By James Dannenberg
Special to The Los Angeles Times
February 10, 2008
I'm in love.
You can love a person. You can love a city. And when you can introduce the city you love to the person you love, what could be better?
I once lived in San Francisco, a city that made my youthful heart flutter so persuasively the first time I saw it in 1966 that I moved here from Wisconsin a few years later. It has fluttered ever since.
FOR THE RECORD:
San Francisco: A photo caption with a Feb. 10 article about San Francisco mislabeled the building shown in the photo as the Palace of the Legion of Honor in Lincoln Park. The picture was of the Palace of Fine Arts in the Marina District. In an accompanying map, locations of the Palace of the Legion of Honor, Lincoln Park, the Cliff House and Seacliff were incorrect. See the corrected map, below. —
Never mind that I was an unfaithful lover, moving to Hawaii years ago. Though I'm attached to my little corner of paradise, how can I but say I left my heart, with a nod to Tony Bennett, in San Francisco?
I go back often to reclaim it, visiting friends and relatives several times a year, almost feeling as though I had never left.
But familiarity may have blinded me to what attracted me in the first place. I took it for granted.
Then a funny thing happened: A woman named Susan stormed into my life last year. As fate would have it, we live 4,500 miles apart and must compromise on our meeting places. It seemed natural to meet midway, in San Francisco, if only for a short weekend. Better still: She barely knew the city; perhaps a few of my favorite places could make her a believer. And, love it as I do, it's still just a jumble of concrete unless I can share it with others.
CLOAKED IN FOG
The sun was bright and warm at San Francisco International Airport when I met Susan, but I knew the weather gods had something less summery in store a few miles north in the city: a blanket of cool, moist fog. For some, this is cause for alarm, especially those who pack for their visit as though they are going to Orange County. For me, that fog is a siren call.
Inside the fog, you might think the whole world is overcast, but its localized coverage is all the more impressive when viewed from, say, Marin County's Mt. Tamalpais: The thick, white, ground-hugging clouds spill and roll over the city's hills like Waikiki surf.
After some consultation, Susan and I settled on a place for a romantic weekend: the Hotel Drisco on Pacific Avenue in residential Pacific Heights. The hotel is set among the mansions and gardens of San Francisco's wealthiest neighborhood and looks more like one of the city's trademark low-rise, stuccoed apartment buildings than a hotel. The Drisco has housed guests for more than 100 years. Its 40-odd rooms and suites still exude turn-of-the-last-century charm, but recent renovations and indulgent service ensure contemporary comforts and amenities. And, of course, there was plenty of fog to envelop us.
Pacific Avenue defines the crest of Pacific Heights, allowing its residents stunning views of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Presidio, Cow Hollow and the Marina District, plus easy access to the shops and restaurants of Fillmore Street. Tourists occasionally find their way here, but except for the Palace of Fine Arts and Union Street, this is locals' territory.
From the Drisco, we took a short walk down the hill to Union Street, where we took a break from the fog with a cup of tea in Anna's Cafe, bought a T-shirt at City Cycle and meandered back among the city's most opulent residences.
If one sense predominates in San Francisco, it surely is taste. The city has more good restaurants than one could prudently patronize in a lifetime. Susan knows food, so I had to choose carefully.
The culinary highlight of our San Francisco weekend was dinner at the Outer Richmond District's Chapeau!, a French bistro that was lovingly tended by proprietor Philippe Gardelle, a transplant from Toulouse, France. It has a crowded, unspectacular dining room, and you may have to wait to be seated, but it's worth it.
Susan started out with oysters, and I had the frisée salad with duck, topped with a delectable morsel of sautéed foie gras. A creature of habit, I always gravitate to the cassoulet, a humble bean casserole from the south of France larded with sausage and duck confit. This night was no different, and Susan joined me.
One doesn't leave Chapeau! without a personal thank you from Philippe. He has even pursued me down the street when I've managed to slip away. The man clearly loves serving some of the best food in San Francisco, and we loved letting him.
