The best San Francisco movies to watch during a quarantine

If ever there was a time to binge watch endless movies guilt free, a government enforced shelter-in-place order is probably it. And since we can’t get out to enjoy our lovely city in person, dialing up a San Francisco-set movie is the next best thing. Fortunately there are plenty to choose from, some even featuring the city as a sort of third character, enough to give local viewers lots of place-checking warm snugglies at seeing their home city on the big (small) screen.

The list I compiled is a bit idiosyncratic, and based on a couple criteria. First, and obviously, the film has to be filmed here; not in some studio lot in Burbank with a few beauty shots of Coit Tower thrown in. Second, it has to be good… according to me. And third, it has to be a film I’ve actually watched, which eliminates some probably worthy films I’ve never gotten around to (Zodiac, all the Dirty Harry movies).

Big Trouble in Little China John Carpenter! Kurt Russel! Martial arts! Ancient curse! Good vs Evil! What else could you want? SF’s Chinatown, and Carpenter’s alt universe version, plays a starring role in this wicked fun romp.

The Love Bug This was my first introduction to San Francisco as a kid. Hills, old Victorians, hippie vans, Chinatown, empty streets in night fog. Disney made a slew of wacky kid-friendly films in the 60s and 70s before turning to animation, and this was one of their best and silliest.

The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill The most personal and idiosyncratic of SF docs, meaning the most San Franciscan. It’s a lovely piece about a unique slice of nature found in the city, and a deep dive into the parrot caretaker and his life, the kind of colorful San Francisco character now endangered (if not extinct).

Bullitt A travelogue of San Francisco neighborhoods via the era’s muscle cars. The city takes a starring role in this classic Steve McQueen flick loaded with action and suspense, and lots of pulse-racing chase scenes over and around the hills of the city.

The Conversation This Coppola classic is such an intense and deep character study the many scenes of San Francisco can get overlooked. But it was filmed entirely here, with some lonely shots around the city evocative of Gene Hackman’s character.

Crumb One of the best documentaries ever, which follows underground comix artist Robert Crumb on his life and rise and dysfunctional upbringing. San Francisco figures prominently in his career, where he lived from the late 1960s through the early ‘90s. And while there aren’t a ton of city shots, he was a SF fixture during that time and important part of our counter-culture.

Play it Again, Sam One of my favorite Woody Allen films isn’t directed by him (though he wrote and stars in it). The movie is set and shot in San Francisco and Sausalito, with shots of Allen riding cable cars and driving through the rainbow tunnel in Marin.

Harold and Maude The only film I know of that was almost entirely shot on the peninsula. From South San Francisco to Santa Cruz, and almost every city between gets a cameo in the 70s cult classic about a couple eccentrics brought together by their love of funerals for a May-December romance.

Milk Award-winning film about a San Francisco icon played by a long-time Bay Area resident entirely set and shot in the city. A must-see highlighting an important chapter in San Francisco’s history, and the man who made that history.

Fearless An interesting movie by the great Peter Weir starring Jeff Bridges. While the film is primarily a character study of a plane crash survivor, one of my favorite scenes is Bridge’s architect character driving around Oakland giving an architectural tour of its many wonderful old buildings.

So I Married an Axe Murderer A silly but fun movie from Mike Myers before he was super famous. Set and shot in San Francisco, sight-check familiar spots like Fog City Diner, Alamo Square, Palace of Fine Arts, and lots of North Beach locales. Bonus points for scenes from a typical old-school SF butcher shop.

Vertigo Easily a top three San Francisco-based movie. Besides Hitchcock’s fantastic use of color, his angles and shots of the city set the mood, turning San Francisco into the perfect backdrop in this classic thriller. See the city in a whole different light through the eyes of a master.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco The newest addition to the SF-movie canon came out last year, and is made with loving care by a local. Some of the shots are absolutely gorgeous. And it also shines a light on a totally underrepresented community that’s been systematically gentrified out.

Dark Passage All those shadows and fog make SF an ideal setting for film noir, and it doesn’t get much better with Bogie and Bacall leading the dark mystery. Every scene is filmed in the City (or Marin), including what’s now Grubsteak, and the exquisite Malloch Building on the slopes of Telegraph Hill where the two characters hole up.

The Lady from Shanghai Another classic film noir, this one starring Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth. Includes a memorable chase scene through Chinatown, and a climatic scene at a funhouse at Playland, the amusement park that once lived at Ocean Beach by Golden Gate Park.

Butterflies Are Free Filmed mostly in a top floor North Beach apartment (Grant and Green) with a fantastic old skylight, there’s also a nice lunch scene at Perry’s on Union St. (still there 50 years later). This is a lovely drama from the early 70s with Goldie Hawn playing a free-spirited flower child and her blind neighbor struggling against his domineering Nob Hill mother.

