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San Francisco today The dot-com culture may have gone, but the City now has a sophisticated air, especially when it comes to food and its bar culture

The reinvention of San Francisco

This big little city still holds its own as a destination with sophistication and several unexpected and affordable surprises, writes Elyse Glickman

PHOTOGRAPHED BY THE AUTHOR

 





A FEW YEARS AGO, San Francisco was a no-brainer choice for a girl’s weekend. That year, the famed de Young Museum had just reopened, we got a great rate at a mom-and-pop boutique hotel (the Nob Hill, 835 Hyde Street), nipped up to Sonoma for a wine tasting and ran into then-Mayor Gavin Newsom at a brew-pub in the city’s Marina neighbourhood. In the late 1990s, when the dot-com youth culture was in full swing and I happened to be dating somebody in San Francisco and visiting regularly, there were frequent jaunts to the Haight and Filmore West to drink in a taste of American pop culture and a groovy show. The futuristic Metreon mall opened as a massive marketing machine for Sony products.

I have always liked the fact that every trip I make up there is radically different from the last. While my 2006 trip, for example, was focused on antiquing and visiting historical tourist draws, such as the Buena Vista (the presumed birthplace of Irish coffee), the Haight and the de Young, we decided to go where today took us—which includes several innovative bars where American cocktail culture and trends take shape and Banana Republic’s flagship store for the annual post-holiday mega-sale.

On this trip, we decided to upgrade our lodgings and stay at the Kimpton Palomar Hotel (www.hotelpalomar-sf.com) which is in the literal heart of the city, at Market Street and Fourth, and right on the cusp of several BART train and MUNI bus routes that will instantly free you from the necessity of driving to many of the city’s hottest and coolest areas. Better still, its Fifth Floor restaurant not only has its requisite boutique hotel bar hipness, but also stellar $5 happy hour specials and a very talented lady bartender (Morgan Young) who wows crowds with her changing seasonal takes on the classic Pimm’s Cup as well as a ‘Mixology Consultation’, where she will custom design a cocktail for you and keep it on file for your future visits.

Beyond the bar, the Palomar has everything you want in a San Francisco boutique hotel for a girl’s weekend: comfy rooms, cute workout room, razor-sharp staff up on the latest hotspots, proximity to Union Square, solid department store shopping with top US names (Nordstrom, Saks, Neiman–Marcus, Macy’s) and a street vendor peddling fresh, crispy churros that mate beautifully with a cup of coffee from the hotel or the nearby branch of Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. While this hotel does have a hint of old-school San Francisco elegance in its vibe, Hotel Monaco (www.monaco-sf.com, 501 Geary Street), its nearby sister property skirting Maiden Lane (SF’s “Fifth Avenue”) and Chinatown, translates 1920s style and 1960s colour into 21st-century luxury. Kimpton is also now the proud parent of the historic Sir Francis Drake Hotel.

Bar-hopping this go-round was on the top of my to-do list—but in a way far different than what brought me to bars in my 20s. Today, the art of the cocktail is the thing, and there are several bars that draw a slightly older or more sophisticated crowd because of that. At many of the city’s most popular bars, from the modest-but-ambitious neighbourhood spot Elixir (owned by H. Joseph Ehrmann, recognized as one of America’s top bartenders) to fun gathering spots like the Rickhouse to posh spots like the Burrit Room and Rye to the wonderfully kitschy rum bar Smuggler’s Cove, the show that goes into making the drinks are as fantastic to experience as the final product themselves.

Better still, the best new(er) bars will often carry you to the most interesting parts of town that are always in the midst of reinventing themselves. Smuggler’s Cove and the excellent bistro–mixology-focused bar Absinthe, you have an excuse to explore Hayes Valley. Besides the fact it neighbours the Civic Center culture and museum hub, it is also full of fashionable but eclectic shoe boutiques, clothing shops and home furnishing stores.

Elixir anchors the Mission District, which leans towards the bohemian, but is loaded with some of the best dive bars and budget–ethnic restaurants in the city. Pakwan (www.pakwanrestaurant.com) is a semi-cafeteria style–BYOB kind of place that offers a lot of figurative and literal bang for the buck with its fresh, wonderfully executed Pakistani and Indian fare and perfect loaves of nan bread. H., an authority on quality fresh ingredients, meanwhile, recommended La Oaxaquena (www.oaxaquena.com) for his pick as the city’s best Oaxacan–Mexican fare, and a local we met on the train suggested we check out Big Lantern for Chinese–vegetarian fare.

That said, we returned to Lucky Creation (854 Washington Street), our go-to lunch spot in Chinatown, especially as it is top ranked by local papers as the best vegetarian restaurant in the city. We were once again wowed by everything we ordered, from a “chicken” curry chow mein to a heaping plate of stellar “kosher” pork and beef (made from gluten and soy) that were spot-on in flavour. However, by being brave enough to approach locals with leftovers on our first night, we were referred to Z & Y Szechuan (www.zandyrestaurant.com), one of the area’s newer spice hound havens. The four-alarm hot-pots and the venue’s star dish, Chicken with Explosive Chili, exceeded expectations and were fun to eat. The chicken dish requires the diner to dig for those tasty golden nuggets in a huge pile of dried chilis and scallions.

Six years on, things continue moving forward. Gavin Newsom is now California’s Lieutenant Governor, and the Metreon is now more food-driven than tech-savvy. The dot-com culture has given way to a foodie culture, though the culture now is equally as youth driven has it has been through the years. Thankfully, when it comes to keeping a visitor’s experience fresh, San Francisco stays the same in the ways that matter, from its quirky-chic architecture to Chinatown, the green parks and the majestic views of the Pacific Ocean, and even the touristy trappings near Fisherman’s Wharf. •

 


Morgan Young, at the Fifth Floor restaurant at Kimpton Palomar Hotel.


Tending bar at the Elixir.


Stringbeans and mushroom at Lucky Creation.


Z & Y Szechuan’s Explosive Pepper Chicken.

 

 

I have always liked the fact that every trip I make up there is radically different from the last. While my 2006 trip, for example, was focused on antiquing and visiting historical tourist draws, we decided to go where the day took us—which includes several innovative bars where American cocktail culture and trends take shape

 

 


Elyse Glickman is US west coast editor of Lucire.

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