It’s Wednesday night at 8 p.m. North Beach is hopping, but Tosca—as is often the case these days—is empty. Empty except for me, my friend, and a lone bartender wearing a white jacket and a brightly striped tie. From the jukebox, famous for its selection of opera, Madame Butterfly’s “Un bel di vedremo” soars through the quiet room, swirling around the red Naugahyde horseshoe booths, skimming across the stained ceiling, and enriching the bar’s amber glow. I’m not so far into my chocolate and brandy–spiked cappuccino that I’m on the verge of slitting my throat like Ms. Butterfly, but I must admit that the melancholy here is contagious.
And there’s good reason for feeling bittersweet. In January, it was reported that Tosca had been sold to the New York restaurant group owned by Ken Friedman and April Bloomfield, of the Spotted Pig, the Breslin, and the John Dory (all major celebrity draws in Manhattan). Which means that an era is over—no matter that Tosca, which was in financial straits, has technically been saved.
By all accounts, the interior of Tosca will remain the same under Friedman and company. Opened in 1919 by three Italians—including Gesualdo “Baldo” Francesconi, who named it after his daughter—the bar has worn down into the kind of handsomely tawdry space that designers spend top dollar to re-create. But with the new ownership, the drains will be unclogged, and the kitchen, which hasn’t been used officially since the 1950s, will be refurbished to serve Bloomfield’s Italian small bites. The only thing standing between what was and what will be is the transfer of the liquor license. Friedman says that the relaunch is slated for this summer.
Still, bars are made for reminiscing about the good old days. And it seems like someone should be here tonight, crying into a drink, mourning the era when Ed Harris and Sam Shepard could be found playing pool in the legendary back room, still in character from filming The Right Stuff. Or recalling that day in the early ’90s when Johnny Depp and Sean Penn were rumored to be drinking here together. (I remember getting word about this and, like a hormonal teenager, running out of my Jackson Square office to ogle them. Sadly for 22-year-old me, when I arrived there was nothing to see but unoccupied barstools.)
Tosca’s glitterati factor has never had anything to do with its cocktails, though. It has had everything to do with its proprietress, Jeannette Etheredge, the bar’s consummate, if sometimes cranky, owner and hostess—the only mixologist here who’s ever mattered. (And when I say mixologist, I don’t mean she traffics in exotic bitters. She’s a mixologist of the social persuasion.) After taking over Tosca in 1980, she made it into the only true see-and-be-seen destination in the city, nurturing relationships with a plum list of actors, film directors and writers, Russian ballet dancers, and city politicians. In turn, the who’s who have flocked here for everything from Thanksgiving dinner cooked by Etheredge herself, to literary readings, to Michael Tilson Thomas’s birthday. While L.A. and New York have plenty of these storied boîtes, Tosca has long been the city’s only reliable celebrity magnet.
Needless to say, there has been some trepidation about handing over the keys to a couple of carpetbaggers from New York—which is why locals are clinging to the fact that Friedman and Bloomfield do have some roots here. In the early ’80s, Friedman dropped in and out of Berkeley while spending time in San Francisco promoting bands like the Clash and the Police. Meanwhile, in 2003, Bloomfield, who was introduced to Friedman when she was honing her rustic cooking at the River Café in London, worked at Chez Panisse for three months. The duo’s respective connections to Bill Graham and Alice Waters seem to have calmed most proprietary feelings. But the better reason not to fear for Tosca’s future is that Friedman and Etheredge share certain proclivities, namely, the ability and desire to act as celebrity Pied Pipers. “Jeannette does what I do in New York,” says Friedman. “She can put together a party really quick.”
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.
Originally published in the May issue of San Francisco