Three Perfect Days: San Francisco
San Francisco is a city of booms. The first came in the mid-19th century, when prospectors were drawn by rumors of gold in California’s mountains. Fifty years ago, hippies streamed to Haight-Ashbury in search of love-ins and electric Kool-Aid. And in the last decade, the tech boom has seen a flood of young entrepreneurs who are using Silicon Valley cash to change how we communicate with each other—and to imagine the city of the future. This latest influx has sparked controversy, as skyrocketing rents have priced out many of the people who gave the city its bohemian, devil-may-care spirit—an exoticism that inspired journalist Herb Caen’s 1949 book, Baghdad by the Bay. So how is the old San Francisco (per Caen’s instructions, don’t call it “Frisco”) blending with the new? Hemispheres sent this former SF resident home to find out.
I open my visit the way it seems all San Franciscans begin their days: Standing in line for breakfast. I’m on Polk Street, the main thoroughfare of Nob Hill, waiting for the morning fog to burn off and for Swan Oyster Depot to open. This storied seafood market has been in business for more than 100 years, and if you want to get a spot at its 18-seat counter, you’d better get here well before the 10:30 a.m. opening. The front window teases me with a display of freshly caught fare on ice, and once inside I do my best to consume all of it: briny, creamy West Coast oysters; a beautiful sashimi plate with salmon, tuna, hamachi, and scallops; sourdough dipped in crab fat; and perfect smoked salmon. I wash it down with the city’s favorite brew, an Anchor Steam. Hey, it’s almost noon.
A short cab ride takes me to the tech industry haven of South of Market (SOMA), where I’ll be walking off my meal in the galleries of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. SFMOMA reopened last year after a three-year renovation that made it one of the largest modern and contemporary art museums in America. The permanent collection features Diego Rivera’s Flower Carrier, Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe, and Marcel Duchamp’s urinal, but my favorite part of the new building is the sculpture garden’s lush Living Wall, which, at almost 30 feet tall and holding nearly 20,000 plants, is the largest of its kind in the U.S.
It’s a short walk across Market Street and through the towers of the Financial District to reach the oldest, largest Chinatown in the Americas. In Portsmouth Square, surrounded by huddles of elderly Asian men playing cards, I meet Sharon Traeger, a Tours by Locals guide who has agreed to tell me a bit about the neighborhood’s history. The city—then known as Yerba Buena—established its first public square here in the early 19th century, and the Chinese, Traeger notes, moved in at the beginning of the gold rush. After the 1906 earthquake destroyed much of San Francisco, officials tried to push the Chinese community farther from downtown, but after protests, Traeger says, “the city eventually allowed them to stay here, on the condition they rebuilt it to look Chinese.”
We exit the square and zigzag through crowded alleys, below colored balconies and alongside shops carrying everything from sea cucumbers to giant mushrooms. After tasting samples at the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory, we climb three flights of stairs to the 1852 Tin How Temple, a tiny space decorated with lanterns, embroidered fabrics, and bowls of fruit left as offerings to the goddess who controls the wind and the waves.
Our next stop is China Live, a food hall that’s aiming to bring this historic neighborhood into the future. Founder and executive chef George Chen meets us at the entrance. “China’s changing, yet Chinatown’s the same as it was 50 years ago,” he says. “And Chinese food hasn’t changed in this country that much. I wanted to do a marketplace to show that Chinese food can be ingredient-driven, just like any other cuisine. When I saw the success of Eataly”—Mario Batali’s palatial Italian food emporia—“I said, ‘If they can do it with Italian, why not here with Chinese?’”
Chen shows us around the tea bar, decorated with hand-painted blue and white tiles, and the retail shop, where we sniff Eight Treasures tea and Sichuan peppercorns, then offers us a seat at the Marketplace Restaurant. He sends over a slew of small plates: xiao long bao soup dumplings, black tree ear mushrooms, roasted Peking duck served in sesame pockets, and richly spiced mapo tofu. We cool off with sesame soft-serve ice cream topped with mango shaved ice, which Traeger keeps inching closer to her. I can’t say I blame her.
From here, it’s only a block downhill to North Beach, SF’s Little Italy. This city has a rich literary history—everyone from Mark Twain to Jack London to Alice Walker has called it home—and the center of it all is Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Bookstore. The poet published Allen Ginsberg’s Howl in 1956 and then was put on trial for obscenity (he was acquitted), and City Lights has continued to distinguish itself by selling and publishing experimental works. I find a novel by a grad school classmate of mine, Marc Anthony Richardson, which I take across Jack Kerouac Alley to Vesuvio Cafe, the bar that the Beats favored back in the ’50s. I wind up the stairs, past old fliers for readings by Kerouac and Bukowski and photos of Ginsberg and Dylan, and sit at a window table, sipping an Anchor Steam and flipping through my book. It’s a perfect San Francisco happy hour.
