From "San Francisco As You Like It: Over 20 Tailor-Made Tours for Culture Vultures, Shopaholics, Neo-Bohemians, Frenzied Foodies, Savvy Natives, and Everyone Else," to be published in its second edition this spring by Ulysses Press.

Even though I grew up here and can never fully realize the wondrous revelation of seeing San Francisco for the very first time, I imagine that for many it's a life-changing experience. I mean -- if I can still get a lump in my throat at the sight of a cable car silhouetted against the evening sky atop Nob Hill, or the sound of an audience singing "San Francisco" at the top of its lungs before a movie at the Castro Theatre, just think what it could do for an someone who's never been out of Kansas.

Playing tour guide to an SF virgin is a wonderful thing for a number of reasons:

1. It's easy -- everything's new and exciting and amazing -- even that lady with the space-alien lights in her hair that plays the accordian and sings "Feelin' Groovy."

2. You're required by the laws of hospitality to go to all those "tourist" places you'd never dream of visiting on your own (but were secretly dying to see), and you can blame it on your guests.

3. There's nothing quite like seeing your old, familiar haunts through the eyes of a neophyte -- a great way to renew your romance with the city.

Morning - Noon

With first-timers, itineraries are a little more important than with other types of guests, because there's a lot to squeeze into a day. Tours should be geared around areas where you can park and walk to a number of places, or where there's a logical progression in one direction.

If your virgins are fairly fit and not afraid of a little traipsing, start out early Saturday morning in Chinatown, when the merchants are setting up shop. The streets fill with the smell of simmering soups and barbecue pork buns; in the windows are hanging roast ducks (heads still attached) and bizarre delicacies like armadillo, turtle, and pigs' noses; on the sidewalks are bins of embroidered slippers, wooden toys, and rice-paper candies.

At about 10:30 or 11 a.m., scope out a dim sum parlor. The choices are endless, and it's actually hard to go wrong anywhere in Chinatown, but if your friends are not terribly adventurous, try the Golden Dragon, where you can get all the standards -- pork and shrimp dumplings, roast duck, pot stickers, and sticky rice and sausage wrapped in a lotus leaf.

Location is the prime reason to try the Hang Ah Tea Room, which -- in the tradition of the American "Breakfast Anytime" diner -- serves dim sum until 9 p.m. Billed as the oldest dim sum place in Chinatown (established in 1920 -- the management claims some of the cooks have been here since then), it's located below street level on a tiny back alley called Pagoda Place, at the junction of even tinier Hang Ah Street.

For those who don't like weird food surprises, you can get traditional sweet-and-sour dishes here, as well as dim sum such as shrimp toast, foil-wrapped chicken, and steamed pork buns.

For more interesting variety and a Hong Kong atmosphere, try the enormous, three-story Gold Mountain, where steaming carts whiz by faster than traffic moves on Broadway, and where it's occasionally hard to hear yourself over the roar of the chattering -- mostly Chinese -- crowd. Dare your friends to close their eyes and point at a dish, regardless of what may be in it (the waitresses don't speak enough English to tell you anyway). Besides, half the fun is in the not knowing. (Hint to newcomers: if it looks like chicken feet, it probably is.)

Pearl City is an inexpensive, good bet for the more adventurous palate. The mysterious-looking wrapped bundles are filled with everything from scallops and taro to sweet beans. (To my mind, three of the best dim sum parlors in the city are Yank Sing, Harbor Village and Mayflower -- none of which is located in Chinatown. So if it's just excellent food and not atmosphere you're striving for, then skip the above and make one of these restaurants your morning destination.)

After brunch, wander through Ross Alley, making a requisite stop to watch the little old ladies carefully fold bits of wisdom into wing-shaped cookies at the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory, and up to Waverly Place. From the street, these apartment buildings don't look too inviting -- a little rundown, many with locked gates. But look up and it's a whole different world. Incense wafts from the ornate painted balconies, colorful Chinese paper lanterns swing in the breeze. Out-of-towners might feel apprehensive about going inside, but if they can handle four flights of stairs, they'll be rewarded with an amazing vision of pre-twentieth-century Chinese religious life.

