San Francisco Off the Rez
Story by Jules Older, photos by Effin Older
It’s just about everybody’s favorite city. Victorian homes the colors of the rainbow. Little cable cars climbing halfway to the stars. Epicurean pleasures, exotic Chinatown, the Golden Gate Bridge. All delightful … and already visited by all your neighbors.
Let me take you off the Tourist Reservation. Let me introduce you to the San Francisco those nice neighbors of yours may have missed. Let me grant you San Francisco bragging rights.
Welcome to San Francisco Off the Rez.
We’ll start at the Palace of Fine Arts. Not only does it look like a great Greco-Roman ruin, it was built to look like a great Greco-Roman ruin. It’s about the only edifice still standing from the Panama-Pacific Exposition of 1915, and most visitors never even see it. Who has seen it? Japanese wedding couples and Mexican girls celebrating their 15th birthday quinceañera. Both are here to be photographed. And photographed. And photographed some more. Enjoy the show.
Just down the road is a free edifice tour that fans of military history should not miss, Fort Point. It’s a Civil War-era brick fortress built to keep out the Russians. But the sad truth is that improvements in cannons made the massively thick walls of Fort Point obsolete before the last brick was laid. When they built the Golden Gate Bridge, they wanted to tear it down — the fort lies pretty much directly under the bridge — but Joseph Strauss, the span’s chief engineer, said, “Nope. The fort stays. We’ll work around it.” And they did.
Now, if you’re traveling with kids — kids of all ages — the next stop is on Pier 15, down by the San Francisco Bay. Welcome to the Exploratorium. It’s where science and creativity, kids and nerds conjoin, and it’s the model for science museums around the world. Gems under a microscope, wild optical and auditory illusions, and a host of hands-on exhibits keep even rambunctious kids excitedly learning for hours and hours.
From the bay, we’re heading downtown to San Francisco’s most historic hotel, The Palace. And no, you don’t have to be a guest to have a look. Two must-sees: The Garden Court, probably the most beautiful dining room in North America, and The Pied Piper, Maxfield Parrish’s 1909 painting — both are things of rare beauty.
Speaking of beauty, San Francisco is blessed with fabulous museums. The best known are the de Young Museum, the Legion of Honor and the recently expanded SFMOMA, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Along with the hyper-popular California Academy of Sciences (which, like the de Young, is in Golden Gate Park), all are well worth a lengthy visit — your art-and-science-loving neighbors have no doubt seen them all. But maybe not three others, all an easy walk from SFMOMA.
Fifty yards away is MoAD, the Museum of the African Diaspora. Just down the road is CJM, the Contemporary Jewish Museum. Around another corner is the tiny American Bookbinders Museum. And coming soon to Museum Row, the Mexican Museum. Try to plan your day so that you have lunch — an old-fashioned Jewish deli lunch — at the CMJ.
Which brings us to restaurants. Care to guess how many exist in small, compact San Francisco? Hundreds? No. A thousand? No. At last count, there are nearly 4,500 restaurants in this food-crazy town. And while the best known (and most expensive) sit in the center of the Tourist Reservation, let me take you off the rez for three San Franciscans’ favorites.
First up, Louis’ Restaurant, a.k.a. Looie’s Diner. Go there for classic American diner food — burgers, fries and milkshakes. As a bonus — and what a bonus it is — Louis’ overlooks the rocky, wave-tossed shore of the Pacific Ocean. But note this:
- Expect a line. Locals love Louis’.
- Bring cash. Louis’ doesn’t take those new-fangled credit card thingies.
Next, Alborz, one of the great undiscovered restaurants of San Francisco. Think wonderful Persian food: succulent lamb and the most delicious rice in town. White tablecloths, great service, blessed quiet, astonishingly low prices. Whatever else you order — and I especially recommend the lamb dishes — be sure to try the Shirin Polo — Basmati rice with almonds, pistachio, raisin, orange peel and saffron. Fragrance defined.
And finally, what I consider the best restaurant in the city, Welcome to Capannina. It’s on Union Street, not Union Square. Capannina tastes and feels like Italy. It’s warmly welcoming and molto delizioso. And yes, that link is me talking about it on KQED’s “Check Please.”
So, we’ve seen sights, met museums, enjoyed dinner. What’s for afters? Again, I’ve got three for you, and they’re three that many miss.
In San Francisco and everywhere else, there is simply nothing like Beach Blanket Babylon. Not only is it America’s longest-running musical, it’s constantly updated to poke fun at whoever’s in the headlines. The Clintons? Check. Trump? You know it. Barbra Streisand? Steals the show. I went reluctantly the first time; now I’ve been back for seconds and thirds.
In some ways, the opposite of Beach Blanket Babylon is The Marsh. The house specialty is one-person shows, and I’ve never seen a bad one. It’s not on the tourist rez but a great favorite of San Franciscans. And Valencia Street, where the Marsh has lived since 1992, is San Francisco’s current hottest food zone.
Finally, let’s end our tour with a dinner-show that shouts San Francisco. I’m reluctant to say too much about AsiaSF for fear of spoiling the fun. Book your seats, settle back and enjoy this most San Francisco of shows.
Finally — and this time I really mean it — the one thing San Francisco lacks is summer. If you’re coming June through September, dress warm and expect fog. KarlTheFog on Twitter will keep you in the know.
DEATH BY TARTAR SAUCE: A Travel Writer Encounters Gargantuan Gators, Irksome Offspring, Murderous Mayonnaise & True Love is Jules Older’s fog-free ebook.
Jules Older: PhD, psychologist, medical educator, writer, editor, app creator, videographer, ePublisher. Big awards, big adventures, big fun. His ebook on hilarious travel disasters is DEATH BY TARTAR SAUCE: A Travel Writer Encounters Gargantuan Gators, Irksome Offspring, Murderous Mayonnaise & True Love.”
Effin Older is an author, writer, photographer, editor, videographer and app-creator.