A Long Weekend in San Francisco

Over 35 years, I’ve spent about 30 days visiting San Francisco, for both business and pleasure. This trip was to re-visit to some favorites, to see some things we had not seen, and to see some things our local host thought we should see.

Solid American Comfort Food

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by Wasatch on October 3, 2008

Desperation led us to Mel's for dinner. Many San Francisco restaurants close on Mondays, especially holiday Mondays it seems. We expressed a desire for French to our local host who suggested a French restaurant almost across the street from out hotel. We went there first, looked at the menu in the lobby and decided it was too pricey, so we took the bus to the South Park Cafe, a bistro recommended in the Lonely Planet Guide, which said it was open on Monday's, only to arrive and find it was closed all Labor Day Weekend for remodeling. Off we went to a San Francisco classic, the Tadich Grill, which was also closed. Walking from the Tadich Grill to Market St., we saw not one other restaurant, so we took the F line trolley back to 4th St. to return to the French restaurant across the street from the Marriott, and discovered it was closed. That was enough. We know that just around the corner on Misson from 4th St. were three 24-7 places to eat: Jack in the Box, Denny's, and the local Mel's Diner. Mel's was not unknown to our local host, and that's where we headed.

After spending more than two hours looking for a restaurant, the first thing we did at Mel's was to order a bottle of Merlot, which turned out to be the worst part of our dinner. Serving a red wine at room temperature means 55-65 degrees. Mel's Merlot was about 80. This is not good. We appalled our local host by putting ice from our water glasses into the wine to cool it, a smart move, but a shocker to wine snobs. Things then improved considerably with the food.

Needing comfort, she opted for the queen of comfort food- meatloaf. Mel's excellent meatloaf was tasty and juicy. I had ribs, which were OK but not a knock out, being a little on the tough and dry side, but the Bbq sauce was nice and wisely, there was not too much of it. We both had fries, which were top drawer, as was the garlic toast.

The waitress was rushed, but got the job done in a friendly fashion. Ambiance is sort of 1950s neon and plastic. All in all, good enough for the price, but this is not the finest dining.

Also on the diner menu are: Chicken Pot Pie; Meat Loaf and lumpy mashed potatoes, homemade gravy, vegetables, roll, and butter; Rotisserie Chicken; Turkey; Pork Chops; Ground Round Steak; Fish and Chips; Marinated Broiled Chicken Breast; New York Steak; Broiled Chicken Breast. Sandwiches include a variety of 1/3 or ½ lb. Burgers; Turkey Burger; Turkey Melt; Hot Turkey or Roast Beef Open-Faced Sandwich Meatloaf Sandwich; Egg Cheese Jack, Swiss, and Cheddar on sour dough Vegetarian B.L.T."old favorite" on sourdough. Add avocado. Smoked Ham and Cheese grilled, on rye Tuna Mel French Dip" breast of turkey, bacon, lettuce, and tomatoes piled high on toasted sourdough Steak Chicken Salad Tuna Salad Sandwich served with lettuce, tomato, and black olives on sourdough New Yorker hot peppercorn pastrami with coleslaw on corn rye with 1000 Island dressing Fresh Turkey Breast piled high on toasted sourdough, Reuben Sandwich of thinly sliced corned beef with sauerkraut, 1000 Island dressing and melted Monterrey Jack on grilled rye; Three Hot Dogs-- San Francisco Hot Dog scooped out sourdough roll, cheese, onion, relish, and pickle , Sour Dog sauerkraut, and beef frank Rebel Rouser topped with chili, onion, and Cheddar cheese.

Mel's has four San Francisco locations and four in Los Angeles. When all else fails, or if you want decent food at decent prices, give it a try.
Mel's 4th & Mission
801Mission Street
San Francisco, 94103
(415) 227 - 0793

Dinner and Sights in Downtown

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by Wasatch on September 13, 2008

We arrived at our hotel about 3:00 pm. Our local host arrived there around 4:00pm, and we soon set out for the restaurant where he had made dinner reservations, the terrific Jeanne d’Arc in the basement of the Cornell Hotel. We walked. First, we went to Union Square, passing through the square on its north side– over the course of three day visit, he walked us through union square three times, each on a different side, with one crossing of the square diagonally. We went down a street beyond Union Square and saw a striking fountain and some fine architecture, then on to the restaurant.

