I’ve just returned from a long weekend in San Francisco. Each time I visit the ‘City by the Bay”, I am reminded of how intoxicating this town is. In fact, I will go as far as saying that San Francisco is the most exciting and vibrant city in the U.S., with New Orleans a very close second. Both are cities with real authenticity and soul, and a slightly unconventional character – much like my favorite people.
My husband has been commuting from LA to SF for six years now, doing the San Francisco Shuffle, as we call it. During this period we have culled a list of our favorite things in the city – hotels, restaurants, views, shopping, music, picnic spots. Following is a list of what we consider to be de rigeur for like-minded, eclectic sorts visiting the “city by the bay.”
There is a chain of boutique hotels called Joie de Vivre. By city standards, they are all well-priced, though some definitely more so than others. Each property is distinct, charming and full of character, tapping into a particular audience and making a guest feel as if he is surrounded by like-minded travelers. Most of the hotels offer complimentary wine in the evening, an entertaining way to shake off the day’s activities and transition into the excitement of a night out in Shakytown.
Following are our favorite JDV and non-JDV hotels:
Galleria Park Hotel –Very cool and stylish – recently renovated – big rooms – frette linens! Eclectic in a silvery, pastel kind of a way. This hotel has pretty much everything you could want – big rooms, excellent location, great staff, hopping bar with quiet restaurant above, a small gym and a rooftop garden/walking track. Located close to Union Square and downtown, it is both a commuter’s dream come true, and a great stay for visitors, as well.
Hotel Carlton – Funky, eclectic and sublimely eco-chic. Modest yet cool and so comfortable. You get the feel the guests are 20 and 30- somethings – hip, movers and shakers with a collective eco-conscious disposition. This place is affordable, sits in the middle of a great Lower Nob Hill neighborhood, and has a really nice, mellow vibe. Plus, their eco-friendly practices are way ahead of the curve – this is a hotel with a cool conscience.
Hotel Rex –More like a private club or a funky salon in the 1930s. The colors and decor are warm, comfortable and inviting. Oil paintings and book shelves line the walls of the lobby cum bar area (excellent bar menu). Whimsical touches, like lines of poetry stitched into the banquette in the casual, chic French restaurant, remind guests not to take things too seriously. Certainly Max, the charming and gracious pug mascot of the hotel, paints a picture of an “everyone knows your name” relaxed, literati environment. Union Square area.
Hotel Kabuki –Cool Japanese aesthetic – calming not over the top. Not your Shibuya pop-art scene – more sophisticated. Eastern & Western influences come together to create a very well-appointed and sleek property, attracting an eclectic mix of guests. Its Japantown location made it too far for us to consider as a commuter hotel for my husband, however we would definitely give it a try for a weekend. Nice restaurant and heavenly, well-priced spa.
This Kimpton property is particularly well-situated in Steuart Street, down in the Embarcadero. It is a study in metro-chic, with calming tones, modern touches and a sophisticated yet understated vibe. Rooms are smaller, but who cares – they are well-appointed with gadgets, sheets with a high thread-count and snuggly robes, and oh yeah, a killer view of the water and Bay Bridge. Sitting in a comfy robe, glass of wine in your hand, watching the fog roll in over Treasure Island while listening to the foghorns is worth the price of admission alone.
While these choices may not necessarily be featured on the new chichi hot list, they are a few of our mainstays.
Indonesian – Borobudur – 700 Post Street (Post & Jones) – Everyone raves about this place and it is truly fantastic. Recommend doing the Rijsttafel for dinner – well-worth the price.
Modern Vietnemese – Slanted Door – Ferry Building. Despite the hype, the Slanted Door delivers every time. Get’s crowded so book, and not inexpensive, but consistently good and good location.
Great Place for Lunch –The Town Hall – Howard & Fremont – great lunches – best burgers and soup – exposed brick – known for its service – always a good meal – plus, the bill comes discreetly hidden in an old book!
Chinese Cuisine & Jazz Club – Shanghai 1930 – Steuart Street – truly a restaurant that will transport you back in time. We have been there several times, and its easy to feel like you’ve left the US. The classic Chinese fare is good, but it’s really about the ambience and the live music. The private cigar room isn’t so bad, either.
California Cuisine & Killer View – The Cliff House – While you’re cruising around in your GoCar tour, time the trip so you can pop into the Cliff House for a late lunch. Sure, this is a standard tourist trap, but the view goes for days, and is just as good while sitting at the bar as it is at a fancy table by the window. Steeped in history, this is always worth the trip.
