Specs’–the Best Dive Bar and San Francisco

Years ago in Hamburg a friend I and were wandering and came across Harry’s Harbor Bazaar. As I remember it was two buildings, connected by an upstairs doorway created by bashing through adjacent walls. It was a three story warren, a maze, a labyrinth, crammed with stuff supposedly collected from an old pub that accepted things like masks, shrunken heads, carvings, idols, and musical instruments sailors brought from their travels and traded for booze. You could buy most anything on display, but the majority of people just walked the aisles stunned not only by the oddity but the sheer vastness of the collection. It has changed owners and locations since I was there, but it still retains the charm of an overstuffed Natural History museum storage room arranged in haste for an inspection.

One of the many idols you will see at Specs. The walls and shelves at Specs are filled with antiques, treasures, and oddities.

The collection at Specs’ Twelve Adler Museum Café, or Specs’, isn’t as big, not by a longshot. It’s a bar, after all, not a warehouse-as-museum. But what it lacks in size more than makes up for by serving drinks to a cast of North Beach regulars who fit nicely into the ambiance the artifacts create.

There is dust on the upper shelves and stuff too far away for someone to reach, because if someone can’t touch it why bother dusting it? The walls and ceilings are brown from decades of burning tobacco and occasional pot, a reminder of times when smoking was allowed indoors. It is cramped and therefor friendly. You will likely have to squeeze by other patrons, maybe even share one of the bigger tables, and the close proximity inspires spontaneous casual conversations.

Some of the North Beach regulars hanging out at Specs.

If you’re lucky, you may wander in when there is music, book reading, or sketch class.

Mr. Lucky and the band performing at Specs.

Spec’s is the kind of bar a good traveler hopes to discover. It’s off the tourist path, has a unique eccentricity, and caters to the locals.

I encourage my guests to get a drink here, Tosca across the alley, and Vesuvio’s across the street. The three bars put together give a good overview of the spirit of North Beach.

Specs’ Twelve Adler Museum Cafe

12 William Saroyan Place, 94133  Phone 415-421-4112

4pm-1am, 2am Thursday-Saturday

Small Car Big Time Tours makes the San Francisco Chronicle

On Christmas day, 2023, I got a great present.
A front page story in the San Francisco Chronicle. And it was above the fold. For those not familiar with newspaper jargon, “above the fold” is where a paper puts the eye grabbing stories. Not bad.
I got to spend time with reporter Peter Hartlaub. We traveled all over the city, talking about San Francisco history. He, like me, loves the city.

Reed and the MINI. Photographer: Jessica Christian/The Chronicle

Me and the MINI Cooper about to take guests out for a private San Francisco tour. Photographer: Jessica Christian/The Chronicle

Big props must go to photographer Jessica Christian. She made me look good. I’m not a bad-looking guy in person, but somehow I take lousy pictures. Or maybe I just think that, such as people generally don’t like hearing their own voice. Whatever the reason I don’t like photos of myself, I like what I see with what Jessica took. These are not photo shopped. She’s has the mad skills.

Fire Hydrants and Friends–my photo hobby

A few years ago I noticed that people will dispose of unwanted stuff next to fire hydrants. These items are never put in the middle of the sidewalk, and only rarely, on a corner without a hydrants.

Chair and frying pan next to a fire hydrant in San Francisco.

I only have a vague theory about why people do this. Not the throwing stuff on the street aspect. It’s clear why that happens: people either put it out on the street convincing themselves it is a somewhat benevolent notion because someone will want it, or, more likely, they’re just dumping it knowing sooner or later the city will pick it up.

Basket and boxes next to a fire hydrant in San Francisco.

But why next to a hydrant? I think it’s because since something is already on the street, i.e. the hydrant, then it is fair game to put other stuff next to it. This theory does not apply to trash cans, as putting trash next to a trash can would appear lazy or redundant.

Cat Tree next to a fire hydrant in San Francisco.

