What makes you fall in love with a city?
I’m not talking about where you live — although if you do genuinely love that place, I’m happy for you — but about where you visit.
Is it that G&T you had in the hole-in-the-wall dive bar you walked into on a whim? You know — the one with the great jukebox? Or is it the clam vongole you had for an alfresco dinner in that little local place on a Friday evening, watching the neighbourhood unfurl and embrace the weekend? Perhaps it’s the museums or the galleries. Or the live music scene. Or the views. Or the bustle. Or the lack thereof.
Or maybe, as in my case, it was a book. Or at least it was a book at first. Rebecca Solnit’s brilliant Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas gave me a thing for The City, as locals call it, even before I visited for the first time a few years ago. When I finally did get there, I carried the book around with me as I explored, reading about butterflies, Fillmore Street, coffee, Indigenous place names, 6 a.m. bars, shipyards and filming locations for Hitchcock’s Vertigo over beer or in a park or on a bus. I did take my nose out of the book, of course, but continued to dip into it when I returned home, hungry for more San Francisco.
My appetite for the place hasn’t dimmed since then, and I’ve started to compile a list — always a sign you have an obsession with a place, I think — of some of my favourite places in the city to eat, drink, shop, be pampered or just wander. Here are seven spots to help get your own San Francisco experience started.
Swan Oyster Depot
Everyone and their brother goes to Fisherman’s Wharf, where fine seafood can still be had, albeit amid throngs of tourists (try Pier Market, which works wonders with a mesquite grill). But for a more intimate, unpolished and authentically San Francisco seafood feast, head to Swan Oyster Depot. Locals and visitors have been bellying up to its 18-seat counter for more than a century to tuck into oysters, half-cracked crab, lobster, smoked trout, smoked whitefish, octopus salad, Boston clam chowder, shrimp cocktail, prawns and… well, you get the picture. Arrive about 20 minutes before the 10:30 a.m. opening time to make sure you’re one of the first in the inevitable lineup. 1517 Polk St., Nob Hill
Peoples Barber & Shop
The appearance of retro-cool barbershops in the last few years is a trend that hasn’t bypassed San Francisco. And while cynics might detect a whiff of hipster artifice about many of these new bastions of everything-old-is-new-again male grooming — the antique chairs, the straight-razor shaves, the hot-towel treatment, the high-and-tight haircuts — I can vouch that the barbers at the Polk Street location of Peoples Barber & Shop are the real deal. On my last visit to the city, Justin Griggs gave me one of the best shaves I’ve ever had — and some bourbon in my coffee while I waited for it. 1259 Polk St., Nob Hill
I stayed in North Beach on my first visit to San Francisco, and while wandering around one evening looking for a place to eat, I noticed a commotion in front of a restaurant called Sotto Mare. Strolling across the street, I saw that then-owner Gigi Fiorucci was handing out free glasses of wine to the customers in the ever-growing line outside the door, assuring them they’d be sitting down to their crab cioppino or linguine with Manila clams before they knew it. The gregarious Fiorucci was putting on a show that was too good to miss, so I joined the line. About two hours later I was scavenging my plate to make sure I’d not left any crab diavolo behind — and had the first entry on my San Francisco list. Ask for a seat at the counter so you can see the cooks in action. 552 Green St., North Beach
Hotaling & Co.
The name may have changed, but the spirits produced at what was formerly known as the Anchor Distilling Company (which itself was once part of the the city’s famed Anchor Brewing Company) have not. And thank goodness for that, because they are phenomenal. You can buy Hotaling & Co. products in any good liquor store in the city, but a far more appealing option is to sample them at the distillery’s rooftop tasting room, which has a spectacular view of the San Francisco skyline. My favourite is the Junípero Gin, a 98.6 proof elixir made with 12 botanicals grown in the tasting room’s garden — it’s so good that it almost feels like a sin to mix it with tonic. 1705 Mariposa St., Potrero Hill
Boom Boom Room
In a city of legendary live music venues such as The Fillmore, it seems like it might be hard to carve out a niche. But that’s exactly what the Boom Boom Room has done in the two decades it has been in business, showcasing everything from a Talking Heads tribute act to funk, soul, ska, blues and boogie bands that have the place jumping six nights a week. 1601 Fillmore St., Fillmore District
California Academy of Sciences & de Young Museum
You could spend the better part of a day in Golden Gate Park, but you’d be missing a trick if a good chunk of that time wasn’t spent indulging your inner aesthete at both of these institutions. The California Academy of Sciences — part planetarium, part aquarium and part natural history museum — awed me at almost every turn, whether I was ascending the four-story butterfly-filled rainforest, waiting for Claude the albino alligator to twitch or being mesmerized by the Foucault pendulum. The de Young Museum, meanwhile, is just across the way from the Academy of Sciences, and houses a world-renowned collection of art that includes works by Diego Rivera, Georgia O’Keeffe, Edward Hopper and Mark Rothko. California Academy of Sciences: 55 Music Concourse Dr.; de Young Museum: 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Dr.
Amoeba Music on Haight Street might be larger and more famous when it comes to San Francisco record shops — but I didn’t find a mint-condition copy of the soundtrack to the notorious and widely panned 1971 Quebec film Après-ski there, now did I? (Read more about the film and the role that Celine Dion’s husband, René Angélil, played in it here.) Curios such as this are Pyramid’s stock-in-trade, and thumbing through the stacks in Bobby McCole’s shop will inevitably yield more than just one treasure. My wife, for instance, says that Music for Saharan Cellphones is the one record that she’d save if our house was burning down. 3174 24th St., Mission District