I guess I could call this post, “I left my heart in San Francisco”. A little obvious?! I do like Tony Bennet though.
It was our first time visiting this special city. We really wasn’t sure what to expect. I probably had a more romanticized expectation of the City by the Bay. Don’t get me wrong, it is a lovely, memorable, iconic city. So much of what I expected it to be. The hills, the trolley cars, the painted ladies, the fog, the docks, the bridges, Chinatown… everything I had been anticipating totally lived up to my expectations, and beyond! And from all those Film Noir movies, like Dark Passage with Bogie and Bacall. The first thing I loved, the weather! Much cooler than the heat and humidity we had been enduring all summer back in Toronto. It was always in the high 60’s to 70, and sunny. Cool evenings for sleeping and fog in the mornings, but perfect for when we headed out to explore the city.
It is a much smaller city core than I was expecting. Coming from a big city, I guess I just expect other major cities to be of similar size and expanse. But it is definitely a walkable city, and the neighbourhoods are closely linked to the downtown core, which was our base. Not sure if the size of the city has anything to do with it, but the people are super friendly, engaging, and helpful. There are some areas that had their moments, but not so bad that I would avoid walking through them to get to good food!!
And after writing all this, I must say, I thought Chinatown would be more sketchy!! It wasn’t at all. Shows how much I know, or how much media through the years has affected my preconceived ideas. It was just like Chinatown in Toronto or NYC. A cacophony of colours, noises, foods, produce, bustling with people. Just what I wanted to see! Of course I grabbed some dim sum while wandering those streets.
There are way more hills than I thought!!!! I would like to think that all that walking, all those inclines, worked off all the fantastic food we indulged in. And those hills really do add to the charm of the cityscapes. To see the straight, proper, beautifully preserved Victorian houses on pretty steep inclines, with cars parked precariously on a slant in front of them was most amusing! Speaking of preserved Victorian houses. The Painted Ladies. Yes, a total 80’s tv sit-com salute to ‘Full House’!! It was wonderful to walk down and up and down till we came face to face with these beautiful buildings. Did you know, that in order to receive the classification of ‘painted lady’ the home must be painted in at least three different colours for all the gingerbread trim? I didn’t either.
We ate well during our visit. This is an understatement. There are so many iconic places to grab a bite at. San Francisco well represents California cuisine at its finest. The farm to table mentality, and the appreciation of the wines made just north of the city in Sonoma and Napa are highlighted in any notable eatery. It was a challenge to narrow down our choices, and I’m sure I missed out on so many. But, there is only so much one can eat in a day, so we’ll save some for the next visit. Boudin for the city’s first sourdough- the aroma coming out of that bakery was absolutely heady!! Tartine Bakery for the most amazing pastries. I kept it simple with a classic croissant. Truly, the most impressive lamination and fluffiness I have had in years. Totally melt in your mouth.
On our first day walking around, we headed to Brenda’s French Soulfood for lunch. Fried carb lovers paradise!! Beignets, po’boys, catfish, hushpuppies, fried chicken, étouffée, shrimp and grits, the list goes on and on. And it was worth the wait. Nothing was below superior. Worth all the pain that I would inflict on my foot- but I’m sure I walked off those calories by the end of the first day.
Our first evening we ate at Delfina’s, in the Mission District. What a gem! An Italian trattoria with a casual and rustic feel; young, hip, with such attention to detail and quality ingredients. An ever changing menu to suit the amazing California produce, it was hard to narrow down our choices. That evening they had a marrow bone that was unctuous in the best way possible! So rich, but so worth having. We both ordered the spaghetti. You’re thinking, duh? But I’m telling you, the best ingredients: plum tomatoes, garlic, and pepperoncini made for a never-to-be-forgotten plate of pasta. The wait staff know their menu and were super friendly.
The next eve it was NOPA! Down in the Panhandle neighbourhood, not too far from famed ’67 hippie central, Haight-Ashbury, this restaurant is not to be missed if you ever get to visit San Francisco. Fine, I’m going to state right now, that each place that we enjoyed a meal should be a destination if you plan a trip to San Fran! NOPA (north of Panhandle) is the epitome of farm to table cuisine. Rustic, modern, a menu that relies on seasonal produce from local purveyors, and specializes in wood fired dishes, the place is filled with young urbanites who love good food. It’s noisy in a good way, and the staff again, really love what they are doing- they know their menu and are proud to share and suggest wine pairings. This time it was the salad that blew our minds. A perfect balance was achieved in the little gems, peaches, grapes, walnut and blue cheese combo. We loved it so much that we ordered a second one! Jim was just agag with each mouthful. And that never happens! So I vowed to try and make it at home. I know it won’t be the same, the grapes they used were the Bronx grape, a local California variety that can’t be sourced here in Toronto. But I think I can come close! After two salads with blue cheese dressing, I just had to behave, so I ordered Avocado Toast!