Tin Hou Temple, dedicated to the Queen of the Heavens and allegedly the oldest Chinese temple in San Francisco, is the one to visit with neophytes. Step inside the gate, and suddenly you're not in Kansas anymore. The ceiling is festooned with dozens of lanterns hung with red prayer papers and gilded miniature dioramas of villages. On one side, oranges, tangerines, flowers, and incense surround photos of loved ones who've passed away; on the other, there's an altar with ornate antique Buddhas and other intricately carved religious figures. On the balcony, an ancient Chinese woman burns incense and folds prayer papers. Encourage your friends to make a traditional offering by stuffing a dollar or two inside one of the small red envelopes at the front table.

From Tin Hou Temple, amble north along Grant Avenue until you hit the corner of Columbus. Prep your guests for the culture shock by stopping for a photo op at the intersection of Columbus and Broadway. Turn around and the Columbus Tower, in all its patina-green flatiron glory is perfectly juxtaposed against the TransAmerica Pyramid, making it seem as if they're right next to each other. (If the architectural angle doesn't do it for them, be sure to tell them that Francis Ford Coppola's offices are located in the tower, and that the Godfather director can often be spotted sipping wine (his own) at a streetside table at Niebaum-Coppola Café at the base of the building.)

As you walk up Columbus into North Beach, start whistling the famous aria from "The Marriage of Figaro" or "That's Amore." If your visitors are literary types, take a quick dip in City Lights Bookstore and Vesuvio, explaining the whole beatnik/Jack Kerouac connection. Then zip across the street and into the Condor Sports Bar, nowadays a fine, upstanding establishment, but once (as you may recall) the site of the first-ever topless club in California -- a fact that always seems to satisfy the expectations of small-town folk who like to envision San Francisco as a wild, decadent, anything-goes kind of city.

In 1964, dancer Carol Doda made headlines when, with the aid of silicon injections, she went from a 36B to a 36DD overnight. Doda's titillating topless act included descending on the hydraulically operated white piano that now hangs from the ceiling of the bistro. Her original "topless bathing suit," along with the old marquee sporting the famous blinking nipples, are part of a small shrine in the cocktail lounge dedicated to the club's risque heyday.

Newspaper clips along the wall give the place historical grounding; you can score extra points with first-timers by filling in the gory details of the incident involving the stripper found one morning in a very compromising position (naked on top of the piano, sandwiched between the ceiling and the club manager, who'd had a fatal heart attack).

Though not nearly as prurient in their connotation, the salamis that swing from the rafters at Molinari's Deli up the street are no less an integral part of North Beach's history, and a must-stop for virgins. Opened in 1896, the deli exudes mangia mangia spirit from every pore. Make your way past the jars of anchovies, artichokes, olive oils, pasta, and tomato sauces, past the glass cases filled with coppa, mozzarella, marinated red peppers and mushrooms, calamari et al, and up to the counter.

Grab a hard roll from the box, hand it to the nice Italian man behind the counter, and get him to make you a pepper-salami sandwich with all the trimmings. Carry your precious cargo as directly as possible to Washington Square Park for a picnic (you might need to make a stop on the way at Biordi, the wonderful Italian pottery and hand-painted ceramics store).

After you get comfortable on the lawn, gaze up at the spires of Saints Peter and Paul Church and picture Joe and Marilyn (Di Maggio/Monroe) taking their wedding photos on the steps. Then send your friends on a quick jaunt to Liguria bakery on the northeast corner of the park. Probably they're thinking they couldn't possibly pile anything on top of that sandwich, but the smell of fresh, steaming focaccia will change their minds. The small bakery, with its old-fashioned ovens, was founded on this spot by three brothers from Genoa in 1911. Still run by members of the family, Liguria does nothing but make three or four kinds of focaccia bread every day. Locals line up around the block for it, and when the shop runs out, they close. (If you can't eat it now, save it for a late-afternoon snack.)

