Why you need a map when visiting San Francisco (or any other city).

I never visit a city without a map. I rarely use my GPS. I admit this would have been useful in Tokyo, where everyone gets lost, even people who live there. But tracking down locations via the Magical GPS Goddess also means I would have not had the experience of discovering unexpected places. When you use a map, you get a sense of place. You learn how the city is laid out, and where sites are located compared to each other. Look a map, and you can see that Coit Tower is about a 20 minute walk from Chinatown, and Chinatown is on the edge of Union Square. Golden Gate park is on the western side of the city, next to the Haight Ashbury.

You don’t learn this by punching in a location, and having the blue dot direct you. You only learn what is on that path, and not where that path is in relation to the rest of the neighborhood or city. Plus you’ll be staring at your phone and not observing what is around you.

A GPS has its place in travel. If you’re hideously lost, it helps. But unless you find yourself in a strange wilderness (which means you’re probably in the Presideo), use a map. Ask directions of people on the street. Travel is about experience, and you lose some of that adventure by allowing the Magical GPS Goddess to lead you by the nose.

Get a map. Ask directions. Occasionally get lost. That’s how to experience San Francisco.

 

Amalie–Lively Wine Bar with Great Selection of Wine and Cheese

Seek and ye shall find.

It is easy to stick to favorite restaurants and bars. It makes the decision making process easier, especially after a long week and all I want is a glass of wine in a comfortable place with no surprises to price or atmosphere. What I tend to forget is that the usual places I love were at one time new discoveries.

I discovered Amalie a few weeks ago. It was a night I was searching for a good glass of wine and some good cheese. I started at a place in the Financial District (or the FiDi, as it is known to those who are very busy and overscheduled and to prove it to us lesser mortals must use an acronym at every opportunity.  By the way, “San Fran” drives me up the wall as well. But that’s another post. Anyway….) which was way overpriced for both the wine and the cheese plate. The portions on the cheese plate seemed to come from scraps tossed onto board as the waiter rushed by the kitchen, and wine, while good, not worth the price.

Here’s a rule of thumb I usually stick by: if the wine menu doesn’t have at least one glass of wine under $10, go somewhere else. If nothing is under $15, run like the wind. You can get good wine all over the city that won’t bust your budget.

Undaunted I searched for “best cheese plate” and Amalie came up as a favorite several times.  And with good reason. It is a lively bar with a large selection of wines by the bottle and glass. The Monday night I was there the special was a bottle of wine and a cheese plate for $35. A steal. The wine was earthy with some spice, not the fruit bomb that is woefully common these days, and the cheese plate had proper portions, not the insulting dainty servings that are also far too common.

The attention to good wine and food served at a reasonable price may have something to do with the French atmosphere of Amalie, and the staff, who are also international. They take good wine and food as a birthright, as an indispensable part of life. I couldn’t agree more.

Amalie 1754 Polk Street  (at Washington Street)
Open Seven Days a Week 5:30pm – 2:00am
Happy Hour From 5:30 – 7:00

(415) 292-6916

Check out the wine list

Hotel Biron–Small Wine Bar and Art Gallery

My wife and I have a standing date on Friday night, known as the Wine Hour, even though it lasts longer than that. The Hotel Biron is one of our favorite destinations.

It has a great wine list with about 50 wines, about half by the glass. The pours are generous, but unless you’re going to sample several different wines (which I endorse) , I would suggest telling the bartender (winetender?) what you like, ask for a taste, and if it is good, buy the bottle. The glass to bottle price at the Hotel Biron makes it a deal. There are 5 glasses to a bottle, so if your group, (or just you) are going to have at least three glasses, get the bottle. You can cork the leftover and take it with you.

This is one of those places off the tourist path. It is a small, brick lined place that is not on a main street and doesn’t have a big sign blaring its location. It also doubles as an art gallery, and has interesting pieces on the wall. The last time I was there the one piece I really wanted had already been spoken for. Fortunately, there was wine to ease my pain.

Hotel Biron

45 Rose St., Near Market and Gough 415-703-0403

www.hotelbiron.com

 

Maritime Wine Tasting Studio — Variety, knowledge, in a nice atmosphere

Located on Columbus Ave, just up the street from the Cafe Zoetrope and down from Broadway, The Maritime Wine Tasting Studio a nice place to relax and enjoy a wide variety of wine. The company  started out as wine importers and producers. The staff has a passion and knowledge of wine, so tell them what you like, and they’ll find something to please you. They’re smart people, so ask any question you’ve had about wine. Aside from the reasonably priced wines by the glass, they also have an all-day happy hour special wine that is a great deal. And if you like what you drink, you can buy a bottle.

maritme wine company

Maritime Wine Tasting Studio, 222 Columbus Ave, Phone: 415-861-1139

http://maritimetasting.com/

INOVINO-a great wine bar easy to get to from downtown

INOVINO 3 InoVino01If you’re staying downtown, there are many good reasons to hop on the N-Judah street car and take a quick ride to Cole Valley, and the Inner Sunset. There you will experience San Francisco neighborhoods that most visitors miss, and restaurants and wine bars locals love.

