New May Wah–A Grocery Store with Everything You Never Knew You Wanted

Not everything about visiting a city is the major sites, tourist attractions, and eating at restaurants from the Food Network. Those should not be overlooked, because a site like the Golden Gate Bridge is famous for a reason, Fisherman’s Wharf does have a history hidden behind the overabundance of tee-shirt shops. Even the Food Network can get it right once in a while, although when a restaurant gets on television getting a reservation is less likely than finding a magic unicorn who spits winning lottery tickets.

To experience a city like a local, you’ve got to do what locals do. In San Francisco, stroll around a neighborhood with no destination in mind. Go to a restaurant at least a mile from Fisherman’s Wharf. Go to a grocery store, especially the New May Wah in the overlooked Richmond District.

New May Wah Supermarket on Clement StreetI’m betting you don’t have a store like the New May Wah in your town and if you do, consider yourself lucky and blessed and the envy of those who don’t.

The New May Wah is neighborhood market on Clement St, which used to be known as Little Chinatown. It carries a lot of ingredients for Chinese dishes, and more. Oh, so much more. And you want it. You don’t know you want it, but once you see it, you’ll ask where has this been all my life?

There are shelves of potato chips with flavors far beyond anything you’ll find at a suburban supermarket.  The selection changes regularly and every time I go in I find something new.  Squid. Spicy Squid. Cucumber. Tzatziki. I got “Duck Neck” flavor once. As I’ve never eaten a duck neck I’m going to take their word that’s what it tastes like when infused in a chip . Authenticity aside, it was tasty.

There is an entire aisle devoted to sauces and condiments not only from China, but Japan, Mexico, Korea, Indonesia, England and those are only the countries I can remember. Buy something from this section to spice up meals back home.

Potato chips at the New May Wah

Sauces and condiments at the New May Wah.

There is also a vast array of candy from every corner of the globe. Some of these are worth buying just because of the whimsically surreal packaging. This is the kind of souvenir everyone back home will love. Also a fun place to bring the kids. Much more entertaining than the M&M store in Times Square.

At the New May Wah you’ll spend time with the locals and experience San Francisco like we get to. This is the type of store you will talk to your friends about when you get back home. They will enjoy the exotic treats you bring them, and be impressed you saw something more than the usual stuff, which, as I said, are worth seeing.

New May Wah 707 Clement St, San Francisco, CA 94118 8:30am-7pm everyday

Pros and Cons of MINI Cooper San Francisco Private Tours

There are many tour options in San Francisco. You can take a big bus, a minivan, and SUV, even a firetruck. You can also tour the city in a convertible MINI Cooper. Here are the pros can cons of various tour options.
Big bus Tours-Pros. You get to sit up high (unless you have to sit down below). You have the fun of standing around on the sidewalk when you get out to visit a site. Since the busses are banned from many places in San Francisco, you don’t have to worry about making choices or seeing too much. You get exercise by walking several blocks to the sites you really want to see, such as the Painted Ladies and Lombard St. Cons: You may miss a bus at a pickup point, or get lost. Not private a private tour.

Van Tours- Pros: You get to share your vacation time with strangers, who will want to talk about subjects other than the tour so you won’t be bored learning about the city. You don’t have to think about where you’re going or for how long, as you are on a schedule. If you’re lucky enough to sit next to a window, you can pretend you’re watching the city on television. Cons: When you look up you see the roof of the car, not the city. Not a private tour.

Private MINI Cooper Tour: Pros: Door to door pickup and drop off. Stop where you want, as long as you want. Flexible itinerary, time of pickup, and duration. Go anywhere. No sharing tour time with strangers. In the convertible you’re IN the city all the time. Photo ops every moment. Knowledgeable guide with 25 years studying, exploring, and writing about San Francisco. See the big sites and hidden gems. The tour is all about you. Cons: Can only take 3 people.

The Cable Car Museum–Only in San Francisco and Free

Cable Car Museum Hours. The signs may conflict, but when it is open it is free.

Cable Car Museum Hours. The signs may conflict, but when it is open it is free.

