BAR CRAWLER: Rediscovering North Beach's plethora of charm at a dozen bars
BAR CRAWLER Overrun with partiers from the burbs on weekends, North Beach remains far more than its hordes of visitors would suggest. Italian history, comforting foods, historical churches, and Beat mystique keep tourists roaming the streets. But savvy locals know North Beach's under-the-radar gems. In some ways, it's our most European neighborhood, where you're most likely to find elderly Continental gentlemen gesticulating over coffee and cigarettes at sidewalk tables outside Cafe Greco or Caffe Trieste. Beneath the tourist trappings and meat markets, beats a vibrant and cultured heart.
This is equally true of its nightlife. Look beyond seedy strip joints and bars packed with suburbanites to find a long list of spots rich with history and colorful characters. If you haven't hung out in NB in awhile, it's time to fall in love with this late-night neighborhood's impressive diversity again via a nice north-to-south bar crawl.
There's no cooler live music venue in San Francisco than Bimbo's. A Rat Pack-style supperclub where Rita Hayworth danced as a chorus girl in the early 1930s and gin was served in coffee cups, the spacious club is rife with character. Wood-paneled walls, red curtains, and stools create a space Dean Martin's Matt Helm character would have felt at home in. Start your night with a show of acts as divergent as Flaming Lips and Adele.
1025 Columbus, (415) 474-0365, www.bimbos365club.com 
Divey and lived-in, Tony Nik's still shines under its original neon sign. A Prohibition-era bar opened in 1933 by namesake Tony Nicco, it's a funky, worn respite from the bustle of North Beach. It's like stepping back in time ... with rock 'n' roll attitude. It's just the place to pop in for conversation and a stiff martini.
1534 Stockton, (415) 693-0990, www.tonyniks.com 
This underrated beer haven keeps a rotating selection of craft beers from around the world on tap. Victoriana wallpaper melds with a mellow vibe, offering a welcome respite from weekend craziness. Sip an Allagash Witbier in the upstairs alcove with wild game sausages while a DJ plays classic soul records that won't drown you out.
1402 Grant, (415) 963-1713
It's time for more music at one of the country's oldest bars. The Saloon hit the Barbary Coast in 1861 as Wagner's Beer Hall. Beat-up and worn down (in look and regulars), this bar feels like New Orleans, where music sings out into the night from seasoned musicians who play as hard as they live. Offering live music seven nights and three afternoons a week, the Saloon's key focus is blues, although rock 'n' roll and soul influences abound. Dancing erupts in tight confines — like one ongoing party where music legends relive glory days.
1232 Grant, (415) 989-7666
No North Beach night would be complete without killer cocktails, and they don't get better than at 15 Romolo. A turn-of-the-century bar vibe is balanced by killer jukebox. Karaoke Gong Show nights are legendary and, although frequently packed, it's often a place to get an artisanal drink in a relaxed setting. Spawning some of our city's best bartenders, the talent behind the bar remains impressive. You'll be hard-pressed not to count their inventive (yet far from fussy) creations among the best in the city.
15 Romolo Place, (415) 398-1359, www.15romolo.com 
It's a grungy sort of tiki vibe at Bamboo Hut. Live surfer bands, kitschy tiki paraphernalia, and tropical drinks (warning: this ain't no Smuggler's Cove) make it a fun, distinctive stop on your crawl for a fruity island escape. And, yes, there are volcano bowls.
479 Broadway, (415) 989-8555, www.maximumproductions.com 
If you must do a club, this newest North Beach addition is unlike the rest. With decidedly Hollywood flair, mirrors and artwork of models draped in pearls (alas, no Marilyn) line brick walls over leather and velvet couches in this unexpected den of hip classiness.
473 Broadway, (415) 772-9002, www.monroesf.com 
Journeying south down Columbus Avenue, you'll hit a few of the city's great classics. Specs' Twelve Adler Museum Cafe is the dive to trump all dives. Singing around the piano with a Guinness or a shot of whiskey is a favorite pastime, as is soaking in the glowing, musty atmosphere and listening to stories from crusty locals your mother would be nervous around. A maritime SF mainstay since 1968, Specs is more than a bar, it's an institution.
12 William Saroyan Place, (415) 421-4112
In the realm of classic bars, Tosca stands alone. Surviving Prohibition with "house cappuccinos" (hot chocolate with brandy), still its No. 1 seller, Tosca has been a North Beach hotspot for decades, its famed back room a haven for rock and movie stars alike. With a lovingly faded yet romantic interior, red booths and chairs hark back to its early days. The famed jukebox spins out a line of tunes crucial to Italians, from legendary opera singer Enrico Caruso to Dino and Frank.
242 Columbus, (415) 986-9651, toscacafesf.com
Vesuvio is not so much about drink. Libations are an afterthought in a legendary 1950s space like no other. This is the kind of bar where intellectual discussion and reading books are the norm, where inspiration seeps out of the walls. Eclectic, hodgepodge decor is quirky and artsy, just like the clientele. The spirit of the Beat poets who frequented its corners lives on ... with beer.
255 Columbus, (415) 362-3370, www.vesuvio.com 
End your long night with a mellow, classy stop recalling Barbary Coast days. Comstock Saloon captures that spirit in a restored turn-of-the-century space replete with antique mahogany bar, Victorian furniture, 1916 rotating ceiling fans, and wood-burning stove. Cocktails are impeccable, classic and expertly-made ... and top-notch jazz musicians play from the upstairs balcony.
155 Columbus, (415) 617-0071, www.comstocksaloon.com