San Francisco August 2009

San Francisco Travel Blog

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San Francisco August 2009: Walking off the calories on a 4-day foodie weekend.

Our flight to San Francisco arrived from New York around 10am on Friday morning, about 30minutes earlier than scheduled and by 11am we’d arrived at The Chancellor Hotel in Union Square, thrilled to be told a room was ready and that we could check in straight away. Whoo hoo, nice one!!! I love it when hotels let you check in early. I’d anticipated only being able to check our bags, so it was fantastic that a room was already available for us to settle into. A very pleasant room at that, although admittedly it could have done without the 2-inch step up into the bathroom that caused me to go flying a couple of times the first few days into our stay. It took me a while to get used to it being there despite the large ‘beware the step’ signs posted on the floor, nevertheless checking in early was worth the risk of a twisted ankle and the complimentary Terra Pure toiletries were divine, especially the green tea body lotion.

After a quick lunch of a tri-tip thin sliced beef sandwich at the Buckhorn Grill in the food court of the Westfield shopping center - I’m not really one for food courts since I am an admitted food snob and it may have been that I was so hungry I could have eaten a scabby horse, but it was unbelievably delicious - we headed for Fisherman’s Wharf at my friend Sara’s suggestion. I have to say Fisherman’s Wharf is not my favorite spot in San Francisco, a little too out and out tackily touristy for my tastes and having already visited San Francisco half a dozen or so times I was of a mind to try experiencing the city more like a local, but Sara was keen to stop by, so we walked down to the wharf via a meandering and aerobically challenging route that took us up Nob Hill, by Grace Cathedral and down (and up and down and up and down) Russian Hill, a part of San Francisco that I find surprisingly barren, at least on the streets we walked along. It’s pretty, but a few more trees or shrubs would improve the area enormously. Sara postulated that the lack of greenery might be earthquake related, but I’m not convinced of that, since things clearly grow in San Francisco, have you seen The Presidio or Telegraph Hill, there’s an abundance of greenery. Anyway didn’t the marina get the worst of it in the last big quake? Whatever the reason there are swaths of the city completely devoid of a few trees. I’m considering a stealth planting on my next visit.

After walking for about an hour we arrived at the tourist laden Wharf and quickly skirted the most tourist swollen parts and headed for a relatively quiet pier, immediately to the left of Pier 39 where many of our fellow travelers were clustered taking photographs of the sunbathing sea lions, however Sara and I were more inclined to make like sea lions and bask in the sun instead and we found ourselves a sunny spot where we sat inhaling the fresh sea air and enjoyed the view of the fog rolling in across the bay. Stunning!!

Unfortunately after about an hour we realized we’d basked just that little bit too long as our faces started to feel slightly tight and we noticed our noses were cherry red with sunburn, so after a stop in a souvenir store where we armed ourselves with a strong sunscreen we headed away from Fisherman’s Wharf and followed the ocean around to Fort Mason where we - and many tourists on hired bicycles - admired the breathtaking sight of the fog swirling over the Golden Gate bridge in the distance before looping back around the edge of the Marina district and up into the heart of North Beach via Columbus Avenue.

A drink was in order after all our walking and basking and the lovely Jake at 15 Romolo - a nice little spot up an alley around the slightly seedier corner of North Beach - was more than happy to oblige with a Pimms Cup for me and a Sauvignan Blanc for Sara. We sipped our drinks while taking surreptitious glances at Jake's loveliness. Seriously it was hard to look away. I’d turn to talk to Sara only to find my eyeballs trying to escape out of the side of my head to further drink in his scrumptiousness. Sara who was positioned at the end of the bar and turned in to face me was in a much better position to ogle without being obvious about it.

Hunger finally forced us to tear ourselves away and we trotted around the corner to Franchino, an Italian restaurant on Columbus Avenue between Grant and Vallejo recommended on Yelp. Now had I been going on looks alone I would have walked right by Franchino, so I’m thankful that a few 100 reviewers on Yelp were able to negate my shallow first impressions since we received a genuinely warm welcome at the family run restaurant where tourists were only sporadically dotted among the obvious and numerous local regulars and the food was amazingly delicious and hearty. In fact I dare say the pasta I had with salmon, asparagus and what was described to me as 'pink sauce' (I’m not sure what that is, tomato sauce with a touch of cream?) was even more scrumptious than the divine Jake. If I lived in San Francisco I would most definitely be there among the regulars.

