(Note: This is part of my San Francisco neighborhood guide to be published individually, then in its entirety at completion. Also, be aware that as a result of the ongoing business restrictions during the pandemic, some of the restaurants and retail businesses I talk about in the guides may close shop with little warning.)
North Beach Like the perfect picture postcard of San Francisco, there’s no mistaking what city you’re in on a stroll through North Beach, and why it’s so popular with visitors. Another reason: its supreme walkability, one of the best in the city (despite four lanes of Columbus Ave); there’s something interesting at every turn. It’s also the most traditional and established of San Francisco’s neighborhoods – residents have lived here for decades and Italian families for generations – and with the richest history. From the Barbary Coast to the beats, jazz to punk rock, the North Beach scene was instrumental in all of those eras. It’s also home to the first club in the U.S. to go topless (The Condor). Back then, if you were young and hip and seeking excitement, you went to North Beach. Yes, these days it’s a tourist magnet, but it’s not ‘touristy’, and anyway the tourists bring some bustle, and stay mostly to Columbus Ave and the Italian eateries along it. Venture off the main drag and things quiet down a bit, and that’s where you’ll find some of the quirkiest shops in the city, especially along Grant Ave. (or could until recently). The family-run coffee shops and cafés might not be hipster favorites, but there’s no better place to nurse a cappuccino and watch the city pass by. Caffe Trieste is not only filled with characters – on both sides of the counter – it’s the OG of west coast coffeehouses, while Caffe Greco would be my daytime home if I lived anywhere near the area. The same holds for some of the city’s best and most colorful old-school bars, like Vesuvio’s, Mr. Bing’s and The Saloon (the city’s oldest bar and best for live blues). And while restaurants along Columbus are often dismissed as tourists traps, they can be a fun and truly Italian experience (e.g. playful banter with the maître d’). You’ll find the city’s best old-school Italian eateries in North Beach, and the best pizza (Capo’s and Tony’s). Washington Square (state’s oldest park), Telegraph Hill, Coit Tower, Saints Peter and Paul Church, City Lights bookstore, exquisite architecture (the Malloch Building), fantastic views, North Beach has a lot to offer and tops my list as the best neighborhood to visit.
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.
If you’re looking to spend a weekend exploring Sonoma wine country, consider making Healdsburg your base of operations. It’s easy to get to (minus any traffic woes) just off Hwy 101 about 10 miles north of Santa Rosa, so just enough removed from the small city sprawl, car dealerships and office parks of that area. Yet it still has all the conveniences and amenities you might need, and enough small town charm to make it feel like a proper country getaway from the city.
The biggest reason of all: it’s located at the intersection of three wine regions – the Russian River AVA, Dry Creek AVA and Alexander Valley AVA.
According to Yelp, there are 555 donut-serving establishments in the city and east bay. And while an unknown number are cafes, coffeeshops and Chinese cafeterias, it’s obvious the Bay Area is not lacking in sugary fried dough substances. Some are good, some suspect, but generally we do a passable donut product here (not like the sad state of our bagels and pizza*). I thought it was pretty much like that, until I came across a thing so rare I was unaware it actually existed until sinking my teeth into its still warm, perfectly textured (not too dense, not too fluffy), generously iced dough, and was transported to a land of rainbows and unicorns and dancing Homers. And I’m not even a big donut fan. Continue reading Holy O’s!→
Personally, I prefer Thanksgiving at home, where all I have to do is cook and eat, or just eat, lazing around in my old socks and watching movies on Netflix. The idea of getting dressed up and going to a nice restaurant for dinner seems like a lot of work, plus I tend to feel bad for the poor stiffs who have to work that day. Continue reading Where to go for Thanksgiving dinner in the Bay Area→
Sausalito is such a lovely town. Bike across the Golden Gate Bridge or take a ferry from San Francisco, stroll along its waterfront, check out the shops, have lunch at Scoma’s or grab a burger and fries at Hamburgers, maybe an ice cream at Lappert’s or a drink at No Name bar, and you’ve had yourself a pretty darn good day. But venture off the well-traveled tourist path of downtown, and you’ll find some of the best of what Sausalito, and Marin County, has to offer. Continue reading 8 reasons to get reaquainted with Sausalito (hint: it’s all about the food)→
You may not need a reason to enjoy all the incredible nature at our disposal, but if you do, here’s a gentle nudge: on June 9, a number of national parks in the state are free for Get Outdoors Day, including our own Muir Woods just a short jaunt north of the city in Mill Valley. The 554-acre park has one of the last old growth Coast Redwood stands left in the state, nay, the world, and a 1.5-mile trail to enjoy it. The $7 fee is waived for Saturday, and you can even park and ride the Muir Woods shuttle, which also picks up/drops off at the Golden Gate Transit bus stop and Sausalito ferry if you choose total car freedom. Continue reading Procrastinator’s guide to the weekend (June 9-10)→
You would think with all the engineers from the Subcontinent employed by Silicon Valley tech firms, the South Bay would have plenty of good Indian restaurants to choose from. You would be right. Drive down El Camino Real in Sunnyvale and Santa Clara and it starts to look like one big Indian restaurant bazaar. There’s so many, I heard they even opened one inside a Starbucks. (Badaboom) Okay maybe not, but it’s also no surprise to find some of the best curries and dosas and naan in the Bay Area down south. Continue reading Best Indian food in the Bay Area (hint: look south)→
I realize most people don’t plan their dining experience around taro buns.* And I don’t know for fact if this is the best: it’s true, I haven’t tried every taro bun in every Asian restaurant in the Bay Area. But if any of them can outdo the delicate fluffiness and light, sweet taro innards on offer at Fu Lam Mum Chinese Restaurant in Mountain View, I’ll gladly devote an entire blog in their honor. Not only do the taro buns at Fu Lam Mum rise above all other taro buns, but they’re also on par with some of the best pastries around, whatever the ethnic origins of said bread, French, Danish, or, dare I say, Tartine. And it’s not just me saying this. My dining companion, with in-depth knowledge of taro buns from living five years in Japan and traveling throughout Asia, was equally impressed. Continue reading Best taro bun in the Bay Area (and most vegetarian-friendly dim sum)→
The Best of the Bay Area for travel, discovery and cultural exploration