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Sunday in San Francisco

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Yesterday afternoon, 4PM on a grey Sunday, there was a shooting across the street from our apartment. (News coverage here.) Not “in our neighborhood” or “around the corner” but directly across the street from our living room. Yeah, in Potrero Hill, one of the sunnier, yuppier neighborhoods in the city. It’s not the Marina or Pacific Heights, where the real money lives, but nor is it the Mission or the Tenderloin, where the crack dealers roam free.

I’ve seen enough Law & Order to know that the sound of gunfire isn’t as explosive or dramatic as most people think it will be, so when a rapid succession of flat bangs burst out close by, my aural scan came up with “gunshots.” If I weren’t pregnant, I’d have been out the door to confirm and help, but R went instead (with admonitions from me to check for shooters before stepping outside – I don’t watch CSI for nothing) and yelled up to call 911. Disturbingly, I was on hold for at least two minutes with emergency response – what if there had been an intruder in our apartment? – but, on the other side of it, police, fire and ambulance were screeching up as the girl answered my call. “Are you a witness?” was the extent of our conversation, so they get points for efficiency.

R said the victim was just a kid, put him at about fifteen, and all but unconscious. Gang violence, the news said, which was my first guess too. My thoughts, in succession?

  1. “Thank God this country doesn’t materially restrict the sale of firearms or shooting down 15-year-olds in the street wouldn’t be possible.”
  2. “What is wrong with this city that this happens?” Sure, there’s violence in all cities, it’s a fact of urban life, but I’ve never felt so uniformly unsafe anywhere else. Low level criminality, vagrancy, lack of law enforcement and filth is everywhere in this city, even in the most exclusive neighborhoods. (My car was stolen from one of those ‘hoods and broken into in another.) No place is safe in San Francisco.

    This town’s pervasive permissiveness in allowing crackheads to stagger around the theater district, homeless people to sleep in any doorway they choose and cars to be routinely stolen and vandalized, telegraphs to citizens and criminals alike that no one’s watching the store. If there’s no action on the small stuff, the stuff that happens every day, the stuff that depresses quality of life and demoralizes expectations, there’s definitely no deterrent for a group of guys who want to shoot someone in broad daylight.*

    Turns out my Spidey sense that San Francisco is way worse than New York isn’t just anecdotal: despite having less than one eighth the population of New York City, the FBI reports that San Francisco has twice the rate of violent crime and murder (per 100,000 residents) and is charged with underreporting those numbers. Even if you were to take those numbers with a grain of salt, they’re shocking.

    It’s nice that San Francisco had gay marriage first (albeit briefly), banned plastic grocery bags, and the vegetables here are organic and fresh, but what the hell difference does that make if I can’t run across the street to pick up my fresh, organic vegetables in a paper bag from a married gay grocer without getting shot while doing it?

  3. “Where the hell am I going to find a bulletproof stroller?”

We definitely have to move. Maybe someplace safer, like Newark.

*The “small crimes lead to large crimes” theory is called the “fixing broken windows” principle. Implementation of small crimes tracking and deterrence in New York started with transit cop Jack Maple and his fascinating CompStat system, more widely adopted under then-Police Chief William Bratton. Interesting read, picked up by Gladwell in The Tipping Point.

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The Boys Are Back In Town


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doves.JPGJust in time for Christmas, our doves are back.

Our deck and the carriage entrance below us used to be home to an expanding family of them, but the unwelcome arrival of a cat (stupid neighbors – thankfully since moved – them and their stupid cat and their stupid band) and the pod of pigeons who found out about our garden fountain one particularly hot summer, pushed them out. It was like reverse gentrification. The doves stopped building their nest, stopped believing we were a safe neighborhood for their kids, and moved on to parts unknown.

Before they went, the entire family, twenty-three birds, made an impressive cameo appearance and then they were gone.

Perhaps sensing that I missed them or that the evil cat was gone or that this has been kind of a tough season, three or four of them have come back to sit on our railing and look relaxed. I’m so glad. They’re that lovely soft gray, their eyes are so dark and intelligent and their cooing makes me feel warm like cocoa.

Welcome back, birdies! We’re glad you’ve come home.

San Francisco: The Ice Cream Section at Bi-Rite

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Yeah, that’s specific I know, but check this out: they have cookie and ice cream sandwiches. Don’t, “Ho hum,” me like I’m suggesting you score one of those Oreo-looking, admittedly delicious but taste like plastic ones from the freezer case at Safeway. Pull yourself together. I wouldn’t send you out to a supermarket during Thanksgiving week for that.

In Bi-Rite’s model, the cookies are soft and chewy and the ice cream is their housemade creamy stuff, so you can score the best of the bakery aisle and some of their excellent ice cream in one cellophane baggie.