This may sound a little weird, but those self-cleaning French toilets are a nifty novelty for those who've never tried them (locals included), and there happens to be one located right on the south border of Washington Square, a perfect pit-stop on your way to Grant Avenue. Deposit a quarter in the slot and watch the magic door slide open. Step inside, do your business, exit swiftly (there's actually a time limit of twenty minutes, so don't get caught with your pants down), and then listen as the little machines inside make all kinds of strange sanitizing noises. You'll have to deposit another quarter to admire the sparkling results of their handiwork.

Grant Avenue has always held a mysterious allure. There's something about the mix of divey bars, impossibly tiny storefronts crammed with assorted bric-a-brac, and cozy European cafes that makes you feel like you've discovered something no one else knows about. I have a revelation each time I walk down this crooked backstreet -- a faux-leopard-collar jacket in the used-clothing shop; a vintage poster in Show Biz, the movie memorabilia store; great sangria at the North End Caffè.

Let your friends wander aimlessly along the avenue for as long as they want; just make sure they eventually find their way into Quantity Postcards. Amid the flying saucers, clowns, and other salvaged spoils from Playland-at-the-Beach are thousands of incredibly strange and wonderful postcards -- not a one of them your garden variety "Weather is fine; wish you were here" types. Among my favorites: tacky '50s ads for oil cans, vacuums, and nudist colonies; old fruit and vegetable crate labels; pictures of office buildings and factories in obscure towns in the Midwest; and bad celebrity mugshots. There's even a selection of pre-owned, already written cards (some from the '20s and '30s), full of details about other people's fabulous vacations in San Francisco -- in case your friends can't be bothered. Often the most entertaining postcard is the free one you get with your purchase, selected by the proprietor (if it's a photo of nuclear holocaust, just smile, nod, and make a beeline for the exit).

Not finishing an afternoon in North Beach with an espresso at an Italian caffè is tantamount to sacrilege on a virgins tour. With postcards in hand, head down to Caffè Trieste and sit at one of the sidewalk tables. Once an arty beatnik hangout (it opened in 1956), Trieste is run by the Giottas, the city's only opera-singing, coffee-making family, who perform popular Italian songs and arias on Saturday afternoons. Get a double latte (fresh-roasted next door and served perfectly -- with the dark stuff still separated from the steamed milk in your glass), then settle into a chair and write a missive to Mom, as the strains of "Santa Lucia" waft out the door and the scenesters pore over dog-eared copies of Bukowski.


Just before sunset, stroll down to the opposite end of Grant Avenue (between Chestnut and Francisco) and look for the staircase leading up to Jack Early Park, one of those stumble-upon-it spots that never fails to make newcomers shake their heads in delight and amazement. The "park," built by neighborhood resident Jack Early in 1962, is actually not much more than a scenic overlook at the top of a set of zigzag steps, which are flanked by a well-kempt garden. But there's something about the hidden-ness and the hush of the square platform, with its old-fashioned lamppost, that feels secret and special. Lean out over the railing and gaze down onto Fisherman's Wharf, as the barges plow through the bay, and the call of the mournful foghorns and barking sea lions drifts overhead. Behind you, the million-dollar mansions of Telegraph Hill look on approvingly. Request a moment of silence and let the sounds of the city seep into your soul. Then watch your starry-eyed friends for signs of a perfect San Francisco moment.

Filbert Street Steps

Perhaps no single place captures the have-your-cake-and-eat-it spirit of San Francisco better than the Greenwich and Filbert Streets Steps. Though they sit smack dab in the heart of the city, they exist almost separate from it -- an intimate, magical Eden perched against the precariously steep slopes of Telegraph Hill. The cottages that flank the wooden stairs along Napier Lane and Darrell Place enjoy the rare privilege of an auto-free environment, yet they boast the most coveted views of the Bay money can buy.

