Bay Area/ San Francisco/ Food & Drinks
Published on November 01, 2019
Francis Ford Coppola's Café Zoetrope celebrates 20 years in North BeachPhoto: Courtesy of Cafe Zoetrope

Café Zoetrope is celebrating 20 years this month in the historic Sentinel Building at Kearny and Columbus streets, owned by Oscar-winning film director Francis Ford Coppola. 

To commemorate the milestone, Coppola will be hosting a weeklong event starting on Monday, November 18, featuring special menus, happy-hour specials and limited-edition giveaways.

Named for Coppola's production company American Zoetrope, which is headquartered upstairs, the restaurant was designed as a gathering place for North Beach's musicians, artists, and visitors. 

It's inspired by post-World War II cafe culture in Paris, where intellectuals like Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus would patronize bohemian hangouts such as Les Deux Magots and Brasserie Lipp. 

"To live the life of a bohemian, you need a cafe," said Coppola.

Photo: Alisa Scerrato/Hoodline

The Sentinel Building, also known as the Columbus Tower, was constructed shortly before the 1906 earthquake. After the quake occurred, it was the only building in the neighborhood left standing; it was finally completed a year later, in 1907.

In the years that followed, the building became notorious as the headquarters of infamous political boss Abe Ruef. Its ground floor was originally the entry point to a popular underground restaurant, Caesar’s Grill, which was shut down for violating anti-alcohol laws during Prohibition.

After it closed, Caesar's was turned into a speakeasy called Neptune’s Grotto. Later, it became the first home of the Hungry i, an influential nightclub that hosted folk singers and stand-up comedians in the beatnik era. Lenny Bruce, Bill Cosby, Woody Allen, Joan Rivers and Barbra Streisand all performed there at the start of their careers.

The music group The Kingston Trio used the building as its headquarters in the 1960s, recording albums in a specially constructed basement studio that also played host to the likes of the Grateful Dead. But after the group split up, the members decided to sell the building to Coppola, who acquired it in 1972. 

Photo: Alisa Scerrato/Hoodline

Several of Coppola’s films, including "Apocalypse Now," "The Godfather" parts II and III, and "The Outsiders," were written, edited or sound-mixed within the space.

Coppola's private screening room is located below the restaurant, through the kitchen and then down a narrow steep stairwell. The screening room has a wide screen and old chairs, with an earthy scent of leather and Scotch.

Photo: Alisa Scerrato/Hoodline

There's another small room set back in the corner, where all the sound mixing for Coppola's films is done. Here, Marlon Brando recorded lines for his "Apocalypse Now" character Colonel Kurtz, while Martin Sheen provided the film's narration. 

Photo: Alisa Scerrato/Hoodline

Cafe Zoetrope, which first opened in 1999, is a "Roman-style trattoria and wine bar" whose walls display a collection of artwork, including photographs from Coppola's films.

The food is inspired by Coppola's Italian heritage, such as spaghetti and meatballs made from his family's recipe, and an arugula-prosciutto pizza named for his daughter Sofia, the Oscar-nominated director of films like "Lost in Translation" and "Marie Antoinette."

The house specialty is Caesar salad — a dish that Caesar's Grill long claimed to have invented, though it's believed it was actually first developed in Mexico

Photo: Alisa Scerrato/Hoodline

A portion of the Sentinel Building may soon become a boutique hotel. Socketsite uncovered a document submitted to SF Planning that calls for converting the third through seventh floors into 15 hotel rooms, while keeping the basement screening room, the restaurant, the second-floor office spaces and the private penthouse unit intact.

Coppola declined to comment on the hotel plan, which is still working its way through the city's planning process. But he said he's happy about the legacy the cafe has created, and hopes to keep it going. 

“Café Zoetrope is very personal to me,” said Coppola. “It is the Bohemian cafe I always dreamed of sitting at, writing at, enjoy meeting friends at. So for me, as a 'dream come true,' I look forward to much time spent there in the future."

For more information on the anniversary festivities at Cafe Zoetrope, visit the restaurant's website