Why do I bring this up now? Because what kid actually likes pumpkin pie after Thanksgiving dinner? I do but I couldn’t sell it to anyone under ten: the texture is pretty repellent. Bi-Rite is your solution. Buy half a dozen of their gingersnap cookie + pumpkin ice cream sandwiches and you’re set.

(Just to be clear on that math, the “buy six” plan is for someone entertaining no more than four kids at table. The other two are for you.)

They also stock chocolate chip cookies with vanilla ice cream, dark chocolate cookies with mint chip ice cream and snickerdoodle cookies with cinnamon ice cream but I don’t know why you’d ever leave my first love ginger+pumpkin. I ate it so fast I didn’t even take a picture for you to see what it looked like. I’ll remedy that later when I go get my next batch.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Available at Bi-Rite Market or Bi-Rite Creamery, both on 18th Street between Guerrero and Dolores. Creamery is almost at Dolores; grocery is in the middle of the block.

San Francisco: The Guide: Update

One of my readers is in San Francisco and looking for tips, so in addition to the original San Francisco: The Guide (and all the various reviews I’ve ever posted!), here’s an update on

Where To Eat

If you live in a major urban center in the US, you probably know about Open Table. If you don’t, come on over: when you need to make a restaurant reservation, you can do it over the web through Open Table rather than calling up the 19-year-old at the front desk between the hours of two and five. About 90% of all the restaurants where I’ve needed a table use the site, so chances are good that your destination is in there and you can book your fallback eatery when your #1 choice is booked til March.

Chinese Food

I don’t know Chinatown very well, but I do know the best place for dim sum in the city is Yank Sing. The location I’ve been to is on an odd, small street downtown that’s a little dark and off-putting but don’t be put off: that is some bad ass Chinese food. The servers are constantly circling with tons of different plates of fresh, hot dumplings, meat dishes, veggies and on and on. Excellent place for brunch on Sunday or lunch some other day.

I also love House over in North Beach. The place is tiny and the food is unbelievable. “Clean” is the word that comes to mind to describe the cuisine: the fish is perfectly cooked, the sauces are well-matched and there’s no clutter to the dishes. Try the sea bass (if you’re sure it’s not Chilean) and any of the noodles if you’re there for lunch.

White Tablecloth

This is generally not my thing, for some reason. Maybe because San Francisco is home to so many excellent mid-range restaurants. Whatever it is, sometimes we all need a proper night out at a place that’s carpeted and where the waiters move around like sharks (silent, attentive with good teeth, that is).

Jardiniere has been my recent go-to for a formal dinner. The tasting menu is excellent but a little overwhelming unless you’re starving. Very traditional decor and presentation – not at all casual. Gets a lot of high-end pre-theater monied types since it’s behind the opera house and the symphony. Incidentally, their chef beat Mario Batali on Iron Chef America if that helps you make your decision.

A friend of mine who’s a chef raves about Quince. I’ve never been there, but I hear it’s the new, excellent place to go. It’s quite small, you absolutely need reservations and the cuisine will be innovative.

For a more traditional dinner, there’s Wolgang Puck’s Postrio. I haven’t been there in ages and Puck’s definitely jumped the shark – frozen foods? Really, Wolfgang? – but it was quite good when I did go. By “traditional” I mean bigger, more tourists (because of Puck’s name), and with a less cutting edge menu.

Gary Danko over in the Marina is another famous, special occasion restaurant. I hear really good things about it, but again, I haven’t been there myself.

Other Options

The reason I haven’t hit Quince and Gary Danko is because when we go out for a night on the town, I tend to like places that are a little more intimate and casual. My tastes fall somewhere between “foam of sea urchin” and “47 ounces of seared steak.”

Along those lines, there’s Range, still my current favorite. It’s in the Mission (local to me), has a changing menu, and is reliably excellent. That said, it is a little loud during dinner hour and sometimes a tad quick, like not a lot of dawdling over three courses. But their lamb chops are the best I’ve ever had as is, surprisingly, their roast chicken with tomatillos, which I had last week and loved, loved, loved.

I’ve covered Slanted Door in the original Guide, but here’s a refresher. They’re in the Ferry Building on the Embarcadero and serve really, really good Vietnamese food (not the fried street kind, but proper fresh, spiced, superb Vietnamese). They’re likely to be fully booked, but if you go at 5:20 and wait, you can put your name in for free tables when they open at 5:30 and I hear you’ve got a good chance of getting a spot. (I think they reserve a few tables for day-of walk-ins.) You could definitely take the kids – the place is big and loud and I’m sure they’d like something on the menu, which is long and varied. This place is a perennial favorite of everyone I know.

If you and your plus one have the chance for a date night, I’m sticking with my previous recommendations of Firefly. It’s this small, quirky, off the beaten track, very comfy and quiet place that is perfect for a date, very neighborhoody and has really lovely, carefully prepared food from local, fresh California ingredients. R and I love it there.