After a remarkably good dinner, we proceeded uphill on Stockton St. to the Stockton St Tunnel (at Pine & Stockton). We climbed the stairs to the Pine St. bridge across the tunnel where we stopped to take in one of San Francisco's notable movie locations. In the Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade’s(Humphrey Bogart) partner is murdered by the bad guys at this spot, and he tumbled over the bridge banister to the sidewalk below.

A couple blocks on Pine St. brought us to Grant St. at the entrance to Chinatown, a major tourist trap. Our local’s host’s advice: if you must eat Chinese in Chinatown, go to a restaurant off Grant St. The ones on Grant are tourist traps. We didn't spend much time in Chinatown as we knew from previous visits that it is not very interesting, being a celebrity sight-- famous only for being famous. The only reason to visit Chinatown is if you are on a walk like ours where you want to go from below Chinatown to the Beatnik center on Broadway at the far end of Chinatown.

We continued up Grant St. to Columbus Ave., where the famed City Lights Book Store(founded by the Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghette as the country's first all paperback bookstore) sits at the intersection of Columbus & Grant. Almost next door is Vesuvio, the bar where Dylan Thomas and Jack Kerouac hung out. In the same block is the Tosca Cafe, which, on one memorable night, tossed out Bob Dylan, Alan Ginsberg, and Ferlingheti for impolite behavior. The Condor Club, 300 Columbus Ave., is where exotic dancer Carol Doda performed the first topless and all nude public dances. Then we went west for a few blocks on Columbus Ave., the heart of the hippie-beatnik scene. Our local host pointed out the house where the poet Alan Ginsberg lived, a bar, where Jack Kerouac drank, etc. After a couple blocks, we reversed course and returned to Columbus Ave., heading toward the Financial District. Just around the corner on Broadway at Columbus, we saw the Hungry i nightclub, still in business, but now, live porn on stage instead of the Kingston Trio.

Columbus Ave. goes downhill to the Transamerica Pyramid, nicely lit at night. We went around the Transamerica Pyramid toward the Park Hyatt Hotel to visit the lobby with its tiers of rooms and an interesting fountain. Somewhere in here, we passed the original Bank of America Building (470 California St.) with views through the large windows of the grand marble lobby, and the Bank of America Tower, 555 California St., with its art in the plaza. From the Park Hyatt, we crossed the street to the Embarcadero Center, a collection of skyscrapers, out door art, gardens, and shops. At the Bay end of the Embarcadero Center, we went down the spiral walkway above another of San Francisco’s many fountains to Market St. where we caught the F trolley back to our hotel. The F trolley on Market is an functional museum. MUNI, San Francisco’s public transit company, has restored a collection of old street cars to operating condition and uses them on the F line (Market St. to the Ferry Building to Fisherman’s Wharf). Almost every trolley is different from the last to go by.

Back at our hotel, the San Francisco Marriott, we went up to the bar on the 39th floor for a a drink ($10 for a glass of wine) and the view. This is an OK view, if you in the area, but it is not one of San Francisco’s top views for above (it is bettered by the Crown Room at the Fairmont Hotel, if it is open; the restaurant on top of the Bank of America tower, and Coit Tower).

With dinner, this stroll around downtown San Francisco took 5-6 hours, and was most pleasant.

A Sunday in San Francisco

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by Wasatch on September 16, 2008

Led by our local host, this is what we did on our first full day in San Francisco. The described itinerary took 11 hours, starting around 11:00am. We took the # 2 bus from Market St. near our hotel to the California Legion of Honor, an art museum featuring a collection of French Impressionist Art. We go off the bus at Clement & 34th Ave. and walked the quarter mile to the Legion Of Honor on Legion of Honor Dr. , a nice stroll through a park and golf course.