I started taking photos of these objects.

Christmas tree stand next to a fire hydrant in San Francisco.

Occasionally when I’m taking people out on a tour of San Francisco, I notice abandoned semi-junk next to fire hydrants. I will often, usually, ask my guests permission to stop the tour clock for a minute while get out of the MINI and snap the display.

Scooter and raquets next to a fire hydrant in San Francisco.

It is possible that on your private tour of San Francisco, you may have an opportunity to indulge me in my hobby.

Green chair next to a fire hydrant in San Francisco.

 

Green Apple Books—The Best Used (and New) Bookstore in San Francisco

My apartment is filled with books. What books don’t fit on shelves are stacked next to my bed, my current read (usually on some aspect of San Francisco or California history) within easy reach so I can fill my head with stories and facts before falling asleep. There are also books occupying floor space, and there are a couple of bins in the storeroom filled with books I read and perhaps will one day get rid of but probably not.
There is a Japanese word for acquiring more books than you might get around to reading:Tsundoku. Some dismiss this as little more than book hoarding. They are wrong. Being surrounded by books is different than navigating piles of string too short to throw away and a mountain of broken toaster ovens found on the street.
Most of the books in my tsundoku shrine came from Green Apple books
Green Apple Books--Best Used bookstore in San Francisco
If you like bookstores, and the most best travelers do, Green Apple should be a destination on your visit to San Francisco.
There are three floors of books, connected by a small warren of staircases.
It smells like a bookstore. A bit musty, an olfactory quality from the various ages and conditions of the millions of pages between thousands of covers.
One of the many staircases in Green Apple Books
“Used bookstore smell” should be included in the vocabulary of sommeliers. It would describe a wine I’d buy a case of. But I digress.
More books! Green Apple always has more books to discover.
Speaking of wine, this is a dangerous place for me to visit after a couple of glasses. I always find a book I need, or just want, or just feels right in my hand no matter when I go to Green Apple. But under the influence of a good Malbec or Zin, I discover more books than usual to feed my tsundoku habit.
Green Apple Books is located on Clement St in the Richmond District. This is an overlooked street that should not be overlooked. After wandering the aisles, you can go to The Blue Danube for coffee and read your new acquisitions.  Or go to one of the bars. Few things in life are better than a glass of wine and a good book. Enjoy yourself like a local.
Green Apple Books 506 Clement St. (at 6th Ave) 415-387-2272 Open daily 10am-9pm

Chocolate Covered—The Best, Biggest Little Chocolate Store in the World (probably)

Maybe not the world, but definitely San Francisco and if I had a mortgage I would bet it on the assumption there aren’t any shops small with such a variety of chocolate. The selection is so vast you could get lost in it except you can’t because shop isn’t any wider and longer than a stretch limo.

Chocolate Covered San Francisco.

The store is narrow, but tall.  Entering you experience a sense of delight and wonder because you’ve never seen anything like it before. Chocolate from around the globe cram shelves 7 feet high. There are chocolate bars, of course, but also novelty shapes (such as cars and baseballs), and small single wrapped bites.

Chocolate bars in Chocolate Covered San Francisco.--What you can see on a private tour of the city.

Chocolate makers from around the world contact the shop to let them know of their latest artisan products and inventive flavors. The shop has been around since 1994, and the owner, Jack Epstein claims “1,248 different chocolate bars in here, from over 28 countries, from more than 125 different companies.”

Tins and chocolate cover the walls of Chocolate Covered in San Francisco.

What wall space isn’t covered in chocolate is covered with tins you fill with chocolate. Photos of what looks like every street sign in San Francisco are available, which reminded me of those rack of souvenir license plates that have names. Except mine. The racks never had “Reed,” so I never got a little license plate at a roadside gift shop. There is a “Reed” street in San Francisco.

Reed Kirk Rahlmann, owner of Small Car Big Time Tours, holding a tin with his name on it.