For French food, there’s Chez Papa‘s bistro over in our neighborhood, in Potrero Hill. It’s not my top general pick because the menu is narrow and specialized, but if you need a really superb, French-only dinner, this is your place. They also have a bigger restaurant downtown.

And finally, for sushi, I’m reiterating my vote for Blowfish, which serves the best sushi I’ve had outside Japan. More trendy than romantic, but if you go early you can avoid the posers and the worst of the noise.

Sidebar, since most visitors will end up in Union Square for shopping or cable cars or museums, just a couple of food notes:

  • Food that’s not touristy or mass-produced is hard to come by down there. For superb sandwiches, soups and a sunny space to sit if you’re out shopping, try ‘wichcraft. They’re on a strange corner on Mission Street, just outside the back entrance of Bloomingdales. Definitely worth walking a block to take a break from shopping and get a proper lunch.
  • Alternatively, I hear the food court in the newly renovated San Francisco Center‘s basement floor has a lot of good offerings but I just can’t bring myself to eat in a below-ground food court, even if it is supposed to be good!

Bon appetit!

Note to San Francisco

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Re: multiple construction sites covering blocks and blocks between my apartment and my intended breakfast destination:

You have no track record of being able to manage multiple projects at once. Why don’t you just sit down, pick your favorite project and put all the guys on that one till it’s done?

Related, when you show me that you can feed and water the hamster all by yourself, we can talk about getting a puppy.

San Francisco: Four Barrel Coffee

Just driving by it, I was excited about Four Barrel Coffee, the hipster coffee place on Valencia. For one, it has huge windows and a ton of sunny space. For two, there wasn’t a laptop in sight. (I like to be the only one on a laptop in a place if at all possible. I know: total hypocrite. Yes. Hater. Yes. Guilty.)

But now that I’ve been there, I’d like to offer a big shout out in the form of a gigantic thumbs down to Four Barrel.

I don’t care if they hand craft or double roast or ritualistically violate their coffee twice daily, that is some oily dishwater disaster coffee. To compound the error, they refuse to offer the usual buffet of bad coffee doctoring options. Raw sugar, half and half, and skim milk are the extent of the sideboard buffet. No actual milk. No Splenda. Not even a grain of white sugar. Nuthin.

So you get your crap coffee and then you’re stuck with it. Bastards.

So here’s what I have to say to you guys over at Four Barrel Coffee:

I don’t come to your probably all-organic, no-leather, egg-free, wind-powered house and take away all your vegan muffins and forcefeed you Chicken McNuggets, so don’t deprive me of my proper milk and artificial sweeteners after you charge me $3 for a small cup of blackened swill.

And don’t tell me that the coffee beans were picked by vegetarian, hemp-clad peasants either ’cause that doesn’t make it better coffee. Woody Harrelson and Ed Begley, Jr. could roast and brew my coffee one cup at a time in their environmentally-sound trousers and I wouldn’t care if it tasted like yours. Make a decent cuppa first and then I’ll be down with any sustainable plan you’ve got.

Geez.

San Francisco v. New York

The Marina = the Upper East Side.

The rest of San Francisco = Queens.

Poster at Ork Posters.

San Francisco: The Guide – What I Would Do If I Were You

I do not like San Francisco. But that’s because I live here. When I visited here (once) before I moved here, I liked it fine. So will you. It’s a nice place to visit. Not like Paris, but sure, yeah, come on out for the weekend. Have some granola and wheatgrass. Enjoy.

When to Visit

April, May and June are good bets. So are September and October. November – March is likely to be rainy; July and August will be chilly and foggy.

Where You Should Stay

The major concentration of hotels is in Union Square, conveniently located right next to the worst neighborhood in San Francisco, the Tenderloin, home to tranny hookers, the mentally deranged and crack vials in the streets. (What did they expect when they named it the “Tenderloin”? If they’d’ve called it “Daisyville,” maybe it wouldn’t be so terrible.) Your best hotel deals will be in Union Square, with its shopping and theaters. Take them. Despite its drawbacks, it is central.

If you can swing it, book a place on the south side of Market Street (the W, the Intercontinental) so you’re not smack on the side of a hill (which is a totally impractical novelty, so pull yourself together) and bunking with all the other tourists. If you’ve got some extra change, get a place on the Embarcadero, like the Vitale, which fronts on the bay, but keep that south of Market too or you’ll end up too close to the surreally schlocky Fisherman’s Wharf area.

Alternatively, check for an apartment rental or trade on Craigslist or Air B&B. This will almost certainly kick you into one of the more residential neighborhoods. To stay fairly central, I’d stick to the Mission, Potrero Hill, SoMa, the Marina or North Beach. Bernal Heights, Noe Valley, Sunset, and the Richmond are a little far for comfortable touristing. Chinatown and the Financial District are crowded and deserted respectively.