The Legion of Honor is small(hooray) art museum with a nice collection of stuff from various ages. I liked the rooms of French Baroque interiors, which have some excellent examples of inlaid furniture, and the Impressionist art collection. There was also a temporary exhibition of the works of female impressionists and four impressive works by Dale Chihuly, which may have been a temporary display.

After visiting the museum, we returned to Clement St. for the return trip to downtown. Clement St. runs thorough the heart of New Chinatown(Clement St. between 22nd and 12th Ave.), the area where many Chinese moved to after the end of residential segregation that penned them up in the Grant St. area. We wanted to eat Dim Sum in San Francisco, so we got off the bus at about 10th St. and started walking along Clement to find a dim sum restaurant. The first place we came to had few customers at 1:30pm, so we passed. Here’s a hint: the way to find a good dim sum restaurant if you don’t know the area is to look for one with lots of Chinese eating well beyond the usual lunch hour. Our second spot was a winner. The Tong Palace was nearly packed. With Chinese. Most of the staff spoke no English, another plus.

After lunch, we returned the # 2 bus for our third ride, noting that our transfer had just expired, so we owed another 50 cents for a senior citizen trip. We saw that. The bus driver didn’t, so we rode the bus for about three hours, with two stops, for 50 cents each. The # 2 bus is a good sightseeing ride which took us past fine examples of various styles of San Francisco architecture, including glimpses of Japantown and St Mary’s Cathedral.

Our local host vetoed a visit to Japantown, describing it as a shopping center in pagodas. He also told us that locals know St Mary’s Church as St Mary Maytag, reflecting the odd but striking design of the steeple, which looks something like the thing that goes around inside a clothes washer.

Back at Market St., we transferred to the F line trolley to Ferry Plaza. Traveling from inland toward the Bay, the streets intersecting Market St. are numbered and count down, but after passing 1st St., the cross streets acquire names, not numbers. This is because 1st St. was at the time the city was laid out, the waterfront. Later on, to expand downtown, the shallows of the Bay was filled in, and the new streets were given names.

We got off the trolley at Ferry Plaza, walked across the plaza through a small crafts market, to look at the view of the Embarcadero Center and the odd fountain at the west end of the plaza.

Facing the Ferry Building, the Sausalito ferry’s dock is behind the right end of the building. We bought our tickets, $7.35 round trip for seniors, and having more than an hour to kill before departure, went inside the ferry blinding, now a gentrified mall full of yuppie shops.

The ferry ride to Sausalito is one of the high points of any visit to San Francisco. It leaves the dock heading out into the Bay, traveling parallel to the Bay Bridge. Then it turns west, passing between Treasure Island and Alcatraz. Soon Angel Island goes by on the right, and the ferry heads toward Sausalito and nearby Tiburon with good views of the Golden Gate just to the left. Sausalito is an attractive little village, with lots of shops and a few restaurants along the streets and shore. There are three restaurants on the shore where, if you can score a window table, you will have a top rated view of the San Francisco skyline across the Bay.

One of the restaurants, Horizon’s was formerly the Trident, another famous spot during the beat era. I don’t remember the dinner I had at the Trident, but the setting and view of San Francisco as the sun set and the city lights came on at night was spectacular. And this brings up the seasons. The trip to Sausalito when the days are shorter is as fine as mid summer. Try to get there in daylight, and return after dark for the best views of the skyline.

Disembarking from the ferry, we walked left along the waterfront to the Trident, passing an artist on the breakwater who was piling up stones by balance- impressive. They we walked back to the Spinnaker exploring the few street of Sausalito than are at sea level. There was a 45 minute wait for dinner at the Spinnaker, so we decided to return to the city for dinner.

We caught the 6:30 ferry back to San Francisco. With sun beginning to go down in the west behind the Golden Gate, the late afternoon lighting was like a spotlight on the San Francisco skyline.

Back at Ferry Plaza, we went left on Stuart St. to the bus stop for a bus running out Mission St. Just down the and across the street, the low brick building on the corner is one of the few downtown buildings to survive the Earthquake and fire. Our local host led us off the bus at Mission and 9th St. and walked us one block down 9th to the corner of Howard to our dinner destination, AsiaSF, where three guys in black suits who looked like the Green Bay Packers defensive line standing just outside the door told us it was booked solid. One of the guys, the left tackle I believe, handed me a brochure. I read it understood why our local host promised "something special" for dinner. Asia SF is a restaurant with a twist. The twist: every hour, the bar converts to a runway and the "waitress", all Filipino transvestites, put on a stage show.