Love of nature in the time of Covid-19

So it’s now day what? of your self-quarantine, a number you’re only able to guesstimate by counting the stains on the sweatshirt you’ve been wearing since day one. You’ve Netflixed yourself into a stupor after eating through your two-week supply of Costco snacks in two days. Your spouse/roommates/kids/pets are beginning to resemble fellow characters in a Hitchcockian saga somewhere between Lifeboat and Rear Window. And all the while you’re obsessively worrying the tickle in your chest is, you know, that. You need to get out, like yesterday.

So what’s a quarantiner to do? First of all, consider yourself fortunate if you’re not having to continue to work out in public, ringing up customers at Safeway or driving Uber shifts. And if you’re a healthcare worker, bless you. For the rest of us, fresh air and sunshine are a sure remedy to cabin fever, a great way to release corona angst for those still working. Fortunately the Bay Area is blessed with a bounty of open lands and parks easy access from most any address, whether a city park down the street or a big National Park a close ride away.

But before you go, there are a number of important guidelines to follow to keep you and everyone around you safe and virus-free.

+If you’re sick, stay home. Rest and get better, and don’t inadvertently infect anyone.
+Practice social distancing – maintain a minimum of six feet between you and others.
+If you arrive at your park of choice and find a crowded parking lot, go somewhere else.
+Try to stay within your city or county borders. A good rule of thumb: keep to parks you can walk or bike to, which is pertinent for those parks that remain open but closed their parking lots.
+Check the website of the park you wish to visit since its status can change daily. Some parks have closed because of large crowds.

In general, campgrounds, visitor centers, park stores, and other facilities where people gather are closed, while trails and beaches remain open.

National Parks

Closures at Golden Gate National Recreation Area, with several parks in Marin and San Francisco, includes facilities, camp grounds, parking lots, roads, and a few entire parks. Alcatraz, Fort Point and Muir Woods are completely closed. If you want to visit Crissy Field, Lands End or Baker Beach, you’ll need to walk or bike, and don’t be surprised if you find a ‘closed’ sign due to crowds.

Point Reyes National Seashore is mostly closed until at least April 7, including many park roads and most parking lots.

Except for the visitor center and other facilities, the Presidio appears to be open for biking and hiking.

California State Parks

The agency has published a list of parks closed to traffic, which means the only way to access their trails or beaches is to walk or bike to them. For the Bay Area, this includes everything from Mount Diablo SP in the East Bay, Mount Tamalpais SP and Tomales Bay SP in Marin, the half-dozen state beaches in San Mateo County, Henry Cowell SP and several state beaches in Santa Cruz, and a number of parks in Sonoma. If you’re thinking of sneaking away to Mendocino or down to Big Sur, a number of their parks are affected as well.

San Francisco Parks

All playgrounds in city parks are closed, as are parking lots at Ocean Beach, Beach Chalet and Marina Green. The SF Zoo, Cal Academy of Sciences, and any facility where people can gather are closed. Otherwise city parks remain open for now, which could change depending on the level of crowds this weekend.

Midpeninsula Regional Open Space Preserves

Except for Windy Hill, which is closed, the 24 preserves found throughout the peninsula are open. Though restrooms, several parking areas and group gathering sites are closed, while loop trails are one-way only. More closings may follow if crowd numbers are too high.

East Bay Regional Park District

Facilities and parking lot closures are extensive at many East Bay Parks, along with several parks. Walk-in access is allowed at others. Check before setting out.

Santa Clara Open Space Authority

The four nature preserves in the south and east of San Jose are open for now.

San Mateo County Parks

As of now, all parks in San Mateo County are closed. This includes Coyote Point, Memorial Park, Sam McDonald Park and Pescadero Creek Park. Beach parking lots in Half Moon Bay and Pacifica are also closed.

Marin County Parks

Because everyone descended on Marin County last weekend, all Marin parks are under various restrictions. Basically you can only walk or bike through.

In search of San Francisco’s “lost soul”

Has San Francisco lost its soul? Yes, at least according to several recent articles (from The New Yorker, New York Times and The Guardian). Whatever a city’s soul is, or if cities even have one, it’s a common refrain of late, especially from out-of-town writers. In SF, tech-money fueled gentrification is ushering in soulless fussy restaurants and pushing housing costs beyond the affordability of all but the top earners, while worsening a homeless problem that seems more desperate than ever. And yes, it’s all true, and definitely bad.

