Post contributed by Lisa Crovo Dion
San Francisco has a French Quarter?
It’s small and plenty of locals don’t even know about it, but indeed, San Francisco has a French Quarter.
This enclave of French culture is tucked away among the busy streets of San Francisco’s Financial District.
The first wave of approximately 3,000 French immigrants (sponsored by the French government) settled in the area around Bush Street from roughly Grant Avenue to Kearny Street in 1851. The French were the largest minority in San Francisco until the railroads brought over Chinese workers. They came for the Gold Rush, but got rich from providing the tools and accommodations to miners. The French roots go so deep that San Francisco at one time was even dubbed the “Paris of the West.”
On a recent day during summer vacation, my son Roman and I set out to discover San Francisco’s French roots. We headed downtown to Belden Place — a narrow pedestrian alley that was home to the city’s first French settlers. Belden Place and a few surrounding blocks retain close ties to their French culture and ancestry.
Belden Place, a touch of Europe in San Francisco
Running south from Pine to Bush Streets, Belden Place is a one-block passageway that sits in the shadow of the Bank of America tower.
Today, it is a charming block of restaurants with a decidedly European feel. The best time to dine here is on weekday evenings when the lights strung above are twinkling. Plouf, Café Bastille, and B44 are among the restaurants that cater to the French palate. Here, you will also find Italian and Catalan choices, adding to the slice of Europe.
It was lunchtime and I decide to introduce Roman to the Croque Monsieur, one of France’s most delightful casual dishes — basically a grilled ham and cheese taken to a higher (Frencher) level. We headed west up Bush Street to the corner of Kearny for lunch at Café de la Presse. It’s next to the Hotel Triton and across from the Chinatown Gate.
Good food, great space, international news
This café owes a debt to the Parisian bistro, it is airy and spacious with polished brass, mirrors and light. It shines on a foggy morning as much as on a sunny day. We shared the sandwich, salad, and perfect cappuccino. Ok, mom had a glass of wine, too… The menu is restrained and overpriced yet delivers exactly what you’re seeking.
Café de la Presse is not just a place for a great French meal, coffee, or glass of wine, it is also a destination for international newspapers and magazines. (hence: ‘de la presse’). One wall is stocked with fashion, sports, political and gossip rags from all over the world. In a world gone digital, it’s nice to pick up an actual physical newspaper from time to time.
After a satisfying lunch in a window seat with great people-watching possibilities, we headed back out for our Gallic immersion.
We walked a few feet away and peeked into Le Central. Opened in 1974, Le Central makes the claim of being the oldest French bistro in San Francisco. And they have a plaque to prove it! Offering classic French faire like filet mignon au poivre, slow-cooked cassoulet and roast chicken pommes frites, Le Central is an OG lunch spot for over-the-hill local luminaries and elite. It’s charming and inviting, with exposed brick walls, stained glass and the obligatory brass bar.
A few paces down the street heading east is Claude Lane, another delightful, somewhat quiet alleyway closed to traffic. Café Claude dominates here and if you don’t dine in the sumptuous restaurant, you might score one of the many tables that spill out into the street. There is live music here Thurs-Sunday.
Practice your language skills at a French mass
Our final destination was a visit to the Eglise Notre Dame Des Victoires, the French Roman Catholic church. It was founded in 1856 to serve the French Catholic immigrants during the Gold Rush and was modeled after the Basilique Notre-Dame de Fourvière in Lyon, France. They still hold a mass in French every Sunday at 10:30.
Small, peaceful and beautiful, we enjoyed the respite from San Francisco’s busy Financial District in this lovely little church. We lit candles and pondered San Francisco’s French-inspired past. Then we prayed for its soul.
Photos by Lisa Crovo Dion