San Francisco is a food lover's paradise. The quality and competition among restaurants is so intense, that many restaurants have gala openings only to close down as the fad passes. The main trick is to get good service, extraordinary quality, and reasonable portions. Restaurants creating apparently artful but food wise stingy plates leave the patron feeling like a joke has been played on them. These are the restaurants that open up quickly for the tourist buck and then close down quickly when word gets around. Since reviews are so often stale, I recommend SFgate.com, which has timely updates, as well as a search engine by type of cusine and location in town. Just be careful to avoid finding a great restaurant out of town, as this database does include a few of these extra-Bay area restaurants too. This website also includes great uptodate articles about what else is happening around town in terms of food and entertainment.
A BRIEF, SELECTIVE, AND OPINIONATED HISTORY OF SAN FRANCISCO
The Gold Rush
Very little exists of pre-Gold Rush San Francisco. Before news of the gold discovery at Sutter's Mill hit, San Francisco was a sleepy little town of about 2,000 or so, nestled around Yerba Buena Cove. In May of 1848, Sam Brannan rode his horse through Portsmouth Square, and, in an event almost equal to Paul Revere's ride, brought news of the gold strike at Sutter's Mill in the Sierra foothills, screaming "Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!." Within 2 years, SF's population went from 2,000 to 25,000; by 1860 it was 56,000, and by 1870 it had grown to 150,000.
San Francisco became synonymous with sin, and the Barbary Coast was a legendary vice district. Lawlessness was rampant, but vigilante groups (some of them formed by the previously mentioned Brannan himself) were a strong counterforce, and were largely successful in weeding out many of the more serious criminals. It's safe to say that San Francisco may not have become the city that it is without the efforts of these vigilantes.
San Francisco continued to grow and grow, taking its place among the great cities of the world. And then....WHAMMO!
The 'Big One' - 1906 earthquake and fire
It's hard to really grasp the significance of the 1906 earthquake these days, but I'd say it's easily in the top 5 worst disasters in American history. You have to remember that, at the time, San Francisco was by far the largest and most important city west of the Mississippi River (and would continue to be until surpassed by Los Angeles in the mid 1910's). It was the heart of the new west, and the earthquake utterly destroyed it, seemingly for good. But the city-folk proved to be a resourceful lot, and in seemingly no time at all San Francisco was back on its' feet.
Fondest memory: Contrary to the notion that the entire city was destroyed, there is still quite a bit of pre-1906 architecture to be seen and appreciated (I, in fact, live in a building that was built in 1886!). You just won't find much of it downtown, for obvious reasons. The exception is the Jackson Square Historic District, which was saved from the fire thanks mostly to the fact that it was right on the waterfront - a waterfront that was filled in long ago. Telegraph Hill (Coit Tower) also has some areas that were saved, and is home to some of the oldest existing homes in the City. And Alamo Square has an excellent concentration of pre-1906 architecture, including examples of nearly every late 19th century building style - including its famous row of Victorians.
One of the good aspects of the 1906 earthquake was that it greatly cleaned up the city; the vice dens of the Barbary Coast dwindled away, and San Francisco became more than just a port of call; it became home.
Fast Forward to the 60's
Ah... the 60's. First the beats, and then the hippies, made San Francisco synonymous with the Baby-Boom generation's coming of age.
Unfortunately, there isn't much remaining of the Beat Generation (except Lawrence Ferlinghetti), though there are some remnants of it left around North Beach.
The hippies? That's another story. The Haight/Ashbury is teeming with "Summer of Love" late-60's nostalgia, and some of you folks who were actually there might even find some pieces of the real thing (like the Dead House at 710 Ashbury) still in existence. For the most part, though, the Haight is more of a psychadelia-themed shopping mall than a real live expression of 60's counter-cultural values; indeed, the street kids that litter the Haight invoke more of the early-70's "hangover" days of the Haight, when speed was the drug of choice and the icky predator-types had driven out all semblance of 'peace' and 'love' from the area.
In calculating your daily food budget, remember to add 15-20% to your total.
In San Francisco, as in most of the U.S, the service is NOT included at restaurants. There are exceptions to this rule, but the exceptions are clearly stated on the menus. It is customary to tip a minimum of 15% of the cost of the meal (before taxes), but if you get excellent service or if you receive a complimentary dish, you should leave 18% to 20% or at least round up to the nearest dollar.
Most servers earn minimum wage and rely on the money they make on tips, so remember to be good to your waiter if your waiter has been good to you.
There is no set rule. I can only tell you what I do. I typically give a minimum of 15% and round up to the nearest $5. It’s so much easier this way. For example a $3.90 fare becomes $5.00, a $7.50 fare becomes $10, a $17.00 fare becomes $20.00 and so on. So, it’s more than 15%, but considering what these drivers make for a living, I don’t mind.
Remember to talk to your drivers. They are usually very friendly and helpful.
San Fran Music - 1976-1995
San Francisco music has never been about bands - it's been about "scenes." SF has been home to a wide variety of world renown music scenes through the years; the psychadelic rock/flower power scene of the late 60's - localized in the Haight/Ashbury - is only the most obvious example.
San Francisco also hosted one of the major punk rock scenes of the late 70's and early 80's, along with New York and, later, Los Angeles. The City's goth scene is legendary, and, although the heyday may be over, there is still a very sizable goth presence. The grunge scene of the late 80's and early 90's was rivaled only by the Northwestern cities, and SF's rave and house scene in the early to mid 90's was known around the world.
The Burning Man Festival - held every Labor Day weekend in the Black Rock Desert in NW Nevada - is, for all practical purposes, just another San Francisco scene. The festival was born on SF's beaches, and you can always tell the festival's over by the number of playa dust-encrusted jeeps driving around town!
