From couterculture icon to gay mecca, there is no one San Francisco experience
With Milk Day last month and Gay Pride celebrated throughout June, San Francisco is on the mind of many gays who respected the openly gay member of the city’s board of supervisors. More than 30 years later, SF is still a symbol of gay culture the world over.
A map of the City by the Bay is a catalogue of familiarly named neighborhoods and pop culture landmarks: The Castro, Russian Hill, The Embarcadero, Chinatown, The Presidio. There is no one San Francisco experience, though certainly there are touristy things to do, like heading to Fishermen’s Wharf. Try to avoid them. Or don’t, but know you’re not necessarily in for a unique experience (the eateries and “boutiques” on the Wharf are as generic as Iowa.)
Still, even the ordinary can seem extraordinary in SF. For instance, wandering the Haight-Ashbury District is “touristy,” but still worth it. In what other way can the MUNI be transformed into a time machine?
There’s plenty of public transport here, but it can be confusing, with BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) and the MUNI (the city-wide bus and rail system) separate but somewhat parallel systems that often share the same stations but are priced differently. Get a Clipper card, which is accepted at both, and just keep track of what you need to ride. You’ll definitely want to use the MUNI — San Francisco is an impossibly hilly town that might wear out car-happy flatlanders like us Texans. And the famed cable cars aren’t all that common, and can be luxuries to ride with long waits. (Many of the MUNI buses look like cable cars, similar to Dallas’ McKinney Avenue Trolley system.)
San Fran (which no one here would ever call it; ditto “Frisco”) is dense with restos, so you can eat 1,000 ways, from Tex-Mex (not bad, though Dallas has it beat) to Chinese (real, authentic flavors) to almost any other kind of cuisine you can imagine. It’s also a cash-friendly city, especially at the many mom-and-pop coffeehouses and neighborhood bodegas and brunch spots where dropping a credit card will be met with quizzical looks. They may be sophisticated, but they keep things off the books here.
The city is more crunchy-granola than fashion forward as Los Angeles, or even Dallas — dress for comfort rather than to impress. And that means a lightweight jacket at all times: Air conditioning is a mythical invention here, even in cars and mansions, and the temperature even in summer is brisk and cool. Even the gays dress like they are in a summer resort town. It’s more Key West than West Hollywood … surprising, since the temp stays low. Still, on sunny days, Dolores Park just south of The Castro looks like an RSVP Cruise deck carpeted with
The Castro is, of course, the gay epicenter of San Francisco, or even California, if not the Western Hemisphere — there are more rainbows visible here than at a leprechaun convention. Gay boutiques like Phantom and Does Your Mother Know sell eroticwear, sex toys and porn; local businesses proudly tout camp names like The Sausage Factory (a restaurant) and Hand Job (a nail salon). It’s a district best explored on your own, though Outfit, which sells trendy, reasonably priced clubwear, is a good place to start.
Bars pepper the neighborhood, of course, and you can always find the specific atmosphere that suits you, from the older crowd at Twin Peaks (young locals call it the Glass Coffin, due to its big windows and older-skewing crowd) to The Midnight Sun; its Friday bear night is very popular, especially early with big men and good happy hour prices jammed in … at least until they move to 440, a more sports-and-leather crowd, or Edge, which is hipster-nouveau. Toad Hall offers a more low-key atmosphere than most.
The other gayborhood, Folsom Street, is farther away, closer to the barrios of The Mission and Valencia, where you might be lucky enough to catch a street festival, and can certainly sample food from the taquerias or even Rosamunde Sausage Grill, famed for its house-made sausages.
The Castro basically abuts Haight-Ashbury to the west and Market to the east; both have their appeal. Haight was the center of hippie life in SF during the ‘60s, and has maintained that vibe despite more corporate additions like Ben & Jerry’s. You can shop vintage clothing stores and record shops and roomy bookstores as well as just people-watch: It’s a sea of long-hairs and stoners and latter-day hipsters, many of whom seem to talk to themselves but are probably offering to sell you something.