Look to the side and you'll feel like you're in a French village -- cats lolling beneath vine-covered walls lapping up tin pans of milk, flowerpots spilling over the walkway, watering cans propping open stylishly rusted gates. Look back and you're engulfed by Grace Marchant's beloved terraced garden of baby tears, clamboring roses, and bougainvillea -- lush and overgrown, yet all but invisible to the world. Look up and you'll wonder if you're on the right continent -- flitting through the treetops are flocks of South American parrots (specifically cherry-headed conures), once caged household pets, now happily undomesticated and breeding in the trees on Telegraph Hill. Look out and the harbor spreads before you, with the East Bay shimmering dreamily in the distance. If you happen to time it just right, and your friends are here around Halloween, take them down the steps in the evening, when the Telegraph Hill dwellers light up dozens of jack-o'-lanterns for the trick-or-treaters.

On your way up or down the steps, be sure to point out significant sites: the art deco apartment house at 1360 Montgomery Street that was the facade used in the Humphrey Bogart/Lauren Bacall flick, "Dark Passage"; the hole on the hill just before you descend to Sansome Street where a house came crashing down a couple of years ago; the miniature trompe l'oeil doggie park on Montgomery Street just above the steps, with its adorable mural of an alluring poodle and a tempting fire hydrant; and of course Julius' Castle, the venerable romantic restaurant with the above-average (and expensive) food, whose views of the bay remain unchallenged in the city.

Doing the Wharf: You know you want to

Doing the Wharf Thing

When you're dealing with San Francisco novices, there are certain visitation requirements, and Fisherman's Wharf is one of them. It doesn't matter that you'd rather spend an afternoon in Turlock. First-timers want to see what all the hype is about, and as host, it's your duty to deliver them to it. So why not make the best of it? The wharf may even surprise you. If you can weed through the sidewalk sketch artists, the piles of "I Escaped from Alcatraz" T-shirts (they've got ones that are so much better now - like "Alcatraz Triathlon -- Dig, Dash, Dive"), the churro sticks, and the wind-up cable cars, you might even find a few things worth seeing.

Begin at the Maritime Museum and spend a few minutes studying the 19th-century renderings and photos of the old waterfront, when clipper ships graced this C-shaped inner harbor. Then step out onto the back veranda, squint your eyes a little bit, and with the help of the historic ships docked nearby (especially the Balclutha, an 1883 square rigger that once sailed around Cape Horn and looks like a giant prop for a swashbuckling pirate flick), you can imagine these waters a hundred years ago. Go down the steps and walk around Aquatic Park, making sure to point out the old men in the orange caps (members of the Dolphin Club) swimming in the bay as if it were their own private pool. For some odd reason, not too many people (other than Marina district joggers and fishermen) seem to venture out onto Municipal Pier at the west end. Silly them. The long, curving walkway arcs around to the edge of the harbor and into the bay, where you can hobnob with the fishermen and get show-stopping views of the port and Alcatraz. (Caution: if seen at sunset, this vista may very well cause your friends from Buffalo to put a "For Sale" sign on their front lawn.)

Next, head east through Maritime National Historical Park, and board at least one of the boats. Most opt for the Balclutha, because it's the most showy, but the C.A. Thayer, an 1895 three-mast lumber schooner, and the hardworking tugboat Hercules are equally interesting. In the spring and fall, the C.A. Thayer hosts the Festival of the Sea and a music series -- a tribute to the nautical life in melodrama and song.

From here make your way past Pier 45, where what's left of the fishing fleet delivers its catch early in the morning, and on to the dreaded Pier 39. Honestly (and even your trailer-trash cousins from Middle-of-Nowhere, Florida, will agree on this one), this is one seriously tacky tourist trap. But if you can stop struggling and accept that, you might actually enjoy yourself.

First off, visit the sea lions on the west-side docks. People invariably seem to forget that these barking, belching, herring-eating buffoons, now considered one of the numerous attractions on the pier, chose to come here all on their own, and not as part of some elaborate fake set-up. It's still amazing to see them lying all over each other, fighting for sunbathing space, and bobbing around the harbor like it was Sea Lion Week at Club Med.