San Francisco is the only city in the world with cable cars. What people sometime mistake for cable cars are electric trolleys or street cars. The big difference is a cable car doesn’t have an engine. It’s a box with wheels. What gets it up and down the hills is it has a grip, and that grip grabs the moving cable under the street. It’s like grabbing a tow line at ski resort.

From a platform inside you can the machinery that moves the cable under the streets.

Video of machinery pulling cablesThe wheels at the cable car museum.

There are four cables for the three cable car lines. That’s because the Powell line splits and takes riders to Hyde St or Taylor St on Fisherman’s wharf. The California St. line is continuous. Where ever they end, they all start here, winding out in their miles long loops.

To see the machinery is to truly appreciate what simple yet amazing technology the cable cars employ. It is virtually unchanged since 1873, except instead of steam engines powering the machines, it is now electric. It will give you an enlightened experience when riding a cable car.

There is also a museum about the history of the cable cars, and of course a gift shop, which actually has cool stuff.

You should visit because there is no other place like it in the world. And best of all, it’s free. Bring the family because the kids will like it, and if they don’t, no matter. You haven’t spent a dime. But they’ll like it. It feels like you’re backstage, looking at secret things. It’s a little noisy, not too much, just enough to let you know something special is going on.

Stroll like a local–art, pianos, chairs, giant Doggie Diner heads, and no cars on JFK Drive in Golden Gate Park

JFK Drive in Golden Gate park was car-free on the weekends for years. The pandemic hit in March of 2020 and access to indoor public space was rightfully curtailed (It was necessary to fight the spread of Covid. Sorry if you believe otherwise. Stop listening to Fox News, especially Tucker Carlson. He looks like someone who smelled a monkey fart and is wrestling with the choice to leave the room or kiss the monkey’s butt. Why would you take seriously someone conflicted about monkey farts? But I digress) JFK Drive was closed to cars to create more outdoor public space. Then there was a vote to keep it closed to car traffic permanently or just the weekends. Thankfully, in spite of a lot of yammering from those who cling to their car mobility as a scared right (this coming from someone who makes their living driving), JFK drive is now closed to cars.

The result is a new public promenade inviting skaters, cyclists, walkers, and families to stroll among public art installations, sit in one the abundant yellow Adirondack chairs along the way.

Yellow chairs in Golden Gate Park on JFK Drive.

JFK drive is the main road through the east end of Golden Gate Park. It goes by the Victorian Greenhouse Conservatory of Flowers, and behind the Music Concourse, where the DeYoung Museum, Japanese Tea Garden, and Academy of Sciences are located.

A child enjoying a piano outside the Conservatory of Flowers on JFK Drive in Golden Gate Park.Kid's play on the big blocks of public art on JFK Drive in Golden Gate Park.

Seen on a San Francisco Private Tour--Giant Doggie Diner Head on JFK Drive in Golden Gate Park.

It is a favorite spot for guests to be dropped off after their San Francisco private tour. It’s close to the Haight Ashbury and Inner Sunset neighborhoods, with restaurants and shopping. You could easily spend half a day, or more, exploring what the area has to offer.

Benefits of having a private, local guide.

If you’re going to the effort and expense of taking a tour, make sure you’re getting a local guide. Someone who lives here, who loves the city, and most important, is always learning new things to share with their guests.

There are a lot of people in the tour business don’t live here. While they love the city, they don’t explore it everyday. They don’t make discoveries locals do. And they don’t know their way around the city like locals do. For most of them being a guide is a gig, a job they like. They’re fine.

But why settle for fine?

Fisherman's Wharf postcard 1930's private tour guide looking at crabs

I found this vintage postcard of Fisherman’s Wharf from the 1930’s. I’m including it because I look like the guy with glasses

I live in San Francisco, and have all of my adult life. Before I started Small Car Big Time Tours, I spent my time reading about and exploring the city. I still do. Every day I’m reading about some aspect of San Francisco, the Wine Country, and California History. Every day I’m out in this city I love.

Being a private tour guide is more than a job for me. It’s what I truly love.

