San Francisco Memory Lane
By Julie Snyder
I found my heart in San Francisco when Joe and I met there in 1989. And I left it behind when we moved out of California in 2001. Returning twenty years later, the City by the Bay feels like an old friend with whom one picks up a conversation as if no time had passed.
We recently found ourselves in San Francisco on a serendipitous road trip. A college reunion in the Midwest had been Covid-cancelled (we weren’t yet ready to cheer on the Wisconsin Badgers football team with 80,000 mostly maskless fans), and we didn’t want to disappoint our cat sitter. Leaving her to spoil our Maine Coon, Rocky, Joe, and I headed South to rekindle friendships and memories.
Our first stop was Mount Shasta. There, in view of the majestic mountain newly frosted with snow, we shared a festive evening with a handful of Joe’s river rafting and climbing buddies from decades past. Now a grizzled group, they delved deep into the memory bank. Like fish stories, the tales grew grander as the evening wore on. “I wish we had turned on a tape recorder,” Joe said afterward.
A night in Sausalito followed in the company of two more long-time pals, also climbers. Scrambling up rock faces may be past tense, but not the re-telling of exploits. Over primo pasta at Poggio Trattoria, I roped in for the replay reel of the trio’s legendary climbing moments.
Then we were cruising over the Golden Gate Bridge to a city panorama radiant in the fall sunshine. Heading west, we drove along the Great Highway to Ocean Beach, where joggers jogged, canines cavorted, and lovers languished.
At the Beach Chalet, which sports a Pacific vista outside and exquisite WPA murals within, we sipped Prosecco and reminisced about living in the Bay Area. Back then, we would devote entire days to exploring corners of the eclectic city and spend evenings in jazz clubs and Davies Symphony Hall. We haunted bookstores, dined voraciously, and entered quirky events like the Bay to Breakers. We pedaled bikes over bridges and marveled at the cityscape from the decks of ferries. In short, we had a ball.
Conversation slowed when the food arrived. We were primed for fresh seafood and the Beach Chalet pumped it out. Deviled eggs heaped with fresh crab, crisp greens topped with perfectly seared Ahi tuna, and crab-and-shrimp cakes with a barely-there binder. Why does sourdough bread, with its chewy golden crust and soft, slightly sour interior, taste better in San Francisco than anywhere else?
At my sister’s suggestion, we lodged at the Columbus Motor Inn in North Beach, a gem for more reasons than one. While it’s not fancy, rooms are large and clean, the staff kind and helpful, and the beds outrageously comfortable. Covered parking is free (all but unheard of in San Francisco), and public transportation (buses, streetcars, cable cars) is just out the door or within a few blocks. And the neighborhood is rich in restaurants. The one downside was the absence of a mini-fridge and microwave in our room, but our small cooler worked well for in-room snacks and drinks.
That evening we set off along Columbus Avenue and discovered that some of our favorite dining haunts had disappeared in our absence. We paid homage to the former home of the Washington Street Bar & Grill—the “Washbag”—which had closed a decade earlier. And the Little City Café. Even “Beach Blanket Babylon” at Club Fugazi, the world’s longest-running musical revue, had retired its humungous headgear and gaudy get-ups in 2019 after forty-five years as iconic San Francisco entertainment.
We people-watched over a glass of wine at Da Flora, with its deep red walls and collection of wooden ship models. The interior was intriguing and our waiter jovial, but neither could compete with the antics outside. A pair of daring teens on electric scooters sped by with the #30 bus bearing down on them. Two young blondes on a turquoise Vespa zipped in and out of traffic, and a deliveryman pedaled by balancing a tall stack of pizza boxes.
As we ambled on, cheers and jeers echoed from open-air bars. The San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers were battling it out in the fifth game of the MLB playoffs. We were rooting for the Giants but not enough to spend the evening in a bar. Sadly, they lost.
We took a turn around Washington Square, its cathedral rosy in the sunset, then spotted North Beach Restaurant. Plunking ourselves on tall bar stools, we were pleased that this old favorite was hopping. More wine, more sourdough, and flavorful bowls of minestrone made us feel at home.
A street saxophonist serenaded our return stroll with the theme from “The Godfather.” Next to our hotel, the marquee at Bimbo’s 365 Club promoted an upcoming fortieth-anniversary performance by Christopher Cross.
“He’s still around?” asked Joe.
“We need to get out more,” I said.
