San Francisco's over-the-top underground

San Francisco's over-the-top underground
Wild Kitchen diners learn of the meal’s San Francisco location only that morning. (Chris Hardy)

San Francisco isn't really an underground kind of place. We don't go in for noir the way L.A. does. And unlike New York, we don't require a lot of insider knowledge to make it here. Truth be told, we San Franciscans prefer keeping our underground culture above ground, where everybody can see it.

That said, we do reserve a few secrets for ourselves. Although we're not above sharing — another San Francisco trait — all you have to do is ask. Here are five insider tips to lead you to an underground San Francisco that really is — more or less — underground.


Eat. When it comes to dining, you can't get more underground than the Wild Kitchen. First, you won't learn the location of your reservation-only dinner until your super-secret email arrives the morning of the dinner itself. Second, even when you do turn up at the address — as likely as not a warehouse-looking building South of Market — the unusual location may still leave you in doubt.

But once you take your place at the yards-long table with 70 or so other adventurous food lovers and dig into your first of eight courses, all doubt will disappear. You may have difficulty believing that a good portion of the better-than-at-most-restaurants food you are devouring — wild nettle soup, Sierra Mountain morel tart, California uni, tempura-fried smelt — has been foraged from local forests and the ocean.

The Wild Kitchen is more than a roving underground supper club; it's gourmet food sustainably foraged from the local landscape. Bring your own wine (you get the menu in advance, so you can pair all eight courses), an open-minded palate and enjoy. If you'd like to learn to forage for yourself, you can sign up for one of ForageSF's Wild Food Walks or Fishing and Seafood Classes.

Drink. Admit it. Haven't you always wanted to knock on an unmarked door in a divey part of town, whisper the secret password and be admitted into the swankiest insiders' cocktail bar in town? This is exactly the Bourbon & Branch experience.

Built above an original — and underground— San Francisco speakeasy in a truly divey part of town not far from Union Square, Bourbon & Branch is so swanky that not only is cellphone use prohibited, so is standing at the bar. Which means you must make a reservation online before turning up at the unmarked door.

But it's worth the bother to be let into this cozy, intimate throwback to a more elegant time. The music is Jazz Age, the wallpaper is flocked and the cocktails are made by a mixologist who knows his or her way around a hawthorne strainer.

If you'd like to take home a little of this atmosphere, attend one of the Beverage Academy's cocktail classes at Bourbon & Branch. This two-hour class will not only give you a solid background in the history of the cocktail, including the shameful "spritzer years" (i.e. all of the 1970s), but also will teach you how to concoct three basic cocktails: the old-fashioned, the classic martini (which contrary to popular belief is more than just chilled gin) and the daiquiri. Beware — you will leave with a long shopping list of bar tool basics.

And be merry. In my book, one of the best merry-making activities is shopping, particularly when it involves one-of-a-kind items made by still-undiscovered designers. One of my new favorite locations for this activity is 440 Brannan, a design studio and retail store that earns its underground status by being literally underground.

This warehouse-y space near the AT&T Park is home to a batch of local S.F. designers, including the popular (and still affordable) gr.dano. On my last visit, the studio was overrun by an Italian film crew there to shoot Roberta Mancino, who was voted sexiest female athlete by Men's Fitness magazine, probably for her penchant for sky diving while naked. When Mancino deigns to wear clothes, she wears gr.dano designs, which do not require an athlete's body to pull off.

Although it's true that San Francisco's underground culture is constantly being flaunted above ground, usually there's so much of it you need a guide to make sure you're not missing anything important. Enter the Squid List. This online listing ( of Bay Area art, culture and technology events is the go-to place for any taste. In the mood for the San Francisco Beer Olympics? How about Kabuki Cabaret Screaming Jazz? Or the Sing-a-Long Sound of Music? Or Fighting Robots? From chamber music to book readings to zombie improv, the Squid List will make sure you don't miss out.

Sleeping it off. Anybody can stay in a hotel. For a real underground experience, how about sleeping someplace illegal? Thanks to San Francisco's overwhelmingly tenant-friendly renters laws, many landlords have put their apartments into the vacation rental market, which is illegal (short-term rentals must be for at least 30 nights) but apparently difficult and expensive to detect.

The good news for visitors is that they get the opportunity to live (temporarily) like a local. Go to Vacation Rental by Owner ( and click on San Francisco to see dozens of listings in every desirable neighborhood of the city. You can review photos of your prospective digs, read traveler reviews of its amenities, check out a map of the neighborhood, then communicate with the owner by email.

The terrific thing about staying in an apartment is that you generally get more room for less money than in a hotel. And you have a kitchen in which to cook all those lovely locally grown goodies you couldn't resist at the Ferry Building farmers market. Because you're not the scofflaw, you can rest easily in your nice comfy bed. It's all the thrills of going underground, with none of the risks.