As for why you should hire a private guide? That’s easy. Do you want to spend part of your valuable vacation time dealing with strangers, having to wait for them when you’re ready to leave, listening to them yap when you’d rather hear about about the city and sites? Personally, that sounds like a punishment rather than vacation.

A private, custom tour from a local guide will give you an experience that will be truly memorable.

Why I don’t take deposits.

Few things irritate me more, and bring anxiety to a purchase, then having to go through deposit refund policies for tours and tickets. Usually they are non-refundable. With many tour companies you are required to pay the full amount up front, and then it is a game of Beat-the-Clock if you need to cancel. A month out may get you a full refund, but more often than not the company is keeping at least part of the booking. Get down to a week, and you’re probably losing 50-75% of what you put up and if you have to cancel the day before, you forfeit any deposit.

If someone has to cancel a tour, there is a reason for it, usually dealing with an unexpected and unpleasant problem. People don’t cancel because life is going well, full of rainbows and unicorns. Someone got sick, a flight was missed, a car broke down, or worse. If that’s the case, I don’t want to add to the misery by saying “Sorry, on top of all your other problems, you don’t get your money back.”

A tour company owner keeping a big pile of money.
A happy tour company owner keeping your deposit.

While I like to give as many tours as possible, I’ve also got many other projects going on. I can fill my day. Also I get a lot of late minute requests for private, custom tours, and those people are thrilled they could book their private tour at the last minute.

I’ve only had 3 guests cancel on me as I was waiting for them in front of their hotel. One person said they were sick with food poisoning. Not sure if that was true, but it didn’t matter. They sounded sick, so if they were faking I gave them points for the effort to sound like they would vomit any second. Another guest said they were sorry, but were really, really hung over. Points for being honest. At least I’m guessing they were honest. Maybe they had food poisoning and were too embarrassed to say so.

The third person didn’t answer several texts and calls as I waited outside the hotel. Finally they answered the phone, and said they just changed their mind and didn’t want to take their tour. Fine with me. Anyone so clueless, rude, and entitled who cancels like that is not someone I want to spend time with.

When you contact me for a tour, all I ask is that you confirm 48 hours in advance. That’s it. No money upfront. And if you cancel, I hope the problem isn’t too serious.

Golden Gate Park Ferris Wheel–Sure, OK, Fine, have fun.

There is a Ferris Wheel in Golden Gate Park. To be accurate, it is called the SkyStar Wheel because that sounds more exciting and therefor justifies the $18 ticket ($12 for humans under 12 and over 65) and 9-12 minute ride.
This thing was installed in 2020 as part of the park’s misguided 150th Anniversary celebration.  John McLaren, the longest serving and most famous superintendent, would have hated it. He hated the 1894 World’s Fair, which was forced into the area now known as the Music Concourse which houses the Academy of Sciences, DeYoung Museum, and the Japanese Tea Garden.  The Tea Garden was a holdover from the 1894 Midwinter Fair and the only thing McLaren liked, because it was a new landscape.
McLaren hated anything that was not natural, but gave a grudging acknowledgement that roads and some buildings were necessary. These he wanted to be few and to blend into the surroundings. He would have considered the SkyStar a goiter on the face of the park.

SkyStar Wheel in Golden Gate Park

I had the same opinion when the wheel went up. The Covid hit, and it was shut down for 15 months before ever giving anyone a ride. McLaren would have said nature is telling us something.
It opened last year, and somehow has a lease until 2025. The ride became a big hit, especially on weekends and holidays. Families are having fun, and if it’s something we need more of these days, it is simple pleasures.
So I’ve gotten over myself and stopped being a big grumpasaurus about it marring the landscape. If it sounds like fun, enjoy it folks. I know you need it.
It should be noted that you can get the same view, for free, from the observation tower in the DeYong Museum.  The observation tower doesn’t rotate, but you get a 360 view of the park, and the money you save can be spent on wine.

Avoid the Coronavirus in San Francisco—Take a private tour!

