Neat Stuff | Shopping | Outdoors
The Exploratorium: Simon's favorite place in the city. The Exploratorium is an educational children's museum featuring interactive exhibits that demonstrate basic scientific principles. Come get your geek on. Another plus is that our neighborhood buddy Jill Haefele works here. Call ahead for tickets to the Tactile Dome, a funhouse combination of chutes-and-ladders obstacle course and blind scavenger hunt that you navigate with your hands. Admission for adults is 13 dollars, students 10, youth 10, children 8, and for the Tactile Dome an extra 16.
826 Valencia: Part pirate supplies shop, part writing tutor center, part McSweeney's storefront, part tongue-in-cheek community art space. 826 Valencia is the sun around which San Francisco's newest literary movement orbits. In the backrooms, where the McSweeney's Literary Quarterly and The Believer magazine are published, is where our friend Eli Horowitz works. Highlights include a pufferfish, mop trap, tub of lard and some stuff that smells bad. Also, a breeding ground for hipster chic. Bring your black plastic glasses.
Cartoon Art Musem: We have not actually been here but have been meaning to go for some time now. "Donate What You Will" day first Tuesday of the month.
Union Square: High end retail. Macy's, Tiffany's, Sak's, Neiman Marcus, etc., and lots of jewelry and designer fashion boutiques frame a center quad area where tired shoppers rest on tiered seating. There are a few art galleries as well. The park area is framed by Geary, Powell, Post and Stockton streets, a little south of Chinatown. Parking is vicious, but the Bart stops at Powell only four blocks south. I suppose the walk might be inconvenient with shopping bags, so maybe arrange to get picked up after your day at the markets.
Ferry Building: Where Market Street meets the water. Grocers for the Bay area's haute cuisine clique. The Ferry Building itself is a commuter hub where the ferries meet MUNI and Bart, but the building houses a closed-air market that's a food-lover's playground. Highlights include Cowgirl Creamery, Recchiuti Confections, a butcher that sells aged steaks and multiple olive oil boutiques. If you're wanting a quick lunch, Taylor's Automatic Refresher has good burgers and sweet potato fries, and Mistral Rotisserie has good Provencal-style roasted meats and vegetables at a bargain. For a nice dinner, The Slanted Door serves upper-end Vietnamese fusion. I think I remember their pork chops being good. The rear, bay-side of the building offers outdoor dining and a nice view of the Bay Bridge underbelly. Also, there may be an organic farmer's market on weekends.
Amoeba Music and Haight Street: Located at the corner of Haight and Shrader Street in the Haight-Ashbury district, Amoeba is the mecca of indie music. Wide selection of used discs, plenty of hip-hop and rap, and an impressive sidestore of jazz and classical recordings. They do have a vinyl section, but it doesn't compare to the depth and variety of their CD collection. Also, you may be able to catch a live show there.
Haight Street is a relic of the high days of SF counter-culture. The one-time residence of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead, Hell's Angels and Charles Manson; Jefferson Airplane, before turning Starship, lived a bit further north on Fulton Street. Nowadays, pseudo-rastafarians and voluntarily homeless teenagers pay them tribute by playing hacky-sack and selling swirly glass pipes on the sidewalk. Haight Street is mostly headshops and popular retail markets such as The Gap and Ben & Jerry's, but it does have a few legacy survivors from the '60s (The Red Vic Movie House is a favorite) and some unique novelty boutiques. We like Kid Robot (1512 Haight), a designer action figure/doll store.
California isn't all blondes and convertibles, and the SF climate should not be confused with LA's. Weather around the Bay is fickle, so wear layers. It's fairly common to encounter early showers, a sunny noonday, and then fog, chill and maybe more showers in the evening. Proximity to ocean coast or mountain peak generally means cold and wind, especially from late afternoon onward.