Probably the only other things worth checking out at Pier 39, aside from the free juggling and magic acts, which are always worth a few chuckles, the National Park store, and the old Eagle Café, are the interesting and informative signs chronicling the physical and political history of Pier 39, and (if you're willing to shell out $13) the Aquarium of the Bay, a truly fascinating feat of underwater technology.

The history markers -- photo/text vignettes that describe, among other things, the machinations of financing this massive venture, dredging the harbor, and finessing City Hall politicos back in the '70s when unions were all-powerful -- offer a fascinating look at the waterfront, and may take some of the pain out of standing in line later to eat shrimp at Bubba Gump's.

The Aquarium, despite being ridiculously overpriced, offers a pretty cool "underwater" view of the Bay. Visitors ride a people-mover through two enormous acrylic tubes while fish swim all around you. It's like a live version of Little Mermaid.

From the outside, Lou's Pier 47 seems like it might be one of those bars that push expensive cocktails and cheesy disco dancing (à la Houlihan's), but it's not. The second-story bar is one of the few places where you can hear live music -- specifically blues -- all day, every day. Admittedly, some of the bands are reminiscent of those you hear at high school reunions, but some of them are local favorites and genuine talents (hey -- a gig's a gig). Either way, it's a nice little break from the madding crowd.

From Lou's head west and walk through the Cannery (Lark in the Morning, a store that sells musical instruments from around the world, is perhaps the only reason to slow down here anymore) on your way to the Buena Vista Café for Irish coffee. Sit at the bar (not a table) and watch the deft bartenders line 'em in a long row and pour 'em -- creamy and perfect. The cocktail was not invented here, but it was the late San Francisco Chronicle columnist Stanton Delaplane who brought the recipe back from Dublin in 1952, and a Buena Vista bartender who re-created it for the first time stateside.

Next, chowtime. When a-million-and-one tourists head to a seafood restaurant on Fisherman's Wharf, locals naturally assume it sucks, and run in the opposite direction. It's a matter of personal pride. But you've gotta ask yourself, What keeps bringing these people back? The hype? The enormous cocktails? A lack of imagination? Maybe, just maybe, there's some merit in the maré. I think that's definitely true of Alioto's and maybe even of Scoma's.

For first-timers, the fish-receiving station at Scoma's is a big bonus, a chance to see the wharf actually at work. The building boasts big windows where you can watch the daily catch being hoisted from fishing boats onto big tables, where it's cleaned, filleted, declawed, etc. The famous crab comes in November through May; salmon season is May through September; and you don't have to get up at dawn to catch all the action. Local fisherman are notoriously irregular with their deliveries; it all depends on which way (and how hard) the wind is blowing.

The restaurant is tucked in at the end of Pier 45, on a suprisingly quiet stretch of the wharf, fronting a small arm of the harbor. Maybe its hidden location is one of the keys to Scoma's unflagging popularity -- who knows? Wharf restaurateurs have been trying to figure out for years what makes this the highest grossing restaurant in California. On any given day, the menu offers maybe a dozen kinds of fresh fish and shellfish, including (when seasonal) swordfish, ahi tuna, halibut, snapper, salmon, sole, sanddabs, oysters, and scallops. This is also a great place to eat if your virgins have kids (an oxymoron?). Besides the fish-handling station (a huge child-pleaser), Scoma's has placemats kids can color and a special children's menu that offers nonfishy food. (Two caveats: expect to pay top tourist dollar; don't expect anything the caliber of Aqua or Farallon.)

For sheer historical value, you owe first-timers a lunch or dinner at Alioto's, where practically everyone is named Nunzio (descendents of the original Sicilian family who opened this place as a walkaway fish stand back in the 1920s still run the ship, and where authentic San Francisco cioppino, the Italian shellfish stew made with zesty red sauce, was first popularized.

