Since it’s raining cats and dogs all over Europe, we’re gonna tackle your wanderlust with tales from the sunshine state. Welcome to Cooler‘s local guide to the city of love, San Francisco!
Words by Sam Haddad
From beatnik writers in the 50s, LSD-loving hippies in the 60s, and writers such as Dave Eggers and his McSweeney’s collective today, San Francisco has always been a haven for creative and slightly offbeat types. Maybe they love the nature/city combo, as thanks to an accident of geography, SF is perched alongside a bright blue bay, surrounded by lush vegetation and built on curvy volcanic-induced topography. It gives the streets a great steepness, not to mention rollers, which look like they’d be great to hit on a snowboard (not that it’s snowed here since 1976 but still). Or maybe people are drawn to the iconic red of the Golden Gate Bridge, the brightly-coloured Victorian and art deco houses, and leafy streets that give it a small-town feel, even though it’s a properly major city. Who knows but the city certainly has a special vibe about it, and in spite of our insanely high expectations for the place, we fell for it big time.
San Francisco has seen successions of immigrants make the city their home, which isn’t hard to see why. It also means a lot of seriously good restaurants straddling every culinary genre you’d care to think of. There’s amazing Asian food, from Cantonese to Thai to Sushi, insanely good Mexican/Spanish food (we had the best tacos ever tasted, no word of a lie), great Italian and traditional American burger-type fare, often with a healthy, organic twist.
A solid breakfast option favoured by locals is the Lakeside Café, 2529 Ocean Avenue. It’s all 1950s New York-style (even the staff had Big Apple twangs) and we had this poached egg and spinach polenta concoction, which could well have been made by God himself (if he exists). In the same Ocean Beach area is the insanely good Marnee Thai, 2225 Irving Street, which had more awards on its thatched-straw walls than we’ve had hot dinners. And we could see why. The Tom Yum kicked ass, as did the Chilean Sea Bass, Green Papaya Salad and Red Pumpkin Curry.
The Mission district is loaded with super-tasty Mexican eateries, such as the brightly coloured Mariachi’s, 502 Valencia Street, where we had quesdillas so good we bored ourselves, and everyone around us, with superlatives. You get a choice of spinach, tomato or wholewheat tortillas and fillings include top-end guacamole, refried beans and diced mango, which makes those Old El Paso kits you get in supermarkets seem ever more paltry. We Be Sushi, 538 Valencia Street, has great sushi, udon noodle dishes and other Japanese delicacies amusingly tagged ‘like mom used to make’. We were also into the moules, frites and crepes (though not on the same plate) at this Belgian art tea house place Frjtz Fries, 590 Valencia Street.
Lower Haight has a lot to offer food-wise too, including the packed Japanese favourite Hanabi, 509 Haight Street, and the Burger Joint, 700 Haight at Pierce, where they cook their veggie burgers on a meatless grill, sell hormone free hotdogs, and make killer milkshakes.
While the dollar is still feeling somewhat lethargic compared to the euro there is muchas purse-spanking to be had in SF. If you have time the commodified chains around Union Square might be worth a look for Urban Outfitters etc, but the more discerning shopper will want to head to the Mission and Lower Haight. If humans were allowed to marry districts, and lets face it such a law is more likely in SF than anywhere else, the Mission would be the area we’d like to woo.
From vintage book stores such as the Abandoned Planet, 518 Valencia Street to retro furniture stores, such as the Monument, 572 Valencia Street, where you probably can’t purchase for reasons of price and practicality but is worth a look all the same. If only so you can feel nostalgic about a time when you didn’t even exist.
There’s also loads of cool thrift stores, such as Idol Vintage, 3162 16th Street, which has loads of old sportswear and denim, and where our fashion editor spent about a week.
And the piece de la resistance is Needles and Pens, 3253 16th Street, which specialises in fanzines, photo books and rare magazine titles, plus lovely customised clothes and it has an art gallery out back. And our favourite author Dave Eggers funds his writing tutoring centre for kids at 826 Valencia, from the profits of their pirate supply store at the same address.
Lower Haight, not to be confused with Haight-Ashbury, which mostly sells skins and bongs, with its leafy streets and Victorian houses has good record and clothing stores such as Lower Hater, 597 Haight Street and D-Structure 520 Haight Street, which sells clothes and skis with sick graphics.
Between Hayes and Grove is the Mojo Bicycle Café, 6339 Divisadero Street, which sells Swobo and Kona bikes, alongside fair trade coffees and cakes. Near Ocean Beach is the beautifully-designed Mollusk Surf Shop, 4500 Irving Street, which sells properly nice-looking surfboards, fins, tees and also doubles up as an art space for top-quality surf art.
