San Francisco in 10 Years, 10 Spots & 20 Songs

A look at the bridge from Marshall's Beach

Climbing rocks to catch a glimpse of the great Golden Gate from Marshall’s Beach

This October marked my 10th anniversary in San Francisco. Yes, I’ve seen this city change dramatically, and, yes, it has become grossly expensive. The streets are a messy dichotomy of new construction and rotting feces. Beloved spots are hastily transforming into faceless condos, while too many of its people miss out on its quirks and quaintness because they’re staring down at a screen. But enough has been bitched about regarding growing economic disparity, greedy landlords, corporate takeovers, Zuckerberg and Google buses, “bro”-grammers and millenials swooping into a city whose history they don’t give one damn about it. I’m not here to add to that circular conversation, or romanticize San Francisco’s more culturally stimulating “better times,” or to yell at these kids to get off my lawn (I’m just an expat from the Midwest, after all).

Bird's Eye View of San Francisco

Bird’s Eye View of San Francisco

This little piece here is simply a reflection and a humble tribute to the city that’s informed much of who I am today, even if I don’t recognize some of its initial charm anymore — just as I probably wouldn’t recognize much of my younger self, a green, young college grad moving west with flowers in hair and tie-dyed dreams in head. I took to moving to the place that inspired the Beats and the Summer of Love with equal parts youthful curiosity and good old-fashioned culture shock. I played “Grace” to my best gay friend and new roommate’s “Will,” as any good single young woman would do in the rainbow-lined utopia of San Francisco.

Idyllic hilltop view of the Coit Tower, at Taylor and Vallejo Streets (Ina Coolbrith Park).

Idyllic hilltop view of the Coit Tower, at Taylor and Vallejo Streets (Ina Coolbrith Park).

It was 2004 and I thought nothing of Google, but I did have an AOL account (still use it too!). The Giants played at “Pac Bell Park,” a bus ride was $1.25 (now it’s a whole dollar more), the Mission had the perfect amount of grit and dive bars for a twentysomething making $10 an hour to thrive (pretty sure that’s no longer possible), and owning a car was incredibly rare (complaints about traffic and parking are now, unfortunately, abundant). My first experience at The Independent was viewing a local film about living along Divisadero Street. My first time at the Warfield was alone, after navigating a hasty walk through the Tenderloin and managing to score a face-value ticket for a sold-out show. I worked in SOMA, where eating establishments were limited, and ghosts of the dot.com boom hid in the shadows, waiting for the next bubble to distend. It was a fairly quintessential post-grad urban life, in which I learned to walk the streets confidently, make connections naturally, and hustle just enough to live as comfortably as one can in the living room of a shared junior one-bedroom apartment.

An old, dilapidated church makes way for another new condo complex at 1601 Larkin

An old, dilapidated church makes way for another new condo complex at 1601 Larkin

Fast forward a decade and I feel a bit more, let’s say, uneasy in this city, or at least frustrated — as most of us are — with its moneyed metamorphosis. I don’t believe there’s any one enemy to point to regarding this city’s extreme and quick gentrification and, well, suburbanization. I do believe, however, that this is a strikingly beautiful city, one that’s often been the site of incredible inspiration and change, and one that’s always attracted dreamers and schemers who have had the power (and $$$) to transform its quaint 7×7 limits in a few fell swoops of a golden wand. As one of those dreamers who despise those schemers, I’m still truly grateful to have been able to call San Francisco home. It’s been 10 whole years in this oft-romanticized city and still nothing can stop that great Golden Gate from taking my breath away.

To celebrate each year, I present 10 local spots, which I’ve counted on throughout the years to satiate my palate for great music, food, wine, or to simply get a killer workout that never fails to reward with a spectacular view.

1. Baker & Marshall’s Beach: Not only do these beaches allow for an incredible view of the Golden Gate Bridge (and a few bare butts, too), there’s also a fantastic trail that links the two beaches, as well as the daunting “sand ladder” that leads you down to Baker Beach. This is one of my favorite spots for a photo op and a kick-butt workout.

2. The Independent, NoPa: I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bad show here. Some highlights: A friend getting kicked out after heckling Anton from Brian Jonestown Massacre; a Green Day “secret show”; interviewing the xx backstage; Clinic in their medical masks, Four Tet, Tricky, Band of Horses, so many more… Bottom of the Hill is a close second as far as awesome, small live music spots.