People are cancelling trips to San Francisco or not just showing up at all. But those that are here are a bit nervous about being in crowds. So what is the best way to see the city and avoid coughing tourists?
Avoid the Coronavirus in San Francisco with a Private Tour
Take a custom private tour in a convertible MINI Cooper.
The large tour buses are rolling petri dishes. And they are limited to where they can go. So not only do you miss most of the city, you risk picking up whatever your seat mate brought with them from out of town.
Avoid the Coronavirus in San FranciscoAvoid the Coronavirus in San Francisco with a private tour

I’m sure you don’t want to over react to the Coronavirus, but on the other hand, why take chances? Especially risking your health on a crummy, crowded tour.
Avoid the Coronavirus in San Francisco with a private tour
Sure, you’ll be fine. Sure. Probably. Almost certainly. Mostly.
Like I said, why risk it? You’re on vacation. You’re here to have fun, not spend your time running a fever in the hotel.
A custom private tour of San Francisco in a convertible MINI Cooper is a unique way to see the city. No crowds, and no viruses allowed.


Fine Dining at a Great Price–The Richmond

The Richmond

I’ve resided in San Francisco’s Richmond district for more years than I care to confess. The western side of the city on either side of Golden Gate Park (Sunset to the South, Richmond to the north) is often referred to as “The Avenues” because that’s where they are, all 48 of them.  I was there when “The Avenues” was used as a synonym for “Why do you live all the way out there?” When Spain and then Mexico owned the San Francisco peninsula, maps named the western side of San Francisco “The Great Sand Waste.” When the United States took over they give it a minor upgrade and called the sand pile “The Outside Lands.” I’ve always liked “The Avenues;” it sounds appropriate, a landscape you’d find in a post-apocalyptic movie where Mel Gibson does battle with Kevin Costner who is only trying to fulfill his mission to deliver mail to the undead.
Custom Private Small Tours of San Francisco shows you The Richmond

In the Richmond, there is a restaurant called The Richmond, that I had never heard of. I asked the owner/chef John how long he’d been there he said 15 years. So I had to confess I’ve driven by hundreds of times, and never noticed. It is easy not to notice. There is a sign, but the front of the restaurant is pleasantly nondescript and loses the attention battle, especially at night, to the florescent baked laundromat next door.

Richmond is the vision of the owner/chef John Ha. He wanted a restaurant where he could control everything, and he has succeeded. Aside from himself, there is a server and an assistant in the kitchen. He doesn’t need more than that, because the menu is limited, though changes often. It’s a tasting menu of 3 courses for $50, or 5 courses for $79.  There are optional wine parings, but the wine list is good, and like the dinner itself, a screaming deal.
Unique Custom Private Tous of San Francisco takes you to out of the way restaurantsPrivate Small Custom Tours San Francisco and unique restaurants

The restaurant is small, but doesn’t feel that way because each table is enclosed with curtains. The dining experience is private, and John and his staff make you feel like you’re the only people in the place, and you’re getting their full attention.

He favors a good dining experience and good food over volume and turning tables. John is attentive, genuinely cares that you have a good time, and goes out of his way to make it happen. I was torn between the pork chop and the salmon, and asked if he favored one over the other. He, rightly, turned this question back on me and asked “What are you leaning toward?” I said the pork chop. He said “I’ll make you the pork chop. If for some reason you don’t like it, I’ll bring the salmon.” The pork chop was perfect, probably the best I’ve had.

At the end of the meal he came back out to talk, with some complementary wine. He and the server pulled back the curtains on the other booths, and, in an illusion that David Copperfield would find impressive, revealed how small the place really is.

The Richmond doesn’t advertise. It doesn’t need to. It doesn’t have a website, probably because he doesn’t need it, and keeping it up to date with the daily menu would take time away from creating his daily menu. Reading some of the online reviews, they are nearly 100%  raves. Of course there are a handful of negative reviews. These are either from would-be critics who proclaim their self-imagined cred and sophistication by focusing on some small inconsequential detail they can pick at, or more often the reviewer gave less than five starts because the writer felt their every petty whim was not fawningly catered to. Many posters are clueless about the economy of small restaurants and basic courtesy. For example, those who make a reservation for four people and then only show up with two. That means two other people couldn’t get in that night because of their lack of consideration, and, because he’s preparing a limited number of meals each night, don’t understand why the owner is less than pleased when you saunter in with half your party. One reviewer was pissed because The Richmond don’t offer take-out. These are the same people you stopped inviting to dinner because they arrived with a couple of extra friends in tow who just dropped into town, or simply didn’t show up at all, and didn’t let you know they weren’t showing up. They also keep asking when is the next time you’re going to ask them to dinner.