While there was a lot of cool bars and clubs, the locals didn’t seem to take binge drinking as seriously as London-based people like ourselves are used to, which although mildly unsettling at first, we concluded was probably a good thing.
Again the Mission and Lower Haight are good places to hit. In Lower Haight Molotov’s, 582 Haight Street, lives up to its biker dive bar rep, Zam Zam, 1633 Haight Street feels like you’ve stepped into a 1940s film, Nickies, 466 Haight Street has Reggae Dancehall on Fridays but avoid the Irish jigging on Sundays and Rickshaw Stop, 155 Fell Street has a good vibe and roster of acts, MIA and the Silversun Pickups have all played there of late.
In the Mission district try the Elbo Room, 647 Valencia Street for dub, samba or salsa, Zeitgeist, 199 Valencia Street for cheap beers, Thirsty Bear, 661 Howard Street, for locally brewed, hand-crafted beers, Amnesia, 853 Valencia Street for DJs and sweaty dancefloor mentalness at weekends, and the Mighty, 119 Utah Street, an art gallery/music venue combo.
For a fromage-free experience in a truly local setting, as in far from the madding crowds, try the Ocean Park Motel, 2690 46th Avenue. Aside from being big Barack Obama fans, which we obviously love them for, they’re also super-helpful and brimming with advice on local-esque ways to enjoy the city. The motel is this amazing light blue art deco building, with a grass courtyard and retro car port area, that apparently had a less than salubrious reputation in the 1930s. It’s a frisbee’s throw from the beautifully wild Ocean Beach and the affordable rooms are cool and comfy. Plus the owners have been there for at least 20 years, which is as rare as it is sweet.
Other options whop bang in the centre of town include the Hotel des Arts, 477 Bush Street, a wondrous hotel art gallery cross which includes rooms designed by one of our favourite illustrator’s Casey O’Connell and the amazing Shepard Fairey. If you fancy staying in the heart of the Mission District The Inn, 943 South Van Ness Avenue, a Victorian mansion turned into a bed and breakfast, is a good shout. And at the budget end, but still with the most spine-tingling views of the bunch, is the Fisherman’s Wharf Hostel, Fort Mason. You can see the Golden Gate Bridge and bay including Alcatraz, plus are an easy walk from Fisherman’s Wharf and Chinatown.
We’re not sure if this counts as culture but we certainly have a fetish for the Golden Gate Bridge. Just seeing it for the first time neatly framing the horizon gave us goose bumps a plenty, and then weirdly we got vertigo when we cycled across it, followed by a shower of endorphins. The best thing to do is to hire bikes from one of the many Blazing Saddles booths at Fisherman’s Wharf. That way you can build up the momentum as you cycle through the Presidio National Park, complete with surfers and skimboarders to your right. After the bridge you can cycle down at pace to Sausalito, which has cute shops and the get the ferry back across the bay, past Alcatraz and with a perfect view of one of the most beautiful cities on the planet.
SF is extremely well-endowed from an art perspective. You can almost taste the creativity in the air, or something. The Mission is well-known for having tons of nice-looking murals, some of which date back to the 1970s when the area was largely Latino and neighbourhood artists and women’s movements would form mural collectives. Balmy Alley is the most famous alley to hit and we also loved Clarion Alley.
Gallery-wise there are some great spots ranging from established super-heroes, such as MOMA, 151 3rd Street, to first timers. We like the Shooting Gallery, 839 Larkin Street and its offshoot Gallery Three, which has an Erik Otto exhibition in July.
Local artist and big friend of Cooler, Casey O’Connell says the surf shop Mollusk (mentioned above) is her favourite art space in the city. “They show some of my favourite artists like Thomas Cambell and Geoff McFetridge and the openings are more of a celebration than a scene.” She tries to see most shows at the Luggage Store, 1007 Market Street, Eleanor Harwood, 1295 Alabama Street and Jack Hanley, 395 Valencia Street though shae says, “the artists they show tend to make me want to never paint again, as they are so good.” Elsewhere in the Mission film lovers should check out the Roxie arthouse cinema, 3117 16th Street.
So there you have it – nature, culture, creativity, cool buildings, sound people, beaches and mountains (just three hours away) – in a city version of top trumps SF would clearly romp to victory. We’re off to google ‘ways to get an American husband’ so we can get Green Card sorted, and move there pronto.
Night in a 3 star hotel: 56 euros
Bed in a hostel: 14 euros
Coffee: 1.50 euros
Burrito: 2 euros
Two hours on the muni (tram): 1.80 euros
Entry to a club: 5 euros
Beer: 1.80 euros
Thanks to Virgin Holidays