Chocolate Covered is off the usual tourist path, but worth the detour if you love chocolate. Even if you’re just indifferent to chocolate it’s worth the trip.

4069 24th Street (Noe Valley)
San Francisco, CA 94114
Ph: (415) 641-8123

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

My Stupid but Functional Hat

I have a cool car. The convertible Green MINI, which I am proud to say is the only MINI Cooper convertible registered as a commercial vehicle in the United States.

But I wear a really uncool hat.

I don’t like the sun, so of course I created a business where I’m in the sun all day. So I wear my functional but stupid hat.

Reed and the green Mini and a guest. My guest is wearing a fine hat. Mine is stupid.

I try to look nice. I wear a suit and tie on tours. The tie is green, as is my pocket square. My vest has green stripes, and sometimes I wear green shoes. Most tour guides dress like they rolled out of bed and put on the first thing they picked up from the floor. I like to have a little style.

But I haven’t found a cool hat that will keep the sun off. So I wear a ugly functional one.

Me and my stupid hat and my cool guests, next to the San Francisco bay by the Golden Gate Bridge.

 

Fortunately, my guests don’t seem to mind. That’s because I get to give great San Francisco private tours to fun and interesting people, who overlook my stupid hat.  And, as you can see from this picture, it doesn’t always keep the sun off me.

I really need to get a better hat.

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.

Pinball in the Haight Ashbury

One of the benefits of walking a city is discovery. I’m not claiming this as a great insight, as it is a trope of most travel writers. And while it may be a cliche, it is also a fact, and one, sadly, that most visitors ignore in a mad dash to check off as many sites as possible.
Even in San Francisco, a city I’ve lived in for all of my adult life, I’m grateful I can still find something unexpected and new.


In this case–pinball. I was out walking several months ago and took a turn down a street I usually pass on my way to Haight St. And there I found a pinball parlor.
A fair amount of my youth was spent spending my allowance and newspaper route money on pinball. I got pretty good. Not hustler good, but skilled enough for a satisfying frequency of winning free games.

Free Gold Watch (yes, that’s the name) is located a block away from Haight St, and across the street from Golden Gate Park, and 5 blocks away from InoVino, my regular Friday night wine bar.

There are a variety of machines, but my favorites are in a room devoted to vintage games. The older machines are not overloaded with lights, bells, whistles, and traps like the newer models, and the angles aren’t as steep.

Fun for the whole family. If you have kids who haven’t played pinball, this is a good opportunity to introduce them to a possibly lifelong habit.

The Blue Danube–Good coffee, good food, and the chance to read someone else’s journals.

A coffee shop, a good local coffee shop, not a chain that has outlets across the street from each other, is a simple joy. It reflects the taste of the owner and the character of the neighborhood. It should feel inviting. It is a place to relax and a cheap way to expand one’s living quarters. People go to coffee shops to get away from the familiarity of their apartments or house, and to be with people while not being obligated to interact with them. On a trip, it is a way to get a sense of what it feels like to be a local.

Blue Danube coffee house on Clement St.

Novelists and screen writers, both professional and would-be, have been writing in some place that served coffee since the caffeine was extracted from the bean. I’m going to bet when the first café opened it was soon filled with customers scrawling poems on parchment. Coffee allows thoughts to flow.

The Blue Danube invites customers to leave those thoughts in blank books. At this writing, they total more than 45. Past volumes are on a shelf for anyone to read.

Journals at the Blue Danube coffee shop on Clement St. Journals at the Blue Danube Coffee shop on Clement St. in San Francisco.

These books are filled with drawings, musings, observations and confessions. Some pages are from travelers writing about their experience of San Francisco. Children write jokes, draw, or play tic-tac-toe. Some write about people they love. Others write confessions of shame, anger, or infidelity.  It is like getting permission to read other people’s mail or diaries.
Page from a journal in the Blue Danube Coffee Shop on Clement St. in San Francisco.Page from a journal in the Blue Danube Coffee Shop on Clement St. in San Francisco.Page from a journal in the Blue Danube Coffee Shop on Clement St. in San Francisco.Page from a journal in the Blue Danube Coffee Shop on Clement St. in San Francisco.