We hoped the bus, and headed for Polk St. to a fine seafood restaurant our host knew. When we arrived, it had disappeared, having gone out of business since the last time he was there. He then led us a couple blocks down the street to Modern Thai, a terrific Thai restaurant at 1247 Polk St. Be sure to order V rolls.

After dinner, we took the bus back to our hotel, ending a fine day in San Francisco at about 10:30pm.

Some are Musts for Every Visitor

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Wasatch on September 19, 2008

Around 10:30am we headed over to Market St. and took the crowded F line trolley to the Waterfront, disembarking at Pier 39. As our local host led us out Pier 39, I recalled that I told him earlier that we didn’t particularly want to go the Waterfront, so I asked him, "Why did you bring us here?" His answer was "Everybody wants to come here". I said, "Everybody is wrong." He did not disagree, and he will argue with me about anything at the drop of hat. The Waterfront– Fisherman’s Wharf to Pier 39-- is tourist trap of monumental proportions, overpriced and overrun with tourists who don’t know they should have stayed away and seen things worth seeing. The best thing to say about it is that it is not as tacky San Francisco’s other over hyped tourist trap, Chinatown. Skip both of them.

Still, we found some minor amusements. Pier 39 is so gross that it’s kind of fun in a warped way. The colony of sea lions, easier to get to than those at Seal Rock, that hangs out near Pier 39 is best seen from Pier 41. The Victorian game machines museum on Pier 43 are almost worth a trip to the waterfront(free entry, 25-50 cents to make the things go)– see the great Earthquake in live 3-D photos. A commercial attraction next to the Victorian Games museum has visits of WWII Liberty ship and WWII submarine(fee). The National Maritime Museum on Hyde St Pier has a collection of old ships that can be sometimes visited. The problem is the staff shortages in the National Park Service brought about by conservative Republican budget cutting. At high noon on our visit, only two of nearly a dozen ships were open. After visiting the Maritime Museum, where you do not want to miss the rest rooms where a sign explains the origins of "the head" as slang for the toilet, we had a nice, expensive lunch at nearby Scoma’s.

After lunch we headed for the Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill by cab ($10). Our host explained that the bus to Coit Tower ran infrequently, so taxi was best. The view from the top of Coit Tower is one of the must see sights of San Francisco, a 360 degree panorama of the city, hills, Bay, Alcatraz, the Golden Gate, the Bay Bridge, etc. The interior of Coit Tower was decorated with murals of the city by the first WPA Arts project. Our host told us to be sure to walk down from the top because the murals went all the way up, but the stairs were closed, so we looked at the murals around the entrance level.

On leaving Coit Tower, we turned right at the bottom of the steps, crossed the street, and descended 2-3 more steps, turned right, and were on the sidewalk to the Greenwich Steps, one of San Francisco’s streets that is much too steep for vehicles or even a sidewalk. It is a stairway going down nearly 200 ft. from the top of Telegraph Hill. Since the stairs do not take up as much space as a street, a retired San Francisco teacher organized planting gardens on both sides of the stairs. Several times on our way down, the parrot flock living on Telegraph Hill flew over. You know them by the fast speed they fly and by the screeches they make.

Part way down the Greenwich steps, we came to a street. Our host pointed out the white four story apartment building across the street, and told us it was the place where fugitive Humphrey Bogart holed up with Lauren Bacall in the movie "Dark Passage." Then more steps, more steps, and still more steps. The last 40 feet or so(vertical drop) are very steep, descending a nearly perpendicular cliff to Sansome St. where we paused to watch the Giro de San Francisco bicycle race fly by. We crossed into Levi’s Park, which has a couple of attractive fountains, and on the other side of the park, watched a few more laps of the race on Battery. We followed Battery down to the Embarcedro and caught a cab to go to Alamo Square ($20).