Get off the N-Judah at Carl and Cole, and Inovino is steps away. Inovino is an intimate wine bar that has great food and wine, and is especially a deal at happy hour (from 4-6 weekdays, 3-6 Saturday, closed Sunday).

The owner, Claudio, is a master Sommelier with years of experience at some of the best restaurants and hotels in Europe and the US. Where ever he has worked, critics raved over the wine list. Now you can experience his expertise in a casual, neighborhood atmosphere.

Inovino, 108 Carl St., 681-3770

 

The key to a great time in San Francisco—Just Ask.

Don’t know what bus or street car to get on? Confused about the best way to get to Union Square? Want to find the best wine bar in the neighborhood? The best way to get an answer is to ask someone.

Questions and Answers signpost

People love to share their knowledge. Think about it: how often in your daily life does  someone ask for your opinion or expertise? And how much fun is it when someone does ask, and you get to share your information?

The most common question concerns directions. If you’re confused, ask someone. (By the way, get a better map than the crappy one you got at the hotel. See my post about this.) They will be glad to give you the best way there. This also applies to getting on the right bus or streetcar. San Franciscian’s love to help with public transportation. It’s our main topic of conversation, right after restaurants. For fun, next time you’re on a bus or streetcar, ask advice about the best way to get somewhere. You’ll have five eager people getting involved in the discussion, and agreeing on the best way, or offering you a couple of alternatives.

The asking rule also applies to places to eat, drink, or sitesee. I was recently in New York, and wasn’t having luck on The Google Machine coming up with an answer to the question that is usually first on my list: Is there a good winebar in the neighborhood? (Yes, the Google Machine is an option, and I use it all the time. But human beings are better.) So I asked the people staffing the front desk at an art gallery. They gave me detailed descriptions of 3 winebars in the area, explaining the differences in food, atmosphere, and selection. And best of all, they were so happy to share their knowledge of local watering holes.

You can also use the ask trick if you want to know about shopping, or something interesting to do in a neighborhood.

Shy about approaching someone? So am I sometimes. I make myself get over it. Just start the conversation with “Excuse me, I wonder if you can give me advice about…………..?” Remember, they want to help, and love being asked their opinion.

So ask more, and you’ll see the city like a local, meet a local, and make the day of a local. Asking will enhance your experience of San Francisco.

The Homeless, Panhandlers, and your safety in San Francisco.

First thing: you’re safe here. San Francisco is a safe city. No one wants to hurt you. No one wants to mug you. No one wants to hassle you or deliberately make you uncomfortable. (Well, sort of. More on that later.)

Let me address crime. The biggest problem is property theft, and most of that is breaking into cars and stealing what is on the seat. If you’re not driving (and you shouldn’t–it’s a freaking nightmare for newcomers to drive in San Francisco) then nothing will be stolen out of your car.

You do have to be aware of hanging your purse or backpack over a chair in a restaurant. People will take the opportunity to dip into it. Also on a crowded bus or streetcar.

So thieves want your stuff. They don’t want to hurt you–it’s too much trouble, and calls attention to them. Why hurt someone when if you’re patient you can easily steal a wallet from an open packpack? If you use common sense, and make it difficult for a thief to take your stuff, they’ll find someone else who isn’t paying attention.

San Francisco has homeless people, and panhandlers. The homeless, many of whom should be in treatment, are trying to survive on the street. They don’t want to bother you. Panhandlers (who are also usually homeless) will ask for spare change. You can ignore them, smile and say “Sorry,” or give them change. But whatever you do, they are not going to hurt you. Don’t be afraid of them.

Occasionally, if you are near Union Square, you might find yourself on or near a sketchy street. There might even be someone who looks like a drug dealer or prostitute. This might make you uncomfortable, and rightly so, but you’re not going to be hurt. They know you don’t want what they’re selling, and won’t bother you.

Last year, my wife and I were in Barcelona, made a turn and found ourselves on a sketchy street. The people on the street knew we did not want what they were selling, and had made a wrong turn. The most we got was an eye-roll. Uncomfortable, sure. Dangerous? Not at all. Same in San Francisco.

So, to sum up, you’re OK here. San Francisco is a city, and has the whole fabric of city people. It may be something you don’t experience back home. But honestly, you’re going to get hassled more by a drunk fratboy, or some idiot with an overblown sense of entitlement that thinks they can be rude to you, shove you out of the way in the crosswalk, or steal your seat at a bar,  than some poor panhandler.