The Blue Danube is located on Clement St, one of favorite streets overlooked by visitors. I’m going to write more about Clement St. in the coming weeks. It is the sort of location that, when I’m giving private tours of San Francisco, I encourage my guests to experience.

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.

Best Dim Sum in San Francisco and it’s not in Chinatown—Xiao Long Bao

Chinatown boasts a lot of good dim sum bakeries. The Good Mong Kok sports huge lines on weekends, which I’m guessing is a result of being Instagramed and Yelped to death. Not that it isn’t good, it is, but rare is the dumpling worth investing 30 minutes standing on a sidewalk for and so far I haven’t found it.

Xiao Long Bao Restaurant in San Francisco--Best Dim Sum

Even at Xiao Long Bao I’m only waiting 10 minutes. OK, maybe 15.
This is located on Clement St, which is under visited by tourists. Which is too bad because there is much to discover on this Richmond district street. On the other hand it may be a blessing, because I’d rather Clement St not be invaded by hoards of wanna-be influencers taking selfies holding a soup dumpling while making duck lips.

Xioa Long Boa display counter filled with delicious food

Because Xiao Long Bao is busy serving neighborhood locals, the dumplings, scallion pancakes, buns don’t get a chance to sit around for long. Everything is fresh, and soups are made to order.

Xiao Long Boa Big Menu

The menu is bigger than most dim sum places, and it doesn’t include everything available. There are items in the case they didn’t have room for.

Don’t expect the crew to be overly friendly or effusive. They are trying to serve up food quickly to many hungry people. They are glad to answer questions, but only to a point. If you’re really confused about what to order, take your chances and order what looks good. It probably will be. And maybe order a few more things than usual because if you get something you don’t like, you can move on. Dim sum is cheap and worth the little risk.

By the way, anyone who knocks stars off a place like this because the didn’t like the service is a self-involved idiot. Maybe they just didn’t like their duck lips.

Weirdness and Wine Sculpture in Golden Gate Park

Outside the DeYoung Museum in Golden Gate Park is one of my favorite sculptures, because is about wine. Titled “Le Poeme de la Vigne,” this Poem of Wine is no formal honorific to viticulture. It is a celebration of wine in the form of a mad bacchanalian dreamscape rendered in 3 tons, 11 feet of bronze.

Wine sculpture Golden Gate Park

A little backstory. This piece was created by French illustrator and sculpture Gustove Doré for the 1878 Paris World’s Fair. From there it traveled to the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, (which was the setting for novel “The Devil in the White City”). San Francisco, feeling a little insecure on the world stage, was anxious to prove that it could also host a fair. A lot of stuff from Chicago’s Fair was purchased and used for San Francisco’s 1894 Midwinter Fair, including Le Poeme de la Vigne.” Several years after the fair Michael DeYoung bought it.

Cherub fighting spider

Starting from the base and going to the top, the sculpture is the story of wine. The best strangeness is at eye level. Here a small army of cherubs fight off a stunning variety of vermin and pests ready to attack the grapes and vines.

Cherub fighting rat

Armed only with chubby hands and fists, examples include one pulling the tail of a rat, another fending off a beetle, and another wrestles what may be a tarantula but is certainly a big spider, a spider as big as the cherub itself.

Just above the heroic putti is the harvesting of the grapes. Then fermentation, and at the top, indulgence of the efforts. If I had to battle a spider as big as myself, I’d need a drink too.

Poem de la Vigne in Golden
 Gate Park

By the way, the sculpture across the road does not show a muscled man work a wine press. He’s crushing apples. Not nearly as much fun as 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.