Getting Around

Get a car. San Francisco is a town masquerading as a city. The BART (subway) and rail lines do not provide comprehensive coverage of the city and the busses, which do, are inconsistent. Your chances of ending up with a crazed meth addict next to you are about even with your chances of scoring a banker. As a result, with the exception of some of the nice-neighborhood-to-business district lines, I find that riding buses in San Francisco depresses my optimism about the human race. Hence, get a car.

(Related, the city is crawling with the drug-addled and the homeless – don’t ask: yes, it should be solvable, no they’re not solving it – so car break-ins are routine. Never, ever leave anything in your vehicle that you aren’t OK with having stolen, even in broad daylight. Conversely, if you have some bags of stuff you were going to drop off at Goodwill, you can leave them in your car and there’s a good chance someone will break in and save you the trip.)

What You Should Do

The de Young Museum. It re-opened in its spectacular new form in 2005 and you should go. It’s a great building, inside and out and just wandering around in it is calming. Their special exhibits run to the popular – Nan Kempner’s clothes, a Vivienne Westwood retrospective – and, whether or not that’s your cup of tea, the standing collections are worth the visit. Climb to the top of the tower and have a look out over Golden Gate Park and the rest of the city. On Friday nights, they usually have music and late hours. The café is pleasant and the food’s good, although predictably pricey. If the current exhbition is popular, book tickets ahead through their web site.

The Legion of Honor. The Legion of Honor and the de Young are sibling museums, so a ticket to one will get you in (on the same day) to the other. This is a truly beautiful museum, a hidden gem, and home to the largest collection of Rodin sculptures outside Paris. Walking out the front and towards the water, you’ll find miles of paths along the cliffs with stunning views of the ocean, the bay and the Golden Gate Bridge.

The Academy of Sciences. Across the plaza from the de Young, the Academy re-opened even more recently (2007) in a building by Renzo Piano, complete with a living roof, an enclosed rainforest and a great set of aquarium habitats. Be warned: as a kid magnet, it is very often very crowded. Get there when they open and queue up for the rainforest first or you’ll have a wait on your hands. Alternatively, if you’re in town over a Thursday and are over 21, the Academy is open late, brings in DJs and serves cocktails, so you can check out the trippy seahorses until 10PM. The café is very good and there’s a proper restaurant, Moss, on-site as well if you want to feel like a grown-up after stumbling over 3-year-olds for a couple of hours. Admission is a whopping $25.

Napa/Sonoma. Even if you’re not a wine connoisseur, you should go. The countryside is beautiful, the tasting rooms friendly and casual, and, if you time it right, it can be a relaxing day trip. If at all possible, go during the week when the roads and vineyards are so much less crowded. There are plenty of guides to the area that can provide details, but here are a couple of my personal highlights and recommendations:

  • Unless you’re bent on visiting a specific vineyard in Napa (along Route 29, the most common wine route), the Russian River Valley is altogether more charming. It’s a nicer drive to get there (up 101 through Marin instead of out 80 to the East Bay), less crowded once you are there, and the small vineyards tucked into the hillsides are less commercial and have more personality than the high-traffic wineries like Mondavi.
  • Among my favorites: Iron Horse, a tiny place with a killer view that specializes in champagnes; White Oak, in Healdsburg; Cakebread, if you are venturing over towards Napa; and St. Supéry (just up the road), which has an antiseptic feel but makes the most lovely moscato that will win over even the most jaded non-moscato drinker.
  • I am a huge fan of Mom’s Pies outside Sebastopol in the Russian River Valley. If you’re passing by, get a pie to eat in the car or one to bring home frozen. If it’s lunchtime, their sandwiches are top notch, particularly the meatloaf. Also in Sebastopol, Screaming Mimi’s homemade ice cream which is breathtakingly good. None of that whipped bullshit. Cream, nuts, fruit, done.

Driving circuit of the city. In a sort of circular order, starting from somewhere around Union Square.

  • The Painted Ladies. Classicly painted Victorian homes along Alamo Square (actual address: Steiner Street between Hayes and Grove). Continue on down Fell Street into the Haight for more Victorian action.
  • The Presidio. Windy roads through what used to be an army post but is now a huge park with views of the water. End up in the Marina, San Francisco’s trendiest (read: typical nouveau riche) neighborhood and revel in the absence of homeless people. (It’s amazing what a pile of money and political clout can achieve!)
  • The Golden Gate Bridge. You have to at least drive across it. If you’re a masochist and a cyclist, you can save this for your bike trip up into the Marin Headlands.
  • Presidio Heights. Home to massive homes that have no business inside a real city’s city limits, but what are you gonna do? These are the places you see in movies about San Francisco. If you want more of the same head east towards Pacific Heights.

Eat. San Francisco is famous for its restaurants. Partially this is because we are California and can get a diversity of fresh produce year round. The other part is because we all eat out enough that a lot of very good chefs have touched down here and made themselves at home. See the restaurants section below.