A must see for Star Wars fans–and you can’t see it from a big bus.

George Lucas’ digital empire—The Letterman Digital Arts center, which includes Industrial Light and Magic and Lucas Film is located in the Presidio (which is a national park). They don’t offer tours of any kind, but they do not leave fans without a reason to drop by.

In the court yard is a statue of Yoda, which is available for a photo op 7 days a week. If you’re in town during the week during business hours, visitors are welcome to come into the lobby, which has lots of Star Wars memorabilia, including a life size Boba Fett and Darth Vader costume.

Big buses are turned away. But the convertible MINI cooper can go everywhere, even right up to the Star Wars treasure house.

yodaboba fett

 

Have a glass of “Crackbird” at the best happy hour in the city.

A quick trip on the N Judah train (aka streetcar) from downtown takes you to the Inner Fog wine bar, a great neighbor hangout with an outstanding happy hour deal.

First up is the Inner Fog at 545 Irving in the Inner Sunset. Take the N Judah, get off at 7th Ave, and it’s right across the street. The Inner Fog is great anytime, but from 4-6 Monday through Friday, you can get some terrific wine for only $5 a glass. My favorite (and the favorite of many) is the “Crackbird.” Actually a blend named “Blackbird,” it has proved so deliciously addictive that it was renamed on the menu. I cannot think of a better deal.

And if you can’t make it for happy hour, come anyway. The wines are always good and reasonably priced. And they have beer, if that’s your beverage. And there are small snack plates if you’re hungry. The staff is knowledgeable and friendly, and the place itself is smallish and inviting.

If you want to brag that you’ve gone off the beaten path, and without much effort (the N is really speedy from any downtown MUNI station), head into the Inner Fog.

inner fog

 

The 16th Ave. Tiled Steps — beautiful views, beautiful mosaic, and way off the usual path.

Since January of 2003, neighborhood volunteers and artists have transformed a drab hillside staircase into an art piece. Each of the 163 steps are decorated with a tile mural. The stairs are on city property, so they are for the enjoyment of everybody. It is a community project, bringing over 300 people together to enhance this neighborhood, and  of San Francisco

But taking in the tiles is just one part of the fun. Climb the stairs, and you get treated to an amazing view of the Pacific Ocean.

Big Tour buses are not allowed in the neighborhood, and it is located far enough away from Golden Gate Park that very few visitors make the trek to discover the 16th Ave. steps. But for the adventurous, it is worth it, and will be one of those experiences to brag about back home. Of course, if you don’t want to walk, I can take you there on a tour as well.

16th stair tiles

16th stair view

The Best Margaritas in the Universe

Tommy’s Mexican out at 24th/Geary is one of those off the beaten path places that you’ll love, and be able to boast about visiting when you get back home.  tommy's

While the restaurant is good, the real draw is the small bar serving up 100’s of tequilas. Personally, I like the house margaritas, which are made with quality tequila and fresh limes–no premixed stuff.

 

The place is small, so get there’s early if you want to be sure you get a seat. But even if you don’t, the atmosphere is so friendly that you won’t mind standing.

Julio, (pictured) is the owners’ son, and the mastermind behind creating “The Greatest Tequila Bar on Earth.” He has been featured in numerous magazines and television show. If Julio is there when you are, he will treat you like a friend and long time regular.

julio

It’s out in the little-visted Richmond district (out in the Avenues, as we say), but easy access from down town on the 38 Geary bus. And you’ll want to take public transportation, because you should never drive in San Francisco anyway, but especially after enjoying the best margaritas you’ll ever have.

 

http://tommysmexican.com/

Cheap Food (and water) on Fisherman’s Wharf

Fisherman’s Wharf, like any other tourist destination in the world, has overpriced food, and even more overpriced water. A bottle of water will set you back a $1 if you’re lucky, but more likely $2 or more. And the restaurants are, for the most part, over priced and mediocre quality.

Fortunately, if you walk 2 blocks off the wharf, you can save money, and eat better.

At the corner of 401 Bay St. at Mason, there is a Trader Joe’s. For 19 cents you can get a bottle that would cost $1.50 on the wharf. And the bigger bottles are an even better deal. You can also buy sandwiches, salads and snacks.

Trader Joes north beach 1

cafe francisco 1san jose

 

If you want to sit down to eat, there is the Cafe Francisco (2161 Powell at Francisco). No only is the food good and reasonably priced, it is a local’s hang out. Down the block at 2257 Mason at Francisco is the Taqueria San Jose, which serves up great burritos, tacos, and other Mexican food.

This is a rule everywhere in the world—2 blocks off the main tourist street, you find local treasures.

The Importance of a Good Map

I’ve been away in Spain for a couple of weeks, which is why the posting is not up to date. My wife and I went to Barcelona and Madrid. We had a wonderful time, made more so because we brought decent city maps.

