370 posts
  • S.F. Bay Area
Jun Yu and erhu.
Jun Yu and erhu. (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Why: Tourists expect certain things in San Francisco's Chinatown, like dim sum, fortune cookies and dangling colorful lanterns; perhaps a solemn, festooned room such as the Tin How Temple on Waverley Place. It's fine to sample those spots, most of which can be found within a few steps of Grant Avenue. But why not take a step beyond that?

What: Of the more than a dozen alleys in this Chinatown, Ross Alley is among the busiest, perhaps the oldest. Notorious for gambling in the 1880s, today it's lined with murals depicting daily life in the community. It's also home to the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory (52 Ross Alley), where various tour groups often alight to watch cookies being made. (This tradition, by the way, seems to trace back to a Japanese American entrepreneur in San Francisco, not to China.)

(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

And next door at No. 32, there's Jun Yu, who plays the traditional two-stringed erhu (Christmas carols a specialty).

  • Family-friendly
  • S.F. Bay Area
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Why: In 1776, weeks before most of the Founding Fathers got around to signing the Declaration of Independence back east, Franciscan padres founded Mission Dolores, sixth in the Alta California chain. Several years later, the padres and their recruits moved it to the current location, where it survived the great quake and fires of 1906. In fact, it's the oldest surviving structure in San Francisco. 

What: Formally, this is the Mission San Francisco de Asís, but everyone says Dolores. Right behind the building lies the cemetery, where an estimated 5,000 Ohlone, Miwok and other native people are buried along with several Irish immigrants and other 19th century California pioneers. Note the wooden markers for Jocbocme (baptized Obulinda) and Poylemja (baptized Faustino), who died early in the 19th century. The mission's little museum could use more text to explain its place in history, but it does have more information and exhibits on native life than most of the missions do.Wondering why there's an Alfred Hitchcock bobblehead doll for sale in the gift shop? Part of his "Vertigo" was shot in the cemetery in 1957. 

Ceiling, Mission Dolores
Ceiling, Mission Dolores (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Also, be sure to nip next door to the much grander Mission Dolores Basilica for a look at the stained glass windows. There's one for each of the 21 Franciscan missions in Alta California.

  • S.F. Bay Area
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Why: The hearty, fresh breakfasts and lunches (homemade jam, Italian sausage, cranberry-orange walnut loaves). The North Beach neighborhood and view of Washington Square Park outside. And the family. The Sanchez clan has owned and run the place for more than 50 years. (Mama Sanchez died in 2000.)

What: Mama's is a casual cafe. You order at the counter then grab one of 47 chairs at 13 tables, no counter. But the food and sense of place are just right, offhand but profound. (For anyone who's been to Santa Fe, N.M., Mama's may set off memories of Cafe Pasqual's.)

This is why, for decades, people have been content to stand in line for their breakfasts, especially on weekends. It was an hour's wait when I ate here one Tuesday in March. 

  • Family-friendly
  • San Diego County
Sunset Cliffs. But no green this night.
Sunset Cliffs. But no green this night. (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Why: You might as well stand somewhere gorgeous while hoping to see that elusive phenomenon as the sun dips beneath the horizon.

What: Sunset Cliffs, an upscale residential neighborhood in San Diego's Point Loma area, sits on crumbling bluff, the Pacific churning below. The advantages of this situation include some nice surfing, dramatic views of the Pacific and fascinating cliff formations as the sea gradually eats away at the earth.

The downside is that the sea never stops eating. Chain-link fencing cordon off the areas of most recent collapse. At some point, as the cliffs crumble, Sunset Cliffs Boulevard may need to be narrowed. As for long-term prospects of the houses closest to the ocean -- who knows?

  • Family-friendly
  • Gold Country
Rotunda protestor, State Capitol, Sacramento.
Rotunda protestor, State Capitol, Sacramento. (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

Why: You're already paying for it.

What: Because most Californians live far from Sacramento, our public servants typically work without their direct supervision. If you like the idea of checking up on your ongoing investment or just strolling under a big dome, Sacramento's Capitol is the place.

The rotunda is 128 feet tall. The inside is full of murals and frescoes and marble statuary — and sometimes protesters (like the guy pictured here). Grizzly bears turn up frequently, too — most notably on the flag and the state seal. The building is surrounded by the 40-acre Capitol Park, which is full of shade trees (much prized in summer in Sacramento).  

