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Long Live Tosca!

Josh Sens says that with chef April Bloomfield’s cooking and a tasteful facelift, the soul of the city’s beloved bar has been saved.

Half a roast chicken

Half a roast chicken

In its near-century of life, Tosca Cafe, the famous North Beach den of iniquity, has taken on the varnish of countless boozy evenings, its floors scuffed with memories of unruly beatniks, riotous rockers, and misbehaving movie stars. U2’s Bono can sing opera anywhere he wants, but he chose to belt an aria from Tosca’s bar top in a duet with Pavarotti on the jukebox. Salman Rushdie drank here under threat of fatwa. Sean Penn allegedly discharged a firearm as percussion while Metallica’s drummer crooned a tune. If these walls could talk, they’d go on tour.

Like all the best stories, Tosca’s even has a villain, a strip club–operating landlord who last year issued an eviction notice to longtime owner Jeannette Etheredge. Alerted to the news, Penn (who else?) rushed to the assistance of his beloved redoubt, ringing restaurateur Ken Friedman and chef April Bloomfield—the duo behind a slate of mega-successful New York projects, including the Breslin and the Spotted Pig, where the investors include Jay-Z, Michael Stipe, and Fatboy Slim. The pair winged west, took on Tosca’s lease, and were wise enough to leave well enough alone.

Following a four-month closure and a spit shine, Tosca looks pretty much the same, its thin-necked bar area widening, carafe-like, to a dining room in back. A new wine rack runs along the right, the torn red vinyl booths have been redone in red leather, and the old paintings of Italy have been cleaned up and illuminated. But the jukebox is still there, as is the upright piano, and the chandeliers still cast a perfectly moody glow. Deep pockets may have backed this redo, but the air of throwback decadence is something that money can’t buy.

And, true to form, drinking remains a prime order of business. It wouldn’t be Tosca without the house “cappuccino,” a javaless, brandy-laced riff on Irish coffee that’s more of a dessert than a cocktail (today’s version has artisan chocolate ganache instead of Ghirardelli), or the balanced negroni, now better than ever but largely displaced by a volume-hogging ice cube that’s likely to outlive the last glacier. Let that depressing thought, and the stingy pour, inspire you to order a second round.

The biggest change, of course, is that Tosca now serves solids, something that it hasn’t done in more than 50 years. And it’s the sort of cooking that could have worked here all along. From a small, open kitchen, the Michelin-starred Bloomfield turns out sharp, straightforward Cal-Italian dishes. Her menu pops with vibrant bar snacks, like breadcrumb-and-red-vinegar-topped treviso, the bitter leaves roasted to just-so sweetness, and a halved fennel bulb, poached in white wine, fennel seeds, and olive oil, that rises from the bowl like a pale-green moon. There are pickled veggies and olives, too, counterpoints to the richness of an oxtail terrine, or a beautiful prosciutto and truffled-cheese pressed sandwich. It’s a teeny panini, but those few bites will do.

All the better that Bloomfield isn’t out to ride the culinary currents—the bar’s beatnik ghosts would howl in protest. The chef’s meatballs, a medley of pork shoulder, beef short ribs, and guanciale simmered in tangy tomato sauce, are a simple, satisfying nod to the neighborhood’s wicker chianti bottle leanings. Her roast chicken for two, garlicky, moist, and arranged rustically on a large white platter with a tangle of arugula and ricotta-smeared toasts, is precisely what it sounds like: an old-world dish made gently new.

If you’re craving something culinarily highfalutin, the simple salsa verde, spooned over the chicken liver spiedini, and the anchovy and rosemary sauce that enlivens the grilled trout are about as fancy as the fine-tuned cooking gets.

By reopening Tosca without trying to reinvent it, the new owners have paid respect to an institution, but they don’t afford their patrons quite the same deference. Reservations aren’t accepted (a restaurant’s way of flipping customers the bird); they refuse to seat you until everyone arrives; and, as a waiter told my hungry party, the kitchen won’t take orders for your first course until you’ve settled on your entrée. Throw in the occasional sticker shock moment—at $17, the bucatini with tomatoes and guanciale lasts only a few fork-twirls, and that half roast chicken will set you back $42, a steep price for half a bird, even when apportioned for two— and the Manhattan-size chutzpah of the place grows more apparent.

Oh well. Preservation has a price, and in this case, I think it’s worth paying. Tosca hasn’t just been spared extinction. It’s been saved from disfigurement into a theme park restaurant—the all-too-common fate of historic spaces. It feels true to both the past and the present.

Behind the bar, where the first house “cappuccino” was served in 1921, hangs an old sign with this free-spirited message: “Whatever you are, be a good one.” Given all the things that it could have become, Tosca has done that motto proud.

The Ticket
A recommended dinner for two people (before tax and tip) at Tosca.
Fennel ........................................... $4
Bar sandwich ................................. $10
Roasted treviso .............................. $7
Chicken liver spiedini ..................... $7
Meatballs ....................................... $12
Roasted chicken for two ................. $42
Baby beets with walnut pesto...........$7
Tiramisu .......................................... $9
House “cappuccino” ........................ $12
Casino bar negroni ...........................$12
Total ................................................$122

Tosca
242 Columbus Ave. (near Broadway)
415-986-9651
Three Stars

 

Originally published in the January issue of San Francisco magazine

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