Unlike years past, this trip was a mix of a concentrated urban environment and a more remote Pacific coastline landscape, spending a week in San Francisco, mostly walking and on busses, before renting a car and heading north, perusing areas only briefly explored in earlier years. In the city, we spent a week in the Marina district renting a ground floor apartment in someone else’s home, which included a lovely enclosed patio, where we were just a block away from Marina Green, an open field including a municipal boat marina on the bay, part of a Golden Gate Promenade with walkways filled with walkers and joggers, as cyclists have their own separate pathway, all the way to the very visible Golden Gate bridge looming off in the distance, one side that is open for pedestrians while the other side is for bikers. From this home base, we were able to walk through a lovely bi-level Great Meadow park outside Fort Mason that leads into Ghirardelli Square to Fisherman’s Wharf, the most commercialized area on the waterfront. Much of the Marina, among the most prized waterfront real estate in the city, including high priced beachfront homes that stare out from large windows onto the mouth of the Bay, is actually built on a former landfill where tons of rock and brick rubble from a 1906 earthquake were dumped, some of which can still be seen. Prior to that, the Spanish arrived here about the time the Declaration of Independence was being signed on the East coast, while eight thousand years ago American Indians lived on the dunes and marshlands. The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, which happened during a live broadcast of the World Series, where even part of the Bay Bridge collapsed, sparked 27 fires citywide and downed many of the older buildings in the Marina, providing the impetus for new earthquake-sturdy construction and economic revitalization, turning it into one of the high-priced San Francisco neighborhoods. Most of the homes in the district are two or three story Victorians seen throughout San Francisco, painted in pastel colors and often decorated with gardens and colorful flowers, a practice seen throughout the Andalusian region of Spain.
The first thing that’s immediately apparent are the hills of the city, which can beat you to death when walking any distance. These are no longer the flatlands of the Midwest, as even the busses and cable cars whip over these hills at tremendous speed, dodging in and out of traffic, barreling around the corners, where angular houses built onto the hills are parallel to a presumably invisible flat surface, causing odd geometric shapes seen throughout the city. Considering the fact that alcoholism is so widespread here, with its presence felt in nearly every neighborhood, it seems ironic that the buildings themselves can seem like optical illusions, resembling the exaggerated effects of early silent comedies. Nonetheless, it helps to familiarize yourself ahead of time with local bus routes, as it’s often surprising to see what circuitous routes many of them take, weaving in and out of various neighborhoods. Only on one occasion, coming from downtown of all places, did we have to wait more than an hour for the right bus to come. Dozens of others passed us by, but certainly part of the delay is the particularly odd route this bus took, where they have to bypass some of the more severely steep hills in the city. Traveling the city in this manner, we got a crash course in the various neighborhoods simply by the changing look of the riders, with upscale whites heading for the Marina, Asians heading to and from Chinatown, with its prestigious downtown location, blacks heading for the Jefferson Square projects of the Fillmore district, and legions of baseball fans heading for a Giant game at AT & T Park.
One thing’s for certain, many of the most gorgeous Asian women on the planet live in San Francisco, while at the same time blacks are systematically being driven out of the city, where they now comprise only 6 or 7% of the city’s population, literally half the numbers (16.5%) from figures in 1978. In the 50’s and 60’s, urban planners brilliantly conceived the idea of bulldozing mostly black neighborhoods across the country and replacing their older homes with housing projects. Instead of eliminating a culture of poverty, this practice instead led to even fewer avenues of escape, where residents felt imprisoned by the blight of economic restrictions. Then, as time went on, governmental bodies failed to adequately fund and upgrade the buildings, which became a futile nightmare to manage. As a result, many of these dilapidated homes still exist, bringing with them governmental mistrust and a litany of social problems caused by uprooting and destabilizing established communities, where there is a growing resentment from other (white) communities having to live anywhere near these “damaged” communities. This racial dilemma has led to calls for renewed gentrification, which is simply another word for driving the blacks out of the neighborhood. As James Baldwin once suggested “Urban renewal is Negro removal.” While this is not unique to San Francisco, the black population in the city has dwindled.
One of the other surprises was the overwhelming presence of cyclists, as they are everywhere to be found in California, easily the most bike-obsessed state we’ve seen. There are stands all over the city to rent bikes, even extending over the Golden Gate Bridge into Sausalito, where there are literally droves of people on bikes sharing the roads with cars and pedestrians. It’s a cultural phenomenon, perhaps rivalling the Chinese during the era of Mao, as instead of taking some kind of long-winded city tour bus, tourists and local residents are encouraged to ride, allowing them freedom of access while eliminating problems with air pollution. All of this feels very West Coast. Certainly one of the advantages of living in San Francisco is the preponderance of seafood, most specifically Dungeness crab and Tamales Bay oysters, which is something we took advantage of daily, pairing nightly meals with a Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, a prominent growing region nearby on the Sonoma coast, finding labels rarely exported to the Midwest but are perfectly affordable here, which is simply an exquisite combination. Some of the meals on this trip were staggeringly good, yet the plush nature of the wines was equally impressive, even when spending as little as $15 a bottle at a local corner market.