  • L.A. County
Martini at Musso & Frank
Martini at Musso & Frank (Los Angeles Times)

Why: If the legendary Musso & Frank Grill ever closes, I’m leaving L.A. A bastion of old-school waiters and a writers’ haven for almost 100 years, this period piece is one of the few reasons that locals venture to Hollywood Boulevard.

What: A clubby steakhouse under 50 coats of lacquer in the heart of Hollywood. Cool and dark, it sports a fine mahogany bar that serves the best martinis in town, perfectly proportioned at the exact right chill. F. Scott Fitzgerald purportedly proofed novels here, and was so comfortable that he’d duck behind the bar to mix his own mint juleps. William Faulkner, Dorothy Parker, T.S. Eliot and John Steinbeck were also among the literary legends who found inspiration here. The feel-good menu includes an assortment of steaks and chops, charred on an open-fire grill. Look for the daily specials, which include chicken pot pie ($23) and braised short ribs ($37). Musso’s closes too early on weekends — 11 p.m. — and isn’t easy to reach. But here’s hoping this esteemed old joint — young in spirit — is still up and running 100 years from now.

Where: 6667 Hollywood Blvd., three blocks east of the Red Line subway station at Hollywood/Highland, eight miles northwest of downtown L.A.

  • Family-friendly
  • L.A. County
Carrie Fisher, Farmers Market, 1987.
Carrie Fisher, Farmers Market, 1987. (Los Angeles Times)

Why: The Original Farmers Market, has the murmur of a ballpark, the aura of an old family grocery and a faint underlying note of noir to keep you on your toes. In a city prone to scorn anything a little worn and charming, it's irresistibly both.

What: The Farmers Market is a collection of 100 restaurants, shops and food stores that dates to the Great Depression. Since 1934, it has drawn locals, TV stars, moms with strollers and visitors from around the world. (We've lost Carrie Fisher since the striking portrait above was shot there in the late 1980s, but the market looks just the same.) 

Part of the magic is the confluence of so many cuisines – Cajun, barbecue, Brazilian, French, Japanese – in one location. My two favorites: Bob’s Coffee & Doughnuts, on the east patio, where cranks, know-it-alls, philosophers and other folks with too much time on their hands gather to gab and grab coffee. At the other end of the market is Charlie’s Coffee Shop, noted for old-school French toast ($6.25) and amazing cheeseburgers ($6.95). Ask for Charlie Sue herself, who has run the place since 1976.

  • S.F. Bay Area
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Why: You don't find a great swimming pool or a good hotel value on every block in downtown Berkeley.

What: The Berkeley City Club is more than it seems. When star architect and UC Berkeley graduate Julia Morgan designed the 1930 club building, she gave it an indoor pool of startling beauty. (Already, she was working down the coast on media mogul William Randolph Hearst's castle at San Simeon.)

The best news for us is that over time, the City Club started operating its six-story building as a hotel -- one that stands a few blocks from the UC campus. Its restrained mien and 35 rooms are not for party animals, but if you're looking for someplace stately to practice your Australian crawl under Moorish arches, your search is over.

Upstairs Cafe, Chez Panisse.
Upstairs Cafe, Chez Panisse. (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Why: In the kitchen of this converted arts-and-crafts home, owner-chef Alice Waters and her gang more or less launched the idea of California cuisine in 1971.

What: All these years later, Chez Panisse is still popular. If the downstairs fixed-price, dinner-only restaurant is too pricey (or already booked), try the more affordable upstairs cafe, which does lunch and dinner. The menu, seasonally tuned, changes nightly. Closed on Sundays, reservations are accepted up to a month ahead.

Where: 1517 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, 375 miles northwest of downtown L.A.

  • Family-friendly
  • L.A. County
Noel Dickson plays a guitar at McCabe's Guitar Shop.
Noel Dickson plays a guitar at McCabe's Guitar Shop. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

Why: McCabe's is a guitar shop in the same way that the Seine is a river and Picasso was a painter.

What: By day, McCabe's has been selling stringed instruments since 1958. By night, McCabe's is one of California's most-loved, most intimate performance spaces, a garage-sized haven where performers face about 150 listeners in a room with walls full of strung and fretted inventory. The concerts have been happening since 1969. You can't beat the vibe.

Many acoustic and folk-influenced performers play here, including fiddler Peter Rowan, banjo player Noam Pikelny and singer-songwriters Greg Brown and Tom Paxton and children's performer Justin Roberts (to pluck five acts from the March schedule).