Situated on the busy corner of Union Street and Columbus Avenue in North Beach, Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store Cafe has been at the center of this historic San Francisco neighborhood since the early Seventies. Originally founded by Mario and Liliana Crismani, Mario’s was taken over by their son Paul Crismani upon their retirement, and it remains a family business to this day. Serving the best sandwiches in the neighborhood (made with focaccia from Liguria Bakery across the park, naturally), Mario’s never disappoints. Its intimate, picturesque bar attracts a lively mix of imbibers, and the outdoor tables provide stellar park views and people watching for locals and tourists alike. The cozy flatiron space has remained the same for generations, and they’ve been rewarded with the kind of loyalty that few cafes ever enjoy.

I recently had the good fortune to sit down with Paul Crismani, who still operates the Cafe, and his daughter Daniella.

Joe Bonadio: How long has Mario’s been open?

Paul Crismani: We’ve been open since 1971.

JB: What was in the space before Mario’s?

PC: Same thing. Beer, wine, coffee, predominantly tobacco.

JB: So that’s where the cigar thing started out.

PC: Correct, the cigar name has been here since I was a kid coming in.


JB: But you haven’t sold cigars now for how many years?

PC: Over twenty, at least. Whenever they legislated no tobacco with food.

JB: What was the name of that place?

PC: Bohemian Cigar Store.

JB: Ah! When did you start working here?

PC: I started working here at the age of 21. That would be 1975, ’76.

JB: Wow. Your dad opened Mario’s now 45 years ago, and it’s still going strong. What do you think makes the place so resilient?

PC: I think the essence of the place and what really keeps it going is the spirit of my mom and dad. They created momentum for the place, by virtue of their personalities and their dedication. I bought the place in ’79, and just kind of rode the wave I guess, and made sure we stayed competitive and true to what they were originally. I think what we do is unique, and I think our sandwiches are honestly off the charts. Coffee’s great, the service is generally speaking pretty good. We just have a great vibe here.

I can’t say it’s one thing or another, but I think it’s a collection of all the people that have worked here, the input that my parents had. The legacy just continues, in spite of errors I’ve made along the way – we’ve done well. And we’ve survived some tough times here in North Beach, for sure.

Mario's Bohemian Cigar Store Cafe

An early lunch crowd at Mario’s

JB: You’ve been working here and running the place for decades. What’s the funniest thing you’ve seen?

PC: One of the funnier things happened to me when I was in my early twenties. I was sitting at that table right there (points), and two guys, good friends of ours, were busting my hump. Because I was young they felt obligated – you know, that’s just what they do. So I’m sitting there trying to hide myself  from these guys behind a newspaper, and they lit my newspaper on fire (laughter all around). Not funny at the time, but in retrospect, quite humorous.

Just a lot of stuff. It’s a great place. A lot of spirit, and a lot of good things, a lot of relationships were created and ended here!

JB: Yeah, I lost one here…

PC: Well, there you go! Get the fishing pole back out.

JB: The city has seen so many changes. How do you feel about the future of North Beach?

PC: I think right now, considering the roller coaster ride we’ve had over the years, that North Beach is a very viable, strong neighborhood. We’ve got some newer businesses that have come in, and they’re bringing people in. We don’t advertise, we don’t solicit, but by virtue of marquee tenants like the pizza place [Tony’s Napoletana] and the place on the corner, Original Joe’s – they are major players in the neighborhood right now. I think the health and well-being of North Beach is looking pretty good. We’re a destination location again.

JB: We’ve seen a handful of new Italian businesses, some of which you mention, open up in North Beach recently. Do you think it’s enough to sustain the Italian identity of the neighborhood going forward?

PC: Better than it was. I think the new neon signs, the new awnings you see, that says a lot. I know a lot of the other businesses are Italian-owned, and they are owner-operators, and that itself bodes well for the neighborhood.

JB: You serve an unusual number of regulars. Why do you think that is?

PC: It can’t be the service (laughs). I think every good business has a loyal clientele. I think we’re blessed with a really healthy bunch – like this gentleman at table two (points out Jack, longtime bartender at Vesuvio just up the street). Every morning, every morning. If he’s not here, I have to check with the hospitals! We’re just fortunate. They don’t come here to chat with us, they just like the vibe, they like the place. It’s part of their every day, or the end of their day or their evening. I’m not sure why they come – obviously, I think we serve Jack a good cup of coffee, we always have people that chat him up. They feel comfortable here. This is the living room for half our regular clientele; they don’t go home and hang, they hang here.

JB: This has been my final-final for a number of years.

PC: Good, good, I’m happy to hear that.


Daniella Crismani shows off Mario’s Open-Faced Tuna Focaccia Sandwich and House-made Lasagna

[easy-tweet tweet=”I think what we do is unique. I think our sandwiches are honestly off the charts. – Paul Crismani” user=”joecontent” usehashtags=”no” hashtags=”#Mario’s”]

JB: What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in the crowd over the decades you’ve been working here?

