"Something wonderful and free is happening every day in this city," my friend Liz Polo said, carefully selecting a double-latte truffle from the silver tray.
It was Saturday afternoon, and we were at Neiman Marcus on Union Square. We'd just come from a Chinese cooking lesson and were headed to an elegant lunch at the Four Seasons.
"My philosophy is this," Liz added. "Have dessert first."
Her point of view appealed to me. I reached out for the hand-molded Belgian chocolate that the Joseph Schmidt representative was offering. This was going to be a sweet few days.
My weekends, which I always want to be a model of graceful living, too often are spent running errands in sweat pants. A trip to San Francisco could infuse some urbanity into my downtime, but this most cosmopolitan of cities is also one of the priciest.
Liz, who has sashayed in Prada heels over nearly every inch of the city since moving here five years ago, would be my guide to sophistication on a shoestring budget. Enjoying San Francisco like a local, she said, I could live in the lap of luxury inexpensively while — and this is important — never feeling cheap.
In mid-March, I dusted off my best outfits and flew to the Bay Area. I stayed two nights at a fashionable hotel near Union Square, ate only gourmet food and rode around on vintage wheels. I enjoyed a night at the ballet and another with live jazz. In the afternoons, I lingered under fine art, sampled the richest chocolates, learned to cook from a master chef and melted under an hourlong foot massage.
All for less than $600. Had I done it without Liz's guidance, I would have spent a ton more and experienced far fewer of the finer things. And I wouldn't have earned the right to feel so in-the-know smug.
I'd laid some budgetary groundwork for this carefree, luxurious weekend. Keeping my eye out for a sale, I'd snagged $39 each-way fares to Oakland on Southwest Airlines. I'd mapped my $5.15 route into San Francisco on the AirBART bus and BART train from McAfee Coliseum to the Powell Station at Market Street. There, at the San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau's Information Center, I bought a $15 MUNI pass to ride the cable cars and vintage streetcars for three days without digging into my wallet for exact change.
So as I rumbled up Powell Street aboard a cable car at noontime Friday — an experience I never find less than thrilling — my history-rich, cultural weekend got underway. I hopped off at Geary Street, then walked a few blocks to Hotel Diva, passing art galleries and theaters. The hotel staff was so friendly that I, traveling as a single woman, felt well watched over. My contemporary, high-ceiling room ($129 a night) was decorated in a relaxing palette of mocha and silver. I hung a "Do Not Disturb" sign outside that read "The Diva Is In" and planned the rest of my day.
Lunch at the chef school
I'd made reservations for lunch at the California Culinary Academy, where chefs-to-be practice their Moroccan quail and rabbit b'stilla on gastronomes willing to eat someone's schoolwork. The cooking school on Polk Street has a casual bistro with a light-fare menu, but I wanted to try the buffet ($16 to $22, depending on the day of week) in the massive, architecturally frilly Carême Room.
Students in chef coats and checkered pants were everywhere: rolling dough in the on-view pastry classroom, describing the cheeses and pâtés, carving thick slices of lamb in the kitchen, portioning out pretty desserts.
The dozens of hot entrees were impressive, but I was more captivated by the students who were spending $50,000 for 18 months of coursework and training. One beaming chef, who would graduate two weeks later, had landed a position at the French Laundry restaurant in Napa Valley. I ate two bites of everything and left stuffed.
(One suggestion: Don't wait until 1 p.m. to take a seat at one of the white-linen tables. As much as this looks like a never-ending buffet at a fine hotel, when it's 1:30 p.m., class is over and the students are eager to leave. Platters are whisked away, and the kitchen door closes.)
I wandered in and out of art galleries around Union Square. In the two-story Christopher-Clark Fine Art gallery on Geary, I lounged on leather sofas underneath paintings, etchings and lithographs by Toulouse-Lautrec, Renoir, Chagall and Picasso.
That night, I rode an orange 1928 tram (the city has a fleet of vintage streetcars; this one was from Milan, Italy) down Market Street to Zuni Cafe, where I enjoyed watching the street life through floor-to-ceiling windows. I found a rare empty table in the lively bar and ordered a watercress salad with Meiwa kumquats, pistachios and sweet mascarpone croutons dressed in a tangy Champagne vinaigrette and a glass of silky Chardonnay (total: $18.50).