What You Could Do

Giants game at AT&T Park. This is a really nice park. And I’m saying this as someone who is bored out of her skull by baseball. For one, the park’s on the water which is – literally – cool. For another, you can get lattes and sushi so if you’re not part of the hot dogs and churros crowd, there’s something for you too. A Giants game with the family is a pleasant way to spend a sunny afternoon. (If it’s not sunny, bring blankets, ’cause it is seriously chilly on the water.)

The San Francisco Zoo. The zoo is way the hell out of the way, but it’s a great zoo, as zoos go: the habitats are as authentic as they get, the animals look pretty happy, the paths are pleasant to walk, they have an excellent petting zoo if you have kids who like petting animals, and they have a baby giraffe and a baby gorilla. For now. (You know they grow up, right?)

Marin Headlands. If you like hiking or biking, the Marin Headlands are a great place to do this. They have spectacular views of the Bay and are often, but not always, sunnier than the San Francisco side of the Golden Gate Bridge. As a non-hiker, I’m not a good resource, but there are a ton of guides that are more than happy to help.

Drive south down Route 1 along the coast. It is a stunningly beautiful drive, as long as you’re not doing it in the frustrating traffic of a weekend. I personally don’t think Carmel (rich, small), Santa Cruz (hippies, hemp), and Monterey (killer aquarium) are worth spending one of your precious days in northern California, but if you’re here for a while, have a free weekday to mosey, or are a surfer, go for it. Make sure you stop at the winery with the best labels ever (also some quite good wines: try the Big House Red and Cardinal Zin), Bonny Doon, and do not – DO NOT – fail to go to Vasili’s Greek Restaurant at any hour for the best souvlaki I’ve ever had. (Please note: I have not yet been to Greece so don’t get all huffy if you have been, OK?) Both of those just north of Santa Cruz.

What You Can Totally Miss

Fisherman’s Wharf / Ghirardelli Square. If you have never, ever been to a city before and you would like to meet other people who also do not have the good sense they were born with, by all means, head over to Fisherman’s Wharf. If you think Branson, Missouri, is a gem, Ghiradelli Square will make you feel at home. If not, don’t go. The place is packed with tourists and all the things that tourists live for: overpriced garbagey clothing with logos and pictures of landmarks drawn in glitter; sub-par food for exhorbitant prices; pennies flattened with sea lions on them. Trust me: there is nothing there for you except pain. Fisherman’s Wharf is to San Francisco what Disneyworld is to the planet Earth.

The only exception is if you feel you must take a ferry somewhere or if you are a big fan of sea lions. If either of those is the case, go early or go late and, in the case of your ferry trip, pre-buy your tickets, get in and get out as quickly as possible.

Alcatraz. I’m claustrophobic and it’s crowded, so I’ve avoided it. The only reason anyone goes to visit Alcatraz – and the only reason this prison was noteworthy in the first place – is because it’s on an island. It’s a prison, people. Come on. If you’re dead set on going to an island, you can hit Angel Island and get the ferry ride and the exercise without all the hassle, tourists and nightmares. (They don’t lock you in the cells as part of the tour anymore because there was an incident a few years ago when they couldn’t get people back out again. I’m telling you: nightmare central.)

Cablecars. The lines to get on the cablecars are ridiculous at both ends of the Powell Street line and it’s not worth the wait. Trust me: it’s like driving very, very slowly up a hill and down the other side. If you want that experience without the line, rent a convertible. If you insist on getting on a cablecar, look up the route, skip the lines at either end and jump on at one of the intermediate stops.

Lombard Street. If you took my advice and got a car, you can drive down it at some point in your driving tour of the city. If you didn’t get a car, let it go. It’s really not that interesting. It’s a curvy street and you’re going to schlep out of your way to see it. The only exception to this recommendation is if it’s the weekend of the races down Lombard. I wouldn’t recommend participating, but if you like X-Games, you’ll like this. (Note: they moved the race this year to Potrero Hill, maybe permanently.)

Coit Tower. It’s a tower. If you haven’t ever been in a tower, you probably don’t need to spend the money to come all the way out here to see one.

The Ferry Building. I’m not saying the bakeries and cheese shops and olive oil kiosks here are not top-knotch. I just know you could spend half as much money finding these goods elsewhere in the city and spend half as much time finding parking in the process. Much is made of the farmer’s market set up in the alcoves on Tuesdays and Saturdays but it’s no different from other farmer’s markets except that it’s way more expensive.

Shopping

Union Square. This is for people who do not live in a.) the United States, or b.) cities. I can’t think of one store there that is not a chain, but, to be fair, the chains have enormous footprints. That is, the Levi’s store is the flagship Levi’s store. The Nike store has five or six stories. There’s Saks, Nieman Marcus, Macy’s, Nordstrom, and, recent additions, Barney’s (on one end of the spectrum) and H&M (on the other). There’s also a new Bloomingdale’s, but if you’re used to the one on 59th in New York, this one’s kind of an insult. All the usual hangers on are represented in the San Francisco Center (mall) and the streets and alleys around Union Square. Disney, Tiffany’s, Banana Republic and so on. The “square” in Union Square is no longer the swaths of grass interrupted by palm trees that won me over when I visited. Now, it’s tiers of concrete.