We took advantage of our body clocks still being on East Coast time and had an early night and after a solid 9hours sleep - 9hours what a luxury - we were up with the larks at 6.30am on Saturday morning, our first full day in San Francisco. After applying copious amounts of cover up and sun block to our sunburned faces - the redness of my nose alone made me look as if I was suffering from a severe case of gin blossoms. W.C. Fields eat your heart out - we headed out, dressed ready for a high of 74degrees per the forecast on the early morning news channel, headed for the Farmers’ Market, which is held on Tuesdays and Saturdays at the Ferry Building. Ha…74degrees my behind; it was 54 at the very best, it was freezing and after a pit stop to the Starbucks across the street for a grande skim no foam latte - extra hot please - we scurried back to our hotel for our lightweight coats, which we clutched around us, our lattes warming our hands, as we bustled down Post St, taking a left onto Market towards the Ferry Building. Brrrrrrr!!! Layers are key when visiting San Francisco.

My feelings of cold were quickly replaced by feelings of hunger as my eyes feasted on the delights of the Farmers Market. The produce all looked soooooooo good and when I tasted a slice of nectarine I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. I could move to San Francisco for the stone fruit alone and after nibbling on slices of plums and nectarines the stall holders had put out as samples I was so in the mood for a breakfast of fruit and yogurt that we decided to pass on the delicious aromas coming from the various food vendors on the North East side of the Ferry Building - 9.30am was far too early for rotisserie chicken no matter how tempting it smelled - in favor of breakfast at Market Bar, but can you believe…there was no stone fruit in my seasonal fruit salad with Saint Benoit yogurt and balsamic vinegar? Strawberries, grapes, blueberries and I think blackberries, but no plums or nectarines. What’s that about? Shape up Market Bar!! It was still really good, but I was a little disappointed given stone fruits were clearly in season.

After breakfast we headed behind the Ferry Building to buy tickets for the 10.40am ferry ride to Sausalito, the first of the day and a ferry ride touted on the Golden Gate Ferry website as “ranked second best in the world.” I don’t know about you, but this claim didn’t ignite my enthusiasm for the Sausalito Ferry Ride, rather it just made me wonder which ferry ride took first place. Well readers, I can put you out of your misery and let you know that the Sausalito ferry ride was pipped at the post for first place, as ranked by the Society of American Travel Writers, by the Star Ferry in Hong Kong. Now as someone who has taken both journeys I can tell you I didn’t feel at all nauseous on the 30minute ferry to Sausalito, but I was positively green around the gills on the brief - it’s like 7minutes - trip on the Star Ferry from Hong Kong to Kowloon should that help you make your choice of ferry ride.

The Sausalito ferry ride was lovely and smooth, no nausea whatsoever, if a little chilly and God knows why I’d spent 20mins flipping out my hair that morning since it completely deflated after numerous sprays from the ocean as we stood on deck furiously snapping photos of the Bay Bridge and the Ferry building and resolved itself into the bob shape it would have dried into naturally without effort. Why do I bother? Sigh!! However the views of Sausalito as you approach on the ferry are worth putting up with a bad hair day.

We spent our time in Sausalito wandering along the coastline and admiring the beautiful houses set into the hillside. Part of me wanted to walk and look at the residences set further up, but Sara was suffering from an aversion to hills after Friday’s walk to Fisherman’s Wharf, so instead we looked at a few art galleries followed by a leisurely Panini lunch at Poggio before heading back to San Francisco on the 1:55pm ferry and taking the BART to 16th and Mission Sts for dessert at the highly recommended Bi-Rite Creamery.

I have to say I’d recommend an alternative route to the Mission District and avoid the BART at 16th and Mission if I were you. Taking this route makes the neighborhood seem very sketchy and we passed many a suspicious looking loiterer and panhandler including an extremely gaunt older woman sucking on a tab end of a cigarette like her life depended on it, her cheeks concave with the effort to get the last shred of tobacco into her lungs. The experience more than colored my initial perspective of the Mission, it was only the fact that yuppies with strollers, hipsters and working class families strolled the streets seemingly unconcerned that stopped me from scurrying like a scaredy cat back to Union Square - admittedly I am quite the coward - but I still couldn't quite reconcile the fact that so many people I know in New York who've lived in San Francisco chose to live in that neighborhood.

"Oh yeah, that area around the BART station is totally full of drug dealers and addicts" said former Mission District resident, Megan when I met her for dinner at The Redhead back in New York, "I used to live between the 16th & Mission and 24th & Mission BART stops and it was definitely sketchy. It has a lot of character though and it's the area of San Francisco that gets the most sun."

Ah character, is that what they're calling it these days!! I remember Megan once telling me that when she lived in that part of San Francisco she would quite often hear gunshots. Call me an uptight Upper East Sider if you will, but gunshots aren't my kind of character, no matter how sunny the neighborhood.