But these forces have been in motion since at least the first dot-com boom in the late 1990s. And it’s happening in cities all across the country, especially New York where two of the writers hail from. Even second-tier cities like Boise, Idaho, are feeling the effects. There was a brief reprieve after the dot-com bust and Great Recession, but now it’s barreling along like an unstoppable freight train. The only thing worse than our insane rents is the cost of a home in the city, even a crappy one. You either have to be rich, or old enough to enjoy a rent-controlled apartment, or your family bought a place decades ago. Along with the local residents, a lot of restaurants and retail can’t keep up. Colorful icons like Sinbad’s have been disappearing, replaced by expensive foodie places that all seem to go in for the same minimalist interior design (lots of metal chairs and white walls), making them feel sterile and uninviting.

Should we blame those young (and not so young) techies like the articles do? Most are working stiffs at the mercy of the same economic forces as everyone else, though some have better salaries to weather the storms and indulge their foodie whims. And whoever they are, there’s a segment out there that only seem interested in eating out, craft beer and Instagrammable backdrops. The kind of IPA note-takers Anthony Bourdain railed against on his trips here, like pod people out of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. They lack imagination or adventurousness, or both. For instance (screed warning), when I lived in the Inner Richmond, I would see daily lines outside Burma Superstar on Clement St., which has long been on the hip ‘to-do’ list of restaurants. Excellent place, so perfectly deserving. But, half a block away, and owned by the same people, B Star serves virtually the same food at the same quality and never has a line. (Or Burmese restaurant Mandaly a block north on California St. is equally as good, and rarely overcrowded). So I don’t know. But c’mon people! Break from the herd, forget the ‘likes’.

Okay, I’m getting off track. Or maybe not. For whatever reason, whether it’s a change in younger tastes or the pushing out (or aging out) of long-time locals, people just aren’t frequenting places like Sinbad’s (RIP) or Mr. Bing’s unless it’s featured by Bourdain (RIP) on his show. Even the writers of these articles, and the people they interview, don’t seem to know about them, or they certainly don’t mention them. Are they all just hanging out in the Mission or Soma or Hayes Valley? and so only see the most obvious and egregious examples of gentrification in the city?

Because while they may be an endangered species, there are still lots of Mr. Bing-type places around, along with the people that make San Francisco the interesting, gritty, wild, fun, eccentric, colorful ‘Bagdad by the Bay’ it’s long been known as. You just have to leave the Mission to find them.

For starters, Chinatown is a treasure, and has changed little over the decades, even less than similar places in Hong Kong or Taipei. R & G Lounge is an experience, Sam Wo’s is going strong after relocating and still open til 3am, Hunan and dim sum joints abound, and Li Po’s and Buddha Bar are uniquely San Franciscan and the type of two-fisted drinking establishments Bourdain lauded.

Cross the street to North Beach and there’s City Lights Bookstore and Vesuvio Café, which have barely changed since the days when Allen Ginsburg and Jack Kerouac roamed the alley. Sure, Columbus Ave attracts lots of tourists, but there’s also a vibrant and colorful local community found at places like Café Trieste, The Saloon and Savoy Tivoli.

Even Fisherman’s Wharf isn’t the total tourist hell locals think of it as. Long-time stalwarts like The Buena Vista is there, along with the Grotto bar and restaurant, Sabella & La Torre and the Franciscan Crab Restaurant (the coolest building around!). Musee Mechanique, the Gold Dust Lounge, and some surprisingly underrated bars are also here.

In both the lower and upper Haight, where I used to live in the late ‘90s, there’s been changes, but I’m always surprised at how much is still the same whenever I visit. All my cherished haunts are still there, like the Citrus Club, Happy Donuts, the Booksmith, Amoeba Music and Aub Zam Zam.

And if you dare to cross Arguello, the Richmond and Sunset districts have seen changes (commercial rents pushing out some businesses) but the general character remains, along with some of the best dim sum and pho in the city, and real Russian bakeries and cheap Chinese produce. The people you see walking about are mostly locals, some who probably grew up here.

So my point, a lot of changes have been ongoing in San Francisco that our mostly of the sad soulless variety, but the city still has lots of its unique character to enjoy and celebrate. You just have to make the effort. And if you need some motivation, consider it an act of cultural preservation to have a mai tai at Li Po’s or margarita at Tommy’s, and help them pay the rent.

4th of July in the Bay Area: what to do

You won’t have to venture far to find Independence Day fun in San Francisco and the Bay Area, with all-day events in towns and cities north, east, and all up and down the Peninsula. Parades, parties, food and fireworks are all part of the patriotic celebration, with maybe a 5k or pancake breakfast thrown in for good measure. And guess what, it never rains in July in California, so you’ll never have to worry about dashed plans (though fog can be an issue along the coast). Here’s a list of some of the best options for your 4th of July festivities.

4th at the Wharf
City denizens need only head to Fisherman’s Wharf for its annual mix of colorful street performers and scheduled entertainment throughout the day. Board one of several ferry boats or huddle by the shoreline (or atop a nearby hill) for a spectacular fireworks display shot from barges in the bay. Or use your imagination as you peer through the fog. Afterward, stick around at an area bar while the traffic rush settles.

