Monday, June 29, 2009

San Francisco Highlights: North Beach, Telegraph Hill, Tiburon

We just got back from a trip out to San Francisco, so I thought I'd share my memories of San Francisco in general as well as our most recent trip there.

My first sight of San Francisco was in 1982. I was on a trip to California with a friend of mine and the first weekend she went off to see her sister and I met my relatively new boyfriend (now my husband), in the city for a romantic rendez-vous.

Since then we've visited the city on the average of once a year ever since. How many trips does it make? I've lost count. We were there in the early 80s when the cable cars were out of commission for two years while they restored the entire line (we have pictures of the excavated streets exposing the cable system). We were also there in 1984 on the very day they put them back into service. Somehow we caught the first cable car going up Russian Hill - I think it may even have been a test run as there was no fanfare. We rode all the way to the end of the line while people along the sidewalks cheered and gave out balloons.

We've seen changes in the skyline - the addition of a new Marriott Hotel that San Franciscans hated, which now blends into the famous skyline just as the Transamerica Pyramid did after people got used to that. We remember when Union Square was mostly grass, before they built another layer of parking underneath and made the top of it mostly concrete pavers. It still has the palm trees, though.

We've seen the changes in the culture; the spread of AIDS, the gloom over the Castro District, now thankfully reviving. There is an annual AIDS walk and posters reminding people to be tested, but the atmosphere is more lighthearted than in those dark days.

We visited the Castro District once again on this trip, wandered the streets, and had lunch at Orphan Andy's before heading back. We used to go to a great little place that had brunch and lunch specialties but it has been replaced by another restaurant now so we tried Orphan Andy's and enjoyed some excellent burgers and fries.

We like getting to the Castro by taking the historic streetcars on the "F" line (pictured below) which run between Fisherman's Wharf and the Castro - you can get there on the regular MUNI system but the streetcars are more fun. Some are originally from San Francisco but a large number of them are from other cities. They're all painted in different colors representing the various cities that used to run these cars. This line of antique streetcars wasn't running when we first used to come out to the city - it is a welcome addition, another wonderful way to see San Francisco.

On each trip we always read the San Francisco Chronicle every day, and in the old days we would never miss a column by Herb Caen, San Francisco's biggest proponent. He would write gossipy articles about local celebrities (all of whom he knew personally), interspersed with nostalgic columns about bygone days, or amusing anecdotes of people and sights he'd seen in San Francisco. But under it all was his love of the city.

When he died in 1997, he had recently won the Pulitzer Prize. After his death the city named a portion of the Embarcadero after him, calling it "Herb Caen Way..." with the three dots that were his trademark way of moving from one subject to another in his columns.

We still read the Chron but it is not the same without Herb. He was the last voice that remembered an older San Francisco, the one that Sam Spade walked around in.

One of the many quotations he is known for is this one:

"One day if I do go to heaven...I'll look around and say, 'It ain't bad, but it ain't San Francisco.'"

I hope for Herb's sake that his heaven ended up being San Francisco in all her glory.

Speaking of changes, our own traditions have changed as well. In the beginning we would go eat at seafood restaurants down by Fisherman's Wharf; now we frequent small neighborhood bistros that we've found in our walks in the many neighborhoods we've explored.

We spent at least two trips attempting nearly every walk in Adah Bakalinsky's Stairway Walks in San Francisco. This book was a marvelous way to learn about the neighborhoods throughout the city and see fantastic views at the same time. A few times we didn't complete the walk, if the hill involved was just so steep as to be nearly insurmountable to our out-of-shape New Jersey legs, but we hit the key points of each one.

Some restaurants we liked have come and gone; For instance, The Petite Cafe on the corner of Green and Larkin turned into an Italian restaurant that we liked, but then changed yet again to one that still had good food but played terrible music so we abandoned it. It has morphed yet again to another Italian restaurant which is a bit on the pricey side. Maybe we'll try it again, maybe not.

North Beach and the Telegraph Hill area feel like home to us. We used to stay near Union Square because there are always good hotel bargains there; but we usually ended up in North Beach by the end of the day. So on this trip we decided to stay right in North Beach at the Washington Square Inn, where we had stayed once a number of years ago. It is a bit of a splurge for us, but we were only staying for three nights so we decided it was worth it.

This is a picture-perfect B&B style inn, which provides beautifully decorated rooms furnished in antiques, the usual amenities in the bathrooms (including hair dryers), and several have bay windows with views of Coit Tower and Sts. Peter and Paul Church. (Below is an evening view of the church taken from our room in one direction, and below that a view of Coit Tower taken just outside (the bay window to the right is our room).In the afternoons wine, cheese, crackers and homemade cookies are served in the downstairs lounge, and guests sit on the comfortable couches and enjoy their appetizers before heading out into the city for the evening.

During our last visit in San Francisco, we finally tried Sodini's Restaurant, which we'd been walking past for the last 20+ years and somehow never got around to going into - they don't take reservations and it was always packed when we went by. But we'd wistfully look in at the candles gleaming, embedded in their wax-bedecked wine bottles, at the happy crowds enjoying what looked like very good Italian food, and say "We really have to try that one next time." Somehow we kept going back to our favorites and hadn't gotten there until our last trip. We finally went and it was great. So we went back twice this time!