Point Bonita Lighthouse: Just minutes south of the wedding site, so if weather permits leave early, take the scenic route and stop by here before the ceremony. Point Bonita Lighthouse sits at the southwesternmost point of the Headlands and overlooks where bay water and ocean mingle. There's a brief hike to get there -- about a half-mile, I think, and it includes a mountain tunnel -- so sensible shoes, please. Really nice views of ocean bluffs, the Golden Gate Bridge, a 19th century lighthouse and maybe even a sea lion or two if you look hard enough.
Muir Woods: California Redwoods in all their red and woodsy glory. There are no redwoods carved out for you to drive your car through at this park. Just lots of majestically tall trees and loamy serenity. The park is a few exits past Sausalito and requires a fairly long and windy drive. In all, about 1 1/2 hours from the city. Not far from Stinson Beach, and only 40 minutes or so south of Point Reyes and a picnic of oysters at Hog Island or Tamales Bay Co. Run by the National Park Service, so admission is 3 dollars unless you already have a Golden Eagle Pass.
Twin Peaks: No walking necessary. The small parking lot atop Twin Peaks offers the city's highest panoramic vista, and a close-up view of the eye-sore Sutro Tower. It gets really windy, misty and chilly up there, so bring a heavy jacket.
Cheap Eats | Dinner Favorites | Fine Dining
Cheap, dirt-cheap and just plain dirty
Burritos: Lunch in a pill. Burritos have replaced chowder-in-bread-bowl as SF's signature culinary icon. Everybody has an opinion as to which is the best (there's a considerable amount of online discussion devoted to the topic), but generally we stay close to home and eat at Cancun Taqueria (Mission and 19th) or El Farolito (Mission and 24th). A former favorite was El Castillito in the Castro (Church and Market, across the street from the Safeway parking lot), and the online cognoscenti consistently rate San Francisco Taqueria (24th and York) at the top. A few tips: if you want to skip the beans and rice, just order a quesadilla; ask for the burrito dorado, tortilla doradita, or "crispy", which just means "grill the outside" -- placing the order gets a little confusing because the trend isn't yet popular enough so that all taquerias call it the same thing; finally, order it "super", with guacamole, sour cream, cheese, etc. There are a wide variety of meats but carnitas (braised pork shoulder) and carne asada (grilled beef) are the flagship fillers. Jiyoun likes al pastor (marinated pork), and with minimal searching you can find eyes, brains, tongues and other unmentionables, but we avoid those for fear of mad cow prions and out of general squeemishness.
Moderately priced meals
Tartine Bakery: Our favorite brunch spot and probably the most popular bakery in town, a few blocks down the street at Guerrero and 18th. Nothing on their menu has disappointed us. If we could exchange Friday night out for an extra Sunday afternoon with bread pudding, coffee and neighborhood friends, we'd make that swap every week. Other standards: the morning bun, grougere (peppery cheese puff) and croque monsieur (pickled carrots!).
Vietnamese food: PPQ (Irving and 19th) and Turtle Tower (Larkin and Eddy) both have great pho (a clear beef broth and rice noodle soup served with thin slices of rare steak) and bun (a rice noodle and crispy veggie medley). Turtle Tower serves the much less common north Vietnamese variation of pho with lighter seasoned broth (no anise, very clean flavors) and a spongy, tenderized rare steak cutlet. Sounds strange, but it's like biting into a cloud of beef. A slice of heaven with horns. Simon also likes their version of beef bourgogne with noodles or bread, and Jiyoun likes their grilled pork. Turtle Tower keeps limited hours, so it's best to go for lunch or breakfast (a good revitalizer after a night out) and to call ahead if you're wanting dinner. They've also recently opened in the Richmond, on Clement Street, but we've only been disappointed at that location; basically the same food but somehow always too salty.
PPQ is open late for supper (until 11 pm most nights) and is where we most often eat dinner out. Bring friends and try multiple dishes. Their imperial rolls, five spice chicken and fish sauce-infused beef carpaccio consistently delight. Jiyoun likes the spicy pho and Simon sticks with the regular pho or bun (pork and shrimp are both great).