Richmond is not a restaurant where the staff says “How high?” when you say jump. I get the impression that if you are too demanding John will give you a great experience, whether you appreciate it or not. He may also keep your email and phone number on a list that says to tell you the restaurant is booked no matter what day or time you ask for. That’s what I would do, but John may be more forgiving than me. He loves what he has created, and may give you a second chance. This is John’s place, and he goes out of his way for you to have a great time. If you enjoy yourselves and let him and his staff know that, he is humble and appreciative and eager to provide you with a memorable dining experience. If you don’t like it, there are plenty of other restaurants to choose from next time, such as Olive Garden and Applebee’s.

Reservations only, make them now.

615 Balboa St, San Francisco, CA 94118


If you are planning on driving in San Francisco, don’t. Really. Really and Truly. You won’t like it. It will be frustrating and expensive and will waste valuable vacation time. And you’ll be clogging up roads I drive on and be baffled and I may honk at you which will embarrass me if I’ve met you on a private tour the day before. The GPS won’t help, because everyone else unfamiliar with San Francisco will use it too and you will all be clogged on the same road. And the Magical GPS Goddess won’t help. She doesn’t live here and gives half-ass directions because she doesn’t care about being accurate and really doesn’t care about you. And she’s usually drunk.  Plus we have hundreds of Uber and Lyft drivers who don’t know their way around staring at their phones and double parking adding to the already insane congestion.

The Magical GPS Goddess also doesn’t keep track of the many, many sudden and capricious road closures and detours which plague our city. We are both building at a breakneck pace and digging up the street at a snail’s pace. This means at any given time a street will be closed but the Magical GPS Goddess doesn’t know that, and she’ll tell you to drive down one. But you can’t. And neither can anyone else. So you’ll all sit in the intersection baffled as to what to do until someone honks at you (possibly me) and you sudden lurch forward or make a dangerous and idiotic u-turn and be confused until the Magical GPS Goddess slurs her drunk instructions of “Rerouting.”

We are a small city and have good public transportation. Consider getting a MUNI passport, available at most drugstores. It is a deal, and gets you unlimited rides on all public transportation, (including the cable cars), and if you need to go somewhere a little out of the way, a taxi is great. By the way, if you have kids, riding public transportation, especially the streetcars, is like an amusement park ride. They’ll dig it, especially if you’re on one of the underground trains going through a tunnel and they get to stand in the front near the driver.
Save the money you would spend on a rental car and parking for public transportation and wine bars.

Short version: don’t drive. No one will like it, especially you. Well, maybe especially me, but you a lot.

Staying outside San Francisco to Save Money? Don’t. It won’t.

I’ve had guests tell me they are planning to stay at a hotel outside San Francisco to save money. Unless you’re getting a significant break, say $150 bucks a night, it’s not going to be worth it. And if the difference between a moderately priced room in the city and one near the airport is $150, enjoy the cigarette burns in the carpet, low water pressure, and sharing the mattress with bedbugs. That amount you’ll save to stay in a reasonably decent hotel outside the city is between $50 and $80.

There are many reasons people think staying outside the city at cheaper hotel makes economic sense. All but one reason is wrong, and even that reason which might justify staying near the airport instead of San Francisco proper is suspect. If you have an early morning flight which requires that you’re up before the crows, maybe, maybe it makes sense. Other than that, it’s a bargain as false as a payday loan.

