Thu 21 Jan 2010
A few weeks ago I coldly abandoned Mike in DC for a quick girls’ getaway in San Francisco with two great friends BabeBQ and The Librarian. It was the first visit to San Francisco for both of them. Giving the uninitiated a tour of my favorite city is no small feat. Type A geeks like me don’t just wing it. We spend weeks plotting out itineraries, checking lists, creating back up plans for unbearably rainy weather. Touristy or not, some activities can’t be ignored for first-timers. I wanted to be sure we tried a few more insider options, too. (Sure the cable cars are nice but did you know you can ride an 1930s Italian streetcar into the Castro?)
This philosophy went double for food. I knew certain cozy homeruns would make our agenda, namely Cha Cha Cha’s and Crepes on Cole which BabeBQ declared “the perfect neighborhood breakfast spot.” Except I didn’t want to limit our palates to tried and true favorites. I was ready for a little strange on the menu.
Acme Bread Company at the Ferry Building
No food sojurn to San Francisco is complete without paying homage to the Ferry Building. What was once a pass-through warehouse for tourists heading to Sausalito and commuters going home to Marin County is now a delicious destination. The building hosts San Francisco staples Cowgirl Creamery and the Slanted Door as well as less known options like Boccalone Salumeri (boasting “tasty salted pig parts”) and Far West Funghi, a must-visit for any mushroom lover.
Taking advantage of our DC-based internal clocks, BabeBQ and I took an early morning walk over to the Ferry Building for breakfast. We wandered through the vendor hallway, taking in the options as proprieters rattled their doors open. In the end, we were both drawn to the same thing: freshly baked bread from Acme Bread Company. The Acme Bread Compnay is a Berekley-based bread institution in the Bay Area, frequently credited for leading the artisinal bread revolution. The Ferry Building outpost carries the full selection of Acme bread and we lingered over baguettes, croissants and other yeasty delicacies before settling on a perfect small round of sourdough bread. We paired our loaves with ruby-red, sweet organic strawberries from Farm Fresh to You, a gourmet grocery store that seems tailor-made for yuppie picnic baskets, and found a bench outside in the early morning mist.
The bread, baked with a golden, crispy crust and pliant, still-warm, tangy white middle, was perhaps the single best way to start a vacation day. It was amazing we were civilized enough to eat with our hands rather than dive face first into the world’s best comfort food. We tore into our breakfast as rush hour approached and commuters streamed past us, fresh off ferries from Marin County. “You know,” BabeBQ said between bites, “I always see people having a leisurely breakfast or coffee on a weekday and wonder who they are and why they aren’t headed into work like me. It’s nice to be on this side for a change.” I couldn’t have agreed more.
After the jump: Dim sum in Chinatown, Italian in North Beach, and what Mike was most jealous he missed.
Hang Ah Tea Room
For years, getting dim sum in Chinatown has been an embarassing lapses in judgement for me – something I always figured I’d get around to when I lived in the city but neve actually did. This is a common phenomenon that hits people who live in touristy cities: we get so focused on only doing insider stuff that the obvious activities slip by. Have you ever met someone in DC who personally knows all the grill guys at Ben’s Chilli Bowl but has never been to the top of the Washington Monument? It’s kinda like that.
This was the trip to redeem myself. After The Librarian’s flight landed, we hopped the Powell & Hyde line from Market Street into Chinatown in search of some sightseeing and – more importantly - lunch. The Hang Ah Tea Room, though highly recommneded, is a little off the beaten path: down an alley that actually is NOT named Pagoda Place like the restaurant’s address might imply, past two private mah jong rooms and alongside the back of a school. You know. Right there.
We sat down in the acid green painted dining room and tucked into the menus, ultimately going for an appetite punishing sampler platter. We tore into steamed pork buns that stuck to our fingers, crunched through vegetable spring rolls, managed to keep slippery gyoza in our chopsticks’ graps, and puzzled over a curried meat dumpling. We giggled and almost – almost – felt guilty diving into a special a la carte item I just had to try: a steamed shrimp dumpling shaped like a bunny. It was a meal to fill the stomach and inspire plenty of uphill climbs.