The following day, I was up and out early for a ramble through Fisherman’s Wharf before the crowds descended. The fragrance of fresh bread from Boudin Bakery mingled with the briny bouquet of shellfish as seafood vendors set up for the day. The sea lions—as noisy and entertaining as ever—still own the floating docks next to Pier 39.
Mild temperatures and blue skies made for a perfect fall day as we walked to Fort Mason. Early for a lunch rendezvous, we enjoyed coffee and the San Francisco Chronicle at an outdoor café next to the Guardsmen Pumpkin Patch. The annual Halloween event supports Bay Area at-risk youth. Since we were on foot, we passed on a pumpkin purchase, but business was brisk even without ours.
We settled at a bayview table at Greens restaurant and wasted no time devouring the menu of this vaunted vegetarian venue. Conversation with our friend competed with luscious bites of grilled bartlett pears, mango avocado salad, fig and arugula pizza, and black-eyed pea fritters. We lingered over cappuccinos and spheres of pluot sorbet until the restaurant closed for lunch to prepare for dinner.
More than thirty years ago, Joe contrived the perfect first date, and, like the rerun of a beloved movie, we’ve enjoyed it many times over, including on this trip. Our quintessential night-on-the-town in San Francisco began with hopping on a cable car at the Embarcadero, then trundling past towering office buildings to the top of Nob Hill. There we deboarded for martinis at the Top of the Mark, the lofty watering hole at the Intercontinental Mark Hopkins. The drinks and the view remain impeccable.
Next stop, Trattoria Contadina, a nine-block-downhill saunter to North Beach. We were without reservations but hit the jackpot with two spots at the tiny bar. Chatting up the bartender, we learned that the same family still owned the tiny corner eatery and that our favorite hostess from decades ago was happily retired.
On our first visit to the Trattoria, we were too smitten to consume anything but a tomatoes-and-mozzarella appetizer. Thirty years in, we’re still smitten but not at the expense of an exceptional meal. I indulged in linguini and clams while Joe savored spaghetti with the most amazing golf-ball-size meatballs.
After dinner on our first date, we’d wandered down to the Buena Vista for Irish coffee, then strolled arm in arm along the Embarcadero back to our starting point. But we’re older now, and the martini and wine had left us pleasantly sleepy. We called it a night after a stop at Alimento for chocolate gelato.
Not surprisingly, my early walk the next day was much less brisk than the previous morning. I slogged up hills, including curvy Lombard Street, to sweat out the gin.
After a lazy, caffeine-fueled lounge in our hotel room, we rode the historic F-Market & Wharves Streetcar from Fisherman’s Wharf six miles to the end of the line in the Castro. Market Street—one of the city’s most popular thoroughfares—was lined with familiar shops as well as empty storefronts. There was surprisingly little evidence of the houseless population, save for one bus stop that sleeping bags and shopping carts had homesteaded. If there are tent camps like those that have taken over downtown Portland existed, they were beyond our view.
We were entertained on board by a busker outfitted in silver from head to toe who managed a respectable robot dance amid the streetcar’s fits and starts. In the Castro, we spotted a naked man in a cowboy hat and boots lounging on a corner. The city’s quirkiest neighborhood always delivers on colorful characters.
We’d hoped to lunch outdoors at the Ferry Building Marketplace on the Embarcadero, but the wait at Hog Island Oyster Co. was longer than our stomachs could stomach. After nosing around in Book Passage, which happily survived the pandemic, and drifting past stalls selling luscious cheeses, loaves of bread, and pastries, we ventured a few blocks further along the Embarcadero.
Another old restaurant friend, Fog City, came to the culinary rescue. We arrived during a mid-afternoon lull and settled into a comfy booth for ribs (Joe) and a huge salad with warm chunks of grilled chicken (me). When Joe headed to the hotel for a catnap, I sat at an outdoor table at a Columbus Avenue café, and over a latte, chatted with friends in the East Bay who we hadn’t managed to visit.
Watching night settle over our corner of the city from our hotel room balcony, we agreed that our brief sojourn had been satisfying and that San Francisco will always have our heart.
Julie Snyder lives in Portland, Oregon. As a writer, editor and publisher, she’s contributed to a variety of lifestyle, in-flight and travel publications, and produced award-winning catalogs for Backroads travel company. Among her passions are animal welfare, walking, travel and the Green Bay Packers.