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TRAVEL BAY CITY BLISS

Exploring the streets of San Francisco
By Colman Andrews |

SAN FRANCISCO is a jewel box of a city, filled with bright and pretty things, animated by a rakish sense of style, mirrored vividly by one of the world’s most beautiful bays. It’s like the Grand Canyon or the canals of Venice: It’s even better than you think it’s going to be. The first time you see it – especially if it’s on a typical warm/cool San Francisco day when the air sparkles, the buildings glow and the clouds seem etched against the sky -you wonder if it can be real.

It’s real, all right. It has been since 1776. And since then, it has survived Mexican occupation, the Gold Rush, the coming of the railroad and the great earthquake of 1906. As a result, San Francisco has grown up to be a well-spiced melting pot of languages, cultures and lifestyles – a veritable fantasy land of nationality, architecture and philosophy. It is one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the country and one of the most provincial. It virtually defined America during the Sixties but still proudly traces much of its personality back to the 1850s. It is the birthplace of the United Nations and of topless dancing. It’s a city that readily accepts open homosexuality in politics and business, but where folks look at you funny if you wear white after Labor Day or put on brown shoes with a blue suit. It’s a frontier town, a bawdy seaport and a bustling, modern financial capital.

But there’s a dark side to San Francisco, too. It’s a big American city, with the usual poverty and crime. It leads the country in alcoholism, suicide and venereal disease rates. It’s the end of the line – the edge of America – for all too many people. But its physical beauty is real, its spirit is unflag-ging and its undoubtable sense of style cuts across social and economic boundaries with great panache.

San Francisco has been called “everyone’s favorite city” and “everyone’s second hometown.” It may or may not be those things, but one thing is certain: San Francisco knows how to treat its visitors. Tourism is big business, and the locals know it. As a result, they’re only too happy to wine, dine and dazzle out-of-towners.

San Francisco’s countless tourist attractions are so well-known as to be almost national folklore by now. Everyone’s heard of Chinatown, North Beach, the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz and the cable cars (which aren’t running right now; the cable system is being renovated), all of which are well worth investigating – and there are hundreds of guidebooks and pamphlets to tell you all about these and other diversions. (Two particularly useful volumes are Arthur Frommer’s Guide to San Francisco and San Francisco/Walks and Tours in the Golden Gate City by Randolph Delehanty. The best guide to current events is the “pink section” of the Sunday Chronicle-Examiner.)

Here are a handful of recommendations for more obscure attractions, as well as some notes of a more practical nature on where to stay, eat, drink, shop and listen to music in San Francisco.



ATTRACTIONS



The Balclutha, Pier 43, Fisherman’s Wharf (at the foot of Polk Street). A genuine three-masted, square-rigged wind-jammer, the Balclutha was built in Scotland in 1886 for trade around Cape Horn. The ship itself is beautifully restored, and photographs and relics of old sailing days are on display.

The Guinness Museum of World Records, 235 Jefferson. A hokey but fascinating collection of documentary evidence and artifacts of (to quote the museum’s publicity) “the fastest, the fattest, the biggest, the smallest, the strongest and a good deal more.”

The Mexican Museum, Fort Mason, Building D. A rich collection of Mexican arts and crafts from pre-Hispanic days to the early Eighties. Interesting special exhibits, including a show of folk-art nativity scenes last Christmas.

The Old U.S. Mint, Fifth and Mission streets. They call this remarkable 1870-vintage monumental building the “Granite Lady.” It survived the 1906 earthquake and now features numismatic exhibits of all sorts.

The Whittier Mansion, 2090 Jackson. Headquarters of the California Historical Society, it’s a luxurious 19th-century grand house, filled with superb period furnishings and graced with an excellent collection of California landscapes.

The wine Museum of San Franasco, 633 Beach St. The biggest, the best and almost the only such museum in America, with a magnificent collection of glassware, tools, artworks and photographs relating to the production and consumption of wine throughout the ages – from the ancient Etruscans to today’s Napa Valley natives. Randolph Delehanty calls this place “among the most civilized, literate and artistic of museums.”



HOTELS



As a tourist city, San Francisco is full of hotels – from seedy dives and quaint inns to veritable urban castles. The Sheraton Palace at Market and New Montgomery streets is worth considering; it’s the most venerable of the city’s old hotels, and its spectacular Garden Court restaurant, under an immense Victorian stained-glass dome, is one of the Bay Area’s great decorative marvels. Beyond that, though, it’s just another Sheraton. Some better places to stay:

The Andrews Hotel, 624 Post. 563-6877 (this and all subsequent telephone numbers are in the 415 area code). A new but old-style little hotel with a lot of charm. Good location; moderately priced.