If you want young designers, go to the Mission. There are also a ton of vintage stores stretching up Valencia Street from 15th out to 24th. Amongst them are all manner of quirky offerings, from high-end Japanese luggage (Hideo Wakamatsu) to small designers collected at places like Candy Store (on 16th between Valencia and Guerrero) and Sunshee Moon (same block). There’s even a pirate supply shop at 826 Valencia, the front entrance of the writing workshop concern founded by Dave Eggers of McSweeney’s fame. If you want to pick up some sex toys, books or porn, you can get them at the well-lit Good Vibrations store where the staff will be happy to answer your questions. Be aware that the Mission is not your mom’s tourist destination: the streets are dirty and there are a lot of crackheads and homeless wandering around. Not dangerous, just grimy.

If you want expensive young designers, go to Hayes Valley. Uko has great, pricey offerings from France. Scandinavian Details has Swedish housewares, and jewelry. Bulo has shoes from everywhere. There are art galleries and cafes interspersed among the shops. If you’re over there, stop at Frjtz for an excellent crepe or salad or Suppenkuche for the best spaetzle outside of Switzerland (early dinner is best to miss the crowd). Blue Bottle Coffee, in Linden alley, is supposed to be the best coffee in San Francisco, if not anywhere.

Your kids will want to go to the Haight. When rents skyrocketed all over the city, the Haight lost a lot of its character, but the grungy potheads still hang out on the sidewalks and there are still a lot of shops hawking bongs and tattoos. I don’t go over there much anymore, not since I stopped going to Burning Man (and needing corsets, tutus and other oddities) and the little design shops got priced out of their real estate, but it’s still a landmark destination. Just don’t expect to walk away with anything super-cool. (If you know St. Mark’s Place in New York, Haight Street is just a longer version of that).

The Marina is a pretty, expensive neighborhood that’s home to professional moms who spend their days getting manicures, doing yoga and looking for the perfect throw pillow. Their husbands are post-frat boys made good and the bars and shops reflect that demographic. If you live and die by Daily Candy, this is the place for you and your wallet. For a quick and excellent lunch, hit Blue Barn Gourmet.

North Beach has a scattering of cutie places to shop on Grant Street as does Fillmore Street (between, say, Bush and Pacific) but, like the Marina, you’ll pay quite a bit for that adorable dress that will make you look just like everyone else. While we’re on the subject, I wouldn’t look for dinner in North Beach if I were you. Yeah, there are good places, but there are way more places serving sub-par, over-garlicked Italian food to tourists. Get an espresso at Cafe Greco or any of the other places rated here and head to the other side of town for your evening meal.

Where to Eat

This is San Francisco’s claim to fame. Below are some of my current favorites. These are mid-range places (dinner for about $80 – $150 for two people, depending on how much you like wine) that serve great, fresh, usually local food.

Breakfast

Mama’s in North Beach, on the southeast corner of Washington Park has a killer breakfast. Fair warning: everyone knows this. So don’t plan on going on the weekend unless you want to wait.

Tartine. Go for the morning buns. Oh. My. God. Even if you get there when they open, you’ll have a wait, but it shouldn’t be too long, especially if you’re taking out. It’s worth a trip. Their coffee sucks, though, so you might want to take your morning bun and wander back over to Valencia’s Ritual Coffee for a latte made with care by a barista who takes coffee far too seriously.

Lunch

Get a burrito from one of the Tonyanese burrito trucks scattered around the Mission. Carnitas with everything. It will weigh more than your infant. It will taste the way a burrito’s supposed to.

Burma Superstar. It’s like Indian food only different. And worth the trip out to the avenues for their Rainbow Salad, Tea Leaf Salad and Samosa Soup. If you get there for lunch around noon or 12:30, the wait won’t be long. A great place for lunch after a morning at the de Young.

Awkward Hour: post-lunch hour food or mid-afternoon cocktails.

Ti Couz, no question. Breton crepes of all kinds (the daily special is invariably the best), truly excellent salads, the Ti Couz 10 (a cocktail of champagne, muddled blackberries and vodka), and a central location on 16th St. at Valencia make this a medium-priced must. [Sadly, Ti Couz have closed their doors. For crepes, try Frjtz just up Valencia between 16th and 17th for slightly less good – and less French crepes – but very, very good Belgian fries and beers to accompany them.]

Dinner

Range. My current favorite of favorites. The menu is hard to pin down – don’t bother. Everything is perfect. You will definitely need reservations at least a week ahead of time, unless you go during the week. But go. The lamb is worth it. I love the space, the service. And the lamb. Even the standards – like a Lyonnaise salad – are better here.