Handstand Tribute to the Bridge

Handstand Tribute to the Bridge

3. Darwin Café, SoMa: A quaint restaurant/café tucked in an alley in SoMa, Darwin Café never seems to fail with its selection of succulent salads and sandwiches that uniquely blend high-quality, nutritious, and seasonal ingredients. Their kale salad is an easy go-to, so are there relatively cheap baguette sandwiches (just $5.50), but with an ever-evolving menu (they switch it out every two weeks), I’m here at least once a week trying out a new lunch option.

4. The Barrel Room, TenderNob: An unassuming wine spot in another alley — this one off Taylor Street, halfway between touristy Union Square and the gritty Tenderloin — the Barrel Room was previously the home of the Hidden Vine (now in a much bigger space in the FiDi). From the alleyway, you have to carefully descend some rickety, carpeted stairs before landing underground in what feels like an effortlessly stately, wine-swilling grandfather’s living room. I prefer the small, dark nooks for intimate convos, which go well with a regional wine flight and the artichoke flatbread.

Contemplating life in SF from the soon-to-be-defunct Empress of China

Contemplating life in SF from the soon-to-be-defunct Empress of China, a kitschy restaurant/cocktail bar overlooking Chinatown and downtown.

5. The Fillmore, Western Addition: No so-called music fan can go long in San Francisco without going to this vaunted venue, where the poster of the night can sometimes outdo the show itself. There’s an inexplicable energy to the place, as ghosts of musical icons past haunt the hallways, whose walls are perfectly tiled in priceless psychedelic paraphernalia promoting badass shows through the decades, from The Grateful Dead to Pink Floyd to Spiritualized (one of my finest memories here). Worth the price of admission just to gawk at the posters and feel the lingering vibrations of one of America’s most important rock venues.

6. Golden Gate Park: This was where I would religiously spend my early mornings, four days a week, as a bootcamper with Koi Fitness. There are so many hidden trails and gems in this vast green patch that covers the western center of the city, from the de Young Museum and California Academy of Sciences to Strawberry Hill and Stow Lake to the Conservatory of Flowers, the roaming bison, and the Dutch Windmill. There always seems to be new nooks and crannies to uncover here.

Alcatraz innocently glows from afar

Alcatraz innocently glows from afar

7. Amoeba Records, Upper Haight: Another iconic spot for music junkies, this is where I purchased my first piece of vinyl. See, I grew up on cassettes and CDs, but when I was young I’d sneak down to the basement in my parents’ house and listen to my dad’s old Beatles records obsessively — this is really when my love for music sprouted. So, when I finally got my own record player years later, my first stop was here. Intimidated as hell by the street kids outside and the music dorks and snobs inside this beast, I went straight for Abbey Road first, as boring and cliché as that may be — I’m sorry, but a record collection without a Beatles album is suspect.

8. Broadway-Columbus-Kearny Triangle, North Beach: This has become a favorite weekend afternoon spot for Julian and I to sip on Four Barrel coffee from Reveille Coffee Co., while catching rays on the adjacent outdoor benches that overlook the iconic copper-green Sentinel Building occupied by Francis Ford Coppola’s film studio. For a bite, we’ll head just across the street to The Station SF, which serves a mean avocado-veggie toast combo, and then head back on Columbus to Brioche Bakery, which serves local French chef Alexandre Trouan’s L’Artisan Gourmet Parisian Macarons, a perfectly packaged two-bite sweet. After filling up, we’ll dash into Urban Sidewalk, a cozy clothing boutique featuring local and independent designers at reasonable prices, and then cross the street to the historic City Lights Bookstore for a whiff of Beat history and some especially great staff picks.

Transamerica Building, Downtown SF

Transamerica Building, between near North Beach and the FiDi

9. Grand View Park, Inner Sunset: While I initially dreaded heading to this spot as part of one of my bootcamp’s hardest uphill running workouts (start from the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park, and you’ll understand), it was always a delight to get to the top of this thing and take in some spectacular 360 views, from the ocean to the Bay Bridge (as long as the fog had somewhat dissipated).