If you've never been to Alioto's, you're in for a surprise: the food is pretty good, especially if you stick to the Sicilian dishes. And every few years, Alioto's takes Viagra or gets a new sous chef and the menu really sparkles with top-notch seafood risotto, seafood sausage stuffed with lobster and other delicacies, and their famous cioppino - a hearty, messy, chock-full-o-fresh-Dungeness bowl of San Francisco goodness.

Finish off the evening with a ride on the cable car back to downtown. At night, when the crowds have died down, your virgin friends can truly appreciate the concept of riding "halfway to the stars" the way Tony Bennett described it.

Other Statutory Stops

You can take 'em or leave 'em, but the first-timers love 'em. In brief:

Walking across the Golden Gate Bridge -- As the fog buffets you around like a cat toy and the sailboats disappear into the mist, sing a rousing version of "San Francisco, open your Golden Gate ..." or "California Here I Come."

Cocktails at sunset at the Cliff House -- Go ahead, get sappy. Applaud when the sun dips below the horizon. That's why you come here. A hipper alternative is English ale at the Beach Chalet overlooking the schools of hot, young surfers.

Beach Blanket Babylon -- There's a reason this is the longest-running musical revue in history. It's funny, it's lively, it's clever, it's got ridiculously gargantuan hats. And where else are you ever going to see a chorus line of men in togas, sandals, and bald caps singing "I'm a Yankee Doodle Ghandi?"

Driving Highway 1 -- Doesn't matter how many times you've done it, every time you come over the crest near Devil's Slide it takes your breath away. The precipitously winding road that skirts those sheer cliffs, the sun-bleached beaches, and the wild green surf is nothing short of miraculous. Rent a convertible and do it right.

Alcatraz Island -- The best tour for your tourist buck. Spend the extra $2 and get the audio narration of the cellhouse, which features tales of The Rock told by former guards and inmates. Sit in the solitary confinement cell. Stare out at the city from the ferry docks and imagine the tantalizing agony of being so close to San Francisco and not ever being able to set foot on her shores.

Sam Woh -- The food, she stinks. But like the House of Nanking (where the food's better, but the lines are longer), dining here is a San Francisco tradition. In the old days, when the impossibly narrow, rickety restaurant was run by hilarious dictator Edsel Ford Fong, you couldn't beat the place for atmosphere. These days it's tamer, but you still have to walk through the kitchen and up the staircase to get to the dining rooms, the sink is still in the middle of the room (remember to wash your hands), and if chow fun noodles are your bag, you can still get big, sloppy platefuls of 'em here.

Wine Tasting -- Okay, admit it. You love doing this as much as they do. But not when you have to sit bumper-to-bumper with a bunch of drunks on Highway 29. So do yourself and your novice friends a favor and bypass Napa Valley for the verdant vineyards of the Russian River region, where tastings are free and picnic grounds are plentiful. Head up Highway 101 past Santa Rosa to River Road and follow it to the string of picturesque wineries along Westside Road, in particular Davis Bynum, Rochioli, Hop Kiln and Rabbit Ridge. Rochioli makes great pinot noir and has lovely picnic tables that overlook vineyards; the Hop Kiln tasting room next door is housed inside a historic stone building that was once used to dry hops for beer making. Rabbit Ridge and Davis Bynum are equally pretty, and they make wines that are simply out of this world.

Going to Extremes

I like to call this the "-est" tour. It's the one where you get in the car and take your friends who hail from the flatlands down the steepest streets and crookedest streets, and up to the highest summits for the supremest views of the city. Virgins love it because it's the San Francisco they see in all those car-chase movie scenes. You love it because you get to pretend you're Karl Malden in a forgotten episode of "Streets of San Francisco."

Steepest streets -- There are two: Filbert between Hyde and Leavenworth, and Hill Street at Twenty-Second. Milk it for all its worth. Drive very slowly to the top. Inch the nose of the car over the crest. To the untrained eye, it seems like you're about to drop off the edge of the earth. Wait for the gasps and white knuckles on the back of the seat, then plunge over the edge while laughing maniacally.

