If it’s not the outer rim of where I’m willing to drive in a single day, it’s pretty darn close. If you haven’t road-tripped to San Francisco in a while, or ever, you should. And not because it builds character, although it kind of does, but because it’s an exhilarating, exotic destination that’s only about a Vegas and a half away. Or fly, who cares.
You’re thinking, exotic? To the uninitiated outsider, San Francisco and Los Angeles are just two overpriced, big city liberal bastions with a homeless problem. Ok, true. But that aside, they’re wildly distinct from each other. L.A. is sprawl, with iconic neighborhoods from the beaches to the hills to the valleys to a rather small downtown, and divided into an eastside, westside and southside. Mixed in, you have Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, Pasadena and other communities with their own individual character, which help constitute the 10 million-resident county/metropolis.
By contrast, S.F. is just one city. In fact, it’s its own county. It sits alone on a peninsula connected to Marin County on one side and Oakland on another by vast bridges, one of which is arguably the world’s most iconic. This city is rather small in terms of square mileage, but incredibly dense, with charming Victorians packed shoulder to shoulder up and down the hilly streets so as to catch a glimpse of the impressive skyline overlooking the shimmering bay. And no one would ever confuse San Francisco’s elemental climate with L.A.’s beach weather.
To gain a truly nuanced understanding of the dissimilarities of these places, I suggest staying in the heart of it, Union Square. The only comparable space in L.A. might be downtown, but which utterly fails to match this district’s grandeur. The square itself, a small park shadowed by high-rises, is a sardine-packed trove of the world’s finest luxury stores amid world-class hotels. For all you millionaires, go ahead and stay at the Four Seasons, or the Ritz-Carlton, or the Fairmont. For those of us on something of a budget, there are still lucrative options, and I’m about to share with you an ideal one.
Literally across the street from Union Square, The Barnes is history incarnate. Formerly the Villa Florence, this modernized boutique hotel is a chic but cozy experience in the epicenter (maybe not the best term when discussing San Francisco?) of the city, on Powell Street, right in front of a cable car stop and a brief jaunt into Chinatown. Rates start at under $180 a night.
The Barnes is a great place to establish your base camp. Start your day with an espresso and a smorgasbord of a continental breakfast and, after touring the sites, come back to refresh at happy hour, where the decadent handcrafted cocktails are ridiculously affordable at 12 bucks. I asked Nicole, the bartender, why that was. Competition. She pointed out that there are so many great stand-alone venues in the area that you’ve got to keep your prices low if you want to keep up.
The hotel’s restaurant is an oasis from the bustle going on right outside the front doors, with soft lighting and attentive service. The menu will be exciting to any culinary junkie from L.A., built around farm-fresh ingredients creatively paired. And if you’re having a late supper and capping off your night, the good news is that bed is just an elevator ride away. Check out these other hotel options.
Now that we’ve broached the subject of food, let’s discuss in further detail. San Francisco is home to a large number of Michelin-starred restaurants, and the dining scene is cutting-edge. You probably can’t go wrong with any of them. And if money is no object, go crazy. But regardless, you’re going to want to get a taste of what this city is famous for. That means sourdough bread, clam chowder of course, straight-from-the-bay seafood. So, we’re off to legendary Fisherman’s Wharf.
Located in the Argonaut Hotel along Jefferson Street, the Blue Mermaid feels like San Francisco distilled to its essence. While not overtly catering to children, the restaurant is kid-friendly enough that you won’t seem out of place, and even offers some kiddie plates. This stylish-yet-casual eatery is renowned for its Dungeness crab & corn chowder, and get some Wharf Old Bay fries while you’re at it.
The wine list is stellar, as you’d expect, local beers are featured, and the cocktail program is actually better than the website suggests. One imagines that they update their recipes more frequently than the site, which is what you want. You can tell a lot about a joint by its Old-Fashioned, and the Mermaid’s Fashionably Old does not disappoint, built around Basil Hayden’s and stirs in orange and cherry bitters.
Around the corner on the wharf, is a San Francisco institution: Scoma’s. The motto here is “pier to plate.” The seafood pasta dishes are decadent, the ambience is classy and the spirit of founder Al Scoma pervades the salty air. You can always tell a great restaurant by the way it retains its staff through the years, and Scoma’s is one of those places that has stood the test of time through thick and thin.
The linguine con vongole, aka Pasta all Scoma, is that phantom-type meal you get sudden cravings for out of the blue: manilla clams, garlic, onions, white wine and butter over a bed of linguini. But start with the calamari fritti or the Dungeness crab cocktail to whet your appetite.
There’s a nice blend of classic cocktails alongside some modern creations, including a concoction of housemade limoncello sparkled by Prosecco and a splash of soda that is gossamer-light while packing a surprising punch.
Fisherman’s Wharf is the city’s most popular attraction, with Pier 39 being the equivalent of our Santa Monica Pier. And now you have two solid restaurants to hit in the area to avoid the touristy dives.
Meanwhile, Chinatown is loaded with culinary options and would take probably weeks to explore the dazzling array of Asian cuisines. Little Italy is another fascinating dining district catering to picky palates. I wish I could wax poetically about the many and varied restaurants around the city, but on a meager three-day adventure, alas, my recommendations are limited. Learn more ways to explore the city.
One activity I can heartily recommend, however, if you’re going to be doing a lot of eating, is a brisk constitutional in Golden Gate Park. Be sure to bring your windbreaker and a good pair of sneakers, and a sense of wanderlust. Bring your pup, too. In fact, every place I’ve mentioned in this article is dog-friendly. So, bring your best friend along to the city by the bay. Happy travels.
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