The last restaurant that we enjoyed a dinner at in San Fran was the Wayfare Tavern. This one wasn’t even on my radar. But when I started exploring the city, and doing the legwork via the Internet, I discovered that one of my favourite chefs ever, good ole Tyler Florence, had opened up the most fab spot, right in the city’s financial district. Urban and yet the feel of an old British manor house, with taxidermy tastefully dotting the walls, the menu is upscale pub on steroids! I went out on a limb and phoned to see if we could get in. All booked, but she did say that the full menu is served in the bar, so we might try grabbing seats there if we could. I got there before Jim. The hosts were so gracious- they checked again upstairs to see if we could squeeze in. But only room for one. And the bar seemed to be full. “Wait one minute” said one. He came back and said, “if you think your other party will arrive soon, I can get you two seats at the Chef’s Table.” Well, as far as I was concerned, Jim was right behind me! We had the best server! So friendly, witty, and not at all worried about rushing us out. I was served some prosecco, and Jim arrived. Then we went slightly bonkers trying to narrow down our choices. For me it would be a cinch: there was a Steak Tartare on the menu that sounded sublime. Hand cut steak, dressed with fresh herbs, a dijon dressing and an egg yolk, and served with house made potato chips instead of the typical toast points, it was one the best Steak Tartare I have EVER had.
Next to my mom’s of course. Creamy, rich, just the right amount of tang from the dijon, I was just savouring every mouthful. Another dish that I would have to emulate at home. We decided to split the order of fried chicken.
Half of a chicken, in a buttermilk brine, fried to perfection and served with roasted garlic, it is actually on the “Best Fried Chicken in America” List, according to Food and Wine. Pretty good recommendation, I think! Jim managed to find room for the most decadent chocolate cream pie we’ve ever experienced. Yep, another winner.
We would return to each of these spots in a heartbeat. And there are so many more I wish we could have made it to. The Slanted Door, Lolinda, Saison, La Ciccia, Mensho and on and on. These will be waiting for us next time, I’m sure.
The last two days of our quick West Coast visit were spent driving into Sonoma and then Napa. On the way we were able to stop and explore Muir Woods, a haven for Redwoods, and a National Park. The trees were so majestic, and the setting was so serene. Our necks were constantly in motion, trying to take it all in. Such a change from the cityscapes and noises, it was a lovely contrast.
Then we drove up into Sonoma and Annadel Estate Winery. One of the oldest wineries in California, it is being loving restored by the owners, Dean and Abi Bordigioni. Breathtaking in its setting, it was the perfect introduction to Sonoma wine country. We stayed in a fabulous cottage with soaring beamed ceilings, and a bottle of wine waiting for us in the fridge! In the morning, after the most restful sleep I’ve had in eons (no light pollution, just the crickets, and a comfy mattress, plus the cooler temperatures than the heatwave in Toronto that we had left) I woke to find the fog rolling gently along the hills filled with grape vines. It was so ethereal. Abi generously gave us a tour of the barn (a rustic setting to showcase the local art scene- talented painters including herself who really capture the essence of wine country. Paintings on the walls and on easels, and vintage and classic motorcycles being stored in the barn pretty well encapsulate these two eclectic and unique winemakers!
We got to see the grounds where the original winery once stood, now only ivy and vine covered ruins, with some original grapes still stalwartly growing amongst them.
We were encouraged to eat at Aventine in local Glen Ellen. Oh my- what a treat that was. Italian menu, in that fresh, seasonal way we were getting used to. I will admit, I was pretty stuffed from all the goodness that San Francisco had offered, so I probably didn’t do the menu justice. But I ordered the Buratta on the recommendation of Abi. She knew of what she speaks. It was mouthwateringly great. Aged balsamic, charred cherry tomatoes, and a baby arugula pesto made for the most delectable meal. I couldn’t imagine ordering a main, so the server suggested that they prepare a fresh roasted asparagus dish for me. Perfecto.
A trip to Sonoma wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the original Williams Sonoma. Or as a friend of mine teased me, “the mothership!” Well, of course!! To see the hardware turned kitchen store, where Chuck lived and curated such fabulous gadets etc was so much fun. There was a whole section just for vintage and antique pieces.
His apartment at the back has been restored and showcases the best of the best for the kitchen and home. I left with a bundt pan, and I was so happy!! Just around the corner, was Figone’s, an Olive Oil boutique. Totally set up to offer samplings and tastings like the best winery, I got a great education on the olives that grow in the region thank’s to the owner’s family from generations past.
I guess I could say so much more. Getting down to the wharf and piers of San Francisco to see the sea lions, being surrounded by a sea of chocolate at the Ghirardelli factory and boutique, shopping in the Russian Hill district on Filmore Street, walking along the crookedest street in the world, Lombard St., meeting up with my sister and her family just outside of Napa for an impromptu visit while they were working on their own family road trip, the list goes on. We will definitely return- a super friendly town, filled with an energy and casualness that make it an easy place to hang out in. Truly, everything we experienced was “A San Francisco Treat”!