What to do with 48+ hours, a fun friend, and a city with endless options? Behold – my 2017 Girls’ weekend in San Francisco:
When I start my trip planning, I’m always thinking in the back of my mind about endless security lines and long waits. The reality? My recent quick-trip to San Francisco was a breeze! TSA pre-check with Alaska Airlines certainly helped, and with a little extra time, my gal-pal and I were ready to hit the city’s restaurants from one end to the other. With barely enough time for a fruit-and-cheese plate, our flight had nary a bump and in what seemed like just over an hour we were already in the city by the bay.
As usual, I’d done my homework with regards to where we’d be resting our heads on this girls’ weekend. Just around the corner from San Francisco’s Union Square sits tucked-away Hotel G. The minute we entered the sparse-yet-historic lobby, our front desk agent J.R. made sure we’d be comfortable in our corner room and gave us the stellar suggestion for a late-night nibbles (and drinks) in their tucked-away speakeasy – Benjamin Cooper (likely named after a fictitious San Franciscan who likely hid away like we did with soft lighting, champagne and oysters nightly).
Our room was just as ordered: A roomy ‘Greatest King’ with ample space to stretch our legs (and accompanying baggage) in an old-meets-new decor. Hotel G’s 2015 renovation brought all the necessary amenities we loved, yet harkened back to the building’s 1909 bones (opening originally as the Fielding Hotel). Polished cement floors were artfully topped with comfy rugs, a spacious marble-clad table, and plenty of room for each of us to have our own space. And, oh! That shower … !
Our first full day brought just a tiny breakfast (despite a plethora of options in and around Union Square) in anticipation of our scheduled food tour in the city’s Mission District. Having been to San Francisco frequently over the last 10 years, I felt like I’d seen and done most of the typical (might I say touristy?) must-see’s in the city. Sonoma and Napa were on my list, but the only tour available from downtown was solidly booked by the time I start looking. Fortunately, through the recommendation of a favorite Seattle food tour company, I found my way to Avital Tours. Our afternoon could not have been better!
Starting off at the Mission’s Women’s Center in this hip-yet-historic neighborhood, we were immediately in awe of the vibrant building and our guide Kyla’s story of the renaissance of this century’s old neighborhood – San Francisco’s oldest! And then came the food …
First stop on the tour was a nondescript storefront just off Valencia and 18th in the heart of the Mission. Our guide handed us off to Alex – a veritable encyclopedia of fromagery at Mission Cheese. Alex deftly walked us through the intricacies and subtle tastes from goat to cow to sheep’s cheese and left me feeling as if I could spend an entire weekend just in their tiny shop. But alas, our guide had other ideas.
The Mission’s roots are those of Spain’s Father Francisco Palou, thus our next two stops embraced this spicy Spanish influence. Tacolicious was our first stop. Admittedly, I thought it odd that a local chain would be chosen for the tour. Within minutes of tasting their cod tacos, however, that fleeting thought turned into gastronomic glee. Their baja-style Pacific cod tacos included a sprinkling of cabbage, a spicy cumin crema, and was accompanied by a trio of sauces sweet-to-spicy. The perfect-pairing continued with teaser-sized chupitos awash with flavors of habanero, lime and passionfruit as well as tropical coconut and pineapple. I’ve never seen chupitos on Seattle bar menus, but look forward to hunting for these boozy, refreshing gems once I’m back home.
Just a block or two down we followed our guide to Gracias Madre. Proprietors Matthew and Terces Engelhart bestowed their love of food to the city in the form of a vegan, organic plant-based, non-GMO Mexican restaurant at 22nd & Mission St. This being the entree portion of the tour, I had concern that this wouldn’t fulfill my stomach’s lunching needs. Boy was I wrong! Gracias Madre’s Quesadilla de Calabaza, with butternut squash, pepitos, caramelized onion and a delicious drizzle of spicy crema may have been the highlight of the tour. With spices running just north of medium heat, the sweet tones of the squash sang! My stomach was sated. 🙂
Back out the door, we continued a few blocks more to SF specialty grocery mecca Bi-Rite Market, and their opposite-side-of-the-street sister ice cream bar Bi-Rite Creamery. Although I loved perusing the market’s unique offerings, my mind really was on the ice cream across 18th street. Coming from the land of Molly Moon’s salted caramel ice cream, I wondered how this little hole-in-the-wall’s frozen custard would hold muster – and was not disappointed. My thought is they’ve brought the caramel just to the point between “perfect” and “burned”, but stop spot-on on the perfect side of burned. Ridiculously creamy, this was indeed the ideal ending to a delicious foray through the tasty Mission District.