Dinner is right across the street at Tosca Cafe. This nearly century-old neighborhood bar and restaurant was bought and updated in 2013 by the owners of New York’s famed The Spotted Pig. Bon Appétit named Tosca one of the 10 best new restaurants in America in 2014, but it retains a homey feel. The bar in front has the air of an old dive, while the dining space looks like a classic red-sauce joint, with wine bottles lining the walls and a mural of Venice’s Grand Canal. I meet my monthly calorie requirement with orders of tender meatballs, lumaconi pasta shells in beurre blanc, and a delicious roasted chicken. There’s only one legitimate drink order: the House Cappuccino, a Tosca original that blends armagnac, bourbon, chocolate ganache, and milk. They were so busy putting all that good stuff in the “cappuccino,” they forgot one thing: the coffee.
It’s a five-minute cab ride up to my hotel, the Fairmont San Francisco. At the peak of Nob Hill, this old palace is a part of Bay Area lore. It was here, in 1961, that Tony Bennett first performed “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” The lobby, with its grand staircase and expanses of marble, is impressive, but I’m looking for a kitschy kick, so I take the elevator down to the Tonga Room, the beloved tiki bar that dates to 1945, when an MGM set director converted an indoor pool into a lagoon with a thatch-roofed bandstand in the middle, surrounded by ship’s rigging and Polynesian artifacts. I sit at the railing and sip a mai tai—a tropical drink that was actually invented across the Bay at Trader Vic’s—until lights begin to flash overhead, thunder rolls over the house speakers, and finally rain streams down from the ceiling onto the lagoon. Uh, did someone put some of that electric Kool-Aid in my drink? Either way, it’s time for bed.
I’m not sure if it’s the clanging of the cable cars or the sun pouring into the 10th-floor Funston Suite that wakes me, but I open my eyes to a panoramic view of the Bay Bridge, Transamerica Pyramid, Coit Tower, Alcatraz, and Golden Gate Bridge—you know, all the landmarks that make this America’s most beautiful city.
Even with the early start, I’m not down the hill and into the Mission District quick enough to beat the line at Tartine Manufactory, the new industrial outpost from the owners of America’s most famous bakery. I make my way to the counter, where I order smørrebrød—a Danish open-face sandwich, made here with multi-grain bread, avocado, poblano peppers, and sunflower seeds—and cold-brew coffee, which gets me ready for my next stop.
I stroll down to 24th Street, the taqueria-lined heart of the Mission, the Latino quarter and hipster redoubt that has been the biggest flashpoint in the city’s fight over gentrification (if you want to see a scowl, say the words “Google bus” here). One of the oldest arts organizations in the neighborhood, Precita Eyes, is here, in a bright blue storefront above which hangs a portrait of Frida Kahlo. The center has spent the last 40 years preserving and producing street art, and this morning I’m taking a neighborhood tour with Henry Sultan, a 79-year-old former muralist and occasional tour guide.
As we head around the corner to Balmy Alley, Sultan explains how San Francisco’s street art scene started with Mexico’s great muralists—including Diego Rivera, who came here in the ’30s—and picked up during the ’70s, thanks in part to the Mujeres Muralistas, a collective of female artists. We inch down the alley, where nearly every sliver of wall and fence and garage door bears an artwork. Some address the AIDS crisis, which hit this city hard; some, including one by Precita Eyes founder Susan Kelk Cervantes, show migrants fleeing the civil wars of Central America; some comment on gentrification. “The Mission has always had a strong political group of activists,” Sultan tells me, “and I just don’t think people are going to be pushed away.” He points to a mural. “Like that says: ‘We’re not going anywhere.’”
Aside from these murals and the guitar licks of Carlos Santana, the greatest contribution this neighborhood has made to world culture has to be the Mission burrito. Locals fiercely debate which one is the best, but my favorite is Taqueria Cancún’s burrito mojado al pastor, which comes not foil-wrapped, like most Mission burritos, but on a plate, slathered with red and green salsas and sour cream, à la the Mexican flag. It is fiery hot and the size of a football, and after eating it you will need to douse your tastebuds with a Pacifico, which I do at a picnic table in the bright yellow restaurant while listening to a mariachi band play for tips.
Rarely in my life have I needed a walk as much as I do after that gut bomb. The sun’s shining on me as I pass the fruit stands and thrift stores on Mission and head over to hip Valencia Street. My first stop is the City Art Cooperative Gallery, which is showing paintings of classic SF dive bars, including the dearly departed Lexington Club. Next I wander into Paxton Gate, a store that’s bursting with taxidermied animals. When I wonder aloud where someone would put an $8,000 giraffe’s head, the clerk, polishing a vase, says, “I’d put it in a circular stairwell, with a mirror at the top.” I raise an eyebrow. “I have a lot of time to think about that sort of thing,” he explains.