The Beresford, 635 Sutter. 673-9900. Informal and eclectic with pleasant rooms and a nice restaurant/bar, the White Horse Taverne. Moderately priced.

The Fairmont, California and Mason streets. 772-5000. The huge, old and elaborate sister to the Dallas, New Orleans and Denver Fairmonts. It’s classier these days than its archrival across the street, The Mark Hopkins. Great views from Nob Hill. Expensive.

The Hyatt Regency, 5 Embarcadero Center. 788-1234. Dramatic atrium lobby, tastefully decorated rooms, lots of extras and great security. Expensive.

The Pacific Plaza, Post and Mason streets. 441-7100. The city’s newest big-deal luxury hotel, it’s popular with high-rollers. Beautifully decorated with a top-notch Italian restaurant, Donatello’s. Expensive.

The St. Francis, Union Square. 397-7000. Elegant, stately, old-fashioned and well-run with an excellent location. Expensive.

The Stanford Court, California and Powell streets. 989-3500. Arguably the city’s best hotel, with antique furnishings, up-to-date amenities, great service and a very good restaurant, Fournou’s Ovens. Expensive.

Washington Square Inn, 1660 Stockton. 981-4220. North-Beach casual, but clean and grown-up. A glorified bed-and-break-fast place-locals love it as a weekend hideaway. Moderately priced.



RESTAURANTS



San Francisco is said to have the largest number of restaurants per capita of any American city. The diversity of style, price and quality is immense, as might be expected. Some heretics claim that Los Angeles now has better eating places – especially upper-echelon French and Italian ones – but, be that as it may, San Francisco is still an absolutely first-rate place to eat.

Le Central, 435 Bush. 391-2233. This place looks and feels exactly like a Paris brasserie, and it’s famous for its cassoulet. A lot of local celebrities come here, including “Mr. San Francisco” – columnist Herb Caen. Moderately priced.

Ernie’s, 847 Montgomery. 397-5969. Perhaps the city’s best serious French restaurant, Ernie’s offers old-time San Francisco elegance and nouvelle cuisine. Very expensive.

Gaylord’s, Ghirardelli Square, 771-8822; and 1 Embarcadero Center, 397-7775. Indian food to conjure with; the tan-doori dishes and breads are especially fine. Moderately priced.

Greens, Fort Mason, Building A. 771-6222. America’s best vegetarian restaurant with salads, pizzas and pastas of great sophistication. Excellent baked goods and a memorable bay view. Moderately priced.

Hayes Street Grill, 324 Hayes. 863-5545. The best new-style San Francisco grill, Hayes has a good selection of fresh fish, steaks and homemade sausages grilled over mesquite charcoal, plus world-class French fries and good California wines. Moderately priced.

Hong Kong Tea House, 835 Pacific Ave. 391-6365. Big, bustling dim sum (Chinese “tea cake”) house with a good selection. Best for early lunch. Inexpensive.

Hunan, 924 Sansome. 956-7727. The best Chinese restaurant in the world, according to The New Yorker a few years back. It probably isn’t, but it’s excellent nonetheless. Spicy, fragrant, unusual food – and no MSG. Moderately priced.

Little Joe’s, 523 Broadway. 433-4343. A San Francisco tradition, Little Joe’s is great for burgers, omelets, veal chops and calamari. But there’s usually a long wait. Moderately priced.

MacArthur Park, 607 Front. 398-5700. A good place for salads, hamburgers, mesquite-grilled steaks and fish, various kinds of potatoes, onion rings and great smoked-and-barbecued baby pork back ribs. Moderately priced.

Modesto Lanzone’s, Ghirardelli Square, 771-2800; and 601 Van Ness Ave., 928-0400. The city’s best upscale Italian restaurant(s). (Try the North Beach restaurant for slightly heartier, funkier Italian cooking.) Serious pasta dishes, good lamb chops and a big Italian/Californian wine list. Impressive contemporary art on the walls. Expensive.

Narai, 2229 Clement. 751-6363. Offbeat Chinese fare, featuring dishes from the Chio Chow region near Canton. Salt-baked prawns are a standout; good Thai dishes also served. Inexpensive.

Osome, 1923 Fillmore. 346-2311. A definitive sushi bar, plus tempura, sukiyaki, etc. Moderately priced.

Szechwan Taste, 631 Broadway. 989-5992. Szechwan and other Chinese specialties, both familiar and unfamiliar. Consistent quality. Minced squab soup is highly recommended. Inexpensive.

Tadich Grill, 240 California. 391-2373. The best old-style San Francisco grill, with fresh fish. There’s almost always a line for tables, but it’s almost always worth the wait. Moderately priced.

