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Going Back to the Future with Tosca Café

In 1983, Pepsi handed King of Pop Michael Jackson a cool $5 million to anchor their “Pepsi Generation” campaign. This remains the gold standard for something cross-media does best: updating an already beloved product for a wider, more lucrative market. Thirty years later, r.vH Design tackled a similar challenge that might’ve been smaller in scope by national standards, but in its native San Francisco, it was a very big deal indeed.

Since 1919, the Tosca Café in North Beach has been a hangout for the likes of Johnny Depp, Hunter S. Thompson, directors Francis Ford Coppola and Tim Burton – even Beat poet Allen Ginsberg famously was shown the door for not wearing shoes. But for all that fame-by-association, in recent years the bar – it had dispensed with serving food years ago – hadn’t even been able to come up with the rent.

  • website
  • menu design
  • coasters
  • identity

“People loved it before because no one was ever in there, and you could just walk in and sit at the bar whenever,” explains r.vH Design Principal Robert Van Horne. “But it’s not a great business model to be known for being empty.”

In 2013, facing eviction, owner Jeannette Etheredge sold the Tosca Café to Ken Friedman and Chef April Bloomfield, owners of several high-profile New York restaurants including The Spotted Pig. In no time, the AOC SF restaurant consultancy hooked them up with Van Horne, who among other things came up with the playful identity for Chef Melissa Perello’s restaurant, Frances.


Keeping it the Same…but Different
There’s a certain amount of kabuki that goes with reviving a landmark like the Tosca Café.

On the one hand, a decent chunk of change was invested in cleaning up an ambience that was already there. Oil paintings dating back to the ‘30s that already hung on the walls were restored and dramatically lit from below. “Before you never saw them because they were covered in cigarette smoke and were never lit,” says Van Horne.

An old Marilyn Monroe photo that hung over the urinals in the men’s room (yeah, that’s really a whole other conversation) was replaced with a series of colorful Andy Warhol portrait tiles of the screen star.

On the other hand, no one made any bones about the fact that it would be Chef Bloomfield’s fantastic culinary talents that would pack the seats – in went a full-service kitchen. If old-timey kitsch alone could pay the bills, it would’ve already done so.

An Early Lesson
For the first 93 years of its life, the Tosca Café was an excellent example of how not to brand your business. For most of that time, that was OK. Before the Internet age, it really didn’t matter all that much what the logo of your neighborhood bar looked like, or how recognizable it was on a business card.

For the longest time, the bar’s Web site featured a photo of its front door as its main graphic element. “And when you searched for it online, that kind of became their de facto logo,” says Van Horne.

Sifting through all of the branded collateral that had been a part of Tosca for nearly a century – from ash trays to match books to wall art – it became clear that creating an identity would require knowing what to revive and clean up, and what to leave behind. This being the first time that the Tosca Café would have logos and artwork in a digital form, the designer says that knowing what could make that transition was the key to making the new look successful.

“What our job became was digging through the ephemera and choosing what to try and bring along into the digital world,” says Van Horne. “The trick was always making sure that the authentic rough, vintage quality was never lost in translation. We cleaned up and redrew nearly all of the artwork but tried to retain that authenticity.”

Finally, everyone involved in the project agreed that there shouldn’t be just one logo, but a collection of them that really spoke to the brand, connected by style and tone.


Finding the Heart of a Brand
For the restaurant’s homepage, r.vH Design went with a simple line drawing of the building itself, along with five simple links: Food, Drinks, Info, Press, Gallery. The food and drinks options present the full menu using the same titling typography found in the new paper versions.

Ah, the typography. Behind the bar they found some old wooden planks containing sheet music from the restaurant’s namesake – Giacomo Puccini’s opera Tosca – scanned them, and “manipulated them so they had this fun, hand-drawn typeface,” says Van Horne. Pow: instant typography for the menus.


From his first meeting with the new owners, Van Horne recalled seeing a board featuring cheeky napkin illustrations of opera scenes hanging on the wall, bestowed upon the Tosca Café by a French artist in the ‘40s.


“We contracted a large format photographer to take a super-high-resolution image of it, and then we extracted all the artwork and created the coaster designs and some of the other artwork with it,” he says. “We were basically handed this one-of-a-kind illustration that, had we not been there to see it, could’ve just been lost forever.”

Inspiration was everywhere: a monogram was created based on the one featured on the restaurant’s jukebox. Another logo was derived from the “quirky, funky type” on an ashtray there.


Finally, Jeanette Etheredge herself was placed on a coaster, the glamorous shot of her with a cigarette a tribute to the woman who had been the public face of the Tosca Café for 33 years. The image was discovered in the back room of the establishment among many others depicting her with its famous patrons through the years. The coaster is one of 7 designs that are rotated in and out on a regular basis.


“Having Jeanette on a coaster was also the new management’s way of saying this is the real face of Tosca,” says Van Horne, who’s seen her there a few times since the changeover. “That must’ve been a tough thing. But having her actually embrace the change, that’s very telling.”

In many ways it’s a testimonial that says though the food service is new and the cheap vinyl booths have been replaced by beautiful leather ones, the new Web site, collateral, everything respects the history of the original.

Says Van Horne, “We just tried to take all of the aspects that had always been the hallmarks of what Tosca was in its heyday, and present them in a way that was fresh and new.”

As for the place that once was pretty empty any time you wanted to swing by for a quick drink? Expect to wait a good 45 minutes to an hour to be seated.

Author: Aaron Berman

A former writer and editor for USA Today, Aaron Berman is also the editor of PaperSpecs, and covered the newspaper industry for the Newspaper Association of America’s monthly magazine, Presstime.

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