What is the oldest restaurant in North Beach? | KALW

What is the oldest restaurant in North Beach?

Feb 12, 2019

Bay Area newcomer, Brittany Bare, wanted to know the history of the oldest restaurant in North Beach.  She asked: “What is the oldest restaurant and the history of that restaurant in Little Italy?” After setting Brittany straight about the fact that this ain’t New York and, in San Francisco, it’s North Beach, reporter Mary Franklin Harvin, found the answer — with a slight caveat. 

According to dozens of articles on historic restaurants in San Francisco, it’s Fior d’Italia.  

Angelo Del Monte opened Fior d’Italia above a bordello during the hardscrabble days of the Barbary Coast.  This first location at 432 Broadway was said to be popular among the patrons of the bordello, who would splurge on dinner downstairs after working up an appetite upstairs. 

Fior is now in its fifth location after surviving earthquakes, kitchen fires, and brief closures.  In 2012, after the most recent of these closures, longtime Executive Chef, Gianni Audieri, and his wife, Trudy, took over the business.  It’s currently operating out of the bottom of the San Remo Hotel on Mason Street. 

When I go to visit one afternoon, I find them sitting together in one of the front windows talking business between the lunch and dinner shifts.

Gianni has a sly smile under his silver mustache and sounds like the maître d' from the spaghetti scene in Lady and the Tramp. He invites me to scooch into the booth next to him for our chat. 

A copy of the opening day menu, dated May 1, 1886, still hangs in the restaurant.  Items included frog’s legs for .40 cents, veal scallopini for .15 cents, and calf’s brains for .05 cents. 

“It used to be a four-course meal, so you got the scallopini, plus you would most likely get a salad, a pasta, and a dessert.  Of course, now you only get the scallopini, haha!”  Gianni says.  He laughs again when he notes the current price of the scallopini: $38. 

Over the last 132 years, the restaurant has become a staple for neighborhood families celebrating milestones, and they’ve worn a path between Fior and Saints Peter and Paul Church.  

“We have people which they come here because they had their communion.  They came here because they had their graduation from high school.  They came here because they got married here. And they came here because their funeral...not they come here, but the people...they come here because Peter and Paul, the church is right across the street and the used to come for the reminiscence when they die.”

It’s the whole circle of life, Gianni says.  

Though Fior’s customers have gotten a lot more sophisticated since its bordello days, they still aren’t all that buttoned up.

“We did a big party when we had the 100th birthday...so what we did, we went back to [the original menu] prices.  For that day, we served 4,000 people, and, believe it or not, a few of them ran out on the bill.”

The more reliable customers come to Fior for the tradition, and they’re particular about anything that encroaches on that tradition. 

“I don’t change an item on the menu very often, because we have a lot of people they…What do you mean you took it off the menu, I been eating it for 30 years...you took it off…Of course, you know, sometimes we have to change.”