36 Hours in San Francisco
FOR much of the 1990s, San Francisco’s Mission District maintained a precarious balance between its colorful Latino roots and a gritty bohemian subculture. Then came the overfed dot-com years. Rising real estate prices not only threatened the Mission’s working-class enclave, but also its status as the city’s center of all things edgy and artsy. Sleek bars moved next door to divey taquerias. Boutiquey knick-knack shops came in alongside fusty dollar stores. But prosperity did not sap the district of its cultural eclecticism. With a population that is about half Latino, a third white and an estimated 11 percent Asian, the Mission still remains a wonderful mishmash. Where else can you find epicurean vegan cafes, feisty nonprofits and a Central American butcher shop that, for a memorable time, anyway, had women’s undergarments in the window?
1) ILLICIT TEA
It’s one thing to operate a pirate radio station, with foul-mouthed D.J.’s hopping from rooftop to rooftop to hide the transmitter. But the ever-defiant Pirate Cat Radio went and opened a cafe (2781 21st Street; 415-341-1199; www.piratecatradio.com). Now you can stick it to the man over a spot of tea or vegan donuts. The grungy décor and sparse offerings are true to pirate form — the fun lies in watching the illicit broadcasts through the smudged window.
2) EAT WITH THE FISHES
Don’t let the trendiness fool you: the food at Weird Fish (2193 Mission Street; 415-863-4744; www.weirdfishsf.com) is actually terrific. Situated on chaotic Mission Street, this guppy-sized spot serves inspired dishes like sweet-and-spicy rainbow trout ($8), sautéed tilapia ($8) and something called the Suspicious Fish Dish (varies). Even the blackened catfish ($8), novel enough on its own in these parts, gets a bright makeover with fruit salsa. There are excellent vegan options, too, from yam, avocado and spinach tacos ($5) to pea shoots with ginger and soy sauce ($4). There’s often a line, but you can wait outside on the street, enjoying that singular pleasure of sipping wine beside a bus stop, which serves as Weird Fish’s de facto lounge.
3) ACTING OUT
On a good Friday night, the neighborhood is theatrical in its own right. For more distilled drama, catch a performance at the Marsh (1062 Valencia Street; 415-826-5750; www.themarsh.org), a small theater devoted to small stagings. Award-winning productions have included “Squeezebox” and “Tings Dey Happen,” a one-man show about Nigerian oil politics. Seating is first come, first served, so buy tickets in advance ($8 to $50) and arrive early.
4) HOT DIGGITY
It can seem that one hears indie rock or Mexican polka in the Mission, and little else. But the Savanna Jazz Club (2937 Mission Street; 415-285-3369; www.savannajazz.com) has live sets every night but Monday in its cozy, New Orleans-style room. Cover, $5 to $10. When the last chord is struck and you’re still longing for something late-night and local, discover the bacon dog craze on your walk home. Vendors sell them — a food best consumed in the dark — on the sidewalk along Mission.
5) ART AND NOBLE PIE
Listing all the creative galleries, shops and restaurants in the Mission may be impossible. The best thing to do is carve out a few hours for strolling, knowing that the majority cluster along Valencia, Mission, 16th and 24th Streets. A few standouts: Aquarius Records (1055 Valencia Street; 415-647-2272; www.aquariusrecords.org) is the city’s oldest independent record store and a sanctuary for music lovers. For guilt-free gluttony, follow your nose to Mission Pie (2901 Mission Street; 415-282-1500; www.missionpie.com), a bright corner cafe run partly by Mission High School students that sells scrumptious treats in collaboration with Pie Ranch, a nonprofit farm where teenagers learn about sustainable agriculture. Galería de la Raza (2857 24th Street; 415-826-8009; www.galeriadelaraza.org) showcases projects by Chicano and Latino artists and activists. And check out Creativity Explored (3245 16th Street; 415-863-2108; www.creativityexplored.org), a nonprofit studio where developmentally disabled men and women make and sell beautiful art.
6) GORGING IN THE GRASS
What you’ve heard about Mission burritos is true: they’re big and everyone eats them. Arguing over the best is a popular sport, but you won’t go wrong with Taquería Cancún (2288 Mission Street; 415-252-9560), a no-frills joint that packs a crowd. Take a Super Veggie ($6.50) up 19th Street to Dolores Park, and enjoy the downtown views among the Frisbeeing, smuggled-beer-drinking multitudes. If it’s the last Saturday of the month, scout out the Really Really Free Market (www.reallyreallyfree.org), a haphazard and funky exchange that’s worth a perusal. The prices are really really unbeatable.
