leave your inhibitions at the door
A friend of a friend recently asked me for food and lodging tips for a summer vacation to San Francisco, and I happily obliged. Having lived in S.F. for years and now as a regular traveler there for work, I have the unique perspective of both a tourist and former townie. The friend of a friend liked my tips so much she suggested I write a “travel blog.” I didn’t give it another thought, until I read in the paper this morning that S.F. ranks in the top 10 vacation destinations this summer. So here is my so-called S.F. travel blog, with suggestions for some things to do and places to stay while avoiding the tourist traps.
Best quiet, well-located hotel: Orchard Garden Hotel. I love big cities, but I hate trying to go to sleep to heavy street traffic and noise. My new go-to hotel is Orchard Garden, a “green-certified” boutique hotel on Bush St. a few blocks off of Union Square. It’s astonishingly quiet, fairly new, yet very close to tons of choices for dining and shopping. It’s also less expensive than most hotels downtown, but is very clean—doesn’t have that nasty hotel smell. Not super fancy, but not budget either, with comfortable beds. Try Café de la Presse across the street for authentic onion soup au gratin and a frisee salad with a poached egg, crispy lardons (thick bacon), and Dijon vinaigrette. There’s also a charming wine bar a few doors down with outdoor tables that seems to attract a crowd of stylish young French people, for whatever reason (it could be the Euro-ish Hotel Triton next door). Anyway, Orchard Garden Hotel has a few quirks—rooms can be small, low water pressure from the green-certified showers, puny workout room—but all things considered, it’s my cozy new hotel home while traveling in SF.
Best foodie hangout: Ferry Building Marketplace. About 10 years ago this building was turned into a major dining and foodie destination with shops selling everything from truffled sea salt to Cowgirl Creamery cheeses to fresh produce from local farms at the Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market. There’s also some great restaurants ranging from the popular Slanted Door, serving high-end Asian fusion cuisine, to more casual spots. Among my favorites are Hog Island Oyster Co., serving, in addition to the obvious, an incredible grilled cheese sandwich and deconstructed clam chowder, which I write about here; as well as Majita, owned by celebrity chef Traci Des Jardins, serving authentic Mexican “street food” such as the carnitas (roast pork) tacos, which I enjoyed on the outdoor deck overlooking the Bay on my lunch break recently while working in downtown S.F., along with authentic Mexican pickled carrots and peppers and a refreshing watermelon agua fresca.
Best fancy seafood restaurant with a view: The Water Bar. I don’t know about you, but whenever I’m on vacation someplace coastal, I’m always hoping to discover a great seafood restaurant on the water that is not a tourist trap, as restaurants with “a view” often means crappy, touristy food. Not so with the Water Bar. (Warning, though, it’s not cheap). The wild salmon sashimi appetizer with muscat grapes, shiso, and serrano chilies is wonderful, with incredibly fresh raw salmon described as “troll caught aboard the ‘Mandy Jane’ out of San Francisco.” As was my main course of Hawaiian Opakapa (pink snapper). In the center of the restaurant, two large cylindrical aquariums run from ceiling to floor, with largish fish swimming languidly within. A couple of things are annoyingly overpriced, such as a shrimp cocktail that, despite huge and very fresh shrimp, price out to $4 apiece. Really? Guess they have to pay for those fancy aquariums somehow. To keep it cheaper, come for lunch or cocktails, enjoying the nice patio with covered tables outside.
Best cheap boat ride: Ferry to Sausalito. It’s just a 30 minute ferry trip from the Ferry Building in S.F. to Sausalito, just north of the Golden Gate bridge, and ferries run all day long. Even better, they serve cocktails! Grab a drink and enjoy the saltwater spray. Sausalito is a quaint Marin town that’s fun to explore, and it’s just as easy to get a ferry back.
Best views: Mount Tamalpais. Drive across the Golden Gate Bridge and up to top of Mount Tamalpais. Gorgeous views and stops along the way. You can see for miles and miles, including most of San Francisco. It’s breathtaking, peaceful, and romantic (wink, wink).
Best easy hike with views: Lands End. Featuring incredible cliff views overlooking the Pacific Ocean, this trail runs along the Northwest side of San Francisco, south of the Golden Gate Bridge and near the Palace of Fine Arts. Start on the north end of the trail, at the lookout, and end just about a mile down at the Cliff House, which now hosts a really nice restaurant. Have lunch, and then take a walk on the beach, which is directly south of the Cliff House.
Best neighborhood tour: Pacific Heights and Marina Neighborhoods. Walk/drive around Pacific Heights and the Marina to view gorgeous San Francisco homes. Have Dinner at Terzo, serving delicious food inspired by Southern Europe (chef Mark Gordon is a personal friend), and you might run into a tech industry magnate (a spy spotted Jeffrey Bezos of Amazon fame there). Another good option for lunch or dinner is Betelnut, serving Asian fusion on Union Street, a fun street for shopping. (Another hotel tip: There are lots of motor inns on nearby Lombard Street that can be a good place to stay cheaply with family. The hotels themselves aren’t impressive, but it’s kinda nice they sit on a the edge of an upscale neighborhood with lots of restaurants, drinking holes, and shops.)
Quintessential San Francisco party night: North Beach. Spend an evening walking around North Beach, the Italian District. Numerous Italian restaurants, cafes, and bars to choose from. Stomping grounds of Francis Ford Coppola and Sean Penn. I’m not sure I would call it “best night out,” so I didn’t, and North Beach is a bit touristy…but it is real San Francisco, and you will overwhelmed with options for having a good time.
Best athletic endeavor: Bike Ride to Tiburon. Ride across the Golden Gate Bridge in the bike lane separated by a rail (it’s admittedly unnerving, with water on one side and cars whizzing by on the other, but if someone as squeamish of heights as I can, most anyone in pretty good health can do it). Ride past Sausalito and into the town of Tiburon and have lunch at Sam’s Café. After you enjoy your crab salad sandwich on sourdough and an Anchor Steam beer on the back deck overlooking the Bay, hop on a ferry with your bike (ferry stop is right next to restaurant), and relax on your boat ride back to San Francisco, arriving at Pier 41. You will have to bike back to where you’re staying, so be careful.
So those are just some of the things that to me are the best of San Francisco. Restaurants I want to try out that I’ve heard great things about but haven’t yet had the opportunity:
- flour + water (pasta, pizza, serious about dough, hard to get into)
- Central Kitchen (same owners; American, just opened)
- Mission Chinese Food (modernized Szechuan; getting a lot of food press lately)