Trader Vic’s, 20 Cosmo Place. 776-2232. One of the first of the chain and still owned by “Trader” Vic Bergeron himself. Forget the Chinese items – order Polynesian and European specialties and roast meats such as Indonesian lamb and Japanese sate. Some good vegetable and potato dishes. Very expensive.

Vanessi’s, 498 Broadway. 421-0890. The quintessential San Francisco restaurant, Vanessi’s has American/Italian pastas, char-broiled steaks and fish, and good burgers in the Little Joe’s style. Old-fashioned waiters. Moderately priced.

Zuni, 1658 Market. 552-2522. “California cuisine,” based on local ingredients. Salads, grilled meats and fish, pasta and more complicated dishes. Moderately priced. For more California cuisine, cross the Bay Bridge to Berkeley and try the Santa Fe Bar & Grill and Chez Panisse.



BARS AND TAVERNS



The Buena Vista, 2765 Hyde. 474-5044. An old-style San Francisco bar with a nice street-level view of the bay and decent food. Legend has it that Irish coffee was invented at the Buena Vista. It’s well-made here, as are all the usual drinks.

The Cornelian Room, Bank of America Building, 555 California. 433-7500. Opulent decor with honest drinks and possibly the best view in the city -from 52 floors up. Forget the food, and when it’s foggy, forget the view.

The Edinburgh Castle, 950 Geary. 885-4074. Multilevel pub with all sorts of Scottish folderol around. (Come ashore here after a visit to the made-in-Scotland Bal-clutha.) Good range of beers, ales and Scotch whiskies. Fish and chips available.

Henry Africa’s, 2260 Van Ness Ave. 928-7044. One of the original “fern bars,” with a campy jukebox and chummy clientele. Very popular with the unattached set.

Perry’s, 1944 Union. 922-9022. The singles bar, but with surprisingly good, simple food. Very friendly.

Top of the Mark, Mark Hopkins Hotel, 1 Nob Hill. 392-3434. San Francisco’s traditional end-of-the-evening cocktail lounge with classic drinks and a good view that was even better before the Fairmont added a huge tower annex across the street.



MUSIC



The Boarding House, 901 Columbus Ave. 441-4333. Big-name jazz, rock and folk.

Earthquake McGoon’s, Pier 39. 986-1433. A new location for a San Francisco legend. Music is by Turk Murphy, who spearheaded the Dixieland revival hereabouts some 25 years ago.

Echo Beach, Showplace Design Center, Eighth and Townsend streets. 864-1500. This crowded New Wave disco is not for the old at heart.

Keystone Korner, 750 Vallejo. 841-9903. The city’s best jazz club with star-quality attractions.

Mabuhay Gardens, 443 Broadway. 956-3315. Tacky, noisy and silly, but it’s the best place in town to go if you’re in the mood for monotonous, overamplified punk music.

Venetian Room, Fairmont Hotel, California and Mason streets. 772-5163. A classy supper club with headliners such as Tony Bennett and Peggy Lee.



SHOPPING



Ghirardelli Square. About 100 shops and restaurants fill this red-brick water-front complex, which has inspired similar reconstructions all across America. It’s always packed with tourists, but you can find some real quality items in many of the shops – clothing, souvenirs, books, artworks, soaps, clocks, Irish goods, Persian goods, Dutch goods and heaven knows what else. The best restaurants are Gay-lord’s and Modesto Lanzone’s (see above), but Maxwell’s Plum is a must-see (if not necessarily a must-dine), and there are plenty of places for informal lunches and the like. A similar but much smaller complex nearby, The Cannery, is also worth a visit.

Gump’s, 250 Post. 982-1616. Museum quality Asian art, jade, glassware, jewelry, etc. One of the best-known shops of any kind in San Francisco.

I. Magnin, Erie and Stockton streets. 362-2100. A San Francisco original famous for its designer collections of men’s and women’s clothing and for what are probably the most beautiful restrooms in the city.

Neiman-Marcus, Union Square, 150 Stockton. 362-3900. San Franciscans were up in arms when the turn-of-the-century City of Paris department store was torn down recently to make way for this new Philip Johnson-designed monolith – but when the store opened late last year, it was so popular that fire marshals had to bar the doors by noon every day. The old City of Paris’ stained-glass rotunda has been retained, although it looks a bit incongruous in its present setting. As for the merchandise, well.. .it’s Neiman’s.

Shreve & Co., Post Street and Grand Avenue. 421-2600. Antique and contemporary jewelry, silver, etc. First-rate merchandise bought from grand old estates.

Wilkes-Bashford, 336 Sutler. 986-4380.A large, stylish, well-stocked men’s department store that serves complimentarywine while you browse.