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Manhattan Takes North Beach

With Tosca sold to a couple of New Yorkers, what will happen to the only place in town where the stars aligned?

I watched this skill in action on another visit to Tosca, when Etheredge had clearly placed some calls. Soon enough, the bar started filling up with local luminaries. There was its namesake, Tosca Sartorio, 92, at one table, and City Attorney Dennis Herrera at another. Philip Kaufman, the director of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, was preceded by food writer Patricia Unterman and by Cecilia Chiang, the grande dame of Chinese cuisine. And Friedman was on his way.

Chiang spent the evening reminiscing about the time back in the day when she brought Etheredge a strand of Mikimoto pearls from Japan. “Eleanor Coppola wore them to the Academy Awards!” said Etheredge, leaning into the table in a deliciously conspiratorial way, unmistakable in an oversize sweater and her pouf of blond-gray hair. “Don’t write that down!” she added in her throaty voice, batting at my notebook, while imultaneously dropping names ending in Pelosi, Nureyev, and Ferlinghetti.

Etheredge, who will say only that a “mutual friend” (reportedly Sean Penn) connected her with Friedman, won’t utter even a peep of disappointment about the sale. “The way Ken looked when he walked into the place,” she says, “I just felt he had the same passion for the place as I did when I first bought it.”

Of course, it wouldn’t be San Francisco without dissenters. On SFGate, commenter Coldwatersurfer spoke for many of them: “Sean Penn saved Tosca by getting it sold to New Yorkers (instead of the many locals who wanted it).... Do [they] have that right?” For others, the talk of Tosca being sold—right around the time that the Gold Dust Lounge was evicted—brings up the age-old question: “What is this city coming to?” City Attorney Herrera echoes the sentiment of many: “It’s a different character of people moving to San Francisco now. It’s a much more transient place.” The bohemian vibe is gone, in other words. As a case in point, Eleanor Bertino, a longtime North Beach resident, tells me that she witnessed a Google bus pulling over in the neighborhood. With a gasp, she says, “I thought they only stopped in the Mission!”

The truth is that the bus stops four blocks from Tosca, and those techies—who, even Etheredge acknowledges, are perfectly polite folk—are part of the fabric of today’s San Francisco: people who, given 20 years, will surely be looking down from their hovercrafts at tourists being led through the old Twitter building, lamenting the soullessness of the once gritty area.

As a newcomer who has no connections to the old regulars, Friedman is up for whatever Tosca 2.0 will bring—as long as it brings boldface names. “San Franciscans aren’t that different from New Yorkers,” he says. “They’re always bragging that Mark Zuckerberg was here the other night, or Jack Dorsey was there. And I hope those guys come to Tosca. If I knew how to court them, I would.”

Kaufman is optimistic about Tosca’s future. At the least, he’s politic, telling me that he’s heard nothing but good things about the new owners. “Like a [movie] wrap party, it’s bittersweet,” he says. “There’s the sense that you’ve been on an adventure together. But there’s also the hope that you’ll make another movie.” This time around, however, Ferlinghetti might have to scoot over in one of those booths to make room for Zuckerberg and Jay-Z.

Read More: Old Tosca vs. New Tosca


Originally published in the May issue of San Francisco

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