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Reinventing San Francisco

Catherine Ledner A view of the Ferry Building tower from the Embarcadero.

Photo: Catherine Ledner

"San Francisco these days?It's like a groovy Mayberry!" Ben Ospital tells me on my first night in town. We are lingering over a three-hour dinner with his sister, Chris, at Quince, a restaurant in the once down-and-out neighborhood of Hayes Valley, just west of the Civic Center. Ben is a native San Franciscan who owns, with his mom and Chris, the nearby MAC (Modern Appealing Clothing) boutique, which stocks avant-garde Belgian designers like Walter van Beirendonck and has been a mainstay for local fashion mavens since the original store opened downtown on Post Street, 25 years ago.

I mention some of the people I plan to talk to while I'm in town—hotelier Chip Conley, artist Catherine Wagner, restaurateur Dennis Leary—and it turns out Ben has hung with all of them at one time or another. The small-town grooviness that he speaks of comes from places like Quince: a clean white room with an easy blend of high and low, a seamless mix of the elegant and the egalitarian that I will come to see as emblematic of San Francisco itself. At Quince, the nuanced food could not be more carefully prepared. The chef trained at Chez Panisse, and the menu is so obsessed with freshness, it offers the provenance of every chop and bean—but the vibe is unpretentious, and Ben tells me the owner bought the unmatched vintage tableware on eBay.

I know Ben from fashion circles (the worldwide coterie of Belgian-fashion fans is even smaller than you might think) and he has been urging me for the last few months to check out San Francisco's renaissance firsthand. My last trip was during the height of the dot-com boom, when every restaurant was booked way in advance, and I nearly starved looking for simple food—anything—on a Saturday night. Now, with the cyber interlopers having vanished into thin air, things are at once calmer and cooler; the inmates, to everyone's relief, are back in charge of the institution. With the reopening of the De Young Museum imminent, and new boutique hotels, galleries, bistros—whole neighborhoods!—popping up practically overnight, Ben's pleas of "Come visit!" became impossible to resist.

Indeed, when I ask the Ospitals over dinner to tell me everything they love about their hometown, their enthusiasm is overwhelming. "We love eating outside at the Foreign Cinema, where they show old movies on the wall, and late nights at Emmy's Spaghetti Shack, and Mexican hot chocolate from Mijita in the Ferry Building," Chris, who has fire engine–red hair, tells me. Anything besides food? "Well, the art galleries at 49 Geary are great," Ben adds. "Oh, and Amoeba Music in the Haight, which is so good that a guy in Antwerp asked me about it. And let's not forget the gospel service at Glide Memorial Church." Church?"The pastor, Cecil Williams, is our local Martin Luther King Jr.Bill Clinton goes when he's in town. Socialites hand over their Mercedes keys and sit in the pews between ex-cons and drag queens."

I will encounter countless examples of this extreme lack of snobbery, this spirited openness, wherever I go in the Bay Area. There's an earnestness, a touching lack of cynicism here that to my jaded East Coast eyes is a revelation. Though politically progressive ideas are an integral part of the city's heritage—S.F. was, after all, the cradle of three radical 20th-century social movements (the Beat Generation, hippies and the Summer of Love, and the fight for gay rights)—this resurgence of unbridled optimism seems fairly recent. San Francisco is finally recovering from what one person I talked to described as "a five-year hangover after a five-year binge." Now, at long last, the migraine is clearing.

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