When I walk the streets of San Francisco, I see dozens of visitors clutching their hotel issued maps, looking confused. I stop and give them directions, and assist in deciphering their map.  Hotel maps suck. They’re free and still overpriced. They’re printed on cheap paper, so they tear after a couple of uses. And they’re hard to read. But the main reason they’re terrible is they don’t have a street index.san-francisco-map-006

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You need an index to look up streets and places, and generally get around. Also, a laminated map will last much longer than a paper one.
I’m a fan of the Streetwise Maps. They’re easy to use, and have public transportation information as well as streets and sites. I used them in Spain, and my wife and I navigated the cities with ease.

 

So when you come visit, get a good map. You’ll be glad you did. And you can give directions to people with crummy hotel maps.

san-francisco-map-001

 

Inner Sunset—the hidden neighborhood next to museums in Golden Gate Park

Most visitors to San Francisco make it out to East end of Golden Gate Park. Aside from it being a beautiful place to stroll, there are museums, gardens, and other attractions. The Conservatory of Flowers (a world famous example of Victorian greenhouse architecture, upper right corner of the map), the Academy of Sciences, the DeYoung Museum, and Japanese Tea Garden  (located around Music Concourse Dr.) are most popular destinations.

But unknown to most visitors is that they are on the edge of neighborhood that has a lot of great restaurants and interesting shops. The Inner Sunset is just a 5 minute walk from the museums along Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. to 9th Ave.

MINI Cooper Tour map of Inner Sunset

Along 9th Ave. you’ll find Misdirections (one of the few brick and mortar magic shops left), Ebisu (my favorite sushi restaurant), and Hotei (Japanese noodles). Turn left at Irving, and within a few blocks there is Amazing Fantasy comic books (8th Ave), Inner Fog (great wine bar, between 6th and 7th), the Crepevine (good and inexpensive food, especially for breakfast and lunch, between 7th and 8th) and several coffee shops. If you’re around during lunch, drop into the Wolly Pig for great sandwiches, (at Hugo and 3rd.) Turn right at 9th and Irving, and down the street (between 11th and 12th) is San Tung, where people line up for the amazing chicken wings.

Those are just some of the places to discover in this neighborhood. And after you’re done exploring getting back downtown is a snap on the N Judah.

 

 

Cajun Pacific–on the edge of the city, and worth the trip

I’m always looking for restaurants the will give guests to San Francisco “bragging rights.” By that I mean a restaurant the is off the tourist path of usual suspects (many of which are good–such as Tony’s Pizza and Cafe Zeotrope), and when you talk about your vacation later, you’ll be able to boast you ate a place very few tourists, and even few locals, know about.

Cajun Pacific is just that sort of restaurant. It is only open Thursday, Friday and Saturday. The menu changes weekly and is posted on Wednesday. It is small, and far out on the

cajun

western edge of the city. Go three more blocks, and you’re in the ocean.

Reservations are highly recommended. And it is an easy ride (about 25 minutes) to get out there on the N Judah, which you can pick up downtown under Market St.

Take the trip and treat yourself to great Cajun food, a San Francisco experience, and bragging rights about finding a hidden gem.

Cajun Pacific Restaurant

http://www.cajunpacific.com
4542 Irving Street @ 47th Avenue, in San Francisco’s Outer Sunset
415-504-NOLA (6652)

cajuntomato

MUNI PASSPORT–THE BEST DEAL FOR CABLE CARS AND OTHER PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION

If you’re planning on riding the cable cars, and you should, the best way to ride is with a Muni passport. It is also the best way to get around on all our public transportation.

Public transportation (a bus or street car) cost $2, and is good for 90 minutes of unlimited transfers. A cable car is $6, and is only good until you get off. So a round trip is $12.

Plus, you need exact change on all public transportation. And if you don’t have proof of payment, it’s an expensive ticket.

Save yourself hassle by getting a 1, 3, or 7 day MUNI passport. They cost $14, $22, $28 dollars respectively (the 7 day pass shown is from 2009). Just scratch off the month and consecutive days you want to use it, hop on any bus, streetcar, or cable car anywhere in San Francisco, and ride as long or as short as you like. You can pick them up at many shops (such as Walgreen’s) and MUNI stations.

We San Franciscan’s complain about MUNI, but it actually is a good system, especially Muni Paymentthe streetcars (the F, J, KT, L, M, and N lines), which are speedy.

By the way, don’t drive in San Francisco. Really. You may be a great driver where you live, but San Francisco will have you chewing the steering wheel. Driving and parking in San Francisco is a challenge, even for professionals such as yours truly. We have hills, streets that mysterious become one-way when you least expect it, and confusing maps. Plus parking is a nightmare, and expensive. You’re on vacation! Relax and let someone else do the driving.

 

Muni Passport 2009