From hip Spanish tapas bars to secret restaurants and paint parties, the Bay City dishes up one of America’s most diverse dining and nightlife scenes.
San Francisco has taught me a few things about alien brains. I’ve learned that alien brains lack for nutritional value. I was surprised at that – I thought they might be packed with protein, similar to tofu in some respects. I’ve learned that alien brains don’t look particularly appetising – what with all the green blood. All things considered, alien brains taste great, like a cross between a chunky chocolate smoothie mixed into a tin of ripe peaches. Who knew?
On my way to California, I thought I might learn a thing or two about vinification, build my own surfboard, or rub shoulders with a celebrity chef. I thought it might be fun to crash a poetry party, and afterwards join the beatniks for a quick game of hacky sack. I never imagined that I would ride a concrete sewer slide, unlock my passion for glow sticks, crash an underground dinner party, or stay out late eating alien brains, yet here I am, tucked into a cosy corner of the Hemlock Tavern in the alt-fab Tenderloin neighbourhood, surrounded by moustached coolios and pithy fauxhemians in ripped jean jackets, while a band called The Society of Rockets whispers symphonic pop melodies into my ears. It’s way past my bedtime, and I’m alright with that.
The night has never been my favourite time of day. Quite the opposite, in fact; I live for a good sunrise, and I start every trip to San Francisco with a wakeup call from the Marin Headlands, where the views of the Bay Area and the Golden Gate Bridge are sublime. This iconic scene generally serves to supercharge my spirit, but today a gloomy pall hangs over the bay as a fierce tempest looms. My steadfast refusal to seek shelter sets in motion a peculiar series of events; the storm pulverises me, soaks me to the bone, and forces me to take refuge in The Mission. I’m usually intoxicated by the vivaciousness of the pupuserias, Salvadorean bakeries and taquerias of The Mission – even the auto garages and laundromats offer a glimpse at San Fran style – instead I’m preoccupied with fishing a pair of worn-out loafers from the bottom of a consignment shop bin. The shoes look like they were last worn by a Berkeley literature student in 1974 and should complement my crumpled flannel shirt, stone-battered jeans and weather-beaten hair nicely. I decide to finish drying out at the City Lights Bookstore, where I’ll be better equipped to reconfigure my day.
City Lights, nuzzled among the strip clubs, skyscrapers and trattorias of North Beach, was arguably the cerebral bedspring of the Beat Movement and remains an emporium of difficult-to-find titles, radical charm and counter-culture charlatans. It’s basically the coolest place to chill out in a city built on a foundation of coolness. Here I meet Atticus, a 20-something gent with a wispy moustache and a predilection toward Philip K. Dick novels. Atticus catches me reading a copy of The Broken Bubble and strikes up a conversation. After lamenting over my failure on the bay, Atticus asks me if I want to see a side of the city previously unknown to me. “Anyone who appreciates Dick knows that there’s always a city within the city. I can show it to you.” In exchange for his services, Atticus asks that I buy him lunch.
With our stomachs growling local, local, local so loud the passengers on the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) mistake our insides for a bohemian gathering of tribes, I decide to track down a native food legend and one of the Bay Area’s preeminent restaurateurs in an effort to satiate our hunger pangs and uncover the secrets to eating well in San Francisco.
Charles Phan has built a food empire from the ground up with his own bare hands, beginning with his flagship Slanted Door – the hottest dinner reservation in the city since it opened in 1995. “The key to our success,” Charles says, “is in the way we do business. We use locally grown produce and ecologically farmed meat whenever we can. People want to know they are eating well and eating responsibly.”
When Charles decided to open a Vietnamese restaurant in San Francisco in the mid-1990s, no one knew how it would pan out. Serving what was essentially gourmet Asian street food seemed super-niche at a time when fusion cuisine was the rage, but Charles carved a canal where that niche once existed and became a brand in and of himself. “I trusted my instincts,” Charles says. “I treat people to the unexpected and unfamiliar, even when they sometimes think they know what they want. In that way I stay innovative and fresh.”
Charles believes that food goes far beyond flavour to tell the story of where it comes from. Food, he says, “Defines a way of life and the cities we live in.”