Because food was on the agenda, our daytime quest was the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. Each Tuesday and Saturday, the plaza on the Embarcadero is transformed into one of the most sumptuous food expositions in the country, and the permanent tenants of the Ferry Building Marketplace will satisfy virtually anyone any day. Want a store specializing in mushrooms? Check out Far West Fungi. Chocolates? Try Recchiuti Confections or Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker. Caviar? The Tsar Nicoulai Caviar. Pastries? Miette Pâtisserie & Confiserie. Cheeses? Cowgirl Creamery's Artisan Cheese Shop. Oysters? Hog Island Oyster Co., San Francisco Fish Co. or Ferry Plaza Seafood. A food lover might be tempted to camp out here. But our time was short; we had things to see.
San Francisco is a great walking city, so we set out up Washington Street, past the Transamerica Pyramid, toward Grant Avenue and Chinatown.
The hills can be difficult if you're out of shape, but in cool weather they are a pleasure, and each block gives up spectacular views: Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill, the skyscrapers of the financial district, the residences and high rises of Nob and Russian hills and, finally, the bustle of one of America's oldest Chinese communities.
We lingered there just long enough to window-shop, enjoy the aromas from the Chinese delis and listen to a street musician play a traditional Chinese erhu, a stringed instrument that looks like a cigar box grafted onto a banjo neck.
We had to return to our car near the Embarcadero, so we walked back on California Street, stopping for lunch at San Francisco's oldest restaurant, the venerable Tadich Grill, open since 1849. It's nearly impossible to get into on a workday even though it's staffed by waiters renowned for being cavalier about courtesy. But they welcomed us that day.
OUT FOR A SPIN
Despite its hills, San Francisco provides some wonderful drives. We left the now-sunny Embarcadero and headed through the Marina, past the Palace of Fine Arts and Crissy Field, to Fort Point, Baker Beach and then through the Presidio and the Seacliff neighborhood, experiencing along the way a living lesson about the city's microclimates.
For a great city-side view of the Golden Gate Bridge, these are your best bets. Fort Point stands at the base of the Golden Gate's South Tower, which looms overhead; breakers crash onto the low sea wall as tourists snap photos of the span arching its way north to Marin, often into a bank of fog. The bluffs above Baker Beach provide more of an eye-level view. Seacliff, another of San Francisco's more upscale residential neighborhoods, sits atop the bluffs just outside the Golden Gate and offers expansive ocean and bridge views when not socked in by fog.
We continued through Lincoln Park, past the Palace of the Legion of Honor, and then through the more plebeian, yet still expensive, Outer Richmond District to the Great Highway and the ocean.
I live near this Pacific Ocean in Hawaii, but I'm hard-pressed to see it as the same body of water. Ocean Beach is broad and sandy and also cold, windy, dark and turbulent most of the time. Hardly inviting, except to a hardy bunch of wetsuit-clad surfers.
But that doesn't mean it's not beautiful. I recommend viewing it from the newly renovated Cliff House. I've had a decent meal here, and it's also a nice place to have a drink and be happy that you're inside and not outside in the damp wind.
But we had other dinner plans, so we braved the cold, watching hundreds of seabirds around nearby Seal Rocks. This was pelican heaven, as squadrons of the ungainly yet graceful birds circled a fish run, suddenly put on the brakes and hurtled beak-first like high divers into the dark waters.
Even a fog lover can have limits, and with the cold winds piercing our clothing, we retreated to the car and a warmer neighborhood. I had promised Susan a couple of days in sunny Napa Valley, but before we headed over the Golden Gate Bridge, we stopped for lunch and a little shopping in the Marina District.
We decided on Union Street's Betelnut Restaurant for lunch, though I usually prefer the less tony Chestnut Street. Betelnut, created by the legendary Cecilia Chang of Mandarin restaurant fame, is like an Asian-fusion tapas bar.
Even with reservations about the fog, Susan was becoming a believer in San Francisco. On the drive to Napa, we took every opportunity to savor views of the city from Sausalito, the Marin Headlands and, finally, from the dock in Tiburon. We just couldn't stop looking at her.
Love is like that.
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