Experience San Francisco Like a Local

July 15, 2019

Universally considered one of the greatest cities on the globe, San Francisco has an irresistible and international allure. So what’s the best way to enjoy her world-famous splendor? With the wide eyes of a visitor and the leading hand of a knowledgeable local (ahem, that would be me).

I confess… I cannot remember the last time I roamed Fisherman’s Wharf, climbed to the top of Coit Tower or said hello to the chatty sea lions relaxing at Pier 39. However, I have been gleefully shopping, eating and cocktailing my way around town—from South of Market to Pacific Heights and the Mission District—for the better part of 17 years. Ding, ding, ding! Precisely why you should take my proverbial hand and let me steer you toward some of my favorite neighborhood haunts, buzzy dining spots, amazing boutiques and cool cocktail bars not plastered in every guidebook known to man. What of all those world-famous icons, museums and attractions? Absolutely worthy of their acclaim—and a visit. But you don’t need me to tell you that. The ultimate goal of this insider’s tour to the City by the Bay is to help you experience the mind-blowing hills, stunning Victorians and mouthwatering chocolate through the eyes of a still-smitten local—New Yorker by birth, San Franciscan by choice

Get Your Shop On

San Francisco often gets a bad rap for its fashion sense. But one thing is certain: it’s impossible to impeach the city’s shopping scene – one I have been successfully mining over the years. Indeed, the city is a buyers’ paradise, stuffed with an eclectic mix of boutiques and department stores. Here’s an introduction to some of my favorite local shops in neighborhoods you may not know. 

Hayes Valley 

Meet my hands-down favorite place to score giddy-inducing fashions. Think of this neighborhood, anchored by Hayes Street, as the SoHo of San Francisco, except teensier and without a recognizable chain store in sight. In other words, welcome to the coolest cluster of independent boutiques in town. You’ll find hip and sophisticated women’s, men’s and children’s clothing, fabulous footwear, and funky housewares and home furnishings all within five square blocks. The best way to tackle it? Just wander—and lust. 

This airy and still-newish boutique woos both genders with an ultra-chic bounty of coveted clothing from the likes of Comme des Garcons, Acne and Alexander Wang. Excellent customer service and amazing accessories by local artists add to its allure.

A hipster favorite—it’s all about promoting and selling new, emerging and ecofriendly local designers. The perfect spot to purchase gifts, edgy tees with San Francisco graphics, fun jewelry and decidedly cool baby and kids clothes.

The MO of this happy little shop: sleek and simple with a Scandinavian twist. Cool kitchen gadgets, jewelry, home accessories and unique gifts are stylishly displayed along with products by Marimekko, Design House Stockholm and Alvar Alto.

The whimsical windows of this cavernous menswear spot will demand that you enter, while the Americana vintage vibe and fresh mix of denim, sportswear and workwear are sure to keep you interested. Styles run the gamut from fullon fab Zig-Zag shoes for $20 to investment pieces by Rag & Bone and Paul Smith. Crazy-cool curios with a manly-man slant add to the fashion fun.

Don’t forget to cure your shopping munchies! Refuel at these hotspots before you get back to the main course–shopping!

Blue Bottle: A new cult of java lovers can’t get enough of this local, organic coffee. Look for the kiosk (and the queue). 

Miette Confiserie: Kids of all ages will eagerly get their sweet fix on here. Scrumptious candies by the pound, cupcakes and macaroons will have you sufficiently sugar rushed in no time.

La BoulangeThis French cafe is the perfect stop for an au lait and chocolate croissant, salad Nicoise or croque monsieur.

How about a side of Bar – bary Coast history with your shopping? Situated in the shadow of the Transamerica Pyramid (north and west of the Financial District), this little-known enclave has an Old World feel with its beautiful brick and ornate cast-iron buildings dating back to the Gold Rush days. It’s home to the city’s finest arts and antique dealers, as well as modern design stores and two of the best women’s boutiques in the city. Meandering these historic blocks is a wonderful way to spend a couple of only-inSan Francisco hours. Grab a bite at Bix—a San Francisco institution—or the more casual but equally historic Old Ship Saloon. Prefer a champagne break? Pull up a couch at The Bubble Lounge.