Easily the culinary experience of the entire trip was a bit of a surprise. After our first two evenings where the trek to dinner was within walking distance overlooking the Bay, this one proved to be more than 8 miles away, just a block from the Pacific Ocean in the Outer Sunset district, something of a stretch on public transportation. So we combined the distance with a visit to Golden Gate Park, where the bus ride passes directly to the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge before heading south through the Presidio to the park, dropping us off on the north end. We never actually obtained a detailed map of San Francisco, so we were somewhat at a disadvantage and had to guess distances, but not far away was the Japanese Tea Garden, the oldest public Japanese garden in the United States, and one of the more delightfully exotic places to visit. Originally built for the 1894 International Exposition, the site was only comprised of a single acre. After the exposition was over, Japanese landscape architect Makoto Hagiwara, a wealthy local Japanese landscape designer and member of Japan’s aristocracy, funded, built, and managed the project, expanding the garden to its current size of 5 acres, depleting the family fortune in a lifelong quest to achieve an artistic garden of spiritual transcendence, a place to take a leisurely stroll, taking great care to perfectly place every stone, koi pond, tree, shrub and sculpture to achieve a balanced harmony resembling that of a natural landscape, pouring all of his creative talent and personal wealth into an immaculately sculptured shrine to Zen Buddhism, where he and his family lived on the grounds until 1942 when Hagiwara along with 120,000 Japanese-Americans were forced by the Federal government into internment camps. After the war, Hagiwara was not allowed to return to his home in the garden, where many of his personal family treasures were removed. Now the street is named after him, though it no longer reflects the intricate care and precision Hagiwara invested in maintaining the gardens. While we visited in late summer, the garden comes to life in the spring when the cherry blossoms bloom.
Walking the width of the park and climbing another hill to the next bus stop, it heads straight for the ocean, stopping at elevated platforms on route, before arriving in a run-down, Vietnamese part of town filled with old dilapidated structures, including a few open bars that seemed strewn with inebriated alcoholics. Exhausted from all the walking, and more than an hour early for dinner reservations, we slumped on the remnants of an old bus stop shelter, which was apparently out of order, as cars lining the street were parked directly in front, something that happens frequently in this city, a practice that infuriates bus drivers. The street was so narrow that only one car could pass in either direction. An elderly Vietnamese woman placed her bags on the bench beside us, but quietly stood outside. A loud and obnoxious drunk interrupted the momentary calm to sit next to us, with fumes coming from his dragon breath, where it was hard to understand a word coming out of his mouth, yet he spoke to us incessantly until we stood up and moved around the corner peering at the ocean. Surprisingly, like a scene out of a Miyazaki movie, an actual bus came by, stopping to load passengers, then continued down this harrowingly narrow street. In this unpretentious setting we discovered the best food experience in San Francisco, Thanh Long (http://thanhlongsf.com/), a Vietnamese restaurant just a block from the beach owned by chef Helene An (5 Questions for Helene An | Daily Dish | Los Angeles Times), where their specialty is roasting whole Dungeness crabs in their own concoction of garlic and secret sauces, including the infamous tiato herb, where nearly everyone in the restaurant is being served the same thing, where you’ve never seen so many entire crabs served in such a short period of time, and they do this 6 days a week. In this small corner restaurant, one can only imagine where they store them all. Complete with bibs and the necessary tools of the trade, we worked feverishly, barely coming up for air, literally devouring this enormously delicious meal as if we’d been delivered to culinary heaven. This is a crab meal unlike any you’ll ever experience.
