by an employee.
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Title Annotation:San Francisco, California
Author:Selig, Christianne
Publication:Sunset
Date:Feb 1, 1994
Words:649
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