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Food & Drink

Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store Café is vintage San Francisco at its best

Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store and Cafe on the corner of Columbus and Union Streets is in the heart of the North Beach neighborhood. | Source: Michael Macor/The San Francisco Chronicle/Getty Images

Mario and Liliana Crismani bought the smoke shop on Columbus Avenue and Union Street in San Francisco’s North Beach in 1971. Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store Café was a place for the Italian community to smoke, drink espresso and play cards. More than a half-century later, the cigars are long gone. But just about everything else—the wooden bar, the peach ceilings, the name in cursive on the storefront—is the same. 

“Nothing has changed since 1971 except a fresh coat of paint,” according to the business’s legacy status application. The Columbus Avenue café was added Friday to the city’s Legacy Business Registry, a program that honors long-standing businesses in San Francisco. 

Mario and Liliana’s grandchildren Daniella and Dario helm the third-generation family business, with its unique location triangled between Columbus Avenue and Union Street offering magnificent views of Washington Square Park. 

An advertisement for Torani syrups features Mario's Bohemian Cigar Store Café. | Source: Courtesy Torani/Thea Schrack

Back in the days when North Beach was a stomping grounds for Beat poets and Italian immigrants, one of the main attractions were the cigars. Of course, smoking has been banned inside San Francisco eating establishments since the 1990s. 

But as smoking went out of fashion, the café’s fresh focaccia paninis became all the more beloved. Liliana initially made the hot sandwiches at home and brought them down to feed the hungry card players. Later, a toaster was brought into the café so the family could make the hearty creations in-house. In the 1980s, a commercial oven was added to increase production of what was by then the café’s signature attraction. Today, Daniella and Dario Crismani still use their grandparents’ recipes.   

You can wash down your eggplant or meatball panini on focaccia from the nearby Liguria bakery with an espresso from Graffeo Coffee and know that you are supporting multiple small businesses in the neighborhood. 

The picturesque café has appeared in cameos in the 2007 Ben Stiller comedy The Heartbreak Kid and in a 2018 ad for Bay Area-based flavored syrup company, Torani, which supplies the business. 

While the café’s name might continue to confuse tourists, don’t expect it to change. The family—which knows full well that some things are better left untouched—keeps the word “cigar” not only because of Mario’s iconic painted storefront windows, but also as a nod to its past.   

Mario's Bohemian Cigar Store Café

📍 566 Columbus Ave. 
🗓️ Saturdays-Thursdays, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. | Fridays, 10 a.m.-9 p.m.
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