• Menu
  • Menu

North Beach

North Beach draws visitors and locals alike to its bustling outdoor cafes, restaurants, bars, and shops. There are plenty of things to do in the neighborhood, day and night. This Travel Guide highlights live music venues, restaurants, shops, and events along with some fascinating historical spots for music fans to explore in North Beach.

North Beach History

Once a predominately Italian American neighborhood, North Beach became a thriving bohemian enclave and the intellectual center of The City, a place where poets, writers, and artists congregated very much like New York’s Greenwich Village. Dubbed the San Francisco Renaissance, this scene drew writers like Jack Kerouac, Alan Ginsberg, and many others to The City.

San Francisco post-World War II was also a great jazz town with several notable haunts in North Beach. By the late ’50s folk music experienced its renaissance. San Francisco was home to popular commercial acts like the Kingston Trio and the Smothers Brothers.

The Beat Generation writers attracted folk singers to North Beach, those drawn to Woodie Guthrie and Bob Dylan or Lead Belly and early Ma’ Rainey. Some would become future icons of the psychedelic rock scene. Jerry Garcia and Janis Joplin each performed in North Beach bars before the Beatles first appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show.

As you wander the streets of North Beach or follow my Grateful Dead Trip, check out these notable spots.

North Beach Live Music Venues

While not the live music mecca of old San Francisco, North Beach still has much to offer.

The Saloon – 1232 Grant Avenue, San Francisco

Established in 1861, The Saloon is the oldest original bar in San Francisco. This aptly named dive delivers live blues music 7 days a week with two acts a day, one from 4-8 pm and a second from 9:30 pm to 1:30 am. While The City may constantly be changing, the Saloon is a constant.

Exterior photo of The Saloon in North Beach San Francisco at night.

Blues Power, regulars performing at the Saloon for a quarter century of Sundays, is a band fronted by local bluesman Jack Walroth. “Applejack” has been gigging and recording in the City since the ’60s. He’s played with Elvin Bishop, Sam Lay, and Boz Scaggs to name a few. Applejack’s stellar songwriting has been heavily featured on Boz’s most recent albums which happen to be some of Slim’s best. Check out the Applejack playlist below. Click the play button for song previews. Spotify subscribers can click the logo to access the full songs.

Bimbo’s 365 Club – 1025 Columbus Ave, San Francisco

This place is old-school San Francisco at its best. Unfortunately, Bimbo’s does not host a lot of shows, but check their website just in case.

The Lost Church – 988 Columbus Avenue, San Francisco

The Lost Church recently relocated from the Mission to North Beach. This intimate San Francisco performance space hosts comedy, theatre, poetry readings, and live music. Don’t be fooled by the nondescript entrance.

Pier 23 – The Embarcadero, San Francisco

Located along the Embarcadero, Pier 23 is an old sailor’s bar that has featured live jazz since the 1950s. These days, Pier 23 serves up some variety. Check their website calendar for shows.

Things to Do and Places to See in North Beach

Caffé Trieste – 601 Vallejo Street, San Francisco

Papa Gianni Giotta brought expresso to the west coast with the opening of Caffé Trieste in 1956. The Giottas also happened to be a musical family. For years, Trieste has hosted live performances years on Saturday afternoons (from 1 pm-5 pm) with traditional Italian songs and opera as part of the repertoire. Over the years, the Giottas have even started their own record label and recording studio. Since Papa’s passing in 2016, his granddaughter Ida (named after her grandmother) runs the cafe.

Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane was a fixture at Trieste for years until his passing in 2016. He lived across the street. Of all the regulars at this establishment over the years, guys like Francis Ford Coppola (who worked on The Godfather screenplay here – check out the photo above the jukebox), centenarian Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and San Francisco poet laureate Jack Hirschmann, Kantner is the only one to have a drink named for him.

City Lights Bookstore – 261 Columbus Avenue, San Francisco

Founded in 1953 by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and San Francisco State professor Peter Martin (who published a pop culture magazine called City Lights), it was the first paperback bookstore in the United States. City Lights also published the work of the Beat Poets most notably North Beach resident Allen Ginsburg’s Howl for which Ferlinghetti was arrested. Ginsburg, by the way, wrote Howl in his North Beach apartment at 1010 Montgomery Street.

Vesuvio Café – 255 Columbus Avenue, San Francisco

Across an alley from City Lights is Vesuvio Café, a favorite watering hole for the literary crowd. Jack Kerouac famously drank the night way here when he was supposed to depart for Big Sur to visit Henry Miller. Janis Joplin, to no surprise, liked to drink here as well.

In 1965, when Bob Dylan came to town he visited City Lights with his guitarist Robbie Robertson, Allen Ginsburg, and Michael McClure. These photos were taken between the two establishments on what is now called Jack Kerouac Alley and in the basement of City Lights Bookstore.

