San Francisco – and Sean Penn – show a city’s heritage bars are worth saving

San Francisco’s timeworn Italian Tosca Cafe is known for many things – notably a jukebox stocked with opera classics, and a stately silver espresso machine that dispenses an especially strong brew: bourbon. There’s also a rumour about a night, long ago, when the actor Sean Penn allegedly shot a hole in the wall of this fabled North Beach establishment.

Even in a city renowned for its constant transformation, Tosca’s rebirth is headline news. When the longtime owner fell behind on payments, Penn – a regular patron – called some friends in the business. New York’s famed chef-restaurateur duo April Bloomfield and Ken Friedman duly took over last year and, under their guidance, Tosca’s cosy renovation and updated menu has been well received by regulars and tourists alike.

Tosca is one of a number of establishments to have garnered considerable attention during San Francisco’s most recent growth spurt – but one of only a few that have actually been saved, rather than shuttered. It’s a tough balance to strike: while cities are ever-changing organisms, shedding and growing at regular intervals, change does not always mean progress.

Programmes dedicated to saving a city’s oldest, most beloved bars, restaurants and shops usually carry a serious name to denote the undertaking. Paris, Buenos Aires and New York are among the cities around the world that have been making concerted efforts to recognise public places of social significance, even if they are not of particular architectural or historical importance. In London, pubs worth saving are dubbed Assets of Community Value. In Barcelona, a handful of downtown taprooms and tiny apothecaries are known as Guapos per Sempre – “forever beautiful”.

San Francisco, a young town by global standards, has designated them Legacy Bars and Restaurants, and so far 75 establishments have been inducted, including Tosca. All must have been going at least 40 years, “possess distinctive architecture or interior design, and/or contribute to a sense of history in the surrounding neighbourhood”, according to the list’s curators, San Francisco Heritage.

“Every day we hear about new restaurants appearing,” says Mike Buhler, SF Heritage’s executive director. “But there’s this small minority of mainstays in San Francisco that are beloved and really define the city’s culture and character.”

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