PC: Well, years ago, we had regular groups of people that would come here, groups of younger people that would come here every night – every night. So you’d have a group of ten or twelve, and they’d hang. They’d play foosball, we used to have foosball tournaments here, we had a pinball machine, so it was their place to hang. You don’t see that as much today.

Now you see couples, two or three, you don’t see a gang of people coming in. We used to have the Germans, the Moroccans, the French, the Italians, they’d come in and play foosball.

JB: Do you think it had to do with the foosball and pinball?

PC: Definitely foosball for the Europeans. Then the Americans jumped on board, or the American-born kids jumped on board. The difference I see nowadays, is the fact people come in, but not as a gang. They just come in as singles and they meet people, and they meet ‘em again.

Thank god, we have a lot of neighborhood workers that come to us on a regular basis, whether it’s from the hair salon or the restaurant down the block, they all come in here. That’s the only real difference. Plus, we were really booming in the Eighties, we were two to three deep standing up, every night.

JB: What did you put that down to?

PC: It’s just the groups of people that would come to us, and they wouldn’t come for an hour or two. They’d come early evening, and they’d stay all night. We were open until two in the morning in those days. Then we had the bankers and the real estate guys that would party down in the Financial District, and then come to us at quarter to two in the morning before we closed. They would need some food to kind of recalibrate, and me and my mom would be here until four. We’d have six or eight guys that needed help. They’d hang out, and we’d be like “you gotta go, boys.”

But it was different. People were different, the neighborhood was definitely different. A little darker in those days. But good, but good.


A quiet morning on Union Street

JB: Mario’s is one of my favorite spots in North Beach. Can you tell me one of yours?

PC: I don’t have one. I come here. The only socializing I do is here, really. But when I do work behind the bar, my daughter tells me to leave, because I’m too slow, talk too much and I get in the way (laughs). But yeah, I don’t go anywhere.

JB: So this is your favorite place…

PC: It has to be!

JB: I love it. I think that says a lot.

Though customers had already begun piling in for lunch, Daniella Crismani, who works at the Cafe, was gracious enough to talk to us between orders.

JB: I came to North Beach in 2006, so I never had the chance to meet your grandfather Mario. Do you a favorite memory of him?

Daniella Crismani: Oh my gosh, my favorite memory of my Nonno….I’d have to say when I was four years old, and we were in his kitchen. He would put me on his lap and to cheer me up – because I was a grumpy little child! He would pretend to be an Indian and go “Ho Ho Ho Ho Ho Ho“ and just act all silly. That’s my favorite memory of him. Being an Indian for me always made me happy. It brought a smile to my face (laughs).

JB: Did you spend a lot of time here growing up?

DC: Actually, I did not. So, when I finally realized my family owned this great cafe – I was almost embarrassed by it when I was little – so strange. It took me a really long time to appreciate it. When I was little I would come here twice a week and get a chicken panini to go, and never really stayed in here to eat. I was like ‘whatever, it’s alright.’ Until I worked here when I was 17, and realized that this place is so amazing. I wish I had appreciated it when I was little!


JB: Do you have a story from the place that you can share?

DC: When I was four, I remember sitting at this table (points to corner table) and having hot chocolate. We had those chocolate shakers, and obviously as a little kid you love sugar, so I would  make a little party, and there would be chocolate  on all three of those tables. Shake it up in the air, just get it everywhere. I just thought it was a great time! I have a picture of me here back then with chocolate just all over  my face.

JB: I asked your dad this question: You serve a lot of regulars here. Why, do you think?

DC: Well, most of our regulars have been coming in for decades. I just think we provide great food, we have a good selection of wine and beer. I think the overall vibe of Mario’s really stands out from anywhere else. I don’t think you can walk in to another cafe where you will have someone talking to you about your day, and they  know what you’re doing you just don’t see that anymore. The customers who have been coming in for so long, I really think they appreciate the place for how it is. That’s what I have to say.

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[easy-tweet tweet=”I think the overall vibe of Mario’s really stands out from anywhere else. – Daniella Crismani” user=”joecontent” usehashtags=”no”]

JB: When was the first time you worked here?

The first time I worked here was when I was seventeen [2011]. I lasted two days. It was hard, because you can’t serve alcohol or anything, and all the people that I started training with had been serving me since I was three. So everyone would say “Oh princess, what did you do wrong to end up working in here?” I couldn’t handle that. But working full time? I’d have to say it’s been a year and a half now.

JB: What is your favorite thing about Mario’s?

DC: I would have to say, I think we’re really overlooked here. People walking down the street, it looks like a small place, we only have one entrance to the bar, and that’s pretty cool. It takes a lot of guts to come into a small place if you haven’t before, because you don’t have that relationship with the people who are sitting at the bar.

I guess I don’t have a favorite thing. Everything is my favorite thing!

This article is one in a series exploring the fascinating people, history and environs of North Beach and the Barbary Coast. Visit us again soon for more great content.