The long haul will be quickly forgotten, the city once there etched on you forever. We never will be through, San Francisco.
First published in GQ Magazine (November 2016 edition).
San Fran. Frisco. SF. It’s hardly surprising when remarking on this city, that these conversant-with diminutives abound, even from those who haven’t come within a parsec of the place. The tendency exists for good reason: because the city is so damned pervasively to-the-marrow-of-its-bones cool that people subconsciously ache for this familiarity. And I’m not talking about some indefinable, je ne sais quoi cool. No, this is the obvious, all-encompassing kind. Very simply – San Francisco is the complete package. Awe-inspiring beauty. Tick. Distinct and interesting character. Tick. Cosmopolitan. Tick. Diverse range of things to see and do. Tick, tick, tick! I could go on ad nauseam but I think you get the picture. They say things are bigger and better in America and with San Francisco representing even an unimpressionable (if not downright cynical) person like me would find the sentiment difficult to dispute. To quote Jim Morrison: “The West is the best. Get here, and we’ll do the rest”. He may just as well have been thinking of San Francisco when he wrote it.
The Mission, Castro, Nob Hill, SOMA, Chinatown, Haight-Ashbury… San Francisco is replete with a plethora of fascinating, willful, extraordinary neighbourhoods. As I was wandering through Castro, I happened upon a guy wearing only takkies (sneakers!) and a cock-sock. Not something you see every day I thought to myself. Apparently though, in Castro, this is exactly the sort of thing that you see every day.
Most of these areas have their own unique personality, into one of which you may want to immerse yourself for the duration of your visit, depending on your particular preferences. Personally, I’m an advocate of the central location, the convenient springboard from which to access and explore a city easily. In pursuit of this objective you’ll be hard pressed to find better than the brand-new, downtown-based Axiom Hotel. From its fibre-optic internet connections delivered via individual routers, its interactive TV-interfaced information and entertainment system, and its paperless philosophy, to its communal tables, its pets welcome policy (with no extra cost), and its foosball table and arcade games, this place is a mirror of the city’s young, progressive and tech-savvy essence.
28 Cyril Magnin Street San Francisco CA 94102, +1 415-392-9466
Some places keep their distance, warming to you and you to them only gradually. Frisco, with our trip kicking off at the Press Club San Francisco, gave us a big, welcoming hug right at from start. I was cognisant that I was near the heart of America’s wine country, but that I wouldn’t have the time to visit any of the outlying wineries. Lucky then for wine bars like this one. I sat back in the elegantly appointed surroundings, the DJ creating a buzzing atmosphere for the 200 odd patrons (with some excellent remixed hard rock), and tasted eight of the 300 different available expressions, paired with options from a vast, exquisite small-plates pairing menu. The sumptuous food and wine, the relaxed cosmopolitan crowd, and lesbian speed dating taking place at the table behind me plugged me straight into the SF vibe.
20 Yerba Buena Lane San Francisco CA 94103, +1 415-744-5000
I’ve travelled extensively to Paris, Rome, and London, cities that I’d consider to be heavyweight culinary capitals, but I’ve never eaten as well, across the board, as I did in San Francisco – a compliment not lightly dispensed. I set out specifically to experience three types of eateries: traditional, funky, and fine dining. In that order then.
Fog Harbor Fish House
Dungeness crab, and clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl – these are the iconic San Francisco dishes, in which Fog Harbor specialises. With the restaurant being located in Pier 39, the city’s equivalent of the V&A Waterfront, and being part of a group, I was somewhat concerned that the experience might be a bit artificial, pre-packaged for the tourist masses. There were tourists, no doubt (I tend to overlook in such instances that I’m one myself), but this didn’t detract from what turned out to be a long, lingering, satisfyingly authentic lunch, drinking craft beer and local wine, and contemplating the knockout view of the Bay. We sampled the crab, the chowder, the bread (from reputed baker Boudin), and a mixed seafood grill, all of which was delicious, but, ironically, the highlight was the outstanding crème brulee. Go figure.