Crookedest streets -- Wait in line and do the requisite serpentine ride down Lombard Street. Let the kids hang out the sunroof. Take the photo looking down Hyde Street. Then hang a right at the bottom of the hill and go three blocks to Union Street and take them for a walk down Macondray Lane. The tiny, tucked-away street, with its rickety wooden walkway and apartments hidden amid overgrown vines, was the model for the fictional Barbary Lane of Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City books.

Afterwards, go to the back of Potrero Hill and show them the real "crookedest street in the world" -- minus all the hype and tourists. The end of Vermont Street packs more thrilling twists and turns into its eight switchbacks than Lombard; plus the views are almost as good, and you get the added bonus of landing in the Mission district, home of the best burritos this side of Tijuana.

High Points -- Though the city was built around seven main peaks, there are actually 43 hills in San Francisco, all of them with something to say about the lay of the land.

Twin Peaks -- The granddaddy of inspiration points, offers a view of the city and environs to the east, north, and south. The only problem with this overlook is the freezing, blowing fog that often engulfs it and obscures views. If that's the case, drive down to the perch just below it, either on Diamond Heights Boulevard just as it rounds the bend to Safeway, or at the top of Upper Market Street, where the tip of the Pyramid and the lights of the Bay Bridge are just a little more tangible.

Twentieth and Church Streets (Dolores Park) -- Sit at a bench at the top of the park and downtown jumps out at you like a children's pop-up book.

Tank Hill -- Go up Stanyan Street to the very tippy-top, hang a left at Belgrave Park. Hike up the dirt path. Be prepared to gasp. To the left, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Pacific, Golden Gate Park, and Saint Ignatius; to the right, downtown, the Pyramid, the Bay Bridge, and the East Bay.

Nineteenth and Texas Streets -- The best point on Potrero Hill from which to survey the downtown landscape. Ironically, the house on the corner was the main setting for the movie, Pacific Heights.

Marin Headlands -- This is the postcard view of San Francisco. Nothing beats watching the fog roll in through the Golden Gate. Take the first turnoff after the bridge onto Conzelman Road.


There are so many restaurants that do California cuisine (or some variation on the theme), that when the uninitiated ask, "Where's the best place?" you invariably look at them stupidly and say, "Um, I know this great Thai restaurant ..." What they want, of course, is the stuff they've been reading about in Zagat's and Gourmet magazine. Here's where you should take them:

Chez Panisse -- The restaurant that invented California cuisine some 30 years ago still makes exquisite food -- homey, flavorful, simple, and using the freshest fish, game, and produce from local (mostly organic) farms and ranches. I once had a summer tomato salad with goat cheese there that made me weep with joy. Reservations are not optional at the downstairs restaurant, which serves a nightly four-course, prix fixe menu for (at last check) $75 on weekends, not including tax, wine, and a 15 percent gratuity that's automatically tacked on to the bill. It ain't cheap, and even with your month-in-advance reservations you may have to wait a few minutes (people love to linger), but it's worth it.

If the price isn't right, or you didn't have time to plan in advance, the upstairs casual cafe is a good second choice, pulling its Mediterranean-inspired menu from the same refrigerators, but offering a wide range of à la carte items at prices that average about $20 for an entree. They don't take dinner reservations Fridays and Saturdays (you may go through a bottle of wine waiting at the bar), but they do take a limited number of same-day reservations Monday through Thursday. Also, Mondays at the downstairs restaurant are a relative bargain: $50 for a three-course dinner.

Globe -- This lively little spot in Jackson Square, which serves until 1 a.m., is where chefs head after they finish their shifts. The meat-heavy menu doesn't mean you should overlook dishes such as baked mussels, shrimp, and scallops served on a plate with indentations that coddles the shellfish in their own individual garlic-butter bath. Another great touch: salads and soups served in giant handmade pottery dishes and mixing bowls.