Whether you’re in the mar – ket for a new masterpiece or just window-shopping, take a whirl through this almost-30-year-old gallery, one of the city’s finest, specializing in 19th- and 20th-century European and American paintings with a focus on California artists.

Ladies, prepare for 4,000 square feet of uber-chic fashions in a landmark building, formerly occupied by Ernie’s restaurant, featured in Alfred Hitch – cock’s Vertigo. What’s being served up nowadays is a meticulously edited menu of sophisticated designer clothing. Name-dropping just a bit to whet your appetite… Helmut Lang, Rick Owens, Viktor & Rolf. Throw in gorgeous accessories and footwear? Swoon-worthy is an understatement.

La Boutique L’art et la Mode

A relative newcomer, this insouciant boutique continues to make a positive impression on local stylistas who flock to the bright bi-level space for innovative European designer collections. Another plus: It’s also part contemporary art gallery and event space. Ooh la la!

Even though the best way to sop up the local flavor is to hit the boutiques and neighborhoods, I’d be remiss if I didn’t give Union Square a proper nod. It is, after all, the city’s central shop – ping hub overflowing with department stores (Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Mar – cus, Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, Barneys New York and Nordstrom) and designer storefronts (Prada, Gucci, Hermès, Bottega Veneta, Louis Vuitton and just-opened Mulberry). Also noteworthy: Maiden Lane, just off the square (between Geary and Post Streets from Stockton to Kearny Streets), a cobble – stone, pedestrian-only street clustered with more luxury stores (Marc Jacobs, Chanel, Diptyque and Tory Burch) and outdoor cafes. Local highlights include Manika Jewelry, Glory Chen and Gump’s, the 150-year-old legendary retailer that sells artful objects, jewelry and home décor. (Just look for the red awnings.) 

Around the City in 5 Plates: 

San Francisco is a veritable foodie heaven with an innovative and ethnically diverse restaurant scene, an excess of superstar chefs and a gastronomic reputation that rivals the best in the world. The perfect way to get a taste? Eat like a local and chomp your way through the city from taco truck to Tony hotspot, one palate-pleasing meal at a time.  

Chef Thomas McNaughton brings us upscale Cali cuisine married perfectly with a desirable location in the center of culinary hipsterdom—the Mission District’s 20th Street corridor. The bright space has a rustic-urban feel with equal parts indoor and outdoor dining. Refined yet simple dishes with an emphasis on local ingredients will have you at first bite. Two to try: ham, greens, herbs, marinated bread and white cheddar; and squid, avocado, celery and pine nut mousse. More adventurous types should go for the daily tasting menu—you don’t know what you’ll get until it’s served.

Location, location, location. That and a mean latte have made this coffee-shop-cum-bistro the go-to hangout for venture capitalists, techie bloggers and tech rockstars themselves. It all makes sense when you consider that the eatery sits across from the Caltrain station (the commuter hub between the city and Silicon Valley), nearby AT&T Park and a slew of startups. The deal-making all goes down in a hip industrial space (carved from the refrigerated room of a one – time creamery) with both indoor and outdoor seat – ing. Best bets on the menu: breakfast sandwiches, salads and savory crepes. Also find a selection of beer and wine.

All hail the city’s first permanent food truck pod. Finally, we truckie devotees can stop stalking and obsessively checking Twitter to find out what abandoned space or hidden alley is the location du jour for scrumptious falafels, tamales, pies or po’ boys. The park is open seven days a week for lunch and dinner, and you’ll find a rotating group of six to 10 trucks at any given time. (Curry Up Now is my fave.) No doubt, this is food truck dining deluxe— there’s covered seating, free WiFi and on-site park – ing, regular movie night screenings for clarity and a soon-to-open beer garden.

Finding a tasty burrito in San Francisco, especially in the city’s Latin-meets-hipster Mission hood, isn’t exactly like discovering the Holy Grail. But if dining among locals at an authentic, colorful and comfort – able taqueria that delivers consistently fresh and flavorful food sounds appeal – ing, this one’s for you. You can’t go wrong with anything on the extensive menu— enchiladas are universally lauded, but I say fish tacos all the way. And make sure to order one of the signature (yummy) agua frescas.