39 Pier 39 Concourse San Francisco CA 94133, +1 415-421-2442
Ostensibly this spot’s claim to fame is its screening of seminal movies, foreign or otherwise (the Goonies whilst we were there), intended and executed as ambience rather than active entertainment. They’ve created a unique atmosphere, possibly the most charming and compelling that I’ve ever experienced in a restaurant, from the retro, theatre-style façade and entrance passage to the al fresco dining area, a large courtyard fringed by a wall onto which the films are projected. But as attractive as it is, it would be a disservice to get overly caught up in the veneer, because Foreign Cinema has a real epicurean depth and credibility to it. The wine list numbers 800 odd, flabbergasting for a neighbourhood brasserie, and the selection of oysters alone, a speciality clearly, runs to a dozen odd, impressive for any establishment anywhere. The rest of the menu is expansive and imaginative – the American caviar, cod gratin, fried chicken, and rhubarb and huckleberry cheesecake that I was served were all delightful – and to my further astonishment, I was told that it changes daily. You’d have to twist my rubber arm to go back to verify.
2534 Mission Street San Francisco CA 94110, +1 415-648-7600
Wow! If Mazlow’s hierarchy was adapted to eating specifically, then Saison would be its self-actualisating apex. After a visit here it seemed vulgar to me that food should have to be used for physical sustenance when it’s so obviously suited to a much higher purpose. I asked the head sommelier on arrival if there was any particular theme to his wine and drinks menu. His reply was that they simply look to source and offer the very best of everything. And that was my sense of it for the place in its entirety. Our 15-course tasting menu introduced itself with salt seasoned caviar in an egg custard accompanied by a little loaf of fat basted bread, so ridiculously good that I thought they’d overreached too early. Oh ye of little faith indeed. In a meandering, bibulous journey with such highlights as trout (from “Battle Creek”!), lobster, abalone (in a sauce of its liver and capers), crab, and wild boar, and a variety of dishes – such as the grilled artichoke barigoule – made from vegetables cultivated in the restaurant’s own garden, my doubts were put to the sword in decisive fashion. The wines with which these courses were paired were predictably spectacular but it is the Eiko Fuji unpasteurised sake and the Jacques Perritaz cider (who knew cider could taste like this!) that live largest in my memory. A place of understated elegance and outrageous tantalisation.
178 Townsend Street San Francisco CA 94107, +1 415-828-7990
Valencia Street in the Mission, a hip, slightly eccentric assemblage featuring artisanal purveyors of all persuasions, offers the opportunity for an extended stretch of mellow ambling and browsing, with a stop for some gelato here, and a nibble on some chocolate there. Drop in at Tartine in the general area for an excellent if overpriced pastry (or even for an asparagus croque monsieur). Hayes Valley flaunts a lively retail scene, Haight Street still has the same vibrancy as I imagine it did during the Summer of Love, the Ferry Building market is a gourmet’s treat , and if you’re about at the right time of year you’ll want to catch the inimitable 420 (look it up) exhibition (a pop-up market really) in Golden Gate Park. However whilst these trendy, signature San Fran spots are all well and good, this is still the US of A, where the shopping mall is king. Here specifically it’s the Westfield that reigns. Large (170 shops), upmarket (Bloomingdale’s, Michael Kors, Hugo Boss), central (epicentral!), it presented me with the occasion to track down and secure an obscure-ish piece of luggage that I’d been hankering after. In fact the selection was so vast that I found it in no less than three places. Never mind Alice’s Restaurant, it’s here where you can get anything you want. Special mentions for David’s Tea, an outlet offering 150 varieties, and Tap 415, where you’ll get a large range of not only draught beer but also wine on tap (which prevents oxidisation), and other specialities like chicharones, pretzel nuggets, and the show-stopping Tap burger, a hamburger for the ages.