10. Darbar Restaurant, Polk Gulch/Nob Hill: A hole-in-the-wall next to a lingerie shop on Polk Street, this Indian/Pakistani spot was where I had my first try of Indian food some 10 years ago (the naan sold me immediately), and it’s now become a neighborhood standby for Julian and me. The service and ambiance are little to be desired, but the tongue-tingling spices, fluffy cheese naan, and affordable prices (under $30 for a filling meal for two) keep us coming back regularly. An alternate cheap eat can be found at Nob Hill haunt Fresh Brew Coffee, where you can find one of the city’s best banh mi sandwiches for under $5.

101 Music in North Beach

101 Music in North Beach

Lastly… though music is a sadly fading scene in San Francisco (check out Exit Music: Musicians Are Leaving San Francisco. Can the City’s Legendary Scene Survive? for an excellent report on this from SF Weekly’s Ian S. Port), it still defines a lot of why I was attracted to this city and how I’ve enjoyed my days here. So, without further ado, here’s San Francisco in 20 Songs:

Otis Redding, “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay”
Girls, “Life in San Francisco”
Tony Bennett, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”
The Animals, “San Franciscan Nights”
Grateful Dead, “Truckin'”
Janis Joplin & The Big Brother Holding Company, “Summertime”
Rogue Wave, “California”
Jefferson Airplane, “White Rabbit”
The Brian Jonestown Massacre, “Anemone”
Scott McKenzie, “San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Flowers in Your Hair)”
Chris Isaak, “San Francisco Days”
Foxygen, “San Francisco”
Dead Kennedys, “California Über Alles”
Faith No More, “Epic”
Flipper, “Sex Bomb”
Primus, “Those Damned Blue-Collar Tweekers”
Arctic Monkeys, “Fake Tales of San Francisco”
The Dodos, “Fools”
The Fresh & Onlys, “Drugs”
Thee Oh Sees, “The Dream”

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Trip Daze: Calistoga’s Mud, Wine, and Good Times

A diorama of Calistoga's heyday, from the Sharpsteen Museum of Calistoga History

A diorama of Calistoga’s heyday, from the Sharpsteen Museum of Calistoga History

Ok, I admit that my knowledge of the town of Calistoga pretty much stopped at its sparkling mineral water line — a favorite purchase for a refreshing gas station treat. And though I’ve driven through the Napa Valley town on numerous occasions — always noting “Dr. Wilkinson’s Mud Baths” and other signs touting spa bliss — other wine locales in the area had managed to always lure me away. So when researching a quick weekend trip from San Francisco, Julian and I had decided to bypass the more populated Sonoma and Napa and try out Calistoga, home to hot springs, vineyards, and old tourist destinations (or traps depending on how much of a geological nerd you may be) like the Petrified Forest and the Old Faithful Geyser of California (okay, that’s definitely a trap with its sad petting zoo as its best attempt to entice the kiddies).

ACCOMMODATION:

The Sunburst Calistoga
We had come across a new hotel, the Sunburst Calistoga. Its sleek yet retro décor — and, better yet, its promise of mineral water pools — made it a favorable accommodation choice. (Not to mention the Living Social deal I found just a few days after our initial Internet discovery of the place.) Turns out the Sunburst advertised discounted prices across every major deal site — including Groupon and Travelzoo — so we arrived at the motel-like structure on the edge of town to a fully packed house. This meant service was slow and the pools crowded (so much for a relaxing dip in the mineral pools — which smelled more of chlorine than anything else). The Sunburst could benefit from a tighter pool policy (don’t allow outsiders, for example), another employee at the front desk during peak times, and a more robust and fresh breakfast spread). But overall the rooms were comfortable, and the brightly colored, ’50s-hinting décor cute and functional. The location was ideal, and the price was right — especially for Napa Valley — at just $130 a night. A stay during the week may be your best bet here.

Lounging in the lobby of the Sunburst Calistoga

Lounging in the lobby of the Sunburst Calistoga

MUST-DO’s:

Tamber Bey Vineyards
Down the road just a few blocks from the Sunburst is Calistoga’s main drag, dotted with olive oil shops, tasting rooms, restaurants, and cafes. We recommend stopping by the Visitors Center at 1133 Washington Street to get discounts on attractions like wineries and hot springs, and great advice from the helpful staff. Our best find here was a 2 for 1 tasting coupon at the spacious and serene Tamber Bey Vineyards — one of the highlights of our trip. Their fairly new location (relocated from St. Helena late in 2013) is set amongst an expansive 22-acre equestrian paradise. Grabbing a sunny seat outside means you’ll find yourself flanked by horse stables, but even if you’re not the equine type (me, not so much), this never distracts from the tasting experience, which they make truly comfortable here. Splurge and get the cookie and wine pairings (it’s worth the extra $10). The cookies are made by a grad from the nearby Culinary Institute of America, and expertly paired with the wine selections.