Firefly. Off the beaten track in Noe Valley, Firefly serves rich, perfect food in a laid back atmosphere. It’s small, so you’ll need reservations. Lovely for a date or for a not-too-loud party of 4-6.

Blowfish Sushi. If you like sushi and are down for a trendy evening at the same time, reserve at Blowfish. It’s noisy – definitely not a romantic dinner for two – but the sushi is top-notch and they’ve build a substantial menu of offerings you can’t find anywhere else.

For a business dinner, if you want to eat on the water, or if you want good, albeit pricey, Vietnamese food, the wildly popular Slanted Door is for you. You have to reserve a couple of weeks in advance or you can show up on the day-of at 5:30 and they’ll sort you out if you’re lucky. I know a lot of people who Love This Place. The businessmen put me off a bit. But there’s no doubt that the food is top-notch Asian.

Beretta. Recently opened in the Mission. Super-trendy, retro (is that contradictory?) cocktails and a superb menu of Italian comfort food. Everything is good. Except the seating: they don’t take reservations which annoys me no end, but once I went once, I couldn’t stop going back. Getting there early is best, but if you’re with a couple of loud people who don’t mind sipping Pisco Punch in a pack, go whenever and just wait it out.

Culture (ish)

    • The San Francisco Symphony, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, and the San Francisco Ballet are world-class. If you’re into dance, also check out ODC, a modern dance company in the Mission with great studio spaces, open classes and regular performances.
  • There are a lot of theater groups in San Francisco, ranging from the experimental (Killing My Lobster) to the established (American Conservatory Theater), but…how do I say this? Um. I am not attached to any of them and have been disappointed by most of them. If you want theater, go to New York or Chicago.
  • Through the fall, winter and spring, City Arts & Lectures brings in everyone from Madeline Albright to Amy Sedaris to talk about what they do.
  • Cal Performances series in Berkeley hosts everyone from Ira Glass to Chinese acrobats to Renee Fleming.
  • Cobb’s Comedy Club in North Beach and the Punchline downtown usually have good rosters of comedians in pretty friendly spaces.
  • The Bay area is home to some serious literary talent. In any given week, some event or other is sure to have Dave Eggers, Michael Chabon, Tobias Wolff, Amy Tan or any of the other over-exposed literary lights reading or fundraising. Weekly round-up here.
  • Literary-type standout events include the Porchlight Storytelling series and Mortified, a monthly-ish night of (curated, thank God) people reading about their worst embarassing experiences, usually from adolescence.
  • There are a ton of sporty options in the general vicinity of SF: hiking, biking, surfing, camping, skiing, and so on. But since a.) I am not outdoorsy, and b.) if you are, you are probably planning those pieces of your trip west as their own little adventure, I’ll stick to what I know. The San Francisco Circus Center offers group flying trapeze classes under controlled and safe circumstances on Saturday or Sunday morning classes. No fitness required.

Media Mess

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It looks like the San Francisco Chronicle may go under. Is it a shame when a newspaper goes down? Yes. Is it still a shame if that newspaper is really terrible? I’m not sure. My discernment (that it’s an awful paper) is at war with my principles (that we need print media). Given all the money that’s flowing out of Washington to crumbling national industries, I think print media – although possibly not the Chronicle – might need a small piece of the pie

I’m standing squarely in the middle of the media consumer road. I like print media but I’m not a Luddite: I get the Sunday New York Times delivered and I read the online edition every day. I read blogs, the New Yorker and The Morning News. If it’s long, I print it. If it’s short, I read it on the screen. It’s not a complicated system, but it does rely on both on- and offline media outlets staying in business and, no matter how much I read on the subject, that’s a problem I can’t seem to solve.

Online media is great for a lot of things, but two of them aren’t 1.) paying writers well and regularly, and 2.) in-depth, long-term, investigative reporting on international events.

Let’s take the second point first. The truth of the matter is that the Times and the Post and the Wall Street Journal, as media giants, were capable of keeping global offices staffed and running. Online outlets don’t have that kind of infrastructure in place. (All you media conspiracy wing nuts can put your hands down: I know the mainstream media is biased, but you’re delusional if you think there’s such a thing as absolute objectivity.) If they all go out of business, who is going to provide general reporting on what’s up in Myanmar?

There are absolutely some kick-ass online media outlets that uncover major stories through investigative reporting, but almost all of those stories are domestic. Which is a problem. Sure, I can seek out local media in Myanmar (provided it’s online, which is a substantial provision in the developing world), but how will I have any idea if it’s remotely accurate and not propaganda? I won’t, unless I do all the research on it myself. And that’s more than I am willing to take on to find out what’s up in every region of the world every week.

This is the route that medicine has gone in the last 20 years: you’re the “consumer”, so it’s on you to figure out if a particular treatment is cutting edge or dangerously untested. Doctors have abdicated their positions of authority. While this is a good thing – in cases where the doctor is unhinged, undereducated or just wrong, in most cases it leaves me in a terrible position – namely, having to make educated decisions in an area in which I am not educated.

