It’s the city of sunshine, Teslas, and billboards that scream of tech.
My first time in San Francisco was in 2016 with my family. We tacked on a few days at Lake Tahoe, which was an event in itself. From that point on, I knew the region would call me back. Why? It’s breathtaking.
The food, the landscape, and the freedom you feel while driving the many highways and hiking the trails are surreal. The people are equally dynamic. It’s eccentric, competitive and energized, all wrapped up in one great, American mix.
There’s a reason northern California has a bitter rivalry with its southern counterpart.
San Francisco and the Bay Area are home to just about every company that’s created the digital age we now live in. By chance, I’m in that industry, which made my recent trip feel more semi-local.
Inadvertently, my first internship in college was at the food and business review site mecca that is Yelp. It’s headquartered in SF and constitutes how I spent the better half of my adolescent free time. Back then, I had a commitment to Yelp (v.) my food encounters that was beyond socially-acceptable standards. It was a wonder to most I met.
Why the interest? First of all, my parents hated cooking. Growing up, family dinner most often meant a trip to a restaurant in town. You can read all about that here. Unearthing the right place to try based on reviews, research, and the like, also fueled the investigative side in me. It even pushed me to get a degree in Journalism, but more on that later.
I found a community in the strangers that I called my Yelp friends.
Via Yelp, I was connected to a group that had one thing in common: an unmatched interest in food. Many of the users were decades older than me, but we discussed all things culinary with a zest I admire to this day. Discovering new restaurants and cafes, alongside equally-eager Yelpers felt like all I needed to enjoy this life. There’s something to be said for how happy I was during that trip and throughout my Yelp days.
Rest assured, when I heard that a trip to SF was brewing from my parents, I did my research. I scoped the streets with Google Maps and used Yelp to ensure no local ground was left untouched or restaurant uncovered.
I went on to find us the best donuts, most-consumed coffee, and a Mission burrito to leave us speechless.
To the exhaustion of my family, the trip followed in a similar fashion of investigation. With a car, the search was sped up to a reasonable pace. We drove down alleys for cappuccinos, and I jumped out of our nearly-moving vehicle to snag a spot in line at Bi-Rite Creamery.
Did the pancakes at Plow live up to the thousands of photos that detailed each nook? Yes.
Why is that one Blue Bottle so terribly located down an alley? It works.
How praise-worthy is the mint mojito iced coffee from Philz? Just look.
Yelp was the first example of a combined approach of my two loves and talents: food and writing. While I’m still exploring how to meld these for a sustainable living, for now, I’m happy to share my tips on travel and eats, not without a few words of wisdom.
In another unexpected landing in SF, this is what I found.
Tip #1 – Grab a coffee to sip behind the Ferry Building
It’s a center point for all visitors, but there’s something to it. Check inside for artisan shops and, however overpriced, SF local goods and mainstays. The building is incomplete without Blue Bottle Coffee. They even have two. So grab an iced coffee – New Orleans Style or regular – if not an oat cappuccino in a compostable cup and head out the back. The view is tremendous, overlooking the Oakland Bay Bridge.
Blue sky, sunshine, and plenty of daring birds will greet you with a sunny SF embrace.
While you’re at it, Humphrey Slocombe ice cream is one of the city’s finest. Olive oil, peanut butter curry, and secret breakfast are some of the wacky flavors you will find. It’s a paradise for cultured adults who can’t shake the kid at heart. Don’t worry if it’s only 9 a.m. (they open early on the weekends), you can take a stroll after to subdue the guilt.
Tip #2 – Walk along the piers to be a real tourist
An ice cream-induced feeling of self-loathing warrants a walk along the piers. It’s okay, rip the bandaid off and accept that today, you are a tourist.
Head in the direction of the Golden Gate Bridge, and you’ll see why locals avoid this area but love their city.
Joggers hustle past trick-bikers and visitors with selfie-sticks, but at least you have that bay view. Oh, if you want to fully immerse yourself in the world of tourism, pay a visit to the seals at the waters’ edge of Pier 39.
Tip #3 – Take an Uber across the Golden Gate Bridge
This landmark is impressive and the view, tremendous. In appreciating both, you’ll realize just why many locals are willing to commute for hours on end. There’s a lookout point on the other side where you can glance back at SF. The cityscape and water look massive, when in fact San Francisco is not too large in the scale of urban ranks.
It’s a short drive to the town just below the bridge on the opposite side. There you’ll find Sausalito, which is certainly a sight to see.
Sausalito is like a movie set. It hosts boutiques, a water-side bar, and plenty of glitzy homes that manage to look quaint.
If you have time on the ride back to SF, hit the Marina district. There are plenty of restaurants on Chestnut Street. We enjoyed the sushi bar Momonoko.
Tip #4 – Try Cala for upscale Mexican tapas in Mission
Cala is Mexican food with an innovative twist. The chef-owner Gabriela Cámara has a respected restaurant in Mexico City as well. She recently announced she’s leaving San Francisco to work for the Mexican President if that’s not a clear sign of genius itself.
On the menu, we tried:
- King trumpet mushrooms, bottarga, and kale
This tasted like squid. The texture was incredible, served cold, which made the slightly-vinegary-acidic flavor shine with the natural taste of the mushroom.
- Grilled oysters with black pepper and epazote
You have not tasted oysters until you’ve tried them grilled.
The charred, yet non-smoky, flavor of the oyster meat is insane. Supplemented with a generous bit of fat – likely butter – and you have one, ever-so-satisfying slurp.
Squid, new potatoes, roasted bell pepper, and herbs
Grilled squid is my favorite and rarely done well. This is ideally served alongside roasted potatoes to create a dish of tremendous depth, especially for such humble ingredients.