Cafe Kati -- Kirk Webber creates dishes that are as beautiful as they are tasty -- sculptural creations, really -- with curlicue vegetables, towers of spun sugar, and hieroglyphic drizzles. Diminutive Cafe Kati was one of the first of a wave of "fusion" restaurants that married the flavors of India, Thailand, the Pacific Islands, and China to California homegrown meats and vegetables.

Tadich Grill -- What can you say about this Gold Rush classic, the oldest restaurant in San Francisco (circa 1849), that hasn't already been said? Take your friends here for the history, the curtained booths, the conversations at the long wooden counter, the grumpy old waiters in white. Take yourself here for all the aforementioned, plus the sole meuniere and the sand dabs.

LuLu -- It's hard to beat this cavernous room for its lively see-and-be-seen scene. Plus, the menu reads like the dictionary definition of California cuisine: wood-fired rosemary chicken, skillet-roasted mussels, thin-crusted pizzettas, garlic-and-olive-oil mashed potatoes, and pasta dishes overflowing with vegetables straight from the organic garden. Who cares if you can't hear yourself think?

Zuni Cafe -- Judy Rogers's original house of Cal-Med cuisine was doing wood-fired meats long before LuLu was even a blip on the screen. The crowd is Hayes Valley meets Pacific Heights; the decor is neo-industrial meets New Mexico; the food is sublime. Lots of attitude and good smells. All in all, pure San Francisco.

The Spinnaker -- Not for the seafood, which is above average at best, but for everything else: the location on a pier directly over Sausalito harbor, the view (to end all views) of the San Francisco skyline, and the path that takes you from the front door along what is perhaps the West Coast's most picturesque waterfront parkway. Watch the twinkling lights dance in the Bay and your friends won't be the only ones lost in Neverland.

Where To Stay

Though I generally prefer to stay in off-beat, cozy hotels, San Francisco virgins will probably get the most from a larger, showier place in one of the tourist centers.

The Argonaut, opened in 2003, is the first real luxury hotel to park itself directly on Fisherman's Wharf. A link in the Kimpton chain of classy, boutique properties, the hotel is housed in an historic brick building, and is just steps from Ghirardelli Square, the Cannery, and Maritime Park. As you might expect, a nautical theme runs throughout the place -- porthole windows, rich royal blue and gold décor, wooden plank floors, a steamer trunk for a front desk -- giving it salty, wharfy feel that first-timers will appreciate. They'll probably love even more the fitness center, the flat-screen TV in their room, free high-speed Internet access, and the nightly wine reception.

Then there's the Nob Hill grande dames -- the Mark Hopkins, the Fairmont and the Huntington. Of these, the Huntington is the most personable (it's still family-owned), though not as constantly renovated as the other two. The Mark really feels like a grande dame, with its venerable skyroom lounge and its sweeping driveway entrance. The Fairmont, with a recent overhaul under its belt that has brought it back to its original Julia Morgan glory (minus all the red velvet and gold tassels), may just edge out the Mark for sheer spectacle. Along with the fabulously kitschy Tonga Room, the Corinthian marble columns, the gilded-relief ceilings, and its stint as poster-girl for the TV show, "Hotel," the Fairmont boasts the distinction of being the place where Tony Bennett first sang "I Left My Heart in San Francisco." Hard to top that.

On the modern end of the scale, the theater-district Hotel Monaco shows off San Francisco's stylish side in the best light -- a larger-than-life art nouveau poster for the golden age of travel. This is the place to send first-time visitors who prefer to tiptoe on the edge of trendiness rather than sink waist-deep in tradition. With its soaring whimsical sculptures and murals, bold colors and patterns, and just enough kooky touches -- pet goldfish for your room, nightly tarot card readings -- to put a San Francisco stamp on things, the Monaco could almost be a sightseeing destination in and of itself. The hotel scores extra points for its house restaurant, Grand Café, which feels like an American brasserie set in a Paris train station circa 1929, and has one of the best après-theater bars in town.