A few blocks away on Van Ness Avenue, the stately architecture of the Civic Center buildings was outlined in lights. At the grand French Renaissance-style War Memorial Opera House, I bought my ticket to see the San Francisco Ballet.
Box seats for this well-respected company run up to $145, but balcony or standing-room tickets can be had for $10. An usher told me that my balcony seat was "two Market Street streets" from the stage, which explained why the ballerina looked the same size as the plastic one in my childhood jewelry box. I could appreciate the dance patterns and the jumps and turns from that pitched angle but not the details or delicate flutters. For the last part of the mixed repertory program, I went down to the first floor and enjoyed standing behind the orchestra seats with people who seemed to be friends of performers or aspiring dancers themselves.
A free class and a foot rub
The next day at noon, I met Liz at Macy's in Union Square, where Jason Xu, chef at Shanghai 1930, was demonstrating how to make pot stickers. The hourlong class was free, which was surprising; I have paid $60 to $85 for classes at some kitchenware stores. (Macy's free-events calendar: https://www.macys.com ). While the cooking staff stuffed pork and shrimp into wrappers, TV monitors showed close-up action of pot stickers sizzling in iron skillets, and servers passed out samples.
Liz and I tried not to spoil our appetites. After the class, at the Seasons Restaurant in the Four Seasons Hotel, we sated ourselves with Caesar salad with white anchovies ($12) and a Dungeness crab club sandwich with smoked mozzarella ($19) and took in a view of the shopping district.
Then we walked to Chinatown where I had an appointment at the Foot Reflexology Center for a relaxing 60-minute foot massage. The office was very clean; spa tubs were lined with plastic and my masseuse wore gloves. The $45 treatment was half the price I've paid at hotel spas, and I appreciated the kneading after pounding San Francisco's steep sidewalks.
Liz and I said our goodbyes and vowed to come up with a new itinerary for my next visit. Trial tango lessons at one of the dance academies? Classic movie screenings at the San Francisco Public Library? A docent-led tour of Golden Gate Park's botanical gardens and its "secret pond"?
With visions of steaming pot stickers dancing in my head, I decided to visit Shanghai 1930 for dinner. One block from the Embarcadero, it's in the middle of an active hive of upscale restaurants. But descending a steel staircase, I felt transported in time. One level down is the sultry lounge with Art Deco red velvet chairs and a frosted-blue glass bar. To the beat of a jazz trio, chanteuse Susan Getz cooed, "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home to."
I tapped my toes and nibbled on the Triple Steamer appetizer ($12), a dozen pudgy pork, shrimp and scallop dim sum served in three stacked baskets. The rich glass of Louis Latour 2002 Marsannay ($9) that the sommelier said would "pillow" the food did just that.
I couldn't leave this extreme-cuisine city on Sunday without food to go. I returned to the Embarcadero, this time to the Ferry Building Marketplace, newly renovated to house a food hall to rival the great ones in Europe. For less than $15, I put together a highbrow picnic: a palm-size wedge of Pierce Point herbed-rind soft cheese from the Cowgirl Creamery's Artisan Cheese Shop, organic sourdough baguette from Acme Bread Co. and a fat cluster of picturesque grapes from Farmer's Garden.
I lingered over the glass cases at Recchiuti Confections, the bonbons displayed like jewelry. I splurged on handmade candied orange peels draped in bittersweet chocolate. For 48 cents each. Sweet.
Ferry Building Marketplace, One Ferry Building Marketplace, at the Embarcadero at the foot of Market Street; (415) 693-0996, ferrybuildingmarketplace.com.
WHERE TO GO:
War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave.; (415) 621-6600, sfwmpac.org. The new San Francisco Ballet (sfballet.org) season begins in February, but the venue also is home to the San Francisco Opera (sfopera.org), which has a summer season and offers standing-room tickets.
Foot Reflexology Center, 662 Jackson St.; (415) 989-2268.
TO LEARN MORE:
San Francisco Arts Monthly lists the city's cultural events. Its website, sfarts.org, was helpful when planning my trip as was the free visitor's kit from the San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau, at (415) 391-2000 or sfvisitor.org. The bureau and San Francisco Municipal Railway (sfmuni.org) sell MUNI passes online. A travel pack of tickets to get to and from the Oakland Airport is available online from Bay Area Rapid Transit at bart.gov.
— Janet Eastman
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