At O’Flaherty’s Irish Pub, the World Cup semi-final soccer match between France and Morocco on large outdoor screens triggered the ghosts of nearby French and Moroccan restaurants from decades earlier.
As the old eastern sages tended to say, the temporal history of the neighborhood often merged with the physical landscape. This is exactly what happened. The previous century came spiraling back to the forefront.
You see, steps away from O’Flat’s, right at the entrance of San Pedro Square, what’s now the Starbucks and Nick the Greek used to be the Lamolle House, a popular three-story French hotel and restaurant that first opened in 1872, offering an epicurean menu of appetizers, entrees, wines, beers and ales. For the travelers, 27 sleeping rooms were available upstairs. In its day, the Lamolle House was known as one of the finest eateries between San Francisco and Los Angeles, attracting customers from up and down the coast. The 1906 earthquake destroyed some of the structure but it was soon renovated and reopened. That’s right—100 years before contemporary real estate developers transformed the building into a hideous bile-colored shoebox for office workers, it was an ornate, opulent destination that put San Jose on the map. Even today, one can occasionally find pristine china and other Lamolle House artifacts on eBay. The stuff is out there, readily available.
Then, about 70 years later, around the late ’80s and early ’90s, the street-level business in the same structure was El Maghreb Moroccan Restaurant at 145 W. Santa Clara, while the upstairs had long since deteriorated into a flophouse called the Aconda Hotel, separate from the restaurant. Meaning, there was couscous downstairs and crack pipes upstairs. At that time, there was still a “hotel” sign and a few fire escapes attached to the building. This era I can remember because across San Pedro, in the space Farmer’s Union now occupies, was a dumpy Sizzler Restaurant where more than once I observed downtrodden folks pocketing the bread rolls.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. All throughout the 2022 World Cup, viewing parties at O’Flaherty’s, Old Wagon Saloon and San Pedro Square Market during every single game actually made San Pedro Square feel like a real city, perhaps for the first time since the Lamolle House originally opened up in the 19th century. On any given morning, especially during the USA or England games, hundreds and hundreds of people congregated inside or milled about the streets outside by the screens.
The Argentina fans were particularly ecstatic after they defeated Holland in the quarterfinal and then ousted Croatia in the semis. People were screaming in the street, spraying blue dust into the air and letting off minor smoke bombs. It was just like being in any real city everywhere else in the world outside the US.
For the French and Moroccan semifinal, the colonial and geopolitical histories were unavoidable, but fans of both teams danced together following the game, since they considered each other brothers more than rivals. I saw flags from several countries throughout the week. It was beautiful to watch.
I have been to European cities during the World Cup and the Euros, and this was the closest I’ve seen San Jose get to anything remotely similar, even if it was just a few blocks of the street. If San Jose wants to be an international city, which it already is, then more of this needs to happen. All the time.
Yet the most embarrassing aspect of the whole thing was it took COVID-19 to create the extended use of the street. It took a pandemic for the clowns at City Hall to allow outdoor dining everywhere. Any grown-up city would have already been doing this, of course.
Nevertheless, the festivities of the France-Morocco semifinal successfully raised the ghosts of the Lamolle House and El Maghreb. I couldn’t help but travel back through time to when we had more French and Moroccan influence in the neighborhood. Maybe it’ll come back someday. Who knows.
The old wise men from the east have left their mark on San Pedro Square. The temporal history has merged with the physical history of the neighborhood—another sign that San Jose is finally starting to grow up.