Among us we’d racked up romantic woes, career dilemmas and a plain old case of the doldrums. But we had a plan. My girlfriends and I would shake things up with a big-city weekend in San Francisco. We envisioned the sort of getaway that swirls with new experiences, requires the wearing of very cute shoes and deposits one back in everyday life feeling like a force to be reckoned with.
With the help of two tours, the aptly named “I Can’t Believe I Ate My Way Through Chinatown” and “Three Babes and a Bus,” which one guidebook described as “arguably the world’s hippest tour,” we did try new foods, meet new people and dance a night away.
Headquarters for our ventures, Hotel David, was a find. The $129 room rate at this B&B; put us in the heart of Union Square, where neighboring hotels were mostly in the $200 to $300 range. One difference is that those hotels have fancy lobbies, whereas Hotel David is attached to a kosher deli. Instead of marble staircases and massive lobby floral arrangements, we entered our hotel past display cases of chocolate eclairs and loaves of Jewish rye. Hotel guests can order anything on the lengthy David’s Deli breakfast menu (corned-beef croquettes, poached eggs, bagels and lox, etc.) for free before 11 a.m.--and the hotel gives guests a 15% discount on all other deli items.
Less endearingly funky was the one tiny elevator, which sometimes went up and sometimes went down but not in any way that corresponded to the button pushed. I couldn’t decide if our tidy room with red bedspreads and a lone picture, hung off-center, was hip or just odd. There was no concierge or clucking doorman, but when we awoke to pouring rain Saturday morning, a kind desk clerk loaned us his umbrella to run to Walgreens and stand in line with all the other poor packers who were buying $7.50 umbrellas.
The rain didn’t discourage anyone from the Chinatown tour. We joined a large family celebrating their mother’s 75th birthday and two middle-age couples to wind though alleys and back lanes, eating all the way. Cookbook author and tour leader Shirley Fong-Torres grew up in Chinatown and told warm, funny stories in which she was “youngest daughter.”
Our group’s first stop, Sam Wo, was a little restaurant off a Washington Street alley and up a flight of stairs. Fong-Torres said Sam Wo once was famed for having the rudest waiter in all California. Of course, patrons stood in line for his tables. We were served the traditional Chinese breakfast, jook, which is rice cooked until it breaks down to the consistency of cream of wheat, “thousand-year-old eggs” (dried eggs, not really 1,000 years old) and crab.
Back outdoors, the sun began to filter through. We stood in pale sunshine outside the improbably named North Hollywood Dim Sum and Bakery on Pacific Avenue and ate an array of steaming dim sum, which Fong-Torres translated as “touch of the heart--eat a little of this and a little of that and your heart will be touched.”
We visited outdoor groceries and shops that had roasted ducks--heads with gaping beaks still attached--hanging in the windows. A jovial New Yorker on the tour took great pleasure in pulling me up close to the window to look at octopus tendrils and pig intestines on display. Fun in that ooh-yuck-slime third-grader way.
The tour ended with lunch at Ryumon, an elegant Chinese restaurant on Washington Street that has been gaining recognition since converting from Korean-Japanese food three years ago.
My friend Leah then headed back to the hotel for a vacation-afternoon nap.
I decided to get lost--my favorite thing to do in an unfamiliar city, and something I’m quite good at since I have a lousy sense of direction. I wandered though Chinatown buying a laughing Buddha for 99 cents and trying on a $50 silk Chinese dress that looked like something Nicole Kidman wore to the Oscars.
When I finally traced my way back to the hotel, I went straight to the lunch counter, our lunch counter, for a half tuna sandwich. The thick, soft bread and dill pickle cinched my suspicions--a deli is a fine trade-off for a lobby.
My friend Janet, who lives in Berkeley, joined us for the Saturday night outing. Janet and I met in Madame Blume’s French class when we were 16, so we decided French food would be appropriate. The restaurant City of Paris was the meeting place for the Babe tour and, as everything seemed to be, just a block from our Geary Street hotel.
We opted for appetizers in the pricey, pretty bistro’s lounge, where a jazz trio was playing swing. A newlywed couple from Florida came in and asked if we were with the “Babes” tour. When we said yes they joined us, as did a fun couple from New Hampshire, a guy who had just moved to San Francisco after traveling the world and a lively pair from Sweden.
“How astonishingly friendly people are when they’re in San Francisco!” I thought, and only found out later that since Janet, Leah and I had been the first to arrive, and were three in number, everyone thought we were the tour leaders. (The real “three babes” were a trio of friends who started the tours eight years ago. One of them, now a stockbroker during the week, still heads the business.)
By the time J.B., our official guide, arrived, everyone was chummy. A plush tour bus carried us from club to club, where we were whisked in without having to wait in lines (the $30 tour fee included cover charges). After an hour the bus moved on to the next club on the list, unless the group elected to stay at a particular one.
The second club, DNA, at 11th and Folsom, tempted me to lobby for a stop. The leader of the retro ‘80s band had a towering pompadour and shiny black pants. In the cavernous club, several hundred people, us included, bounced around like popping corn to the frenetic rhythms.
When the band played the opening riffs of the Violent Femmes song “Blister in the Sun,” the lead singer held the mike out and the crowd sang every word (“I’m high as a kite and I just might stop to check you out! . . .”), although some of us must have been watching “Sesame Street” when the Violent Femmes were around.
The last club, Barcelona, was my favorite. Latin music played in a back room. With envy, I watched couples of all ages spin and shake. Then Rudy asked me to dance. He could lead so well that even an inexperienced partner (me) soon was twirling and sliding through salsas and merengues. l wanted to stay, but this time, after four clubs, the bus was headed home.
The next morning the sun was shining and the sky was scrubbed a brilliant blue. Janet had to go home, but Leah and I rode a cable car to Fisherman’s Wharf and rented mountain bikes from Bay City Bicycles in the old cannery. We rode along the piers and across the Golden Gate Bridge, the wind whipping in our faces, San Francisco shining in the distance.
Later, back in the city, we sat at an outdoor table at Lou’s Pier 47 Restaurant. Live blues wafted out of the restaurant’s second-story windows. We ate crisp Caesar salads, hush puppies and spicy red beans and rice, and we toasted a successful, instructive weekend.
After all, whatever challenges life holds, it can never hurt to know how to whip up a mean stir-fry, dance the merengue and pedal against the wind.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Budget for Two
Air fare: $176.00
Cab, shuttle: 75.00
Hotel David, 2 nights: 286.12
Dinner, Chevy’s: 35.00
Biscuits & Blues: 22.00
Chinatown tour: 130.00
Dinner, City/Paris: 43.46
Club tour: 60.00
Bike rental: 21.70
Lunch, Lou’s: 27.00
FINAL TAB: $876.28
Hotel David, 480 Geary St., San Francisco, CA 94102, tel. (800) 524-1888. Chinatown tour, Wok Wiz, tel. (415) 981-8989. Club tour, (415) 552-2582.