Tamber Bey Vineyards

Tamber Bey Vineyards

Golden Haven Hot Springs
Now, of course, no trip to Calistoga is without a little pampering. We chose Golden Haven Hot Springs because of their great deal on a couple’s mud bath and free use of their mineral pools (at $64/person). Golden Haven follows the “traditional” mud bath process, and the place feels a bit haunted by miners and hippies past, but that only adds to the mystical experience. As newbie mud bathers we were a bit hesitant climbing into the tubs, especially when told the bottoms’ll burn ya! But once comfortably settled in the mix of mud, clay, and Calistoga hot spring water, it’s like floating on a heated quilt full of tiny, densely packed beads massaging your every crevice. Your body won’t sink, but your mind pleasantly will. After about 15 minutes, you shower off, slip into your private mineral hot tub, and then get escorted to a softly lit room where you’re wrapped in a warm blanket and encouraged to take your mind to far-off lands.

Golden Haven Hot Springs

Golden Haven Hot Springs

Sharpsteen Museum of Calistoga History
Once that mud-high fades, one last stop in town should be at the Sharpsteen Museum of Calistoga History. It’s a charming little spot dedicated to one of the more fascinating personalities of Gold Rush times: pioneer, promoter, entrepreneur, and California’s first millionaire, Sam Brannan. Just seeing the timeline of this guy’s life is worth the $3 donation. I’m shocked there hasn’t already been a Hollywood movie depicting his life of Mormonism, multiple marriages, deadly shoot-outs, lucrative investments, and eventually bankruptcy. The museum is named after Ben Sharpsteen, an animator for Walt Disney, and so you’ll also find a good stock of Disney memorabilia.

Listening up in the Sharpsteen Museum of Calistoga History

Listening up in the Sharpsteen Museum of Calistoga History

Lastly…
While Calistoga may not have the same luster it did when Brannan opened his original Calistoga Hot Springs Resort some 150 years ago, it still has a rustic kind of charm without the hoity-toity Napa pretensions. Strangest thing, though: I didn’t come across one bottle of Calistoga water…

*BONUS FEATURE*
FOOD HIGHLIGHTS in ST. HELENA

The Model Bakery
Less than 10 miles southeast of Calistoga is the decidedly chicer town of St. Helena. Here, the dining options are aplenty and a little more varied than in Calistoga. There’s a good cluster of restaurants, cafes, olive oil shops, and boutiques along and around Main Street, so it’s best to park and take a stroll around the ‘hood. Food must-stops include the Model Bakery, whose claim to fame is their fluffy, hearty English muffins — and I can vouch that you’ll think twice about ever getting a package of Thomas’ after biting into one of Model’s. And though the wealth of pastries, breads, cakes, and pies, will have you more than salivating, they also offer sandwiches and salads packed with fresh, seasonal veggies to offset any sugary indulgent.

Prosecco at Himalayan Sherpa Kitchen

Prosecco at Himalayan Sherpa Kitchen

Himalayan Sherpa Kitchen
For dinner, I highly recommend the Himalayan Sherpa Kitchen. The owners here are from Nepal and offer a wide assortment of traditional Nepali and Indian dishes. The service was impeccable — gracious and efficient — but the food is what really left a lasting impression. It’s a delicate balance bringing together the rich spices of this type of cuisine; when done best, the flavors lie waiting under your tongue, slowly colliding, until your taste buds pop with delight — and we happily experienced that here. The naan bread (you can also get with basil or cilantro) was optimally soft on the inside, crispy on the out. The Saag Paneer was rich and creamy, and the Tandoori Tikka chicken breast was tender and spiced just right with the peppers and onions — both go well with a glass of prosecco. All of that was plenty for two people. Full and satisfied, a belly-easing mint tea was our perfect nightcap.