By: Brook Wilkinson
As an East Coast transplant who’s put down roots in San Francisco, I’ve come to love my adopted home for many reasons, not the least of which is how it has weathered the recession. It’s not just great food and culture that give San Francisco its allure; there’s something about the mentality here, a stacking of priorities that puts pleasure near the top and hours worked toward the bottom.
Ever since the first large wave of settlers arrived during the 1849 gold rush, this city by the bay has thrived on the twin philosophies of optimism and entrepreneurialism. More recently, the roller coaster of dot-com booms and busts left San Franciscans well prepared for the latest downturn. For many, it wasn’t the first fortune they lost, and it might not be the last. While my old neighbors in New York were wondering how they’d ever rescue their 401(k)s, my new friends took a deep breath, put down the quarterly report, and went for a hike.
Because San Francisco – like its denizens – is ceaselessly reinventing itself, it’s as satisfying to visit the 13th time as the third. Visitors who a decade ago might have steered clear of seedy Hayes Valley will now find it rife with boutiques and home to a burgeoning urban farm movement. Some of the city’s hottest restaurants are flourishing in the unlikely shadow of the Giants’ stadium, AT&T Park, and even parts of the waterfront have been deemed cool enough for locals to trawl during happy hour.
For those visitors seeking more than a stroll down Fisherman’s Wharf or a cable car ride up Powell Street, click on the links (above right) for a primer of San Francisco neighborhoods to visit now.
Glimpse the eternally appealing City by the Bay’s newest haunts via our San Francisco slideshow by photographer Tara Donne.
The commercial heart of the city earned its moniker when it served as the locus of pro-Union demonstrations in the Civil War era. In a similar spirit of activism, Union Square today is often filled with pro-Tibet rallies or antiwar protests. There’s nothing unique about the big-name designer shops and department stores lining the square, which is why locals prefer Maiden Lane, a narrow alley with a European feel just off the plaza. By day, the street is closed to traffic and filled with café tables, where one can refuel between shops. “When I opened this store, my first thought was Maiden Lane,” says Peter Walsh, owner of 4-year-old Manika Jewelry (415-399-1990; www.manikajewelry.com). “It’s literally off the beaten path and it attracts people who like the different, the unusual, the unique.” The pieces he sells, many by local designers, are largely made from reclaimed precious metals. Another homegrown standout along the lane is Glory Chen (415-788-8168; www.glorychen.com), whose fashionable yet comfortable shoes typify San Francisco style.
Gitane (415-788-6686; www.gitanerestaurant.com), a sexy lounge serving top-notch cocktails that opened in late 2008, is tucked down another alley near the square, and a bit further away lies Barbacco (415-788-6686; www.barbaccosf.com), which opened in January 2010 and is a boisterous Italian place that’s equally appropriate for a business lunch or a post-shopping nosh – and far more affordable than its popular sister, Perbacco. The city’s patchwork of neighborhoods often overlap: A case in point is Union Square, which butts up against the gritty Tenderloin to the west; in the liminal space sits Rye (415-474-4448; www.ryesf.com), progenitor of the city’s fresh-ingredient cocktail movement, and Millennium (415-345-3900; www.millenniumrestaurant.com), where vegetarian fare such as smoked cherry and chard roulade with a black pepper crust and roasted butternut squash coulis satisfies even the heartiest carnivore.
For those whose hotel sensibility veers toward the classic – and who are up for a splurge – Union Square is the place to stay. The intimate, elegant Taj Campton Place (415-781-5555; www.tajhotels.com) is located just off the plaza. At the top of affluent Nob Hill sits the Huntington Hotel (415-788-6686; www.huntingtonhotel.com), open since 1924 and as old-world and old money as San Francisco gets.