I continue on across palm tree–lined Dolores Street to Mission Dolores Park. On a warm Saturday afternoon, this green space, which reopened last year after a $20 million renovation, resembles a hipster fashion show. I climb past skinny jeans and rompers and bangs to the top of the grassy hill, which yields a jaw-dropping view of the city skyline and the underrated Bay Bridge. I think I’ll stay a while.
When I find myself dozing, I pop to my feet, because I’ve got a ticket to San Francisco’s most exclusive dinner party. An unadorned doorway on 19th Street leads to Lazy Bear. Chef-owner David Barzelay (the restaurant’s name is an anagram of his surname) began throwing dinner parties after he was laid off from his job as a lawyer in 2009. He opened this space in 2014, and the hype and Michelin stars followed.
Upon entering, I’m shown upstairs, where I’m served Marc Hébrart Special Club Champagne and Morro Bay oysters topped with elderflowers. Downstairs are two long communal tables, next to an open kitchen where an army of chefs prepares each course. Each dish is served with an introduction from one of the chefs, often in amusing fashion. (“These eggs were raised by a lady named Kitty.”) The food is inventive—grilled halibut with artichoke and blood orange, morel mushrooms with egg-yolk fudge—and the restaurant provides a small plaid notebook for each diner to take notes. I neglect to use mine (some journalist I am) due to the wine pairings, which run the gamut from Bordeaux to Rioja to Napa. Dessert? An Old Overholt rye that was distilled in nineteen-thirty-six. I am now as dead as the guy who made that whiskey.
I don’t really need another drink, but right up the block is the hot new cocktail spot Wildhawk. The latest bar in former mayor Gavin Newsom’s PlumpJack empire opened last year to some neighborhood displeasure, as it replaced the aforementioned Lexington Club, a longtime lesbian bar. (A plaque on the sidewalk out front commemorates the old institution.) I take a seat beneath the floral Victorian wallpaper and order a cocktail from Jacques Bezuidenhout, a South African expat who has lived here for almost 20 years and has been voted the city’s best bartender. He brings me a Breakfast Negroni—Cocoa Puffs–infused Beefeater gin, Campari, Cinzano, and chocolate salt bitters—and stays to tell me about the changing of the guard at the bar. “We have some old regulars now that come back, and they’re like, ‘We really want to hate you, but we just can’t,’” he says. I agree: That would be impossible.
My rented Hyundai may not be the Mustang from Bullitt, but I still feel like Steve McQueen as I zip up and down SF’s famous hills, past the painted ladies of Alamo Square—the colorful Victorians from Full House—and along Golden Gate Park to the fog-blanketed Outer Sunset district.
I’ve lucked out and caught a rare morning when there’s no line at Outerlands. The dining room, which horseshoes around an open kitchen beneath an undulating, driftwood-inspired ceiling, is about half full, mostly young people in surf hoodies. I get an egg sandwich with zucchini, asparagus, broccolini, and rich onion jam, served open-face on a thick slice of fresh house-baked bread, followed by the doughnut of the day: salted caramel with chocolate crumble. Yum.
Fueled up, I’m back in the car and cruising north on the Great Highway, with gusty Ocean Beach and the choppy Pacific on my left. By the time I reach the Golden Gate Bridge, the fog has burned off, and it’s all I can do to stay on the road as I sneak peeks over my shoulder at the city. A few miles up U.S. 101, I steer through the town of Mill Valley and descend into a canyon, through a series of buttonhook curves—now feeling more student driver than McQueen—to Muir Woods National Monument.
The park, which Teddy Roosevelt consecrated in 1908, includes 240 acres of old-growth coast redwoods, the tallest trees in the world. A wooden walkway guides me through these titans, some of which sprouted more than 700 years ago. In Cathedral Grove, signs urge visitors to keep their voices down, so I can hear creaking branches, burbling Redwood Creek, and a woodpecker somewhere hammering away for his lunch. By the end of the two-mile loop trail, I’ve spent so much time with my head craned back toward the canopy that my neck’s as sore as that woodpecker’s.
After that breath of fresh forest air, I’m ready to get back to the urban grit. I head across the bridge and over to the east side of the city, past red-brick AT&T Park, the Giants’ home stadium since it opened in 2000 and a harbinger of the building boom in SoMa over the last 15 years. I continue on through condos, past the site where the NBA champion Golden State Warriors are building a new arena, and into Dogpatch, the once rundown industrial ’hood near where America’s most famous Heisman Trophy winner/double-murder acquittee grew up.
I park in front of the Minnesota Street Project, a three-warehouse space that’s home to around a dozen galleries and 40 artist studios. I’m feeling peckish now, so I hang a quick right into Alta, the compound’s restaurant from star Bay Area chef Daniel Patterson. As I dig into a wonderfully spicy fried chicken sandwich and a tangy housemade ginger beer, I’m joined by Deborah Rappaport, who opened the MSP along with her tech entrepreneur husband, Andy, last year.