In-n-Out: Addressing east coast visitors, here, since this family operated chain extends down the coast and inland into Nevada and Arizona. Fresh ingredients and cooked-to-order beef paddies make their Double-Doubles (two paddies, two slices of cheese) memorable. The paddy and cheese combinations are variable, so a Triple-Double, a Quadruple-Quadruple and so forth are available if you're feeling ambitious. The "in" crowd orders off-menu variations such as "Animal Style" (grilled onions, melted cheese, picles and special sauce) and "Protein Style" (lettuce wrap and no buns). The "out" crowd forgets that it's the freshness of the burger that makes it worthwhile and makes the mistake of ordering takeout. There are conflicting opinions about their fries, which are very natural and potato-ey tasting, and so maybe less flavorful than other burger joints, but Jiyoun and I are fans. Shakes are also good. And for those of you who think that all Californians are west coast heathen liberals, look for Biblical verse citations stamped on the bottom of beverages. That's right, salvation in a cup. Multiple locations: near both airports, Pinole and just north of Sausalito.
Pakwan: For a curry fix. This Pakistani restaurant, at 16th and Valencia, is a brisk walk away from our home. Memorable lamb chops; other dishes are generally pretty good Another plus: BYOB.
Medjool: Neither of us have been here, but I remember either Anthony Myint saying that their veal cheek was "the most tender meat I've ever tasted." This from a man who ages his own beef. Features a roof-top bar. Located at Mission and 21st. Maybe call ahead for reservations.
Koi Palace: Great dim sum, awful service. We think they have they best dumplings (xiao leng bao) in the city. Jason Qin, resident Most Chinese Person We Know Out Here, thinks they're too sweet but agrees that the food in general is pretty great. Offering a greater selection and fresher food than served at the overrated Ton Kiang in the Richmond. The lobby area is a spectacle with a large, tiered aquariums housing spiny lobsters and geoducks. When ordering, be persistent and don't take it personally if you're ignored or misunderstood. If going for dinner (not advised), try placing a pre-order for their hashima dish, a stewed-in-the-shell young coconut desert that contains "essence" of frog. Really tasty if you can get around thinking about it. Located in Alemany and requires a short drive south on the 101, but it's close to the freeway exit. You can call ahead for a reservation, but it's unclear what advantage that gives you.
Jang Soo Kalbi: A favorite of Jiyoun's. Considerably better than Brothers, and only a few blocks farther away at Geary and 27th in the Richmond. They have the best neng myun (cold noodles) in the area, in Jiyoun's opinion.
Delfina: The bottom of the top. One of the best bargains for California cuisine, which emphasizes fresh, local ingredients and downplays heavy saucing. As is common with upper end restaurants, Delfina's entrees don't meet the high standards set by their appetizers and desserts, so stick with the small dishes. In the Mission, at 18th and Guerrero. Call ahead.
Bar Tartine: Called a bar but more like a bistro. Recently opened sister restaurant to our favorite bakery. Our friend Anthony works in the kitchen. On our one visit we went in a large group with Anthony and got the royal treatment, a series of really tasty appetizers chosen by the chef. The celery root soup, cheese plate, chevre-filled risotto croquette, and softly poached egg over truffle-oiled frisee and lentils stand out in my mind. The egg itself made the trip worthwhile. I'm working up a lather just thinking about it. The menu changes frequently, it seems, so these suggestions might not help. But maybe still stick with the small dishes. In the Mission on Valencia at 17th; it's a little hard to find because it has no sign. The small bistro across from Bombay Creamery. Call ahead for a reservation.
Chez Panisse: Alice Waters' flagship restaurant, a Berkeley institution, and the home of California cuisine. Also, the gold standard by which all other restaurants in the area are compared. Chez Panisse is divided into two sections -- the downstairs set menu area (60-75 per person, not including wine), and the upstairs cafe and bar, which is more moderately priced (comparable to Delfina, at about 25 per person w/o wine). Reservations for the upstairs cafe might be had on short notice if you're willing to eat during off-peak hours; reservations at the restaurant require early planning and a credit card.