For a city with ocean and bay on three sides, San Francisco hasn’t made much of its waterfront real estate. The eastern waterfront, known as the Embarcadero, includes Fisherman’s Wharf, a cartoonish version of the city full of stands selling sweatshirts (for the ill-prepared visitor expecting the climate of Venice Beach) and clam chowder in bread bowls (as authentically San Franciscan as Rice-A-Roni). In fact, the only reason to brave the tourist zone north of Pier 39 is the Fairmont Heritage Place, Ghirardelli Square hotel (888-991-4300; www.fairmont.com/ghirardelli), opened in August 2008. Its one- to three-bedroom suites with full kitchens and washer-dryers (not to mention personal grocery-shopping services) are a boon to families. Farther south, the stately Ferry Building (415-983-8000; www.ferrybuildingmarketplace.com) has been a magnet for visitors and locals alike since a major renovation in 2003; it holds a bustling farmers’ market Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday mornings, and the gourmet food shops are great sources for a picnic lunch.
Until recently, few ventured beyond the Embarcadero’s familiar sites. That’s all changed, says Andrew Generalao, the general manager of La Mar Cebicheria Peruana (415-397-8880; www.lamarcebicheria.com), which opened in 2008 on Pier 1.5 as the latest addition to Lima chef Gastón Acurio’s empire. “Before we came in, this was a dormant area. Now, people are starting to understand that we have great views, and that the area isn’t a tourist trap,” Generalao says. Nearby, the newbie Epic Roasthouse (415-269-9955; www.epicroasthousesf.com) attracts an after-work crowd to its upstairs terrace for generous wine pours at happy hour. A late-night stumble away is the earthy-luxe Hotel Vitale (415-278-3700; www.hotelvitale.com), with unbeatable views of the Bay Bridge, Alcatraz, Treasure Island, and the Ferry Building.
Scattered with warehouses and loft-style condos, the expansive district south of Market Street known as SoMa offers two fresh reasons to visit: the cultural corridor centered on the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (415-357-4000; www.sfmoma.org) and the burgeoning quarter of South Beach that’s grown up around the baseball park. Right between the two is the InterContinental San Francisco (415-633-3000; www.intercontinentalsanfrancisco.com), a hotel that lacks the gloss of true luxury, but does offer good value in a city where even shabby digs can go for more than $200 a night. Celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, the modern art museum showcases pieces of everyday life – an Eames chair or a Rubik’s Cube – as design triumphs. On the first Tuesday of each month admission is free, though the place gets crowded. Nearby is the new, Libeskind-designed home of the Contemporary Jewish Museum (415-655-7800; www.thecjm.org) and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (415-978-2700; www.ybca.org), with spaces for experimental art and performance. The rooms with the best views at the Four Seasons Hotel San Francisco (415-633-3000; www.fourseasons.com) overlook the arts center’s gardens. This luxe yet business-oriented hotel drops its rates on weekends.
Cocktails in SoMa bars tend toward the ordinary, but notable options exist for wine and beer drinkers. Since 2008, Press Club (415-744-5000; www.pressclubsf.com) has been bringing wine country to the city: Within one striking space eight local wineries offer tastings for as little as $2 a pour. City Beer Store (415-503-1033; www.citybeerstore.com) has San Francisco’s best selection of brews, including hard-to-find labels like Alesmith and Russian River Brewery, plus a staff of beer gurus. And celebrated restaurateur Michael Mina’s newest spot, RN74 (415-543-7474; www.michaelmina.net), boasts a rotating list of 50 wines by the glass.
Foodwise, SoMa’s new epicenter is the South Beach area. It’s hard to believe that a baseball team with such a dubious record could invigorate a neighborhood, but that’s what the Giants have done – and where crowds go, chefs follow. “It’s been interesting to see the neighborhood evolve,” says Traci des Jardins, whose latest restaurants, Public House (415-644-0240; www.publichousesf.com) and Mijita (415-399-0814; www.mijitasf.com), opened in April 2010 underneath the stadium. There aren’t a lot of places in San Francisco that feel like South Beach, she says. “It’s a fun place to walk around, since there are wide sidewalks and the weather is usually nice.” Nearby, Marlowe (415-974-4599; www.marlowesf.com), which opened in February 2010, has captivated locals with the kitchen’s highbrow comfort food (brussels sprout chips, anyone?) and its staff’s Aussie accents.