If you want to buy, go ahead. The Haight backs up to Golden Gate Park from which wafts a cloud of pop smoke from drop-outs who’ve been in need of a bath since the Bush Administration. It’s a dodgy area unless you’re specifically cruising for weed, and the edge of “civilized” San Francisco. (You might hear locals say, “I don’t do the avenues,” code for sticking close to downtown/east side where the gayborhood and tourist spots are concentrated; the avenues to the west are more residential, on either side of the park.)
The other direction from The Castro is Market Street, which still maintains a gay-adjacent quality with gay bars like The Lookout and eateries like Sweet Inspiration Bakery. Keep walking, and you’ll eventually encounter the heart of downtown, including the gorgeous City
Hall where Milk and Mayor George Moscone were assassinated (best viewed from United Nations Plaza). Down a few blocks is lovely Westfield Mall, a beautiful domed monument to consumerism, with tons of high-end shops. (It’s not all alternative here — if you missed the Gaultier exhibit while it was in Dallas, you can catch it here until August.)
A few blocks away, you can stroll the rolling streets of Chinatown, where main thoroughfare Grand Avenue provides a spine from which to explore curio shops or delicious (and cheap) dim sum, like at the Grant Place restaurant where a platter will set you back less than 10 bucks.
The Embarcadero is the bastard child of Seattle and NYC, its wharves harkening to Pike Place Market and the South Street Seaport, with its trendy shops, coffeehouses and photo op-friendly views, while the hilly streets and cool weather are pure Pacific Northwest.
Fishermen’s Wharf, which technically starts around Pier 39 along the Embarcadero, is a tourist trap; if the phalanx of foreign families in matching T-shirts doesn’t clue you in, the presence of Bubba Gump Shrimp, Hard Rock Cafe and overpriced, undermixed cocktails from dull chain restos with names like Wipeout should. But on either side of this area are some worthy stops.
Just to the southwest of the wharf is Ghiradelli Square, home of the famed chocolatier (you get a free piece when you enter the shop).
It’s a beautiful area, with great views of the water, including Alcatraz and Sausalito across the Golden Gate Bridge. The beach is lovely in warm weather — or at least what passes for warm in San Francisco.
From here, if you have it in you, hike a vertical climb up Russian Hill that would wind Tenzing Norgay; from here, you not only get a breathtaking vista (including a rare view of the Golden Gate Bridge) but a chance to walk “the crookedest street in the world,” the tony stretch of Lombard that snakes through lush landscaping. You don’t need a car, you can just walk the 144 steps to the next block.
On the other end of the Embarcadero, to the east near downtown, the Ferry Building is the one visitors’ gathering place you should seek out. First, its concourse boasts a lot of local gems, from Market Bar, a wine bistro that offers nice happy hour options including oysters on the half shell, and Blue Bottle Coffee, where they treat java like a national treasure. It’s also where you can catch a boat ride.
The ferry ride to nearby Sausalito is a quick and fun one (and with a Clipper card less than 10 bucks round trip). The boat gets you within pitching distance of Alcatraz Island while offering picturesque views of San Francisco (from the bay, it resembles a Mediterranean port town, or an Indian pueblo encampment carved into the hillside).
Sausalito itself evokes an artsy enclave like Santa Fe, a charming community especially if you like galleries and jewelry shops and boutiques (there are scores of them) or just wanna walk along the rocky shore — or even rent a bike and pedal around.
For an elegant lunch, go to Scoma’s. There’s one in SF on the wharf, but this one, also on the water, is better — an old school seafood house, with New England-style clam chowder designed to warm the bones from the breeze off the bay (ask for the dining room with bay views). The Pacific snapper fish tacos here are enormous, composed creations, open-faced and drizzled with crema atop guacamole and pico de gallo. And of course, there’s sourdough bread.
Head back to the city, and the vibe changes from elegant to kooky. I even saw naked people walking carefree through the streets — apparently, it’s legal here. You can instantly tell the tourists — we’re the ones reaching for our cameras to take snapshot. In SF, it’s just another day in paradise.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition June 22, 2012.