Culture & Criticism From the Far Distant Realms
“From the banker and blue-collar worker to Grandma and Grandpa – we’ve always embraced everybody at Caesar’s…”
– Co-owner Luigi Romani
Caesar’s is a timeless place – stuck between North Beach and the Wharf at the edge of two historic San Francisco districts, this classic eatery is real Italian in every sense of the word.
I‘m talking family-style portions served up in a long dining room that reeks of authenticity and deep culture. I’m talking white table cloths and ornate walls that bring a taste of the Broom and Canal streets in old-town Manhattan to California’s crowning bay-side port city.
For 51 years, diners stepping through the doors of Caesar’s have stepped back in time and entered an Italy of long ago, paying homage to a time when families gathered at the table as one and shared a traditional meal: Eating slow, savoring the food, savoring the smells, savoring these isolated moments-in-time that come to define the cores of so many lives.
Yes, the world has changed a great deal since Caesar’s first opened for business in the mid-1950s. Inarguably, the computer age has speeded everything up and quickened the pace of life tenfold; at times, it’s as if we can’t even stop to eat for fear of falling out of step with the competition.
However, take a meal break here and eyes of any age will come to see what they’ve been neglecting – real food in a real place that connects us to the personal histories of our pasts through the cuisine of Italy.
Caesar’s was founded in 1956 by a quartet of North Beach businessmen, including Caesar Fambrini, John Brattesani, Gino Luccaesi and Ed Vannucci. The four ran the eatery with synchronized perfection for decades, until the early 1970s, when Fambrini finally stepped down. One by one, the other founders also retired, eventually passing the managerial torch down to current owners Matteo Crivello and Luigi Romani.
Crivello and Romani literally grew up at Caesar’s, working their way up from support-staff positions after being hired in the mid 70s. And even after 30-plus years, the duo remains dedicated to preserving Caesar Fambrini’s original mission of maintaining a true ‘destination’ restaurant.
“When Caesar [Fambrini] first opened the place,” Romani says, “he wanted to build a place that was for workers and Italian families. In those days, this area of the city was full of Italians and fisherman and factory workers. So Caesar wanted to have a restaurant that served them, offering a dinner that had value…”
And Romani continues:
“You have to remember that in the 50s, all restaurants either had a 3 or 5 course dinner. But Caesar was the first to come up with the seven course meal [salad; antipasti; soup; pasta; entrée; coffee; ice cream], and people knew they could come here, eat well, and not get cheated. This was never meant to be a tourist stop, but instead, it was about being a traditional restaurant where people could get great value for their dollar. And Matteo and I are still on that same road, dedicated to the same format our ‘forefathers’ in the business created.”
Today, Caesar’s remains one of only a handful of union restaurants in San Francisco focused on treating its employees as well as it treats its customers. And if one thing is clear as you move into the belly of the dining room, it’s the fact thatCaesar’s is adamant about offering its diners a memorable experience – this eatery looking to foster a loyal and enduring relationship that’s meant to last not for one meal, but for multiple generations.
And in a town that serves as a magnet for so many mediocre restaurants, this trait is absolutely unique.
“For Caesar’s,” says head chef Crivello, “it’s always a question of family. We’re one of the only places in town that focuses on the whole family – young children and the elderly are just as welcome as anybody else. Really, we depend on our older regulars to bring their kids to Caesar’s. That’s the only way you can build the kind of family experience we’re known for. It’s the only way to keep these traditions alive. Look around here, there’s a lot of history in this place. And I want to make sure it stays alive for many more generations, even after I’ve gone…”
Caesar’s offers a huge menu that is notable for both its quality and its breadth. Traditional is the operative word here, and diners have come to expect that they will be able to pick and choose from the lists of meat and pasta and fish as ‘the mood strikes.’ Co-owner Matteo Crivello handles the majority of the cooking chores, and he proves both a creative and versatile hand at capturing new flavors as he prepares a plethora of old-world standards. As you might imagine, after 50 years of being polished and perfected, many plates on the menu stand out. The grilled salmon is served with roasted potatoes and vinegary greens, and it is simply delectable. A generous portion of salmon is prepared in a translucent buttery bath and served as it comes off the grille. This dish blooms with flavor, as the sweet butter melds into the mild fish to build a flawless dish. In addition, the Veal Scaloppini and the Chicken Parmigiana provide Italian staples that bristle with taste. Caesar’s is known among myriad generations for the freshness of its meats, and that’s what makes these two plates so memorable: When meat is fresh it carries an extra punch, attacking the taste buds rather than falling dormant in the mouth. As an example, Caesar’s Scaloppini provides just the right combination of oil and spices which perfectly accentuate the mild flavor of the veal; bluntly, you won’t find a better version of this dish anywhere in San Francisco. Beyond these items, a full selection of steaks, chops and pasta entrees round out a menu that takes the typical diner several minutes to pore over (as many struggle to decide ‘whether it’s beef or fish, pasta or chops’). Additionally, there are nightly specials, including an interesting (and huge) bowl of Cioppino on Friday nights, as well as Wednesday afternoon tripa (the beef tripe in a delicate tomato sauce bringing a centuries-old Southern Italian delicacy to modern-day San Francisco). Yes, the tripe gives quite a dose of ‘memory-food’ – hearty and packed with robust flavor, perfectly accentuated by the soft ribs of sweet French bread that fill each of the baskets on the tables.
ALSO TRY: The pasta and pesto; the calamari; Cannelloni Romana; Chicken sec; vegetables vinaigrette (a delicate mix of assorted vegetables and shredded tuna served in a tomato-sauce vinaigrette); and the Risotto Milanese (when on the menu).
BAR: A full bar with a knowledgeable and gregarious ‘tender. In the Italian eateries of yesteryear, meals always began at the bar with a Compari or a gin and tonic — a slow ritual that helped to cleanse the palate and hone your hunger as anticipation for the food grew in rising waves. Caesar’s bar is about this kind of experience, as the Giants’ game plays out in the corner. Half the fun of going to Caesar’s is about passing through the bar and capturing the buzz on your way to your table.
STAFF: Superior service by waiters who speak the language – courteous and professional, romping with old-world charm. Oft times, co-owner and operations manager Luigi Romani will be seen at the center of the restaurant, seating customers and folding napkins and arranging the utensils until the tables resonate like the fine edges of a photograph.
ATMOSPHERE: Clean. Classy. With ample table space. The spacious dining room and sturdy chairs make this a good choice for elderly diners who will feel comfortable here because they will have room to spread out. In addition,Caesar’s offers full banquet-room facilities, and this makes for a great option for a wedding party or after-baptism luncheon celebration. This is a restaurant for both the young and old: Married couples together 60 years and college kids out on a first-date will hear romantic bells amid the din of cast-iron skillets in the near-distance of the background. Simply, this is an old-style eatery where you are meant to linger over meals as the staff attempts to introduce younger generations to the lost pleasure of a long slow dinner.
OVER-ALL: The forgotten choice in the North Beach/Fisherman’s Wharf district for Italian food. Simply, Caesar’s is the last of the true-to-form San Francisco eateries – good food served in large portions served in a big space where the waiters don’t rush the meal. The large menu will meet a variety of tastes, with good fish and veggie choices for those more diet-conscious diners. The menu provides for both ala carte and massive, belt-busting 7-course meals.
COST: Moderate. Two can dine elegantly off the a la carte menu for around $50.00-60.00, including tip and a cocktail.
HOURS: Monday through Saturday, 11:30 AM to 10 PM; Sundays 4 to 10 PM only (no lunch on Sundays).