Nearly as good is the Seafood Cioppino at Tadich Grill (http://www.tadichgrill.com/), a no-nonsense downtown restaurant in the Financial District that dates back to the Gold Rush in 1849, which happens to be the state of California’s oldest restaurant, where only Boston’s Union Oyster House (1826) and Antoine’s Restaurant in New Orleans (1840) have been around longer. A bit like Berghoff’s in Chicago, when you walk in the front door, a wooden bar greets customers stretching from the door all the way back to the kitchen, which is usually packed with many customers eating at the bar on stools. The other side is an equally narrow passageway, with small tables nestled in the aisles just outside these larger alcoves for parties of four or more. No reservations is their policy, but everyone is served. With crusty male waiters in white jackets and black pants that tend to be gruff and impatient, as if they’re working the stock exchange, it’s all about moving tables with dexterity, speed, and a choreography of motion, as these guys have to walk up and down the extremely narrow aisles carrying food dishes without spilling or bumping into one another, with many return patrons calling them out by name, adding a kind of personalized intimacy to this otherwise boisterous environment that seems to move with the precision of clockwork. The variety of fish included in this meal, along with the simple elegance of the nearly perfect preparation, makes this another meal to die for. In contrast, one of the most fun places to eat was in North Beach, home of Jack Kerouac and the Beats in the late 40’s and 50’s, as well as Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights bookstore on Columbus Avenue that’s still open every night until midnight. Just around the corner from Coit Tower, which looms high above on Telegraph Hill, offering an unhindered 360 degree pan of the entire city, where you have to climb a zillion stairs to get there (or take the #39 bus), and the open expanse of Washington Square, which sits directly in front of Saints Peter and Paul Roman Catholic Church, with its white spires pointing skyward. Of interest, many of the chapters of Richard Brautigan’s remarkably abstract 1967 novel Trout Fishing in America take place in Washington Park. Around the corner, in another tiny, completely unpretentious spot is Sotto Mare (http://sottomaresf.com/Sotto_Mare_Seafood_Restaurant/Home.html), an authentic Italian restaurant that is basically a small counter of about a dozen stools and a few tables against the wall, where the seating capacity inside is probably about 30 customers, with three tables outside for groups of 4 or more. Again, with a no reservation policy for two or less, many customers have to wait outside in the cold on chilly nights waiting to get to the warmth inside, where they give you a plastic lobster that lights up when a table is ready, supposedly good for an entire city block, allowing people to hit the bars while they wait. Continually cutting slices of sourdough bread like it’s going out of style, this is another family restaurant that specializes in rapidly getting customers in and out, where the specialty of the house is a Crab Cioppino that is big enough to serve two, where the warm intimacy, close proximity of other diners, unending conversations, and friendly vibe make this a truly unforgettable experience.
Within the Marina district, there are plenty of breakfast places on Chestnut Street, a shopping district that is filled with upscale boutiques, restaurants, drinking establishments, spas, and even a small movie theater that was screening the Clint Eastwood film. The street is pretty much defined by young people wearing sunglasses in all forms of weather, which at the end of summer is cold and chilly in the morning, temps in the 40’s and 50’s, with a brisk wind and morning fog usually lifting late morning as the temps may crawl up to the 60’s, including women with baby strollers, people walking their dogs, women wearing chic name brand leggings and sweat pants, but also police writing tickets for cars that were double parked. Pedestrians have the right of way over any vehicle traffic here, routinely stopping to allow people to cross the street. Easily the best that we found is called Squat & Gobble (http://squatandgobble.com/), which has menu items written on a wall-sized blackboard that you order at the outset, are given a number, then find a seat where they will find you and bring your order anywhere in the inside or the even larger outdoor patio, a colorfully decorated Mexican cantina that was one of the more comfortable places to actually relax, serving the strongest coffee (French roast) of anyplace we visited, freshly squeezed orange juice, where the remarkable menu offered a variety of selections. Another somewhat unpleasant establishment called The Tipsy Pig offered a Sunday brunch starting at 11 am, but when we arrived, we were the only ones requesting to eat, as it was otherwise a bar, where serving alcoholic drinks, even on Sunday morning, is their strong suit. While dining in a small outdoor patio, eventually joined by others, we were the only ones over the age of 30, and the only ones who refrained from ordering alcohol. A block away on busy Lombard Street is as different as night and day, with fewer young people on a wide-lane boulevard filled with plenty of fast moving traffic, much of it coming off the Golden Gate Bridge on Hwy 101, as it’s strictly working class clientele, featuring more run-down establishments, including plenty of cheap motels and singles hotels. The Home Plate caters to older clientele featuring pictures of Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Roberto Clemente, and Willie Mays on the walls. What’s intriguing here are the typical breakfast choices, but given a Thai connection, as the owners add their own ethnic twist on standard American breakfasts. A few blocks further south is Union Street, which is an even larger shopping district nestled among the all too plentiful rolling hills.
While Alcatraz looms out in the Bay, the tourist industry makes a financial killing sending ferries and high-priced tour boats out there on a regular basis, featuring talks, films, and plenty of historical facts, where the tours are so popular that they’re completely booked up a week in advance, so we refrained from seeking alternative measures to find a way out there, even though boats seem to flock around the island, suggesting a strange and mysterious allure. Instead, just a block away from where we were staying, we could sit peacefully on the park shoreline and watch the boats go by, offering a panorama of the Golden Gate Bridge, including a trail that leads directly to the foot of the bridge. It was always something of a thrill watching heavily loaded giant tankers float past on their way out to sea, as these behemoths of the ocean are simply gargantuan. Out on the grass people would practice Tai Chi in the mornings while others resort to calisthenics, with plenty of dog walkers, joggers, walkers, and cyclists in the vicinity, making this a very popular outdoor destination, though you were often blown away by the breeze. Weekends feature a Farmer’s Market, while on Friday nights food trucks gather near Fort Mason, offering a party atmosphere with plenty of music and festive activity as well.