Bolinas v Stinson Beach Tug of War Battle
This event has been around since the days when the coastal Miwok Indians and Spanish colonials settled their differences with a friendly game of draw and quarter. Okay, that’s not true. But the fabled 9am event over the channel that separates the two towns kicks off 4th festivities that includes a parade in Bolinas and lots of lazing around the beach.

Sausalito’s 4th of July Parade & Fireworks
This is one of the best Independence Day celebrations around, starting with the parade and street fair along Bridgeway and Caledonia. But the best reason to come may be the double dip of fireworks – Sausalito’s own excellent display, and the one directly across the bay in San Francisco. Plus you can enjoy a picnic in the park, hang by the firepits at Bar Bocce, or take a ferry from/to the city.

San Jose Rose, White & Blue Parade
Why ‘Rose’? Because San Jose fancies itself the rose capital of California, and the parade route runs through the streets of the ‘rose garden’ district. The Alameda is blocked off for afternoon festivities, or you can venture to nearby Cupertino, Saratoga or Los Gatos for their celebrations.

El Cerrito WorldOne Festival
The East Bay town goes all out for its 4th festivities, which starts with a pre-party on the 3rd and includes a whole lineup of bands, circus performers and a magic show. There’s even a small carnival with rides, jumpy houses and games.

Marin County Fair and Fireworks
Why not take your 4th up a notch with a visit to the fairgrounds in San Rafael. Enjoy carnival rides (free with admission), a concert of ABBA music and fabulous fireworks at the end of the day. Plus lots of delicious food (fried and otherwise) along with craft beer and wine. Besides the farm animals on show, you might even find a baby pig or goat to pet.

What to do in the Bay Area this 4th of July week

Fireworks and Parades

It’s often said, by me, that the best fireworks are the one’s closest to your home. After all, who wants to drive half an hour to deal with parking and crazy traffic when you can relax in your lawn chair with a cold beer in hand. Ideally, your lawn is within sight of a local fireworks display. If not, you may need to mosey down to your local park for a decent view. Go early, and you may even get a parade and some. Here’s a list from KRON of parades and fireworks, while this rundown from Red Tricycle includes best viewing spots and tips.

Fillmore Jazz Festival

This is the largest jazz fest on the West Coast, and it’s free. Stroll the 12 blocked-off blocks along Fillmore between Jackson and Eddy to enjoy acts such as Lavay Smith & the Red Hot Skillet Lickers and Alphabet Soup. Eat and drink at one of the many food booths and beer gardens along the road, and check out the dozens of arts and crafts. Saturday and Sunday, 6/30-7/1, 10:30am-6pm.

Off the Grid 8th birthday

Imagine a time when food trucks didn’t exist (besides the roach coach’s parked at construction sites) and you had to schlep to an actual restaurant for your dinner. And then you see that the granddaddy food truck event of them all, Off the Grid, is a tender 8 years old. Celebrate its birthday at Fort Mason with dj’s, chill people and of course lots of food truck food and beer. Friday, 6/29, 5-10pm.

Japan Day Festival

As if the Fillmore wasn’t hopping enough this weekend, add the Japan Day celebration to the mix with stages of music, dance and arts. Naturally there will be Taiko, and origami, and excellent ramen and other Japanese delights in the adjacent malls. Sunday, 7/1, noon-4:30pm.

Big Rocky Games

Monte Rio along the Russian River in Sonoma is host to a weekend of its famed Big Rocky Games. It’s the ideal summertime event with inner tube races, rock skipping, a rubber ducky contest, water balloon toss, canoe and swim races and an ice cream eating contest. The town’s firehouse cooks up its Fireman’s BBQ, while Sunday’s highlight includes homemade floats with people performing skits as they float by. Saturday and Sunday, 6/30-7/1, noon-4pm.

Marin County Fair

This is what summer is all about. Concerts, carnival rides and farm animals, and all the deliciously terrible fried food you can dare to eat. Oh, and a fireworks show every night. Saturday-Wednesday, 6/30-7/4, all day.

A getaway to Santa Cruz

For someone who’s never been to California, the city of Santa Cruz is most likely what they imagine. Endless sunshine, miles of sandy coastline, surfers, hippies, old VW vans, legal weed, grungies and skateboard/street punks. More than any other Bay Area city or exurb, Santa Cruz embodies that classic California vibe – something like chilled-out surfer or stoned-out hippie – but mostly a contented attitude that comes when living within biking distance of the ocean is all that matters. It’s a beach town first, college town second, with blue-collar roots and hippie/yoga aspirations, the kind of place Cheech and Chong might retire to, or Jeff Spicoli would flunk out of if he ever got in.

Continue reading A getaway to Santa Cruz

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