I have a special place in my heart for Charles Phan’s Vietnamese restaurant, which opened the same year I moved to the city. There is one reason I have remained loyal over the years as it moved locations and welcomed siblings and accolades galore—the food has never failed me. Now, long settled in its stunning Ferry Building location, with breathtaking views of the Bay and its namesake bridge, it has solidified itself as one of San Francisco’s culinary gems. What to order? Daikon rice cakes, shaking beef and cellophane noodles with Dungeness crab. And that’s just for starters.

San Francisco 101: A Nugget of History

Right around the same time those 13 colonies were declaring their independence, Spanish settlers were building a church near a beautiful bay, 3,000 miles away. That house of worship was dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi, nicknamed San Francisco. Fast-forward 75 years or so and the Gold Rush was on, Levi Strauss was selling his first jeans to the miners and California became the 31st state (1850). The 20th century began with a tragedy: the 1906 earthquake and fire that destroyed 80 percent of the city. But the tide had turned by 1915, when a newly reconstructed and grander metropolis debuted at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. 

Lay of the Land 

San Francisco proper consists of 40-plus diverse and distinct neighborhoods, plus an ever-evolving crop of trendy, new micro-hoods. Daunting for visitors? Perhaps. But the good news is that many of the must-explore neighborhoods are clustered together and easily accessible by car, taxi and public transportation (bus, cable car, streetcar and underground). Most areas are walkable, but hills of varying steepness will greet you at some point during your travels. Here are your options: Inhale and take it one block at a time; find an alternate route to your destination (there usually is one); or hop back in your car (or hail/call a cab).

When to Go

The best time to visit is between September and November, when Northern California is at its warmest and sunniest. Of course, every time of year has its own appeal. The holiday season through February is the least touristy, most rainy and best for fog watching (you have to see it to believe it). Spring is lovely and dry although still quite cool. Summer is the busiest time with visitors, so be sure to make reservations for must-do, -eats and -sees well in advance of your trip. Warm layers are another must. That famous quote about the coldest winter being a San Francisco summer is so brilliant because it’s true. 

The Clock Strikes Cocktail Hour

San Francisco has long loved its cocktails. Today, it’s home to an ever-burgeoning scene where cocktails-from classics to cuttingedge and complex varieties – are stealing the spotlight. Thirsty? Mix and mingle at this trio of utterly unquenchable nightspots. 

Slip on your fedora and take a trip back in time to Prohibition days at this stunning speakeasy. An incognito entrance, passwords and a revolving bookcase are all part of the fun… and kitsch. Bourbon and Branch is known for its curated offering of hand-selected spirits and an extensive menu of cocktails, from old-school classics to market-fresh varieties made with produce from the morning run at local farmers’ markets. Knowledgeable slingers are always game for creating personalized libations (order a cosmopolitan at your own peril). Reservations and taxis are highly recommended; food is not served.

Lion Pub

It’s always a roaring good time at this unmarked lounge, beloved by pretty much all who know about it. You’ll find a chill scene complemented by a cozy fireplace, dim lighting and non-blaring dance music; things tend to get more hopping as the night progresses. But the ambience wouldn’t mean much, of course, without the signature libations (ahh! those cocktails) made with fresh-squeezed juices (orange, grapefruit, cantaloupe, strawberry, mango and watermelon). Mojitos, margaritas and, my favorite, the fresh basil vodka gimlet are all simply delish.

Après work to late night, every hour is happy at this Financial District favorite. Lots of wood, exposed brick walls, a fireplace and vaulted ceilings decorated by 300 Kentucky-imported whiskey barrels add to the cozy-slash-hip ambience. Bourbon lovers, especially, will be in their element as it’s the bar’s raison d’être. Not a fan of the hooch? No worries. The massive menu is loaded with amazing local beers, superstar artisanal cocktails and boutique California wines. Like me, most regulars flock for the specialty punches, intended for four, served in oversized glass bowls. Cheers!