As we drove into San Francisco, my heart did a happy jiggle for two reasons: finally, a visual reunion with skyscrapers, and with the city I fell in love with in 2003 for it’s colorful, pretty streets. This time, I wanted to revisit old loves and have a more intimate experience with San Francisco. It started the moment we got off the amtrak service bus, felt the buzz and breeze, and jumped around in excitement. Definitely not an expert, but most of the places I hit this time are slightly more off the tourist track, and I loved my relaxed weekend there. Did my homework for this trip, hopefully this will be useful for any other explorers waiting for their own SF love affair. Picture heavy and long!!
#1 Pier 45, Fisherman’s Wharf
First stop for a hungry horde fresh off the train – Fisherman’s Wharf! Follow your nose to the row of stalls and restaurants selling seafood and beer. The stallholders here are accustomed to sweet-talking tourists into indulging tummies with thick, comforting soup, but in my opinion, no persuasion is necessary. Don’t bother scouting out the stalls, don’t bother with the restaurants. Buy a shrimp & crab combo sandwich, a sourdough bowl of clam chowder from the first stall on the corner. Go halfway down the stretch, buy a dungeness crab to share with your travel companions. Ask the stallholder to crack and warm up the crab for you and watch his hands work their magic with a mallet. Squeeze fresh lemon on everything. Wash it all down with midday beer. Eat everything at the benches at the end of the pier, with the sun and seagulls for company. You’ll be feeling satisfied for a long long time.
Food memories brought me back to Pier 45, but I was determined to have my fun at Musée Mécanique – a privately owned collection of vintage arcade games from the late 1800s and early 1900s. I LOVE THIS PLACE. The whole warehouse area is raw and not dressed up, and that adds to the quirk factor — rows upon rows of fortune telling dummies, figurines encased in glass boxes that will dance for 25 cents. Entrance is free, so all you need to do is change your dollar bills for quarters to operate the games, and knock yourself out!! The old school photobooths are pricier at $3 for 4 shots, but the high contrast and tint of the photos are to die for, and they make great keepsakes anyway.
Lily, my housemate, recommended Broadway Cafe (670 Broadway, at Stockton St) and it was second round of food heaven for all us Chinese food deprived students. It was happy hour when we arrived, so we had plates of fried rice, nian gao, chicken, mango pudding, milk teas, customary veggies, bowls of soup noodles with char siew and spam..All for less than $10 per person. Justified for all the climbing we would later do to find the fortune cookie factory.
Hidden find, literally: Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory. Fortune cookies are so kitschy but I don’t know anyone who can resist cracking one open. Tucked away in an alley and tricky to find, but we asked around for directions and found the tiny shop, breathed in the smell of batter and warmth and scored some free samples.
Haight-Ashbury is a wonderful district to explore. It feels very different from downtown — shopfronts are wallpapered with prints, wares are all eclectic and vintage, houses are funkier. Felt like a big bohemian hippie neighbourhood. The shop I liked best was Mystery Mister (1506 Haight St), pictured in the 2nd and 3rd photos. Deliciously sinister and luxurious, full of vintage clothes, taxidermy, oddities like a full set of bioform teeth (?!) and boxes of old photographs for one buck each. There are lots of thrift stores too, a Buffalo Exchange, and some bookstores, including a very deviant Bound Together – Anarchist Collective Bookstore.
Found myself at the Ferry Building every day somehow. It’s a warmly lit marketplace area with specialty shops and a couple of cafes. Food here is pretty pricey, but they are affordable luxuries definitely worth a taste. I particularly loved Cowgirl Creamery. They occupy two storefronts, one of which is a straight up cheese shop, while the other has chefs to prepare cheesy delights for you on the spot. I was drooling over their mozarella platters for two days before I finally let myself have their Grilled Cheese of the Day for breakfast on day 3, a blend of cheeses served with chunks of pear inside. That taste lingered on afterwards in both my mouth and mind. Another must try is Miette Patisserie, especially their Gingerbread Cupcake with Cream Cheese Frosting, which is officially the best cupcake I’ve ever eaten. Other specialty stores here sell olive oil infused with a billion flavours, different types of mushrooms, gelato, artisan breads.
#5 Mission District
Also known as the day Anna (my super housemate who hails from SF) and I went on a hunt for epic food we’d read about online, waited in line and left very happy. If you youtube Ike’s Place, you’ll get directed to food show clips that proclaim Ike’s Place sandwiches the BEST in the city. Ike’s is currently borrowing the premises of a bar that’s otherwise closed in the daytime, so there’s no huge signboard. But it’s not hard to find. Just go around lunchtime and look for the LONG line of people clutching dinky little paper menus. Their sandwiches are so good thanks to the trademark ‘dirty sauce’ that’s spread on the buns – a potent combination of mayo, garlic and herbs. A second must-do is Bi-Rite Creamery for the salted caramel ice cream, although I’m sure their other flavours are just as awesome. We knew we’d hit all the right spots when we popped into Needles & Pens, a handmade goods store that doubles up as an art space, and the sweet girl behind the counter told us “dang!! why’d you have to go remind me about Ike’s..now I have to go get one for myself!!” The Mission was brimming with artistry on every single wall, beautiful people at every turn.
In between the sun, delicious food and lovely company, we also managed to do bits of shopping and caught a late night screening of Black Swan, endless debates about whether to buy popcorn or not (we didn’t). I have 4 more rides left on my 10 trip amtrak ticket. San Francisco will see me again!