We move closer and closer to the definition of San Francisco thanks to the laid-back, blue-collar charm that characterises the Double Play dive bar in Potrero Hill, and the quirky Lovejoy’s Tea Room, an out-of-place yet quizzically at home Victorian relic with a sensational tea list and curious food menu. Lovejoy’s is another nod to how things are done a little differently in this town. We take time to consider the fun, food and libation at the Fat Angel, and the awkwardly beautiful Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar at the Fairmont Hotel, and it becomes clear that we’re starting to play with cultural fire.
Contigo, located in the vibrant Noe Valley neighbourhood, is Brett and Elan Emerson’s love letter to Barcelona, part Spanish bar, part rustic farm kitchen. The food is eclectic – think razor clams á la plancha and fried halibut with snap peas and kumquat – and the atmosphere is electric. I brought Atticus here to prove to him that I know a thing or two about San Francisco, and I think he’s impressed. I figure I’ll try and build up my credibility by ordering the acorn-fed Spanish ham (Contigo is the only place in the city you can find this dish), but Atticus goes one step further when he orders the tripe and chickpeas. “Eat as much as you can,” Atticus says. “You’re going to need your energy.”
Standing at the top of a giant concrete sewer drain that winds through the woods to the turf below, I know I was right to question Atticus’ motives. Atticus hands me a piece of cardboard. “The Seward Street Slides are one of San Francisco’s hidden treasures,” he says. “And the perfect exercise for guys like us.” I don’t know exactly what kind of guys we’re supposed to be, but I don’t have time to ask. Atticus seats himself on his own hunk of cardboard and rockets down the slide. Sewer drain or not, it looks like too much fun to resist. Once we’ve worked up a sweat, Atticus tells me it’s time to move on. “We needed the exercise,” he says. “Things are about to get heavy.”
I’ve heard of the Velvet Underground. I even know a bit about the Underground Railroad. What I hadn’t heard of, until Atticus, was an underground supper club. “I got us an invitation to a guestaurant,” he says. “So you had better be on your best behaviour.” We were to be guests at a clandestine dinner party; these events, often hosted at last-minute locations by celebrity chefs, are taking San Francisco by storm. Atticus and I roll up at a Victorian home in Haight-Ashbury and descend upon the dining room with a group of strangers who will fast become friends. Thanks to the fellas at Stag dining, I’m treated to my first underground dining experience – though I know it won’t be my last. The boys at Stag have hosted foodie events in alternative radio stations, elevator shafts, private homes and parking lots in their efforts to exert force over the world of clandestine dining. The talk of the town, these supper clubs offer a creative approach to dining and are turning the traditional restaurant experience on its head. Other supper clubs rocking the bay include Lazy Bear, the brainchild of lawyer-turned-chef David Barzelay. Barzelay’s suppers are some of the most popular in the country for good reason – where else could you find rhubarb cheesecake and candied egg yolk with a milk chocolate sorbet but in a chef’s private kitchen?
Later, we eschew the line at 111 Minna and dive deeper underground. 111 Minna is, according to someone I think works here, in the business of art in leisure. From what I can tell, that means the folks that put on the shows here work hard to push the boundaries of what it means to have a good time. The gallery’s exhibits rotate every six weeks, bringing fresh contemporary art to the masses. This system also means that 111 Minna exists as a constantly reconfigured dynamic space. It’s no wonder some of the world’s biggest artists show off their skills to crowds of the hip and happening. As we roll along the rolled steel bar, Atticus delivers his next surprise. “It’s time we create our own art,” he says. I follow him out of the gallery without hesitation – he’s earned my trust.
We tumble into an open space called Club 6ix, where it seems like 100 people have gathered to sling paint at one another. Atticus hands me paintbrush, a tunic and a frosty Pabst Blue Ribbon – hipster has never felt so good. Over the next hour NoMe Edonna walks us through an art lesson and I deign to craft a masterpiece. The goal here is to paint as many 1.5-metre-high murals as possible before 11 p.m. If we fail, we fail – the idea is to let our creative spirits soar and have fun doing it. Atticus hands me a stack of glowsticks. “Crack them open,” he says. “And see what you can create.” What I create is deniably art and undoubtedly a mess, but it makes me feel good. It makes everyone else feel good too. There’s an almost total lack of pretention in this space; unlike Los Angeles or New York, there’s conviviality among the wannabes and burgeoning artists in San Francisco that I never knew existed. I’d say it was a secret, if those in the know weren’t so open about sharing. For every underground supper club, public painting party and municipal pillow fight, there is a mixology class taking place somewhere in the city.