“In February of ’14, the real estate crisis in San Francisco was getting to its peak,” she tells me. “It was having a really deleterious effect on galleries and artists and nonprofits. It just felt like nobody cared—all of these big tech companies were gobbling everything up and leaving the arts community, among others, in their wake.” Don’t think Rappaport is the gloom-and-doom type, though. The MSP is her bet that the city’s creative spirit will endure. “If I didn’t believe that San Francisco was going to remain an international center of exciting art, my husband and I would have stayed retired,” she says with a laugh. “Things have to evolve. What I hope we are doing is helping to keep a vibrant arts scene happening.”
Duly inspired, I go on a gallery crawl around the warehouse. The works at the MSP range from famed photographer Larry Sultan’s celebrity shoots to Tabitha Soren’s modified stills of adult film stars to Manny Prieres’ recreations of banned books to student paintings in the SF Arts Education Project space. The diverse works on hand give me hope that Rappaport is right, and that the city’s art scene will indeed survive.
In need of a breather, I valet the car at the Palace Hotel, smack in the heart of the Financial District at Market and New Montgomery. I stop for a moment to gawk at the ceiling of the landmark Garden Court restaurant, which is made of 72,000 pieces of glass. Originally built in 1875, the Palace was destroyed in the fires that followed the 1906 earthquake; it reopened in 1909, and despite a huge renovation in 2015, it has maintained many fixtures, from that ceiling to the doorknob I turn to enter my seventh-floor suite. My corner window looks straight up Montgomery to the Transamerica Pyramid, but I’m more concerned with my bed. As the Bay Area’s own Metallica would say: exit light, enter night.
I wake up refreshed and ready to rock—literally. I hop the N-Judah Muni train, and a few minutes later I’m in the Haight, the neighborhood that teemed with musicians, flower children, and burnouts 50 years ago during the Summer of Love. I wander into Amoeba Music, a cavernous record shop dedicated to the analog in a city now dominated by all things digital. I pick up a live album recorded by former Haight resident Janis Joplin and her band, Big Brother and the Holding Company, in 1968 at the now-demolished Winterland Ballroom.
I’m humming “Piece of My Heart” as I strut back down Haight Street, past head shops and vintage stores and panhandlers. I stop at Held Over, where I find a pair of worn cowboy boots that fit just right, and I can hear Janis singing, “You know you got it, if it makes you feel good,” so I toss out the old Chuck Taylors that I’ve walked holes in this weekend.
Even used, a new pair of boots takes a toll on the feet, so I get a Lyft over to the Fillmore District. I reach State Bird Provisions just in time to encounter—you guessed it—a line. The wait is no surprise, given that Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski’s place has been one of the toughest tables in town since Bon Appétit named it the best new restaurant in America in 2012. Fortunately, its sister restaurant next door, The Progress, has a seat open at the bar, so after I get my name in at State Bird, I’m able to kill some time with a plate of perfect local anchovies and fried butter beans and a silky Manhattan made with brown butter bourbon.
When my seat opens up next door, it’s in an extremely dangerous locale: at the kitchen counter, right next to the server’s station. Much of the menu at State Bird is offered dim sum–style, and I get right of first refusal on every one of the small plates being carted out of the kitchen: guinea hen dumplings, smoked avocado with charred allium, Hog Island oysters topped with kohlrabi kraut.
“We didn’t want to be held back by tradition,” Brioza stops by to tell me. “We wanted there to be a lot of freedom in our food. It’s high energy, it’s frenetic, it’s got so much passion from the staff.” Take the anchovies: “Those are a religious experience for me. We have anchovy protocol. Twelve man-hours get put into that dish.”
Brioza’s menu knows no bounds, and by the end of the meal, neither do I, as I find myself hugging the cart-pushing waitress goodbye. Perhaps I’m hoping she’ll clear off the cart and roll me out of here on it?
Luckily, I’m not going far. Right around the corner is The Fillmore, the concert hall that once hosted legends including Janis, the Grateful Dead, and Jimi Hendrix. I climb the red-carpeted stairs to the second-floor bar, which is hung from floor to ceiling with trippy concert posters for these artists and many, many others.
When I hear a roar from the ballroom, I join the crowd on the packed floor. The acclaimed rock group the Mountain Goats takes the stage, and between songs, singer John Darnielle pauses to look out across the dark, smoky room. “You get these moments at The Fillmore when you say, ‘This is the best room to play in the U.S.,’” he says, and we scream, because yes, a gold rush is on, and all the new money may be changing Baghdad by the Bay, but at the end of the day, San Francisco still rocks.
Hemispheres deputy editor Justin Goldman yells at his coworkers anytime one of them calls it “Frisco.”