San Francisco’s Victorian Houses are as emblematic of the city as the Golden Gate Bridge, and Alamo Square, another must see stop, is hard to beat for Victorian houses. The classic view is from near the corner of Hayes & Steiner. Looking across the grassy park, a row of painted Victorians lines the opposite side of Steiner St. with the skyline of the Financial District rising behind the old houses. We then walked diagonally across Alamo square to the corner of Scott and Fulton where one of San Francisco fine Victorian Mansions is located. Then we headed away from downtown on Fulton St. For 3-4 blocks packed with Victorians to the corner of Baker or Lyon St. where there is a grand collection of Victorians on both sides of the street, starting at the intersection with Fulton.

We caught the bus on Divisadoro for a long trip across the Castro to a Mitchell’s Ice Cream Parlor, a San Francisco institution, according to our host. It was a warm, sunny holiday afternoon, and the wait in line (take a number) was one hour. For an ice cream cone. It was an excellent ice cream cone.

Then we walked a couple blocks to Mission St. and took the bus back downtown, thorough the heart of the Mission District and set out for dinner. Many San Francisco restaurants close on Mondays, especially holiday Mondays, it seems. We expressed a desire for French to our local host who suggested a French restaurant almost across the street from out hotel. We went there first, looked at the menu in the lobby, and decided it was too pricey, so we took the bus to the South Park Cafe, a bistro recommended in the Lonely Planet Guide, which said it was open on Monday's, only to arrive and find it was closed all Labor Day Weekend for remodeling. Off we went to a San Francisco classic, the Tadich Grill, which was also closed. Walking from the Tadich Grill to Market St., we saw not one other restaurant, so we took the F line trolley back to 4th St. to return to the French restaurant across the street from the Marriott, and discovered it was closed, despite displaying the menu in the lobby of the hotel where it was located. That was enough. We knew that just around the corner on Mission from 4th St. where there were three 24-7 places to eat: Jack in the Box, Denny's, and a outpost of the local Mel's Diner chain. Mel's was not unknown to our local host, and that's where we finally dined. Twelve hours after leaving our hotel, we were back, the end of a great day of sightseeing.

Cable Cars and Getting Around

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by Wasatch on October 3, 2008

For visitors, a cable car ride is a must do, but it used to be a lot better. Over the last 30 years, cable cars have been transformed from part of the local mass transit system with some tourists to a tourist attraction shunned by locals because of the high price ($5 a ride) and the crowds. It costs $5 a ride on the cable cars. A 1 or 3 day pass for San Francisco Muni (cable cars, trollies, and buses) is $11 or $18. If you can ride the cable car 3 times a day you save a little, but when we saw the line at the Powell St. terminal, we skipped riding the cable cars altogether. Also, it looked like it was mostly impossible to hop on one in between the termini because they were so crowded. The best chance of getting a ride is either very early in the morning or on the California St. line, which, except for going up Nob Hill does not go anywhere of major touristic interest.

The Powell -Hyde line runs from Powell and Market, starting three blocks beyond Union Square at Market St., to Hyde St one block from the Embarcadero. The Powell-Taylor line ends three block form the Embarcadero on Taylor. The California St line goes straight out California St from Market, up and over Nob Hill.

There are three places to ride a cable car, inside, outside, or standing inside or outside. By far the best ride is to stand outside (the rear of the cable car). This is done by grabbing a hold of one of the 4 poles running from floor to ceiling on the bottom step of the outside seats. Basically, you hang on with your hands and feet and your ass hangs out in the street. Adventuresome riders try to smack passing cars with one hand as they pass. Pole hanging on a cable car is as much fun as San Francisco roller coaster.

San Francisco roller coaster works like this. Take your car to the top of Nob Hill, point downhill, the bigger the down hill the better. Get yourself stopped as the first car at red light. When the light turns green, floor it and keep going until another red light stops you. The car chase sequence in the movie "Bullet" features San Francisco roller coaster. San Francisco roller coaster is not advised, but I have done it, with somebody from San Francisco driving. It is a blast.