Seafood with Fabulous Style – Farallon – Post Street – Certainly there is no shortage of good seafood in San Francisco, but Farallon is a preference for us. Perhaps it’s the design, which reminds me of being in a very cool underwater grotto, complete with jellyfish chandeliers. Truly, the interior of this restaurant is a work of art and testament to the importance of details. We go for the oysters and the vibe, both of which they do extremely well.
Italian Rustic – Kuletos – located in the Villa Florence Hotel on Powell – this restaurant is always good. Another one of those places where it’s more fun to saddle up to the bar and just graze over a meal of starters. Soups are home made. Anti-pasta salads are fresh and feature some amazing, unusual additions,which vary from day to day. Stop in for a late lunch or early dinner. It’s definitely a great way to take a break from shopping or duck out of the cold. Great breakfasts, too!
Best Margarita –Tommy’s on Geary – focus group tested among serious local tequila drinkers. Casual atmosphere and super friendly bartenders who will discuss tequilas and the level of inebriation you are looking to achieve.
Irish Coffee – The Buena Vista – Hyde & Beach – is synonomous with Irish Coffee and is about as famous as they come in San Francisco parlance. Plus, the story of how the Irish Coffee emigrated here is rich with history. They take their Irish Coffees very seriously! Plus, its a great place to kill a late afternoon and people watch. Gets very crowded, so sharing a table is common and half the fun.
Best Place for View, Cocktails, Live Jazz & Dancing (Plus 4 stars for romantic) – unquestionably, Top of the Mark – The Mark Hopkins on Nob Hill. Whenever we visit, I feel like I have entered my parents’ era- very grown-up and ever so slightly dated – but in a familiar, well-worn traveler kind of a way. And when I get a chance to dance with my husband to Sinatra or Duke Ellington, my life is just a little bit more fabulous. Isn’t everyone’s? I like a table on the dance floor so we can literally dance back into our chairs, enormous dorks that we are. I have heard there’s no cover before 7:30, but who cares, really? This is a special place for a special night.
Cool, Big Space & Exotic Cocktails – E&O Trading Co. on Sutter is a fun, lively, high- style place with a pretty good happy hour. Try the vodka mojitos – much lighter than Gin and definitely not as painful in the morning.
We like to do fun things on a Saturday, especially if we’re in the city with kids and friends. Sure, museums are amazing in San Francisco, but there’s a certain exuberance in doing something outrageously touristy, especially if it involves small, open vehicles.
We discovered those yellow little motorcycle/cars and have done them twice now. Go Car Tours have three routes they offer for touring the city. Each route is GPS navigated and there is a “guide” that tells you where to go and what you are seeing. The Urban Park route is the one to do – so entertaining – you go through Golden Gate Park and see the Tea House and the bison, the Haight, Baker Beach, and it finishes up on Lombard Street. The “guide” even screams “Wee” when you go through a tunnel. Seriously – who couldn’t like that? The tour takes about 3 hours, but you can stop and start whenever you want. We like to stop at the Cliff House and have lunch. Or pack a picnic and eat with the bison in Golden Gate Park. Great fun either way!
I love all things spooky, so the Night tour of Alcatraz is right up my alley. If you can time it so the weather is cold and foggy (not too difficult), then so much the better. I defy anyone not to get creeped out while there at night.
San Francisco has so much to offer in terms of entertainment and culture, I feel I have shortchanged myself if I don’t check into what’s happening in the city. On any given night, you can catch Malawian hip-hop or amazing performance art. The choices are vast and varied. The trick is to find out about them.
I like two online sites to prime me for a weekend in the city.
Brown Paper Tickets is an excellent online resource for learning what’s happening in San Francisco, and beyond. The service fees are minimal and at least 5% of their profits goes to organizations within the communities they serve. Best of all, when you purchase a ticket through them, you can choose how these proceeds are divided, with the options being Animals, Children, Environment, and Human Rights. LOVE this!
SF Station focuses solely on San Francisco, offering a totally comprehensive listing of everything San Francisco has to offer – from music, clubs, restaurants, art, performances, events and shopping. This is my first source for finding both mainstream and unusual goings on.
Another fun fact of San Francisco – they have a great marathon. Certainly one of the most beautiful. Plus, you get to run over the Golden Gate Bridge, which is a kick. This city is truly exceptional. Looking forward to being back in a couple of weekends.