Seeking out San Francisco's tasty gems

by Aimie Cronin / 28 April, 2017
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Walk and eat your way around the hilly streets of San Francisco

San Francisco, this windy city oozing all things pleasurable, with its mad hills and cable cars and tourists mixed in with the bohos and alternatives. You’ll arrive in this maddening place and feel your soul delighted, guaranteed. After a few days going full tilt, I woke in my hotel two days before departure and phoned the front desk, desperate to delay checkout. 

We got there in the middle of summery August after a week in the desert of Arizona and found ourselves in need of winter jackets - they say the coldest winter you can have is a summer in San Fran - but it didn’t matter.

It’s a city that must be walked, regardless of weather, and one minute you’ll be sweating it up after the compulsory hike up Lombard Street, then standing at Alamo Park outside the Painted Ladies from the opening sequence of the 80s sitcom Full House singing the theme song into the wind, before finding somewhere close by that will inevitably serve magnificent coffee surrounded by people who are light years more evolved than your average hipster. Here, tourist attractions are everywhere, and some really must be observed (especially if you’re a child of the 80s, in which case, see above), but San Fran does hidden gems like nowhere else.

The food here is wildly vast and equally delicious. San Fran Chinatown, the second biggest outside of Asia, is also the city’s most densely populated neighbourhood and is well worth a visit to take in the ambience and obviously, to eat. To find the good stuff, you can’t go wrong if you look for lines out the door and join the queues. Another excellent foodie neighbourhood is Little Italy and there are tonnes of enticing places to eat.

But my favourite neighbourhood is The Mission District, which sits in east-central San Fran. It’s walking distance from downtown and it’s in this neighbourhood you’ll find true San Franciscoans. Mexican food is the flavour of the day in this hood and the place heaves with all kinds of markets and indie theatres and coffee roasters and shops with clothes and cool things that have been made locally. The smell of weed becomes so normal it’s not even noticeable after a while.

We came upon lunch at a pizza place that looked to be popular with the locals. Arizmendi Bakery (1331 9th Ave) is a co-op that is full of loud, happy staff and it does pizza by the slice with toppings that change daily. The day we went we had lemon, pesto and potato, and they do others like shiitake mushrooms, bok choy, sesame ginger garlic vinaigrette, and classics: cherry tomatoes, kalamata olives, fontina cheese and thyme oil. We sat outside, dodged pigeons and people-watched and then, regretfully, lined up for more slices despite being disgustingly full. C’est la vie. 

On your second visit to The Mission, or at least hours after the pizza consumption, an absolutely necessary visit for anyone who loves a good bakery is Tartine. Go there, in a hurry. We stumbled across a line out the door and around the corner and quickly joined it to see what the big deal was. Thirty minutes later, we reached the glass cabinet and panicked. Making decisions in situations like that where everything is glorious and only a few of them can come away with you is a cruel, cruel task. We opted for the three cheese toastie, a banana cream pie and a croissant. I think about all of them on a regular basis.

And just to tick off all the food and drink: the best coffee we had (and we had a lot) was at Sightglass (270 7th Street), where all of the staff and visitors are whatever the next thing to come after hipsters will be; the best wine bar (and we drank a lot), Hotel Biron, a dreamy intimate space that starts off as a polite place to take a date, but gets charmingly rowdy by night’s end, 45 Rose St; the best Mexican was just around the corner from Alamo Park and named in the top 100 restaurants last year by the San Francisco Chronicle, Nopalito (306 Broderick St).

On the way to Nopalito if you are walking from Alamo Park, or if you are waiting for a table (and that’s highly likely), there’s a bar on the corner of Divisadero and Fell Sts, called Madrone Art Bar. The night we went the place was packed full of delightful quirky people who were performing in open mic night. It’s impossible to go there for a quiet drink and not be drawn into a conversation happening somewhere nearby. I decided it would be my local in the fantasy life I was creating that had me living in San Fran in a classic Edwardian rowhouse, but far far away from the clutches of the Tartine Bakery.

What else? Get on a cable car, of course, but also, hire a bike if you can handle the hills! Visit the cable car museum (1201 Mason St), where there’s a history of the cars and you get to see the wire ropes in action. It’s actually pretty blimmin’ interesting and it’s free. And about 125kms out of the city (which is nothing by American standards), on the coast of Monterey Bay, Capitola is an adorable little beach town that doesn’t seem to have been punished by the same weather gods as San Francisco. Here, they sell taffy and delicious ice creams and the architecture is just as breathtaking as the seaside views. It’s another place where you’ll want to put down your towel and stay forever.

See the USA the kiwi way. Check out great USA tips from fellow Kiwi travellers at www.usathekiwiway.co.nz

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