Sodini's sign at night:
View of the street from the window of Sodini's (note candle in window on right side of picture). Second picture below - a view of the interior of the restaurant.Nighttime view of the block that includes Sodini's.
We had gone to Sodini's the first night in town and had a great meal of homemade pasta with pesto and grilled salmon. The second night we had reservations later on at another of our favorites, the Hyde Street Bistro, but we decided to stop in at Sodini's for a glass of wine at the bar in the late afternoon. An hour and a half later we were best friends with the bartender, Ana, and a couple of other people at the bar, including Fredo. Ana was very clear that she is a native San Franciscan whose family ties went back to the Gold Rush. Fredo, on the other hand, is officially a "local," not a "native," because he was not born in San Francisco, but moved there when he was 8 months old. He explained you have to live there 15 years to be a local. DH and I wonder, do all our trips count toward that goal?

So of course we went back to Sodini's the next night for dinner, sitting at the bar for a chat with Ana first.

This is one of the things I've always noticed about San Francisco bars - you walk in out of nowhere and by the end of the evening you've gotten into all kinds of conversations with very interesting people. We used to frequent a bar called the Overflo over on the edge of the Tenderloin when we stayed near Union Square, which despite its less upscale exterior, had the same kind of welcoming atmosphere as the bar at Sodini's. Unfortunately it has been taken over by a new owner and we haven't been back. Maybe it's still the same inside - maybe we should try it again.

I can't mention San Francisco and North Beach without talking about the Saloon. This bar has been there since 1851 and is still going strong. We make sure to be there on either a Friday or a Sunday night, when Johnny Nitro and the Doorslammers are there playing their own take on Chicago Blues, and anything else they feel like playing. There is a doorman guarding the door of the bar named Greg who has long hair and a longer beard; we've watched the beard and hair change from mostly black to mostly white over the years. (You can see a picture of him on the link to the Saloon above). There is a bartender that has been there the whole time as well, who once looked a little like Tom Petty but now has aged and gotten thinner (we suspect he may have a drug problem...). But he's always there and always serving up the drinks and rocking to the music.

Some bars have come and gone - the Lost and Found Saloon across Grant Avenue and up a bit from the Saloon has changed into an Irish Bar. But the Grant and Green Saloon on the corner of, yes, Grant and Green, is still there and also has some good bands.

No trip to North Beach would be complete without a focaccia sandwich and a cappuccino at Mario's Bohemian Cigar Store Restaurant, overlooking Washington Square Park with a view of the beautiful Sts. Peter & Paul Church on the other side. So of course we went there for lunch our very first day in town. Here's a view of the park and church.

Our other favorite coffee place is Caffe Trieste, on the corner of Grant and Vallejo. This is the original North Beach coffee house and has great espresso, cappuccino and other variations, as well as pastries and savory fare. It is family run and owned, and although there are now a number of other locations, we've only ever gone to the one and only original in North Beach. They used to have family concerts every Saturday - and we've attended several. Everyone in the family can sing and they get up and sing arias from operas or sentimental ballads. The jukebox is full of opera music as well. The concerts are less frequent now so we didn't get to see one this trip but will probably get to one next time.

We always have to go to the top of Telegraph Hill and see the views from Coit Tower. We usually also take a walk down Filbert Street (which at that point is no longer a street and has become a stairway) and admire the gardens and cottages along the stairs, which brings you down to the parklike campus of the Levi Strauss Corporation. This link takes you to a descriptive walking tour of Coit Tower and the Filbert Steps, including descriptions of the WPA murals inside Coit Tower and the history of the Filbert Steps and Grace Marchant Gardens. This time we didn't go that route and instead walked back down the hill into North Beach from the direction we came up on the #49 bus.

While we were in the city we also stopped in at the newly-restored Ferry Building, which now houses shops and restaurants full of gourmet delicacies. Here is a picture of the building from above and then another of the interior:

I could go on to talk about other neighborhoods and other places we've been in and around the city, but this was the area we concentrated on during our trip last weekend.

We also took a short trip over to the little town of Tiburon on the other side of the bay. We prefer it to Sausalito, which is much more touristy. We enjoy the ferry ride over, eat at Sam's Anchor Cafe on the wharf, wander around the town and stop in at the little wine tasting room from Windsor Vineyards, (this time I ordered 6 bottles to be sent home to New Jersey) and then head back. It's a nice afternoon excursion and there are lots of nice views to be seen to and from the city.

Pictures: Immediately below, the outdoor eating area of Sam's, followed by views in and around Tiburon.

I'll end with some other pictures we took while we were there.

View from the other side of Coit Tower:

One of the new hybrid electric MUNI buses, followed by a Smart Car we saw on the street. San Francisco, not surprisingly, is ahead of the curve in reducing fuel consumption. We saw many more regular cars and much fewer SUVs and trucks on the road out in California.Entrance to Jack Early Park, a little stairway pocket park tucked into the city. There are places like this all over San Francisco.Landscaping near Fisherman's Wharf.Transamerica Pyramid taken from Coit Tower with a zoom.Pretty ladies all in a row...
Chinese women doing Tai Chi in Washington Square Park - a morning tradition.

(Cross posted it Mauigirl's Meanderings 6/28/09)

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