Traditionally an immigrants’ neighborhood, where Spanish is heard as frequently as English and colorful murals abound, the Mission has seen an influx of twentysomethings who love its vibrant culture, many bars, and cheap rent. Plenty of Latin flavor can still be found around Mission and 24th streets, but the hipsters have taken over Mission Dolores Park, sprawling on the grass to take in the downtown views on sunny days. Valencia Street is the central artery for the hood’s new iteration. Candystore Collective (415-887-7637; www.candystorecollective.com) stocks apparel and home goods by independent designers, and 826 Valencia (415-642-5905; www.826valencia.org) is a “pirate supply store” that funds Dave Eggers’s nonprofit writing center. Sure, you’ll find lots of Mexican food here (though my vote for best taqueria in the city goes to El Castillito in the Castro District), but the trendy spots get all the buzz: Bar Tartine (415-487-1600; www.bartartine.com), a homey space that turns out food both simple and sublime (including to-die-for bread from its sister bakery); Beretta (415-695-1199; www.berettasf.com), with a loud bar scene worth braving for the delicious margherita pizza topped with burrata; and Mission Beach Café (415-861-0198; www.missionbeachcafesf.com), a sleepy neighborhood spot opened in 2007 that serves an exquisite brunch every day. Gentrification is now marching east, led by pioneers like Humphry Slocombe (415-252-7535; www.humphryslocombe.com), an ice cream parlor where strawberry candied jalapeño is just one of many offbeat flavors.
The old freeway on-ramp that used to run through Hayes Valley? It’s now a thriving community garden – just one example of the recent transformation of this neighborhood that visitors have rarely explored. Boutiques and cafés have now taken over the ground floors of many old Victorian and Edwardian houses on Hayes Street, bringing new life to a once neglected area. The shopping is varied: Fiddlesticks (415-565-0508; www.shopfiddlesticks.com) outfits San Francisco’s youngest trendsetters, True Sake (415-355-9555; www.truesake.com) bills itself as the country’s first sake store, and Lava9 (415-552-6468) has a well-chosen collection of jewelry and handmade leather goods. The neighborhood offers fine beverages day and night: artisanal joe from cult favorite Blue Bottle Coffee Company (415-252-7535; www.bluebottlecoffee.net), or expertly mixed cocktails from Absinthe (415-551-1590; www.absinthe.com).
Community redevelopment doesn’t always go as planned, and for many years the Fillmore district suffered the consequences of ill-conceived efforts. But today, the former Harlem of the West is once again a live-music mecca. Yoshi’s San Francisco (415-655-5600; www.yoshis.com), which opened in late 2007, brings in big-name jazz performers; the lounge, which serves up inexpensive Japanese bites, features local talent on Sundays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays, typically for a $5 cover. And 1300 on Fillmore (415-771-7100; www.1300fillmore.com), which also opened in 2007, delivers vocal jazz and hush puppies on Sundays to a crowd diverse in both age and race.
“I’ve lived in this neighborhood for eight years and watched it change,” says Kevin Gallardo, the manager of Dosa on Fillmore (415-441-3672; www.dosasf.com), a soaring space serving well-priced southern Indian dishes and spice-infused cocktails. “Nobody’s been booted out, but the city has worked hard to help shop owners reinvest in their properties.”
The influence of ritzy Pacific Heights is also filtering south with the recent arrival of shops like Sunhee Moon (415-928-1800; www.sunheemoon.com), owned by one of San Francisco’s best-known clothing designers; Paolo (415-771-1944; www.paoloshoes.com), for high-fashion Italian shoes; and Clary Sage Organics (877-272-4308; www.clarysageorganics.com), offering yoga togs and homeopathic remedies. The new energy also inspired star chef Elizabeth Falkner to move her restaurant, Citizen Cake (415-441-2672; www.citizencake.com), to Fillmore Street in spring 2010; no one can resist the cupcake fad after trying her rocky road rendition.
