I was twelve years old the first time I saw San Francisco. We were on some ungodly long road trip for a family vacation, and I was just about to die from boredom when my mom pointed across the car and told us, “That’s San Francisco.” We were on 580 heading North, it was mid day, and I could see the Transamerica pyramid piercing through the fog. The skyline, the water, the bridges, the everything. Oh, how I wanted to go to there. Alas, a detour through the City was not in Dad’s plans. My mom later told me she thinks she lost me to San Francisco that day.
As this is my last week as a resident, I am reminiscing a lot. Back in the mid-90s, when I first came to the Bay Area, this was a city where anyone could get their freak on and no one would judge. It was grimier and the homeless owned Golden Gate Park and Hayes Valley was dangerous, but there was Cafe DuNord, and the Exploratorium was inside the Palace of Fine Arts, and no one ever hung out in SOMA.
So, it’s much less freaky and a bit more judgey these days. But if you’re out late enough some foggy night you may just be greeted by a slender man weaving his way through Pacific Heights, arms spread wide, wearing only a thong, wispy cape-like wings, and roller skates, and you’ll wonder if you’d ever truly been in love with a place before that moment.
My dearest friends and family, if you’re in town for a business trip, or passing through on your way to a less expensive vacation spot, think about doing some of the things that aren’t in your tour guide. These are harder to get to than the standard Big Bus stops, but Fisherman’s Wharf is overrated, and you can always catch a Lyft. In no particular order:
Lindy in the Park: Golden Gate Park on a Sunday offers free swing dancing. It goes from 11-2, whether permitting, and there are free lessons at noon. It’s a fun way to get exercise and meet great people.
Hidden art in the Presidio: The Presidio is worth a visit all on its own, but if you go there, try to find all three of the art installations by Andy Goldsworthy. They sort of sneak up on you and they’re magnificent.
The view from Bernal Hill: The end of Folsom Street is a steep hill, and then there’s another hill. Hike up to the top and get a magnificent 360 view of the City.
Baseball at AT&T Park: If you’re able to score cheap tickets, or if someone offers you a pair, take ‘em. This is a beautiful ballpark. The views are amazing, there are no bad seats, they let grown ups go down the slide inside the Coca-Cola bottle, and baseball is the best sport ever. Go Giants.
City Lights Bookstore: There are so few independent bookstores left in the world, so please do the world a favor and buy a book from City Lights. It’s the birthplace of the beat poetry movement, and it’s owner, Lawrence Ferlinghetti (read this poem), was tried for obscenity after publishing Alan Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems. Grab a book and then go to the Vesuvio Cafe for a drink while you read.
Chrissy Field and The Warming Hut. Here’s one you may have on your list anyway, since walking is still free. The walk (or bike) along Chrissy Field is one of the most beautiful you’ll ever experience. And stop in at the Warming Hut for a bite before heading back, or even onwards to Fort Point.
The Food. San Francisco loves playing host to new kinds of foods in quirky settings (a la State Bird Provisions or the Off the Grid food truck extravaganzas). These tend to get a lot of press, but I have found them to be inconsistent, or in the case of State Bird Provisions, just meh. Below is by no means an exhaustive list, and I’m sure many will be able to point to restaurants that offer much better fare, but these are the restaurants that R and I have returned to over and over again.
- Fancy Date Night: Bix or Boulevard. Neither are cheap, both are outstanding in ambiance, service, and food. These are classy places. Show up dressed.
- Oysters and Booze. You can get them almost anywhere, but my favorite places are Hard Water, where you can pair your oysters with whiskey, and Hog and Rocks, where you can pair your oysters with pork and, uh, whiskey. Do yourself a favor and click the link to Hard Water so that you can see what awaits you.
- Vietnamese: People will talk to you about how The Slanted Door is the best Vietnamese food in the City, but they’re wrong. The Slanted Door is great food, but Yummy Yummy in the Inner Sunset is the best Vietnamese in the City.
- Italian. There are a lot of great Italian places here, but I learned something very important from the late owner of North Beach Restaurant. Parmesan cheese is traditionally used to mask the taste of mediocre pasta sauce. Italians only put the cheese on the pasta if they don’t like the sauce. North Beach Restaurant has magnificent pasta sauces. Do not ruin your experience by putting parmesan cheese on anything. They will bring you the cheese because we Americans are accustomed to having it. Do not use it. (Pro tip: City Lights Bookstore is very near here!)
- Mexican. There are a lot of really good Mexican restaurants here. La Taqueria is our go to for quick and dirty tacos and burritos. You’re not going to find any mango salsas or even a salad here, but you’ll get a chicken taco or a carne asada burrito that will satisfy your palate and your appetite. There’s a reason this place won the national burrito bracket.
- New Mexican. As in, from New Mexico. Green Chili Kitchen. So good.
- Chinese. You can try to find good Chinese food in Chinatown, but you’ll have better luck venturing down Clement Street in the Inner Richmond, or if you’re feeling really adventurous (and maybe you’re planning a trip to Ocean Beach anyway), go to the Old Mandarin Islamic Restaurant.
- Seafood. It’s everywhere here. You almost can’t go wrong (unless you to go to Fisherman’s Wharf…seriously people, the only reason you should go there to eat is for an In-N-Out burger). Try Waterbar for a view of the Bay or Cliff House for a view of the ocean. Make reservations for both. Sotto Mare has amazing cioppino if you’re into that sort of thing.
The Robin Williams Tunnel. More specifically, the view coming into the City. The arch of the tunnel frames the Golden Gate Bridge so beautifully. It makes me happy every time I see it. The pictures online don’t really do it justice.
So goodbye for now, San Francisco. You’re a truly lovely place to call home.