Often the decision will be considered because the travelers have a car. They are on a road trip, and the hotels near the airport have usually free parking, whereas hotels in the city will charge up to $60 a day to park. But if you drive into the city it is going to cost about that much to park in a garage for the day. Because a significant source of the city’s revenue is from parking violations, getting a spot on the street is risky. The signage indicating where and how long you can park is confusing as the fine print on a refi document. Driving in the city is not for the uninitiated, and don’t think “But I have GPS.” The GPS goddess doesn’t live here, doesn’t like you, and is usually drunk.  Getting in and out of San Francisco, and in the city itself, is a nightmare because of the thousands of Uber and Lyft drivers clogging the roads like Paula Deen’s arteries.

What about leaving the car at the hotel, and taking public transportation into the city? If you’re taking an Uber, Lyft, or taxi, a round trip is going to cost as much, if not more, than parking in the city. Public transportation is cheaper, but not significantly so.

Even if the savings in money pencils out, and it won’t, but if you’re willing to justify saving $30 day, you’re going to pay with the time and hassle it costs to commute.

At an outside hotel, the first thing that greets you in the morning is the mediocre breakfast. After that disappointment, instead of being able to walk outside and start having fun in the city, you have to get to the city. That’s going to take 30 minutes, providing you go between 10am and 2pm and after 8pm at night and even then that’s only if the travel angels take pity on you, which they won’t, because they’re getting hammered with the GPS Goddess. So assume at least 45 minutes to an hour each way. That’s a lot of time commuting when you could be relaxing. And if you’ve booked your private tour with me, I charge extra for a pickup outside the city, and the clock starts when at the hotel. That can get pricy, and that money can be spent on better things like food and wine bars.

If getting into the city in the morning isn’t a trial, and it will be, going home at night will give you plenty of time to regret you’re spending the last hour of your vacation day on a freeway instead of in a wine bar. Do you really want to spend the day exploring the city, having a nice dinner, a couple of drinks, and at the end instead of a pleasant walk back to your hotel, you have to somehow schlep back to your airport lodging and all the disappointments it contains and is surrounded by.

Staying outside the city makes no sense. The money you might save is spent on crushing your soul. Save your soul, enjoy yourself on vacation, and stay in San Francisco.

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. Get a map for your private tour of San FranciscoAs I always tell my private tour guests, 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 Presidio), 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.

Amelie–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 Amelie a few weeks ago. It was a night my wife and I were searching for a good glass of wine and some good cheese. We 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.

Great wine bar--private tour San Francisco

Here’s a rule of thumb I share with my private tour guests: if the wine menu doesn’t have at least one glass of wine under $10, consider going 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 Amelie 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 we were 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 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 Amelie, 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.

Ameie 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 to mark the end of the week.

Hidden wine bar--private tour San Francisco

It has a rotating wine list with 50 wines or so wines, about of those available half by the glass. The pours are generous, but unless you’re going to sample several different wines (which I endorse) , tell the bartender what sort of wine 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.

The Hotel Biron is one of those places off the tourist path–although it’s conveniently located near Hayes Valley (a favorite stop for my private tour guests who like to shop). 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 with shows by local artists. 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.
Wine Art--private tour San Francisco

Hotel Biron

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

Maritime Wine Tasting Studio–variety, knowledge, in a friendly 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.
I drive by here on almost all of my private tours, and encourage people to experience the selection.

Wine Tastings-- private tour San Francisco

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

INOVINO–a neighborhood wine bar easy to get to from downtown

Hidden gem discovered on private tour San Francisco If 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. A private tour is about seeing the city like a local, and discovering hidden gems, and I love telling guest about the neighborhood gem that is Inovino.

Get off the N-Judah at Carl and Cole. Inovino is steps away. Inovino is an intimate restaurant that has simple, good food, and large selection of wine. The happy hour (from 4-6 weekdays, 3-6 Saturday and Sunday) is one of the best deals in the city.

Francesco, the owner knows his wine and has a extensive and interesting list. He created a restaurant where the neighborhood loves to hang out. Is is where my wife and I have our weekly Friday night “wine down.” This is the sort of place you go home and brag about finding.

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.

Just ask--how to get the most out of your private tour of San Francisco

People love sharing 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 Franciscan’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 sites to see. My wife and I were recently in New York, and weren’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 wine bar 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 wine bars 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.

