Editor's Note: This article is part of a new series by writer-photographer Paul Ross featuring field-tested reviews of places, products and services that enhance the travel experience. All are evaluated honestly. If something is just bad, he won’t write about it. If it's really bad, or darn right dangerous, he will warn you.
Story and photos by Paul Ross
As an AARP-certified senior, it’s years since I’ve been festive about my natal day and even longer since I’ve visited “Baghdad-by-the-bay” (coined in the 1940’s by San Francisco columnist Herb Caen). Growing up in Southern California, I osmotically acquired a slight sense of residual rivalry toward "Frisco." We had sun, surf, sand, and they had fog, cold, and business. As an adult, I figured it was time to explore what many locals call “the City” had to offer.
BAY AREA CLASSIC
I decided to start out with a Bay Area classic: the venerated Mark Hopkins hotel atop elegant Nob Hill via cable-car-carrying California Street. The hotel features a museum of the hotel’s colorful history from its Victorian era founding through its heyday housing of celebrity guests; their favorite watering hole was the Top of the Mark with its almost 360 degree view.
I was fascinated by nostalgia-laced mementos and exhibits, like a video interview with a nonagenarian who was once a nude model and photos of the big bands that had played there. “The City” preserves her majesty in ornate buildings and cable cars, one of which I rode down to Chinatown, while vowing to hike back up the really steep slope to work off Sum of my Dim dumplings.
When, on a family vacation, I first went to Chinatown as a kid, my grandfather took us all to a restaurant frequented by Danny Kaye, so of course I had a yen to go back. Located on heavily touristic Grant Avenue, the food is so tired that it could’ve been leftovers from Kaye’s days. But when I walked a few blocks from Grant to Jackson Street, I discovered Z & Y, which, despite its bland name, featured hot and spicy Szechuan delights I never dreamed of as an L.A. boy. Z&Y is on the same block as the P&R and the ABC restaurants and is as easy to find as 1,2,3.
Tearing myself away from the Chinese delicacies, I wanted to check out one other aspect of the food scene. Midway between Nob Hill and Chinatown is a former college cum marble-pillared Greek temple where the Ritz-Carlton is now enshrined, and the place to worship food is its Parallel 37 restaurant. From creative cocktails like the Pig ‘n Boots –a blend of scotch, lillet rose, lavender, yuzu and cinnamon– to the Barfly with its concoction of rye, Benedictine, lemon, vanilla and poblano pepper ($14 each) to the tasting menus (5 courses at $95, 8 for $135), Chef Michael Rotondo unleashes a cascade of flavor and a torrent of textures. I quickly realized that he could hold his own against the chefs in the star-studded dining emporia of L.A., but could he match SoCal when it came to healthy eating? I scrawled restrictions of my culinary throw-down on a slip of paper: no dairy, shellfish, beef, nothing fried and, please, keep it all low in carbs and salt, with no added sugar. The server didn’t blink and Rotondo didn’t flinch in dishing out his signature octopus (cooked sous vide then cast iron flash seared) served with a shiso sorbet; Lamb 3-way (grilled tenderloin, roulade shoulder and leg chorizo); and a rhubarb/strawberry/blood orange granita –just to cite a few of the courses. By the time I folded my napkin, I was convinced the Bay area is decades—no, centuries– beyond Danny Kaye-era Chinese chow and seafood down at the wharf.
A NEW OLD FAVORITE
Moving on, I moved on. This time, to one of the city’s newest old places: Funston House, a handsomely refurbished, historic officer’s house in The Presidio. Now a National Park with magnificent views, the Presidio has defended San Francisco from its earliest days as a Spanish fortress through both world wars, though not one shot was ever fired from the locale. Today the only bellicosity of the Presidio comes from “Star Wars” Director George Lucas’ award-winning special effects company, Industrial Light and Magic. There’s also an art museum, the Walt Disney Family Museum, and a host of hiking trails. It’s hard to believe that the tranquil, affordable, elegant, nature-rich, historic Inn at the Presidio, and the Funston House, its newest offshoot, are an easy cab ride from any of San Francisco’s attractions. You can even walk a little through the nearby restaurant-studded neighborhoods or just hop a bus.
HOP ON, HOP OFF
I bought a City Sightseeing tour bus pass and did a lot of hopping on and off. One of my fave stops was North Beach, where I browsed at poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Bookstore, and spent two hours at The Beat Museum, a shrine to Jack Kerouac and other redefiners of American cool. Okay, okay, San Francisco can lord it over Los Angeles: they had the Beats and the hippie scene. But So. Cal. created car culture.
For my final Frisco nights, I slept in a “painted lady” –one of the decorated vintage houses that imbue the city with charm. The Washington Square Inn overlooks the small park of the same name where Asian women gracefully practice tai chi. The location also affords easy access to the steep climb up to panoramic views from the iconic Coit Tower. Locals say that theirs is “a walking city” and, from the Inn’s central location, almost everything that you’d want to see is within pedestrian reach. For this factor alone, I tipped my hat to S.F. because down L.A. way, legs are vestigial limbs.
By the way, another nickname for San Fran (they hate that one) is “fog city” and, while I was there, I witnessed the magic mist roll in within minutes to engulf “the rock” (Alcatraz, once a fearsome federal penitentiary and now a museum). Fog City is also the appellation of a contemporary tavern down in the being-born-again Embarcadero. Loud and lively at happy hour, the place draws a young crowd from the indigenous tech companies and they stick around for the inventive food stylings of celeb Chef Bruce Hill. I downed a “Grandpa’s Breakfast” (scotch-based, served in a coffee cup) while snacking on cauliflower nuggets before tucking in to my main of oft-ordered chicken, slowly roasted in a wood-fired oven and presented with cabbage hearts, bacon, and crispy potatoes in chili butter. And for desert (after all, I was celebrating my birthday) I had a light and totally vanilla’d housemade frozen custard which got me thinking, “Y’ know, it’s too damn bad that you can’t find affordable housing in San Francisco.”
The Mark Hopkins www.intercontinentalmarkhopkins.com
Inn at the Presidio www.innatthepresidio.com
Washington Square Inn www.wsisf.com
Parallel 37 www.parallel37sf.com
Z & Y www.zandyrestaurant.com
Fog City www.fogcitysf.com
The Beat Museum www.kerouac.com
bus tours www.city-sighseeing.com
bay cruises www.blue&goldfleet.com
art by challenged people www.creativityexplore.org
and for bargain car rentals- www.rentarelic.com
Paul Ross is a writer/photographer/videographer who travels the world seeking the culturally exotic and downright offbeat ... which he sometimes finds at home in America.