 

Free Hidden Gems at the DeYoung Museum in Golden Gate Park

This morning I had coffee on an outside table near a sculpture garden, then enjoyed a 9-story panoramic view of Golden Gate park, and it didn’t cost me a dime. Well, the coffee was about $4, but came with refills. The art and views were free.
Priivate Tours San Francisco
Part of my job is giving private, custom tours of San Francisco in a convertible MINI Cooper. Other part is informing guests on how to get the most out of their time in San Francisco, and discover places and experiences that even the locals don’t know about. And if it’s free, even better.
The cafe in Deyoung Museum in Golden Gate park is better than most museum cafes. My experience with museums cafes is they are overpriced for what you get, which is generally mediocre. It’s like a concession stand at the movies: no one expects a bargain.
The insult is paying over the top and then getting lousy food.
The DeYoung Cafe has good food. Sure, you’re paying a bit more, but at least you’ll enjoy it.
The Cafe has a large outdoor seating area. It is shaded, but sunlight pokes through the hundreds of small holes in the roof. It overlooks a lawn and sculpture garden that often doubles as a playground. It’s rare not to see children there, and the kids are allowed to touch, and in some cases climb on, the art.
At the other end of the museum is an observation deck 9 stories above Golden Gate Park.
Private Tours San Francisco  Private Tours San Francisco
These photos don’t do justice to the panoramic 360 degree views of the park, bay, and downtown.
Private Tours San Francisco
You don’t have to pay admission to the DeYoung to access the tower. It’s free public space.
The cafe, sculpture garden, and view tower are not well known, even to people who live in the area, and even less known to tourists. So be a knowledgeable traveler, get off the tourist path, and experience this part of Golden Gate Park like a local

The Difference Between a Convertible MINI Cooper Tour and…well, any other tour.

When I conceived the idea for a unique tour company that became Small Car Big Time Tours, I rented a convertible MINI Cooper, and took out friends and family to see if they like the idea. They did. When I told concierges and other tour operators about my idea, they didn’t like it. Several said it would never work. “You need an SUV, or a van,” they said. No one wants to ride in a convertible. I didn’t listen to them, because I thought it was a good idea, friends thought it was a good idea, and if it was an idea only me and my friends thought it was a good idea I could sell the MINI and start something else.

Fortunately, they were wrong. Guests love the MINI Cooper tour. Here’s why:

1) You get to experience the city, instead of looking at it like viewing a television screen.

When you drive around in an SUV or Van, most of your experience is looking out a window. The guide could be telling you about architecture or scenery at it would be a mystery. And what can be seen may be on the other side of the vehicle.  The only time you actually get to experience the city is when you stop and get out.
With the convertible MINI Cooper, every moment is a sight-seeing moment, and a chance for a photo op.

2) You can stop when and where you want.

With other tours, there is a schedule. The driver has a set route, and you’re taken to the sites at specific times, stay for as long as the driver allows, and then you’re off to the next site.
With the convertible MINI Tour, where you get out is up to you. Often guests opt not to get out at a site, because they can see everything they want, and even take photos, from the comfort of the MINI Cooper.

3) A convertible MINI Cooper is fun.

A van or SUV is transportation. No one gets excited about them. Most guests either own one, or ride in one regularly. So getting a tour in one is like getting a tour in the family car.
People who see you in the MINI often say, “That looks like fun.” They don’t say that when you ride in a van.
And a convertible is part of the of the California experience.

4) The Convertible MINI Cooper is unique.

Traveling is about having a new experience, so why see the city in the same old thing? A tour in a convertible MINI Cooper is novel. I’m the only convertible MINI Cooper registered as a commercial vehicle. In fact, the MINI Cooper is officially a limousine. When you get home you can brag about having a truly unique, only in San Francisco experience.

You’re in a special city. Why take an ordinary tour?

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
415-379-8988

HOW TO DRIVE IN SAN FRANCISCO: DON’T

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.