A FEW YEARS AGO, San Francisco was
a no-brainer choice for a girls 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 uswhich 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
listbut 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
bistromixology-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
budgetethnic restaurants in the city. Pakwan (www.pakwanrestaurant.com)
is a semi-cafeteria styleBYOB
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 OaxacanMexican fare,
and a local we met on the train suggested we check out Big Lantern
for Chinesevegetarian 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 Szechuans 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 uswhich
includes several innovative bars where American cocktail culture
and trends take shape
Elyse Glickman is US west coast editor of Lucire.