Back to cable cars. The worst place to sit or stand is inside, where, like a bus, seats face froward. Outside seats face to the side of the street, so you get a great view of the buildings, albeit only on one side of the street. If inside, the front seat (and outside pole hanging) gives the best view for going downhill, and you do want to see the view ahead when the thing goes downhill. The best hill views are the descent from Nob Hill, especially Hyde St. Toward the rear of the outside seats also gives a good view when going up hill. When pole hanging, you can look to the front or to the back and get the full hill view whichever way you are going.

Access to the rear seats is by climbing up the rear of the car. The front door only accesses inside seats.

The cable car operator uses a bell to signal traffic on crossing streets that a cable car is about to cross the intersection. Each operator has a signature bell ring. Most are rhythmically very elaborate. Be sure to listen. And if you can, which isn’t easy inside the sardine can that is a cable car full of tourists, watch the operator operate. The large lever sticking up from the floor is a clamp that grabs a hold of the cable(you can hear the cable rattle in its underground tunnel from the street) running under the street in the center of the cable car. To apply the brakes, the operator releases the grip on the cable. To go, he pulls it tight. Other levers control the brakes.

So go ride the cable car once for the experience, but don’t count on it for easy transportation around the city because it is expensive and you will wait and wait and then wait some more.

For a big city with narrow streets, traffic moves fairly well in San Francisco much of the time, perhaps because parking is so expensive. The visitor can pretty much forget about finding an on street parking place. That leaves you with parking lots. I saw one near the Ferry Bldg. for $18 a day. The Marriott charged $50 a day. The best thing to say about having a car in San Francisco is that it is the least expensive way to take the 49 Mile Scenic Drive around the city, not counting parking costs. On the other hand, there are tour busses that do it.

Tour busses are not cheap, but they are decent way to see the sights. There is one company that operates a hop on, hop off double decker bus– sit on the open upper deck– for $20-35 a day. Otherwise, if you have never seen a Redwood forest, and if you do not have a car, which you should not have, the tour bus trip to Muir Woods is a must do day.

San Francisco is a good walking city, especially if you have local host who knows how to take you uphill by bus and then walk down past the sights. Some of the better walks are 1] a tour of the fountains of the financial district (our local host knows this. I don’t know how you can do it on your own, but see what you can Google); 2] take the ferry to Sausalito, then walk back over the Golden Gate bridge and though the Presidio; 3] downhill from any place.

If you are not going to gamble on being able to use cable cars for routine trips, consider not getting a day or multi-day pass. Other Muni(busses, trolley) rides cost $1.50 per trip (50 cents for seniors) and include a transfer that is good for unlimited riding for 90 minutes, but figure two hours as the transfer slips are only approximate in their timing.

The F line trolley, along Market St and then to Fisherman’s wharf, is a working museum of old, authentic trolley cars. During high season, it is packed with tourists making the mistake of visiting Fisherman’s Wharf. If you stay at hotel near the Civic Center, you stand a chance of actually getting on board.

BART is not part of the Muni system, and charges by distance traveled. It is of little use to the visitor except for the lines to SFO and Oakland Airport. It is also exceptionally noisy, you don’t want to ride BART if it can be avoided.

The least expensive way to get to SFO is by bus. It leaves the Transbay Bay terminal every 30 minutes and makes several stops on Market St. The Airport express bus does not allow luggage on board. BART from downtown to SFO costs $5-6, you can take luggage, and don’t have to worry about traffic tie ups on the expressway. It takes about an hour.

To use BART, find the fare card machines, look up the cost to your destination, insert cash or credit cad in the ticket machine, select the cost of your fare (it starts at $20, handy for commuters, but tourists have to work down), etc. The ticket machine will issue a ticket. Insert it in the gate to enter. Keep the ticket, because you have to insert in the gate to exit at your destination. If you entered the exact fare, the gate opens and the machine eats your ticket. If you entered too much or too little, the farecard pops out of the gate machine.

Ferries operate from behind the Ferry Building to Angel Island State Park and to several bedroom communities across the Bay, including Oakland and Sausalito. The ferry rides, especially the Sausalito Ferry, are great sightseeing trips.


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