Guests on their private tour ask me a lot of questions, and I encourage them to keep that up after the tour is over. 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

When I’m taking people on a private tour, a frequent question has to with the homeless, panhandlers, and safety.
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.

Thieves want your stuff. They don’t want to hurt you–it’s too much trouble, and calls attention to them. Why should they hurt someone when if they’re patient an open back pack will offer an easily picked wallet? If you use common sense, and make it difficult for a thief to take your stuff, they’ll find someone else who’s purse or backpack is temptingly unattended.

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. By the way, know want to know the fastest growing segment of homeless? Female military veterans.

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 whatever drug or degridating sex thrill they had to offer. Since we had obviously turned down the wrong aisle, 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 range of city people. Some may be people you don’t experience back home. But honestly, you’re going to be hassled more by a drunk fratboy or a tech bro with an overblown sense of entitlement. They will be openly rude to you, shove you out of the way in the crosswalk, or steal your seat at a bar, and are going to ruin your day more than than some poor panhandler.

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

I have learned that it is impossible to tell a Star Wars fan just be observation. Sure, there are those who proudly display their fandom with t-shirt and hats, but most big fans don’t announce it. So I ask my guests how big a Star Wars fan they are. Some may not have a personal light saber, at least on them at the moment, but a fan is glad to announce their loyalty. And if they are a fan I make it a point to take them to Star Wars treasures.

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

In the courtyard of the complex is a statue of Yoda, which is available for a photo op 7 days a week. If you’re in town Monday through Friday during business hours, visitors are welcome to come into the lobby. On display are a collection of Star Wars memorabilia, including a life size Boba Fett and Darth Vader costume.

Big buses are not allowed in the Presideo. Vans are not allowed to pull up in the parking lot.  But a custom private tour in the convertible MINI cooper can go everywhere, even right up to the Star Wars treasure house.

yoda as seen on the custom private tour of San Francisco's Presideoboba fett as seen on the custom private tour of San Francisco's Presideo

The InnerFog–a neighborhood wine bar next to Golden Gate Park


I love New York City, and New Yorkers are quick to tell me I’m correct in this assessment because New York, not the sun, is the center of the universe, or at least the only part of the universe that matters.  I will then concede that when it comes to theater, art, fashion,  pastrami, tall buildings, and corrupt real estate barons, New York outshines San Francisco. But when you want a decent glass of wine under $10, San Francisco doesn’t win, because to win would be to assume there is competition. There isn’t. You can’t get a glass of wine in New York for under a sawbuck unless it can also be pressed into service as nail polish remover. When it comes to wine under $10 a glass, New York City just can’t produce a dog for the fight. There’s no contest. (By the way, I would be glad to be proved wrong on this, so anyone out there who would like to offer up a contender for good, inexpensive wine in NYC, the comment box is open.)

The InnerFog at 545 Irving in the Inner Sunset is one such wine bar that New York lacks. I love showing guests the Inner Sunset on their custom private tour, as it is off the usual path, next to Golden Gate Park, and it is easy to get to especially if you’re staying downtown. Take the N Judah, get off at 7th Ave, and it’s right across the street.

The InnerFog is welcoming anytime, but the happy hour deals convince you you should get off the sidewalk and get inside.  From opening each day (currently 5pm Mon-Wed, 4pm Thurs-Sun) until 7pm Friday you can get good wine for only $7 a glass. The happy hour wine changes every few weeks. Currently I like the Tuscan Sangiovese , but whatever they have whenever you will show up there will be satisfying.

If you can’t make it for happy hour, come anyway. The wine list is well catered and reasonably priced. They have craft beer on tap if that’s your beverage. There are small snack plates if you’re hungry. Art by locals artists. Knowledgeable staff. A friendly group of regulars. All the usual suspects and amenities you want from a neighborhood wine bar.

If you want to brag that you’ve gone off the beaten path and discovered a local’s place in San Francisco, head to the InnerFog. You’ll not only get good wine at a good price, you may win an argument with a New Yorker.

inner fog--a favorite place to be dropped off after a custom private tour of San Francisco