The same will be true of media consumption if the major outlets – the voices of authority – go under. I don’t believe everything I read, but I read fairly widely and, since I’m familiar with the particular focus and bias of steady news sources, I can pull together an opinion with some hope of having some of the facts straight. I have no such hope for my ability to sift through the millions of online voices, most of whom have no recognizable credentials. And by “credentials” I mean meaningful access to and contacts in the region that would help assemble an educated perspective. A track record of consistently even-handed reporting wouldn’t hurt either. A loud voice and blazing marketing don’t count as credentials. (Which is why I don’t watch Fox News or Perez Hilton.)

So what’s going to replace the New York Times if it goes out of business? Who’s going to cover Africa and South Asia? The Drudge Report? The Huffington Post? New media aggregates old media at low cost. Are new media companies going to cover old media’s reporting costs if old media goes under?

We need to find a hybrid model where old and new media can both make money because they both need to exist. Maybe it’s OK if the print Times declines in circulation, but we can’t expect them to give their expensive product away for free online. Who’s going to foot the bill for their correspondent in the foothills of Pakistan? Click-through ads for finding your high school classmates aren’t going to cover those costs. (Maybe new media should pay for feeds from old media?)

Which brings me back to my self-centered first point, which is that if the offline media outlets go out of business, the number of writers who can survive on their earnings is going to decrease. And then we’ll all have to go back to second jobs as e-commerce consultants and waiters. God help us if journalism goes the way that teaching has: the only good ones who stay at the available wages have got to be saints.

Charging for online content didn’t work. Revenue generation from ads offline was plenty but online ads are different and insufficient. Newspapers aren’t like the banking industry: sure, there were paid lunches and car service boondoggles, but it wasn’t a profligate industry of wealth and waste. All that got cut ages ago and it hasn’t made the difference.

I’ve been thinking about this problem for ten years, ever since I took my first online editorial job, and I still can’t see a way through. (The Times can’t seem to sort out a long-term revenue model either, even with their killer New Media Group.)

Which brings me back to the Chronicle. The Chronicle’s been terrible for a long time and even though I’m not behind 100% free markets, I do think that the market should have a say when a company refuses to improve. Case in point per this morning’s news: the American auto industry, which is being forced to re-plan and re-staff as it should have done under its own steam years ago.

Why should we let the media industry stagger while we bolster up the banks and cars, both of which have had much longer to sort themselves out? Why not take over and rip and replace, the way we’re doing with AIG and GM? We subsidize the industries and endeavors that are of national value and I would argue that print media is one of those things, at least for now.

I still pay $27 a month for the Times to show up every Sunday even though I often read the online version instead and, until the new media model sorts itself out, I’ll continue to do that as an act of principle and charity because I don’t think we can do without the Times anymore than we can do without the banks.

Homesick

In San Francisco, it’s raining. And I don’t want to go out. Why? Because it’s raining? No. Because it’s NOT SNOWING. Normal places all got snow. San Francisco? No. Why? Because this place can’t get it together to have proper weather. *sigh*

In New York and Boston, I got up in the morning, got myself out the door and stepped into the flow of a real city. A city with people on the street who have places to go and things to do. San Francisco? Two people have been sitting in my eye line for half an hour doing NOTHING. Nothing. Staring. Sitting. Nothing. Yesterday I stood behind a guy writing a check at the supermarket. Do you know where people think it’s OK to write checks at the supermarket in 2009? Small towns, that’s where. The middle of nowhere. Fine. A place masquerading as an actual city? NO!!!

San Francisco, you have got to stop. Pink hair is not cool on an overweight 35-year-old. (I don’t really think it’s cool ever unless it’s 2AM in a club in 1999.) Dawdling is not cool. Homeless people are not cool. Having to walk five blocks through urban blight to get to the nearest cafe is not cool when you live in one of the nicest neighborhoods in the city. Especially when that cafe is a #$(*#! Starbucks. What is wrong with you, SF? Why can’t you get yourself together to have some ambition, some drive, a little get up and go?

I think I must be missing the point. People come here to step out of the river current, I guess, not to gain momentum. San Francisco is the lukewarm pool of water off to the side where people paddle around in the eddies and surf and smoke weed and have kids and go out to eat a lot of vegetables and worry about their hemp pants. SF is like the stoner teen who is happy to get C’s and be self-righteous about “the man.” The northeast is the driven over-achiever kid who has things to do and places to go. San Francisco is like the retirement community of cities where people dye their hair blue and self-entertainment passes for self-actualization. New York is where the old ladies knock down muggers with their handbags, look better than I do and schlep around on the subway to 75 events a week.

I just don’t get this place. Maybe if it ever snowed here, it would brace up and get its rush on. Bring me my snow already then and let’s get moving!!! Geez.