Maggie McGarry’s – 1353 Grant Avenue, San Francisco

In the 1950s this bar was home to the Coffee Gallery which (along with The Cellar – 576 Green Street and the Co-Existence Bagel Shop – 1398 Grant Avenue) offered a platform for poets and jazz musicians. Eventually, the two combined with poets reading to jazz accompaniment. The house band on the weekends was led by bebop saxophonist Pony Poindexter. On one role-reversing occasion, Duke Ellington recited poetry here.

By the early 1960s, Jerry Garcia played the Coffee Gallery at their Monday night hootenannies. After hitchhiking to San Francisco in January 1963 with Kerouac’s On the Road as her beacon, The Coffee Gallery quickly became a favorite spot of Janis Joplin. She would perform here frequently as did many of her future Big Brother and the Holding Company bandmates.

Janis Joplin and Jorma Kaukenon, the future Jefferson Airplane guitarist, performed together at the Coffee Gallery in 1964. A recorded rehearsal before that gig became the stuff of legend. The recording was only recently made widely available.

On October 15, 1965, the Great Society made its debut public performance at the Coffee Gallery. Imagine Grace Slick singing “Somebody to Love” here with her first band before she joined Jefferson Airplane with what would become their biggest hit. Here’s the original recording that she made for Tom Donahue’s Autumn Records in 1966.

Today, Maggie McGarry’s in San Francisco is an Irish sports bar with live music. Stop by, grab a pint, sit back, and let your mind travel back to some fantastic music history.

Club Fugazi at 678 Green Street, San Francisco

Back in the 1950s Club Fugazi was a concert venue where Thelonious Monk recorded his album Alone in San Francisco. In 1967, the Grateful Dead held their debut album release party at the venue. From 1974 to 2019 it was home to the San Francisco institution Beach Blanket Babylon. Today, Fugazi hosts Dear San Francisco an entertaining, acrobatic love letter to The City.

Visit Coit Tower – 1 Telegraph Hill, San Francisco

While you won’t find live music here, Coit Tower offers a stunning view.

North Beach Restaurants with Live Music

While North Beach is known for its Italian restaurants, plenty of excellent dining choices across various cuisines can be found. The restaurants below combine good food with live music.

Comstock Saloon – 155 Columbus Avenue, San Francisco

Located on Columbus Avenue towards the Financial District, Comstock Saloon exudes old-school San Francisco. The building dates to 1907, the year after an earthquake and fire destroyed much of the City. Inside, you will find plenty of atmosphere, good food, cocktails, and live jazz. Comstock does not take reservations

Bix – 56 Gold Street, San Francisco

Looking for a swankier supper club that takes reservations? Consider Bix. Located in an alley just outside of the Financial District, you will feel like are entering a 1930s speakeasy. This classy place features dinner-time jazz ranging from solo piano early in the week to a jazz combo on the weekends.

Red Window – 500 Columbus Avenue, San Francisco

A newer restaurant in the heart of North Beach, this colorful place serves a Spanish tapas-inspired menu with both indoor and outdoor seating. They have live music during weekend brunch, a favorite San Francisco activity.

Events with Music

North Beach Festival

Since the 1950s, North Beach has hosted a neighborhood festival that takes place in mid-June. Honoring the neighborhood’s rich history, the North Beach Festival in San Francisco now includes several stages of live poetry, comedy, and music representing a wide variety of genres from cover bands to originals.

First Fridays

On the first Friday of every month in North Beach, Grant Avenue businesses host live music, art exhibits, and poetry readings. It’s a great time to stroll the block and meet and support the local proprietors. Caffe Trieste hosts live jazz. Church Key (an excellent, low-key craft beer bar), 101 Music, and Freewheeling (a new and vintage clothing store with a music theme) combine to sponsor live music in their parklet. Flute World, a small shop at 1500 Grant Street also gets in the mix as do other shops.

October is the biggest First Friday celebration as they also celebrate Italian Heritage Month. Check North Beach First Friday’s Facebook page for details.

Exterior photo of stores Music 101 and Freewheeling in North Beach, San Francisco.
Record and instrument store Music 101 and Freewheeling, a new and vintage clothing store, on Grant Avenue in North Beach.

Need More Ideas?

If you are a music fan visiting San Francisco and looking for ideas, check out my San Francisco Travel Guide. Also, my Grateful Dead Trip explores North Beach sites connected to the band.

Although I do not cover Chinatown in my Travel Guide (it’s not a music travel destination), I highly recommend taking a guided walking tour of Chinatown, a neighborhood adjacent to North Beach. Avoid tours that combine Chinatown with other parts of San Francisco.