As it turns out if you take the J train metro to Church and 18th by Mission Delores Park - as we did a couple of days later - you get an entirely more positive perspective of the Mission and Bi-Rite creamery is definitely worth a visit, although it's quite the wait if you stop by on a weekend afternoon. We got there around 3.30pm on a sunny Saturday when the line snaked around the corner and I wondered how good could the ice cream really be. The queue was even longer than the one seen at Magnolia Bakery in the West Village - they're just cupcakes people - and I wondered, after all the hype, would I be disappointed?

Happily that was not to be the case and the taste was so worth the interminable wait well okay, 40minutes.

"What are you going to have?" I asked Sara as we stood in line.
"Mint Choc Chip I think. What about you?"
"I'm pondering salted caramel"
"I considered that, but the salted part puts me off"
"Me too, but the Yelp reviewers say it's really good and how often do you see that as an ice cream flavor?"

Twenty-five minutes on line and still a good 20 people ahead of us. Seriously how long can it take to scoop ice cream? Scoop faster people; scoop faster. The impatient New Yorker in me was showing.

Omigod salted caramel ice cream!!! It's amazing, like cinder toffee in ice cream form, it's the best ever, although outside Bi-Rite creamery sit groups of blissed out people proffering wooden spoons to each other and saying 'here, taste this and tell me it's not the best thing you've ever tasted,' so there could be some strong competition to salted caramel for the best ice cream ever. Clearly I need to return and conduct a taste test.

I’ve also heard Humphry Slocombe is another great place for ice-cream in The Mission - some say even better than Bi-Rite Creamery if that’s at all possible. Bi-Rite Creamery was pretty damn good, and I don’t even like ice cream that much. If there’s better to be had my taste buds may well explode. I’ll have to check out Humphry Slocombe on my next visit; I’ve heard something called Secret Breakfast is the flavor to try there.

I don’t mind admitting I did a few jumping jacks when I got back to the hotel that evening, it was necessary if I was going to squeeze in any more food into my belly that day and we had a 7:30pm reservation at The Slanted Door to look forward to, a restaurant I’ve wanted to try ever since my first visit to San Francisco back in 1998, but had never been on the ball enough to make a reservation far enough in advance. Thank goodness for is all I can say since a reservation is a necessity, the large restaurant was completely heaving when we were there, so you’d be lucky to get a table as a walk in, the food is as good as they say it is too, although I’d be more inclined to go with a group next time and order multiple dishes to share

Sunday we were up early again and by 8:30am we’d bought an $11 Muni day-pass at Powell St Station and were en route to Ocean Beach via the Judah line streetcar for brunch at a restaurant, Outerlands, that I’d read a glowing report of in the New York Times. We arrived much earlier than expected - I think the last time I went to Ocean Beach it took about an hour by bus - about an hour before the restaurant was due to open, so we headed a few blocks down to walk along to the beach clasping tea from Java Beach Café - a cozy café with a wonderfully eclectic crowd of customers - to warm ourselves against the frigid temperatures. It was much colder than I was expecting and my lightweight raincoat didn’t provide much protection from the elements, but I loved being out there by the ocean. I’m not exactly what you’d call a beach person in the traditional sense in that I don’t like to lay on a towel in 80plus degree heat, smothered in coconut oil, burning myself to a crisp, however I do love to walk along the beach once the heat of the summer has abated enjoying a breezy 50-60 degree day and the fresh ocean air. This is one of the reasons I love Ocean Beach in San Francisco. It’s not the prettiest of beaches and my parents - two people who love to slather themselves in coconut oil and frazzle like bacon (I think I must be adopted) - would hate it, but for me it has a certain serene beauty and I found it very calming to be by the ocean, a welcome respite from the insanity of my usual life in Manhattan. I felt so wonderfully calm there I practically attained enlightenment that Sunday and not a smidgen of yoga necessary.

There's something about the Outer Sunset neighborhood of San Francisco that appeals to me immensely, although in theory it should be just the opposite, since like Russian Hill it suffers from a lack of greenery on the streets and has a desolate, barren feeling, maybe it's the proximity to the ocean that does it. Outerlands restaurant certainly contributes. It was as wonderful a restaurant as the NY Times article suggested with sweet, gracious staff and mellow customers. It had a lovely laid-back vibe that I wish I could have bottled and brought back with me to NYC. The tiny place was heaving come 10:30am and the food incredibly delicious, not to mention cheap, our dishes were in the $7-$9 range. Sara ordered the Dutch Apple Pancakes, which were so tasty I almost wished I'd ordered them myself and would if I were to go there again, however I'm generally more of an eggs person when it comes to brunch and that Sunday was no exception. I ordered the interesting sounding eggs in jail which turned out to be a dish my mum occasionally made for me and my sister when we were kids, but which in our household was called sunshine toast, that is a thick slice of bread with a circular hole cut from the middle, with two eggs cracked into the hole and lightly fried. The Outerlands version was served with crispy bacon, salad and the fried bread 'hole' on the side. Scrumptious!!