865 Market Street San Francisco CA 94103, +1 415-512-6776
There are dozens of exciting possible excursions in and around Frisco, but the area’s incredible beauty is perhaps best appreciated on the Bay itself. From the variety of operators plying the water we opted for the Hornblower brunch cruise. Americans don’t mess around when it comes to buffets, and this lavish spread was no exception. I was able to enjoy unparalleled views of the city (those famous ski-jump streets), the Golden Gate and Bay bridges, and the surrounding areas (Oakland, Sonoma, and Sausalito in the distance), all from the sated comfort of a liner-style dining deck, with live piano included.
Pier 3 Hornblower Landing The Embarcadero San Francisco CA 94111, +1 415-788-8866
These are views of which you just can’t get enough, and I had a second bite when we subsequently visited Alcatraz. I’d been fascinated with the place since watching Clint Eastwood in “Escape from Alcatraz”, a true story – one of many colourful stories about the island and its former inhabitants, so I was determined to fulfil it with my own on-the-spot insights of America’s most notorious prison. Alcatraz is welded into San Francisco’s landscape both geographically and culturally, and as such it’s an indispensable inclusion in any itinerary.
Pier 33 Alcatraz Landing San Francisco California 94133, +1 415-981-7625
For a young city San Fran has a rich history. The Presidio, a large tract of land at its northern end, offers a great portal into parts of this past, by way of its museum, its heritage buildings and structures, its free programs at the The Presidio Officers’ Club, and its own pivotal role in local and national events. Dating back to 1776, the time of the Spanish settlement, it served as a military base for most of its existence before being transferred to the Presidio Trust to manage as a national park. Moreover though, it’s a kill-ten-birds-with-one-stone, multifaceted type of place, the possibilities ranging from walking and biking (and just gazing out from the overlooks) along a picturesque, 24-mile trail in its forested parklands, mass picnicking on Thursdays and Sundays, feasting in one of its choice of ten eateries (try the margaritas at Arguello, yum!), golfing, swimming at Baker Beach, camping at the city’s only campground, and much much more given that it also accommodates a brewery, a bowling alley, a trampoline park, and tennis courts. This rambling resort is easily arrived at to boot by means of a free shuttle from downtown. Stay at the historic inn, take in some live music, get a look at the Walt Disney Family Museum, and visit Yoda’s statue outside the Lucas Films HQ.
The Presidio San Francisco CA 94129, +1 415-561-4323
I read a report recently that claimed that San Fran’s black population had declined from one in seven in 1970, to one in twenty today. One of the casualties of these shifting dynamics has been the city’s jazz scene, previously bustling, now reduced to only a few dedicated clubs. Deluxe is an endearingly gritty jazz “dive” that’s keeping the flag flying and flying high. Their focus is firmly the music – the excellent Bastet, playing on the night that we visited, is one of 60 odd bands on their books – but they also mix a mean Tom Collins.
1511 Haight Street San Francisco CA 94117, +1 415-552-6949
It’s not really feasible to walk San Francisco. It may not be the largest of cities, by American standards, but it’s large enough. Cycling though, which retains a point-blank perspective but with added reach, is a great option. It’s popular in these parts both as a sport – Specialized has its head office close-by – and as a commuting format, with multiple bike lanes facilitating. We chose Streets of San Francisco bike tours, based on excellent TripAdvisor reviews and it didn’t disappoint: from the decent bikes, and the complementary water and snacks, to the knowledgeable guide, very importantly, who was able to instruct us on a diverse topics including street art, architecture, culture, and history, never mind the geography of the place (one part of it being the reputed “Wiggle”, the hill-avoiding traverse) – making us feel like we were able to get under the surface of the city in a short space of time.
370 Linden Street San Francisco CA 94102, +1 415-448-7673
Special thanks to San Francisco Travel (www.sanfrancisco.travel).