Smug in San Francisco

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9th Oct 2008

San Francisco


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San Francisco is back to its gilded self... ph:Todd Adams
An air of change has taken hold in San Francisco, long one of America’s most sophisticated, yet relaxed, cities. The hangover from the dot-com era is finally gone, leaving a sublime and confident city that has shifted from feeling outrageously overblown to reassuringly expensive. All the money made during that era seems to have finally found a home, making the city feel more grown up than it did at the end of the 90s. Thus the new energy sweeping the city is focused on transformation, whether its via technology or the alignment of all your chakras to be in tune with the mayor, who is busy hanging out on Facebook.

arrivals


The main international terminal at SFO is fruit of a decade of labor. Sorely needed, long under construction, the terminal opened in 2003 and provides a sophisticated arrivals point for the international traveler. It’s complete with smiling immigration officials and a neat little train that bumps between terminals and the rental car units. It vaguely reminds one of a Disney monorail.

Generally it’s better to cab it if you are staying in the city itself, but if your itinerary includes Silicon Valley, San José, or Napa/Sonoma, you obviously need your own set of wheels.

hotels


Downtown San Francisco is nothing but hotels, and during convention season, it’s a nightmare to find anything great. About the coolest spot in town remains the Clift, a Morgans Hotel Group property that is very beautiful. In the weird logic that is modern America, a dumpy room at the Best Western a few blocks away can cost roughly the same amount as a night here, and the big hotels like a Hyatt or Sheraton are even more expensive. So why would you stay anywhere else? Just never, ever, pick up the hotel phone. At $12.79 for an unconnected call, it becomes apparent the business model is to get you in and charge you for extras, such as breathing.

Another option is the W San Francisco, which has nice rooms. However, somehow it feels like it is full of people from flyover states no matter how admirably it tries. If you’ve got the courage, The Inn San Francisco is an amazing option, located in the “up-and-coming yet-still-derelict” area of SoMa, South of Market. Opulent old-style rooms, a veranda, and about the nicest hotel proprietor in the world make this a deluxe stay for anyone interested in a unique experience.

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Inside the kitchen of the famous French Laundry
sf is for foodies


When the folks at Michelin cast their eye over America’s culinary landscape, they pinpointed the Bay area as the second location for their famed Michelin Guides. Not LA, Vegas, Boston, or Miami. That tells you something.

We start with the French Laundry, because it is probably the best restaurant in America and one of the five best in the world. Thomas Keller is the only American chef to have received two three-star ratings (he also owns Per Se in New York). The attention to detail here rivals that of an Intel lab in regard to minutiae. There are lots of other great places, but for the sake of fun, let’s stick with the Michelin ratings here: try Bushi-Tei and Sushi Ran, Chez TJ, and up in Napa Valley, the charming Auberge du Soleil, which offers so many amenities and beautiful settings one is tempted to try to feign sickness in an effort to never leave.

Much of Napa is like that now—it seems very Provencal or Tuscan, depending on the location, but with much better service. A requirement of any drive through Napa or Sonoma is visiting a vineyard. Most offer tastings frequently in summer and fall and less often in winter.

Another idea is Nopa, which looks like a barn dropped into the middle of the run-down part of Divisadero. Here the waiters are charming and the food is rustic, a concept that seems to be taking off everywhere. Sit in a barn, chew simple food, and pay double: quaint yet fabulous.

back in the city


Head through Chinatown and past little Italy for an afternoon stroll into the Sunset neighborhood, a little spot south of Golden Gate Park. Here you can find a cluster of little shops and small contemporary galleries. One must stop is the highly recommended Arizmendi Bakery, or do the world a good turn and make sure you pick up something from Rubicon. A famed social enterprise and delicious source of justified gluttony, Rubicon set the national standard for great treats that are great for society (they employ and train area homeless.)

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The sexy lobby of the Clift Hotel
On Thursdays, the Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market offers a night market, where all the office workers gather to pick up fresh organic produce. They then hunker down for a selection of treats for the food lover. After a stroll, it’s possible to hop the trams running in front of the Ferry Building Marketplace down to Fisherman’s Wharf. Sure it’s an eyesore and tourist trap, but it’s worth it even if just to see the wharf sign on Pier 45 that reads “S&M Shellfish — Dominating the Shellfish Industry.” Incidentally, you can order shellfish for delivery from them...

It’s that sense of humor that makes you kind of glad all that dot-com money has settled down a bit—relaxed and genteel. San Francisco has always displayed a subtle (yet it’s there) smug attitude that the rest of the country just can’t manage. Of course, underneath, there is a new revolution brewing. All the VCs and the money-men are chasing a new holy grail of golden opportunity: energy.

No doubt, now is the time to enjoy the city, before the next boom kicks off and pulls everything out of proportion once again.

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