Golden Gate Park
Larger than New York’s Central Park, Golden Gate Park is full of curious nooks and crannies – fly casting pools, the Shakespeare Garden, the AIDS Memorial Grove, the Japanese Tea Garden – and two recently updated blockbuster attractions: the California Academy of Sciences (415-379-8000; www.calacademy.org) and the de Young Museum (415-750-3600; www.famsf.org). The kid- and earth-friendly Cal Academy reopened in its new Renzo Piano-designed home in 2008 with a planetarium, aquarium, natural history museum, and rain forest, all under a living roof of plants. Across a courtyard sits the copper-clad, Herzog & de Meuron-designed de Young Museum, redone in 2005, which attracts popular fine-art exhibitions such as the “Birth of Impressionism” show (through September 6, 2010). For sustenance, visitors will do best to venture outside the park; Burgermeister (415-566-1274; www.burgermeistersf.com), off the southeastern corner, serves California-style fast food like Niman Ranch patties and shakes made from Mitchell’s ice cream.
From the de Young observation tower, one can see the Marin Headlands – rugged hills unadulterated by development, part of the extensive Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The city’s proximity to nature is perhaps my favorite thing about San Francisco and a benefit to visitors as well. By car, it’s a 5-minute straight shot from the park to the Golden Gate Bridge. On the other side of the bridge sits Cavallo Point, the Lodge at Golden Gate (888-651-2003; www.cavallopoint.com) – part national park lodge, part high-end resort – in an old Army barracks. The same folks behind the renowned Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur opened the resort in 2008. Even for those who stay elsewhere, it’s worth visiting Cavallo for the superb chef’s tasting menu at its restaurant, Murray Circle (415-339-4750; www.murraycircle.com) – not to mention the best view I’ve found yet of my new hometown.
QUICK TRIP: BERKELEY The best drama productions in the Bay Area are staged not in San Francisco but at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre (510-647-2900; www.berkeleyrep.org). In fall 2010, catch acclaimed playwright Tony Kushner’s series of five shorts, Tiny Kushner. Beforehand, dine at Gather (510-809-0400; www.gatherrestaurant.com) , a recently debuted eatery that exudes Berkeley’s crunchy ethos, from its reclaimed lumber surroundings to the biodynamic wine it serves. As earnest as it sounds, the food is also genuinely tasty. Both the theater and Gather are close to stations on the BART line, which stops in downtown San Francisco.
DAY TRIP: NAPA When in Napa Valley, visitors have often bypassed the city of Napa in favor of Yountville and St. Helena further north. Yet lively Napa’s riverfront is undergoing a revival, with two noteworthy restaurants opening in summer 2010: Tyler Florence Rotisserie & Wine (www.tylerflorence.com) and Morimoto Napa (707-252-1600; www.marimotonapa.com). Try some vino at the Wine Merchant (707-257-5200; www.oxbowwinemerchant.com) in the Oxbow Public Market (707-226-6529; www.oxbowpublicmarket.com) or at Ceja Vineyards’ (707-255-3954; www.cejavineyards.com) wine-tasting salon downtown (and stay for salsa dancing on Saturday nights). The city of Napa is just an hour by car from San Francisco; the more scenic (but longer) route passes over the Golden Gate Bridge, then along Route 37 and Route 121.
OVERNIGHT: BIG SUR The drive down Highway 1 to Big Sur is one of the world’s most spectacular. So once there, it’s easy for visitors to feel disappointed by cramped motel rooms or highway noise that drowns out the crashing waves. Those who can stomach the rates ($550 to $2,185 a night) will find staying at Post Ranch Inn (888-524-4787; www.postranchinn.com), with its high-design rooms perched on a cliff overlooking the Pacific, worth the splurge.
When to Go
San Francisco’s warmest and clearest days come in September; summers tend to be foggy, chilly, and crowded. Always dress in layers, as high temperatures rarely exceed the low 70’s, and mornings and evenings are inevitably cool.