Other events end long before you want them to. Atticus takes me to school at the Bourbon & Branch Beverage Academy, where the bartenders from the city’s famous speakeasy pass on a few tricks of the trade over the course of two-and-a-half hours. I want to sign up for the gin course, which promises to take me “from bathtubs and back alleys to the upper class,” while Atticus insists on Cocktails 101. Before long I know my way around a hi-ball, hawthorn strainer, syrups, bitters and mixers. By the end of the course I’m feeling confident in my skills; I write a list of ingredients on a cocktail napkin and tell Atticus that it’s time to go.
And here we are, holding court in our little corner of the Hemlock Tavern. I’m mixing drinks for Atticus and his friends, anxious to know what they think of alien brains. An Alien Brain Haemorrhage is a complex combination of peach schnapps, Irish cream, blue Curacao and grenadine syrup. It’s the first cocktail I’ve mixed on my own and I’m proud of the gnarly, curdled monster I have created. Without hesitation Atticus tips back his drink, wipes the syrup off his chin and says: “We have to show this to everyone in town.” So that’s exactly what we try to do.
We pass out shots at Butter, the white trash purveyor of Tater Tots and Beanie Weenies, and one of the most popular bars in town (I order a Prom Night Punch and suggest you do the same).
Atticus insists we put our feet up at Beauty Bar, the Mission staple that hasn’t decided if it’s a club or a beauty parlour – sprawled out in a salon chair with my head in an old 1980s dryer, I couldn’t care less.
We even manage to visit 1015 Folsom, a dance club that has been popular with locals for a day and an age. I’m a little disappointed when I learn that 1015 has nothing to do with Folsom Prison or Johnny Cash, but I’ll survive.
In fact, I survive until the early morning hours when Atticus and I find ourselves meandering through the Marin Headlands, waiting for the sun to rise. I wouldn’t mind taking a nap, but that would mean missing out on whatever Atticus has planned for us next. As I look out over the bay I see that old familiar storm gaining strength in the distance. I won’t risk getting caught in the rain again. I ask Atticus what we should do next. “It’s time for breakfast the way Mama makes it,” he says. I know he means Mama’s on Washington, the iconic North Beach staple that has been serving up crab Benedict and goat’s-cheese omelettes for more than 50 years. I nod, smile and skip a stone across the water. We might as well start somewhere.
When to go
San Francisco is distinguished by mild winters and dry summers; temperatures rarely exceed 23°C during the warmest months of the year, and seldom fall below 4°C, making the city a great year-round tourist destination.
Where to eat, drink & party
- 111 Minna Gallery. 111 Minna St.; 1-415/974-1719; 111minnagallery.com
- 1015 Folsom. 1015 Folsom St.; 1-415/431-1200; 1015.com
- The Beauty Bar. 2299 Mission St.; 1-415/285-0323; thebeautybar.com
- The Beverage Academy. 561 Geary St.; 1-415/931-7292; beverageacademy.com
- Butter. 354 11th St.; 1-415/863-5964; smoothasbutter.com
- City Lights Bookstore. 261 Columbus Ave.; 1-415/362-8193; citylights.com
- Club 6ix. 60 Sixth St.; 1-415/863-1221; clubsix1.com
- Contigo. 1320 Castro St. 1-415/285-0250; contigosf.com
- The Hemlock Tavern. 1131 Polk St.; 1-415/923-0923; hemlocktavern.com
- Lazy Bear. 1-415/613-3373; lazybearsf.com
- Mama’s (on Washington Square). 1701 Stockton St.; 1-415/362-6421; mamas-sf.com
- Seward Street Slides & Mini-Park. Steward at Douglass, Noe Valley.
- Stag Dining Group. 910 Broderick St.; 1-408/504-9412; dinestag.com
Contact California Tourism. 61-2/9361-0660; visitcalifornia.com.au