It was Sunday evening around 5:30 PM when my wife, our two kids, and I arrived at North Beach by car and spent about 20 minutes driving around looking for a parking spot. We finally gave up looking for a free spot and parked in a self-pay lot. The cost was $12.00. Unfortunately, the parking machine wouldn’t accept my ten dollar bill after already eating up two dollars, so we had to start over and pay an additional $12.00, bringing the total parking cost to $14.00 for about an hour of parking.
We walked up Columbus about a block to Union Street. There, we found Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store situated right on the corner of Union and Columbus. As soon as you walk in, you are taken back thirty or forty years to the time when the bar transformed from an Italian card club to a bar. I don’t think the decorations have changed since. There are ten seats at the wooden bar that runs the length of the narrow space, and about eight small tables lined against the north windowed wall that faces Washington Square Park. There is no neon outside like at the tourist cafes right up the block. The interior lighting is subtle and diffused, no bright halogen spots here. There were a few local patrons sitting at the bar, and a few sitting at tables. The restaurant never filled up more than halfway. Casual dress is cool here. You would even feel comfortable with uncombed hair and greasy overalls. There is a brown corkboard mounted at the top of a high wall supporting some faded posters and pictures. The wall behind the bar is built out with mirrors and wooden shelves that hold the spirits, family photos, and bowling trophies. There isn’t a kitchen proper, all the food is assembled behind the bar and, when required, heated up in a small pizza oven located at one end of the bar. Slices of focaccia bread, baked at a local bakery around the corner, sit on a wooden shelf next to the oven getting stale. The atmosphere is the best thing going for Mario’s. Unpretentious, authentic, and a refreshing change from all the highly-designed interiors so common today.
The salad with balsamic vinegar was a bit soggy and not very flavorful. The salad with Caesar dressing was better, and I could taste the anchovies, but I have had much better. We tried the Caprese Salad, which is fresh mozzarella, sliced tomatoes, and pesto. That’s exactly what we got: a plate with four slices of hard, unripe tomatoes, one slice of mozzarella, and a spoonful of pesto. Not bad, but nothing special. My sons tried the sandwiches. The Turkey Panini came on a warmed and flattened French roll layered with blue cheese, tomatoes, and red onions. While the blue cheese added a little pizzazz, the stale bun and ordinary sliced deli turkey wasn't enough to make this a memorable meal. The Grilled Chicken #1 with Dijon mustard, pepper jack cheese, and onions was also disappointing. The focaccia, after sitting on the shelf near the oven all day, was stale, and the chicken was dry. I tried the cannelloni and was not overjoyed. The crêpes were dry and slightly burned at the ends, and the filling of roasted veal, chicken, spinach, and ricotta cheese just didn’t have much flavor. The marinara and mozzarella topping didn’t help either. My wife tried the meat lasagna. This is supposed to be made with fresh pasta, but like all the dishes, it tasted like warmed up food that had been made much earlier and probably somewhere else.
We finally braved some dessert. The choices were coffee, toffee, and chocolate cake all made off the premises. The desert was consistent with the other food, a little stale and not too flavorful. Come here to hang with the locals in an authentic bar, sip wine or cappuccinos, and maybe get a sandwich to fill your stomach. I would only come back here to have a beer or glass of wine and wouldn’t recommend the food to anyone.
Location: Foster City
Favorite Restaurant: Jeanty at Jack's
Reviewed Mario's Bohemian Cigar Store Cafe: Sunday, October 30, 2005
It sits on the corner in heart of San Francisco’s North Beach like a wedge of wedding cake served up with a generous side of Washington Square Park, historic Romanesque Saint Peter and Paul’s Church, and the bustle of Columbus and Union Streets -- Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store Cafe is a real underground San Francisco treat.
Eight tables and a large counter -- like a good man -- what Mario’s lacks in size, it makes up in spades in character and good, inexpensive, basic, eating. You get a taste of what makes San Francisco so unique and so special when you bite into any one of their deliciously warm and flavorful paninis or focaccia sandwiches while you gaze around at the old wood counters and shelves, walls lined with pictures dated by the fashion of Mario with friends and family, and at the contrasting scene outside of locals enjoying a day at the Square.
The intimacy of the triangular-shaped structure and local hangout atmosphere at Mario’s -- one that’s full of character with a feeling of familiarity and comfort, like an old favorite worn overstuffed leather easy chair -- is almost all you need to feel full and satisfied. So, the fact that Mario’s offers yummy food on top of it all is really a bonus. The servings are generous and the flavors are deliciously basic and fresh, and all surprisingly inexpensive at an average of $6 to $8. The savory open-face grilled eggplant panini is accented with slivers of sweet roasted red peppers and feta cheese for a most satisfying blend of flavors. Focaccia is topped with a sweet/tart homemade marinara, thin slices of sausage, onions, and swiss cheese, and served hot, gooey, and toasty from the oven.
But, as good as the sandwiches are, make sure to leave enough room for dessert. A variety of cakes, sitting teasingly on cake plates on the counter corner, takes a mighty act of willpower to pass up, but it’s the tiramisu at Mario’s that really shouldn’t be missed. It’s homemade with deep-roasted espresso soaked ladyfingers and heavenly thick layers of Marsala-laced zabaglione cream. Cut the richness with a foamy hot cappuccino and feel your stress melt away.
Slide up to the counter if you don’t want to miss a bit of the experience of eating at Mario’s, including what goes on behind the counter, and interacting with the amiable staff. But, beware. Those of you who can find antibacterial wipes as a standard item in your personal possession might be put off by the casual manner in which food and food prep is handled behind the counter at Mario’s. Our server went from gripping menus, to wiping counters, rubbing his face, to handling cash, to handling the ingredients of people’s meal, without so much of a hand wipe, let alone a good wash. But, then again, one has to take note that this is a place where the focaccia sits out in the open on a shelf, and those that are regulars at Mario’s seem to treat of it sort of like a second home and are treated as sort of family. So, what’s a few cooties amongst family?