Steps of Rome
Later than evening, dressed in our DC-does-SF finest, we headed to North Beach. North Beach is an ecclectic San Francisco neighborhood that blends history – beat poet hangouts! - scensters, Italian-American history – Joe DiMaggio’s church! – lively dining spots, nightlife, and strip clubs. (Attention impressionable young ladies everywhere: if a man standing outside a strip club asks you if you’d like to thumb wrestle, your answer should always be, “No thank you.”). We wandered the evening streets, hitting up a few low key bars for pre-dinner drinks before we got down to the serious business of deciding where to eat. Having Italian was the obvious start, but this narrowed our list down to about 139 options in the 8 block area. We were reservation-free and able to wander the damp sidewalks, waiting for inspiration to lead us to the pefect dinner option. Inspiration turned out to be an elderly man from Sardinia who shooed us away from the menu at one bustling restaurant “No no,” he grumbled as he unlocked the front door of his building, “no good. You go there.” He pointed with his chin across Columbus Ave to Steps of Rome.
I was bemused. Steps of Rome was one of the few Italian places in the neighborhood that I knew well; it was a constant haunt in college. I always enjoyed it but wasn’t sure if it would taste good to our post-college palates. No need to worry. What Steps of Rome lacks in cuisine sophistication it makes up for in raucous atmosphere. We ordered our meal – two pasta plates for BabeBQ and me and a grilled panini for The Librarian. Plates came promptly, steaming hot, and I had no problem finishing my entire serving. The scene here is always lively with Italian pop music pouring out of speakers, crowded wooden tables scattered across the floor, and flirtatious Italian waiters making sure the female
diners are happy. I’d forgotten so much about the place and yet it all came flooding back as we scooted our chairs around a table in the bustling dining room. Of course, I did remember the most important tip of all: if someone asks you who in your party is celebrating a birthday, point the finger at your friend. Even if it isn’t her birthday, the ensuing celebration is, ahem, friendly enough that she’ll thank you later. Just apologize to her husband in advance.
Chestnut Street Coffee Roastery
There comes a moment in almost all vacations I take when my eagerness to see, taste, and smell everything is replaced with… exhaustion. Oh god, what I wouldn’t give to have Scottie beam me to my living room couch for just 45 minutes of indoor, familiar quiet time. It isn’t homesickness so much as needing some downtime. Luckily, I’ve learned this is the perfect moment to suggest a cup of coffee or a cocktail.
One of my favorite San Francisco spots for the former is the Chestnut Street Coffee Roastery. When an attempt to see he Golden Gate Bridge up close and personal was foiled by fog, the three of us wanted a quick sit down and regroup to recharge after all the day’s walking.
Filled with natural light thanks to enormous picture windows, this soaring space roasts beans in the back with plenty of table space for laptop lingerers. Plopped into the Marina district, the local crowd will look familiar to any DC resident – think upper Wisconsin Ave on a Sunday afternoon. Upscale boutiques abound, all frequented by patrons who have the healthy glow patented by regular joggers. Although the chains are beginning to crowd out the independent shops, the Marina and adjacent Union Street are nice places to window shop and take in the art deco architecture of the neighborhood. But if you get weary, be sure to make time for a quick cup of coffee.
Ever wondered how to inject new life into the tired American date archetype of dinner and a movie? Try opening
something like Foreign Cinema in DC. This spacious, part Euro-chic part industrial-edge restaurant has been a favorite of San Francisco diners for years. The food is California-Continental, with a healthy dose of seafood from both coasts. Visitors should focus on San Francisco specialties like the Dungeness crab brandade gratin, which is baked with chilies, garlic, whipped potatoes although some menu items – like house-cured sardines with fried almonds – sound good enough to transcend any zip code.
The restaurant is scores high on the scene scale with diners craning their necks and those being seated to see who else is about to enjoy the food. The large patio area is the place to be with black and white films showing on an enormous screen and heaters to keep diners comfortable (a must in this city of perpetual springtime). Lighting in the restaurant is dim and romantic, which is charming unless you are a nerdy food blogger trying to get a decent photo of her plate. Nevertheless, we enjoyed our meal and took advantage of the restaurant’s Mission setting, using it as a well-placed springboard for an evening out.