7) WHERE IT ALL BEGAN
At first glance, the Mission District might seem perennially 23, with a Pabst Blue Ribbon fixed forever in its collective fist. But there’s real history in this youthful quarter. Two blocks from Dolores Park is the city’s oldest landmark and the district’s namesake, Mission Dolores (3321 16th Street; 415-621-8203; www.missiondolores.org; suggested donation, $5). Founded before San Francisco itself, it remains a hub of cultural and religious life. It’s a quick tour, but the bright frescoes and hushed basilica balance the surrounding hoopla with a welcome calm. Hitchcock buffs will recall its cameo in “Vertigo.”
8) COCKTAIL HOUR
San Francisco is a cocktail-before-dinner kind of town — just ask Sam Spade. Among the district’s grooviest bars are the Latin American Club (3286 22nd Street; 415-647-2732), Doc’s Clock (2575 Mission Street; 415-824-3627; www.docsclock.com) and Papa Toby’s Revolution Cafe (3248 22nd Street; 415-642-0474). The combination of ambience, music and robust gawking make these perfect run-ups to dinner.
9) DINNER AND A MOVIE
It may sound gimmicky, but the dinner-and-a-movie at Foreign Cinema (2534 Mission Street; 415-648-7600; www.foreigncinema.com) is an elegant, white tablecloth affair. If the weather’s nice, snag an outdoor table in the austere, vaguely Soviet cement courtyard. Start with oysters ($2 to $2.50 apiece), before carving into the likes of delicate tombo tartare with ginger-lime vinaigrette ($12) and the bavette steak ($28.50). When the sun sets, a foreign film is projected silently on the far wall with subtitles. Heat lamps keep you toasty and, if you want to follow the dialogue, the waiter will even bring vintage drive-in speakers.
10) SWEATING TO THE MUSIC
Hot, sweaty bodies shaking it on a plywood floor in a thimble of a room with holes in the ceiling. If that’s your cup of tea — and, in a way, that sums up the Mission perfectly — head over to Little Baobab (3388 19th Street; 415-643-3558; www.littlebaobab.com; $5 cover). The bass thumps and an international crowd sloshes around admirably.
11) NOT JUST FRIDA KAHLO!
San Francisco has a storied mural tradition and the Precita Eyes Mural Arts Center (2981 24th Street; 415-285-2287; www.precitaeyes.org; $10) runs casual, yet informative tours of the neighborhood’s vast, ever-changing collection. Memorable murals include scenes of a bloody Honduran massacre painted on a garage on Balmy Alley. A few steps away, weeping families pushed out by developers cover a wall. Perhaps most poignant are the simple portraits of neighborhood figures — the flower seller, the bakery owner, the guy who break dances.
12) GOOD BONES
With so much new activity, it’s refreshing to see the bones of older San Francisco peek through. Stop by St. Francis Fountain (2801 24th Street; 415-826-4200) for brunch. Look past the trendy crowd’s tattoos and leggings and you’ll see a fastidiously preserved ice cream parlor from 90 years ago. They still make a terrific egg cream ($3.50), and the eggs Florentine ($9.50) aren’t bad, either. According to legend, the 49ers were founded on the back of a napkin in one of the booths.
The low-slung Mission District lacks big hotels. For polished digs, head two miles into the South of Market area. The InterContinental San Francisco (888 Howard Street; 888-811-4273; www.intercontinentalsanfrancisco.com) is the city’s largest new hotel and the views rule. Rooms start at $229, though discounts can be found online.
In the Mission itself, the options are limited. The hostel-like Elements Hotel (2524 Mission Street; 866-327-8407; www.elementshotel.com) is centrally located, cheap and has little else. Thin walls mean you won’t miss out on street life, or the noises down the hall. Private rooms start at $60.
The unmarked Inn San Francisco (943 South Van Ness Avenue; 800-359-0913; www.innsf.com) looks like just another rambling Victorian. But inside, you time-warp back to an ornate and tranquil 19th century — the kind with a jasmine-perfumed hot tub out back. The tiniest of the 21 rooms, which shares a bath, is $120; the garden cottage is $335.