The 'Pretty Big One' - Oct. 17, 1989
The 1989 earthquake may not have killed as many people, but it did a lot of damage to San Francisco's infrastructure, and one of the main reasons why trafffic is so terrible here is that the entire freeway system had to be torn down and rebuilt - replacing the old double-decker freeways with single-deck ones. Most of the damage has been fixed by now, but you'll still occasionally encounter the specter of the '89 shaker.
I was living in the Haight/Ashbury when it hit, and, although I'm pretty used to earthquakes by now, I hope to never go through that again; "terrifying" does not begin to describe it!
What does an earthquake feel like? It feels like a truck driving by your house, only longer. If you think you might be feeling an earthquake, look up; if the light fixtures are swinging, hold on! If not... then it probably was a truck.
Fondest memory: Recent history - The Dot-com boom and bust
While many people will speak fondly of the heady days of the "dot-com boom," it is now known that the whole thing was, essentially, a giant scam. The great economic boom of tech's first wave was largely smoke and mirrors, and that many of the so-called "tech entrepeneurs" were, in effect, virtual snake-oil salesmen, who saw an opportunity to get rich quick on gullible investors, and rode it for all it was worth. The wheels were liberally greased by the charismatic and venally corrupt Mayor Willie Brown, and hordes of bank-rolled neo-yuppies descended upon the city. Within a few years, rents doubled, then tripled, and the price of everything skyrocketed. Apartments were almost impossible to find at any price.
Most of these "techies" were, in fact, nothing but PR and sales people, more involved in convincing investors they had something of value than actually, well... producing anything of value. By 2000, the investment economy had wised up, and pulled the rug out en-masse. As hundreds of pseudo-companies folded (many of them abandoning their offices under cover of night), the rats deserted the sinking ship, heading back home to nurse the hangover. And, while most San Franciscans would miss the money these folks spent like water, the truth was that most of us were not sad to see them go.
Unfortunately, the damage had been done. A great many of the people who made up San Francisco's art scene - writers, artists, and especially musicians - were forced to leave town or work 3 jobs just to survive. In this Faustian bargain, the City had lost a big piece of its soul.
San Francisco is still a magical place, but its' best days - at least in the short term - are behind it. Maybe this is a good thing; good that the concentration of artistic talent has spread out a bit, bringing some of the magic to other places. I have no doubt that someday my city will again be the cool place it used to be. Maybe you can help it along!
This may not appeal much to the average tourist, but a great resource of San Francisco history is the SF Public Library's "San Francisco History Center," - located on the 6th floor of the main library in Civic Center Plaza.
The 6th floor contains 3 public areas: an exhibit area (shown here displaying prints from Dorothea Lange's Mt.Tam days), a rare book room, and a history room containing lots of really cool stuff. Most of it is stuff like archives of San Francisco literary publications going back to the Gold Rush days, but they also have an extensive collection of reference materials regarding the City's famous architecture.
The Center is also the official archives for the City of San Francisco.
This is not going to appeal to most travelers, but if you are doing research on San Francisco history or are into that sort of thing, it's worth a visit. It's free, and the Asian Art Museum is right next door if you're looking to bundle attractions.
Fondest memory: click here for the SF History Center website
San Francisco covers the tip of a 30mile
(50km) peninsula in Northern California, with the
Pacific Ocean on its western side and the San Francisco
Bay to the north and east. San Francisco is just one
of many cities in the Bay Area; others include Oakland
(east across the Bay Bridge), Berkeley (north of Oakland)
and San Jose (an hour's drive southeast of San Francisco,
near the southern tip of the bay). Marin County and the
Wine Country lie to the north, across the Golden Gate
The Bay Area has three major airports. San Francisco
International Airport is on the bay side of the Peninsula,
14 miles south of the city center. The city of Oakland, at
the eastern end of the Bay Bridge, has its own airport 8
miles south of downtown. San Jose International Airport,
at the southern end of the bay, is a few miles north of
downtown San Jose and one hour drive from San Francisco.
For a nice illustrated, paperback travel guide to the City: 'Eyewitness Travel Guide to San Francisco and Northern California (revised)' by Linda Williams. Here's a sample page from this book. (Click to enlarge.) Most of your touristing in this City will be in the Districts highlighted on this sample page: Chinatown, Fisherman's Wharf, Marina, Presidio, Golden Gate Park. With this book, you'll know the City better than most natives. This book will orient you to the City's colorful history, culture and landscape.
Fondest memory: I survived the earthquake of 1989. Oh, and about that earthquake of 1906, the history can be found online (copy & paste this in your browser) http://quake.usgs.gov/info/1906
Favorite thing: Starring Sean Penn as Harvey Milk, this movie does a fairly accurate and highly acclaimed portrayal of the life and death of San Francisco's first gay supervisor, Harvey Milk. Thanks to the efforts of Mayor Moscone, who was also killed by former supervisor Dan White (who later committed suicide after release from jail), Harvey Milk, and others the San Francisco gay community has become an established part of the city community. Their martyrdom also spurred the movement for gay rights in the USA and throughout the world. Go to Milk for more information on the movie, or History of Harvey Milk
From the Beats and their jugs of cheap red to the hippies and their 3-letter cures to the Crystal Meth-fueled gay dance scene, SF has always been a great place to get f*cked up.
But in spite of (or, more likely, because of) this, SF has a wealth of resources available to the sober traveler. There are over 600 - that's 600! - AA meetings every week in the city alone! There are also chapters of Rational Recovery, CA, NA, and just about every other A. Check your phone book for the contact #s, or just call 411.
For AA in San Francisco, go to http://www.aasf.org/.
Their phone# is 415-674-1821
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