Wondering how I could top this day? My gluttonous self had already planned ahead (and put all my eggs in one basket, so to speak) by reserving a second tour with Avital Tours the following day – but in an area I’d already thoroughly explored on an earlier trip. Ends up my previous exploration included the more touristy end of the North Beach district. My first experience included bad Italian accents, stale bread, and the motherlode of just-off-the-bus tourists. Fortunately, my foodie guide this day – Tolan – knew just where to go to see the real North Beach. Tolan told stories back to the days of the red light district of the city’s Barbary Coast history with crusty bars, seedy brothels and new immigrants. Fortunately, she had just as many ideas on how to nibble our way through this ‘Little Italy’ hood as she had stories about its past.
Our first appetizer was from neighborhood anchor Sotto Mare (translating literally to “under the sea”) – where we “dove” into their private downstairs room to partake in a feast of cioppino. Massive bowls of this traditional Italian fisherman’s stew appeared at our table brimming with clams, mussels, scallops, prawns and shrimp. Did I mention this was the appetizer? I struggled to focus on the story of San Francisco’s fishermen inventing the stew as they “chipped in” their daily catches (hence the name – cioppino), as I found myself gluttonously soaking up broth with their specialty sourdough (made uniquely for them by Boudin Baking). I suddenly feared that pacing oneself would be important in making it through to our dessert course. But I digress …
Next stop was at 15 Romolo – a warm oasis with moody lighting spectacular drinks and equally tasty Basque croquettes. Again, I found my stomach pushing common sense aside as I indulged in a more-than-hearty serving of these piping-hot, traditional fritter-like crispy cakes. For over a century Basque borders likely stomped in on the same time-worn wooden floors and enjoyed tasty creations and lively conversation much as we did this afternoon, although I doubt they were ordering the same pitchers of Pimm’s Cup (with house-made ginger syrup) we gleefully embibed in. If walls could talk!
From there, Tolan led us meandering up and down, over and under, north and south – all the while regaling us of stories tawdry and inspiring until our arrival at Tommaso’s. Again, with a hole-in-the-wall look, this 80+ year part of the North Beach neighborhood was brimming with history. Current owner Agostino Crotti told us his story from alter boy for Pope Paul VI, to operating a pizzeria and Italian community center boasting the first wood-fired brick pizza oven on the West coast. Stories were as plentiful from this colorful patriarch of pizza, as were the pies coming from his oven one after another. After consuming what seemed an impossible amount of spectacular Neopolitan-stye pizzas, we were once again herded out towards our final destination just a few more blocks away.
To refer to Cavalli Cafe as “unassuming” would be an understatement, yet their cannoli’s were anything but! The cafe space was a bit spartan, but was clearly just leaving room for their show-stealing desserts. Admittedly, I’d never had this traditional Sicilian sweet-treat before. Their freshly-fried pastry dough was hand-filled with an unctuous-sweet filling of ricotta. Not only the perfect dessert, but also the tastiest of endings to a spectacular adventure both with Avital Tours.
And if you didn’t think I’d have room for another meal in San Francisco? Think again! My last hurrah was back to the Mission District for brunch just prior to boarding my Alaska Airlines flight back to Seattle. Mission Beach Cafe‘s organic offerings had just what I’d been lusting after: A menu with an abundance of eggs Benedict options. Fortunately, my dining partner and I were able to swap benny-for-benny so I could enjoy both their Fried Green Tomato Benny with a sweet smatter of bacon, pickled onions, spicy red pepper sauce as well as their Spinach and Crimini Mushroom Benedict smothered with caramelized onions and topped with a decadent truffle mornay. And if those mimosas look larger-than-life to you? It’s because they were!
Back in Seattle, I’ll be getting back to walking my local trails (with my stretchiest of pants) after an indulgent weekend, thanks to the tasty offerings of the city by the bay.