VISITE A SAN FRANCISCO
"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.
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.
tour guide to an SF virgin is a wonderful thing for a number of reasons:
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."
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.
nothing quite like seeing your old, familiar haunts through the eyes
of a neophyte -- a great way to renew your romance with the city.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.)
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
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.
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.)
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.
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
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).
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.
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).
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.)
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
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.
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).
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Wharf: You know you want to
Doing the Wharf Thing
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
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.)
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
take 'em or leave 'em, but the first-timers love 'em. In brief:
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."
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
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
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.
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.
-- 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.
-- 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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
-- 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.
-- 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
-- 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.
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.
-- 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:
-- 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.
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
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.
-- 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.
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
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?
-- 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.
-- 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.
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
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.
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
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.