Quesadilla with mushroom, nettles, and requesón
How can you pass on classic Mexican fare, even in a mid-upscale setting? There’s not much that can go wrong with a quesadilla, but the mushroom was yet again expertly cooked.
Sweet potato with bone marrow salsa negra
You must appreciate smoky to enjoy this bone marrow salsa negra. The variation is inventive as the bone marrow is melded together with the salsa negra, rather than traditionally served in-bone. Still, the charred-to-black effect on the sweet potato offers a beautiful presentation in contrast with the deep orange of its pillowy interior.
Buñuelo with requesón, persimmon, and pomegranate
Permission is an underused fruit that deserves more respect.
The subtle sweetness and tender bite of the fruit were exactly what this dessert of ricotta and fried dough needed. The pomegranate and drizzle of caramel sauce on top were just right.
For an even more luxurious evening to remember, I found one of my favorite ciders to date. From Spain and not sweet in the least, this brew was perfectly sour and light.
One tip for Cala: be sure to get a reservation.
Tip #5 – Taste the sourdough bread at the iconic Tartine
Tartine Manufactory serves great meals for proper dinner, but if you can’t snag a reservation, try sitting at the bar. You can then at least try their famous sourdough bread.
The bread at Tartine has air pockets to smile at.
The flavor is iconic and a testament to SF’s rep as the home of sourdough. As history has it, it has something to do with the water? We tried ours with sea salt, butter, and spicy kimchi. Whoever thought to combine this into an acceptable starter was some sort of prodigy.
PSA: bread belongs with kimchi.
Tip #6 – Don’t skip on Blue Bottle Coffee, every day
This feature deserves its own tip entirely considering my personal inclination, and, simply, Blue Bottle Coffee is all around the city. It’s hard to resist a follow-up order of your favorite, but try as many drinks as you can. I guarantee one after the other will impress you.
My recent amazement was met with a cup of cold brew that stayed chilled for hours. The coffee cup was insulated as I’ve never seen before – either that or it was magic. I love most drinks they make, but I especially reorder the simple iced coffee and the New Orleans-style iced.
The New Orleans-style iced coffee is made with roasted chicory, which is apparently typical in New Orleans. It’s brewed for 12 hours.
Both of the above aspects lend a decadent flavor without the need for excessive amounts of cream.
Tip #7 – Make the trip to Taishoken Ramen in San Mateo
While off the path of an ordinary trip to downtown SF, this option is made for those working in San Mateo or for some reason, passing through. The town is suburb-like and hosts plenty of offices.
Oh, and ramen.
Colleagues recommended Taishoken. The inside of the restaurant is lined with a fake stream of flames that hover along the backside of the booths. It’s a nice touch and makes for some nice photo moments. Before my visit to Taishoken, I wasn’t especially fond of ramen. After this meal, I was converted.
You have two options: traditional ramen combined with broth and noodles and tsukemen. The latter involves dipping noodles into a separate broth. I felt adventurous and tried the second option. The noodles were buckwheat, and therefore hearty and great.
We tried a matcha beer from Kyoto.
Tip #8 – Visit Palo Alto for a cocktail and bite at Bird Dog
Palo Alto is home to Stanford, which means that plenty of luxury vehicles grace the neighborly streets where palm trees abound. It’s a far cry from the typical ‘college’ town, but that’s Stanford for you. In any case, if you want the potential to spot a celebrity or at least the rich and famous, pop into Bird Dog.
Sample a few shared plates for dinner and start it off with a cocktail at the bar. The vibe and lighting at Bird Dog would have you think you’re in a movie. The kitchen is exposed, which is a scene to witness.
Expertly plating under a golden-hued light, the chefs know their craft.
It’s not as culinarily-esteemed as some of its city’s finest, but you know you’ll enjoy your time here if only for the people watching.
After a quick Google investigation, I came across an article mentioning that Calvin Coolidge, 30th President of the United States, had an English setter bird dog named Palo Alto. I wonder if there’s a relation.
Tip #9 – S(l)ip away into wine country—Napa Valley
If you have time on your side, drive up due north for some sips at the France of the U.S. There’s a reason most of the country’s wine comes from one region and why it’s so visited. The rolling hills of Napa speak of the rich grapes and vino they host.
Napa is vibrant with vineyards and teeming with varietals to explore.
Oxbow Public Market is also a great stop for lunch. It’s an indoor market offering foods and wines from the area.
Don’t let the crowds get to you. With a bit of research, you can ensure you escape the brunt of the visitor’s path. Be warned that the more you do, the more you’re bound to hit clientele with deep pockets and attitudes to match.
Tip #10 – Escape to the mountainy slopes—Lake Tahoe
This is fun for all. Whether you’re a family looking for a vacation, a couple seeking out your next adventure or solo with your pals, don’t pass out on a time at Tahoe.
The image of the blue lake is utterly frozen in my memory as one of the most beautiful sights I’ve seen to date.
It’s blue as the depths of the ocean, yet unique to that. This is all without mentioning the skiing.
In one minute you’ll be shredding through the snow at your feet and sweating under the hot sun. The next minute, you’ll look out at the summer-like view of lake and forest and wonder where you are. The resorts are Heavenly, quite literally as the one I stayed at, and likely most visited, is called Heavenly.
Don’t be shy if you’re a newbie to skiing. Lessons are exactly what they do.
Cuddle up to a fireplace by night, and rest your sore limbs. By day, you’ll be under the sun, pool, snow, and everything in between.
One last thing: soak up the fresh mountain air for me because I miss this vibe.