We've all been waiting the last five months to see what New Yorkers Ken Friedman and April Bloomfield have done to the inside of the well loved, and elegantly decayed Tosca Café in North Beach, and tonight's the night for the public to take its first look. The team behind the incredibly popular, downtown-hip Manhattan spots The Spotted Pig, The Breslin, and The John Dory Oyster Bar, have been giving Tosca a careful renovation, being sure to preserve the character of the place while transforming it into something it hasn't been for at least fifty or sixty years: a restaurant.
The 93-year-old bar always did have a kitchen (during prohibition the place masqueraded as an Italian restaurant), albeit one that hadn't been used in decades, and now Bloomfield has a new, narrow showplace kitchen in its place complete with subway tile, a new range, and a big open window onto the dining room. You can see her full, rustic Italian menu here, which popped up on Eater yesterday. It centers on antipasti, with a few smaller dishes, two pastas, some off-menu meatballs (Friedman says they're his favorite thing), and some shareable larger plates like short ribs and a roast chicken served over jus-soaked bread with ricotta, pine nuts, marsala, and lemon.
And if anyone's wondering whether longtime owner and favorite story-telling fixture Jeanette Etheredge will be around, regaling them with stories of drinking with Mickey Rourke and jetting to Paris for the weekend with Jeremiah Tower, they can rest assured that she's already made good friends with Friedman, and she'll probably have a stool with her name on it. The redo happened with her blessing, and with the help of longtime patron and investor Sean Penn.
Like Spotted Pig, Tosca won't be taking reservations, so you can expect some long waits.
Luckily you can wait with a good drink, and cocktails are being handled by Heaven's Dog vet Isaac Shumway, who's doing an ultra-classic Negroni as well as a bunch of other updated classics including an 1890s era New Orleans drink called the Café Brûlot -- inspired by the one from Arnaud's Restaurant, and featuring chicory-infused Sightglass coffee, spiced brandy, and a flaming orange peel, with cream on the side. You'll also find a big selection of amaros,
And look out for some truly old-school Chianti served in fiaschi those basket-wrapped bottles. Co-wine director Ceri Smith (Biondivino) got a favorite Chianti-maker in Italy to source the bottles from one of the last villages where old ladies still make them in Tuscany. She's on a crusade to make people understand that Chianti's gotten a bad rep, and there's still great, food-friendly ones out there. "How cool is that," she said. "All these bottles in fiaschi, but with really amazing wine inside."
At Wednesday night's pre-opening, multiple people remarked that the place feels very much the same Friedman chose to preserve pretty much everything, down to the vintage espresso steamer at the corner of the bar (now more functional) to the stains on the ceiling above it from decades of steam, to the ragged and cracked linoleum-tiled floor. The red booths in back have new, real leather on them, and the paintings have all been touched up and cleaned the three on the left wall up front, painted in 1938 and coated in 70 years of tobacco soot and grime, probably haven't been so visible since the middle of the last century.
Friedman gave an interview last year in which he talked about where he gets some of his own successful style when it comes to creating a scene in his restaurants, and it was inspired by none other than S.F.'s own Jeremiah Tower, he of the legendary Stars. The secret he took from Tower, which he used to make the Spotted Pig as hip and busy every night as it still is, was giving drink tickets away to the younger staff.
[Tower] would do a thing where all his kitchen staff and back waiters were all like hipster young kids. He always thought they were very young and cool. He didn't want them after work to go away to drink. So he'd give them all drink tickets so they would stay. He would say, here's ten drink tickets. Call your friends and have them come here. So all the workers from all the restaurants in San Francisco would always come to Stars. So the bar on any given night would be all these cool hipster cooks.
Voila: an automatic scene. Not since Stars closed over a decade ago has there been a "scene" restaurant quite like it (though Michael Bauer has drawn comparisons to Prospect and Park Tavern), where politicos and celebrities dropped in, where a celebrity chef worked the bar with a glass of champagne in hand, and where people went to see and be seen. Tosca, though it may not ever be the poorly lit, charming, divey place it became in the last thirty years, may end up being the new Stars, big crowds and all.
Previously: Sean Penn Saves Tosca (Sort Of)