Hunger pangs satisfied we vacated our table for other hungry diners queuing for tables and walked north alongside the beach and up to Golden Gate Park, which my guide book informed me is 20% larger than Central Park, I never would have guessed, passing this Dutch windmill which boasts the world's largest windmill wings.

We walked a couple of miles through Golden Gate Park, but it wasn’t one of my favorite places. In the hour we spent there I don’t think we saw more than a dozen people and it felt lonely when compared to the weekend bustle of Central Park and we soon headed back to Judah St to catch the tram to explore the picturesque streets of Cole Valley, a neighborhood we’d passed through on the way to Ocean beach where I was rather taken with the boulangerie, a very cute little cafe and bakery, the likes of which seem to be somewhat abundant in San Francisco compared to New York where high rents seem to force out everything smaller than big box chain stores.
We rounded off the afternoon walking through the Haight Ashbury, Buena Vista park and briefly through the Castro before hunger pangs started to set in and we hopped on a ye olde F tram which took us along Market St to the Ferry Building where we had a snack at Taylor’s Refresher to put us on before our 7.30pm dinner reservation at Scala's Bistro, happily just a short walk across the street from the hotel. After covering so much ground during the day I wasn't in much of mood to travel far afield for dinner. Scala’s was good if a little stuffy for my tastes, and on the expensive side, but it’s a San Francisco classic and the buttermilk-mashed potatoes accompanying the signature salmon entrée were absolutely divine.

Monday was our last day in San Francisco, but with a seat booked on the redeye at 9pm we still had plenty of time to make the most of the city and by 8:30am we were checked out of the hotel, our bags stored with the concierge. Armed with a one day MUNI pass we hopped on the #2 bus and headed for breakfast at Ella's in Laurel Heights where I inquired of the waiter the ingredients of daily scrambled eggs.

“Bacon, feta cheese and asparagus,” he told me.

He had me at bacon. I lurve me some bacon, in fact pork in general hits the spot. Sara can’t quite believe my change given I was vegetarian for 7years and never misses an opportunity to tease me for my pork fetish. We speculate that perhaps I was a strictly observant Jew in a previous life and I'm making up for the deprivation now.

I managed only about half of my eggs as the dish was a total gut buster and even consuming that much was pushing the capacity of my stomach and I suggested burning a few calories with a walk through The Presidio, Crissy Field and up to Golden Gate Bridge to torch a few calories.

I love it out by Crissy Field, the air smells so fresh and clean and the view of the Golden Gate Bridge is breathtaking. I took countless photos.

We’d worked up an appetite after our reasonably long walk - I didn't have my pedometer like I did in China but I'm estimating we easily covered 3 or 4 miles - and it was after 12:30pm so I didn’t feel too much of a piglet that my thoughts were already turning to plan to have lunch at Tartine Bakery in the Mission, described as unmissable by our guidebook, and highly recommended by my friends Megan and Gina who have both lived in San Francisco. On the way I emailed pastry chef Megan for recommendations

“Oooh, well it’s late in the day so some of the morning pastries might be gone, but my faves are 1) almond croissants 2) morning buns 3) veg quiche 4) choc croissant. If you are in the mood for dessert the coconut or banana tarts are amazing (they have whip cream on top, in the cold case).”

Hmmm, given we planned to hit up Bi-Rite Creamery a second time for one last delicious taste of salted caramel ice-cream I decided to forgo pastries for something savory instead and ordered a Humboldt Fog goats cheese pressed sandwich on walnut bread and an iced tea and Sara and I sat at the communal table sipping our iced teas and awaited our sandwich orders. I really wasn’t expecting them to be quite so humungous.

Given I fully intended to squeeze in an ice cream I decided to eat one piece, a third of the total sandwich and pack the rest in a to go box, however the desserts had been recommended so highly that I couldn’t resist getting a little sweet something too, so I got a chocolate hazelnut tart to go - more transportable than a banana tart with whipped cream recommended by Megan, although that did look amazing - the tart and the other two-thirds of my sandwich should set me up nicely for the overnight flight back to NYC.

Who ate all the San Francisco pies? I did!!
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Very pleasant hotel, well priced with a convenient Union Square location.
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