Reinventing San Francisco
Published: May 2009
By Lynn Yaeger
After a stratospheric rise and precipitous tumble, the City by the Bay is reclaiming its glory days with bold design, innovative chefs, stylish boutiques, and burgeoning neighborhoods fit for hippies and hipsters alike. <b>Lynn Yaeger</b> reports.
"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
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 enginered 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.
On the theory that nothing lifts a hangover like a good bar, I go to meet the
masterminds behind Otis, a combination restaurant-hangoutprivate club near
Union Square, at the site of the former Iron Horse, which used to be an old
boysmartini sort of place. Damon White, one of the partners, grew up in Harlem
and worked in Los Angeles as an actor and a promoter before arriving in San
Francisco. He says he noticed there was something lacking in the local nightlife:
sex appeal. So White and his partner, Joseph Latimore, burrowed into their Rolodexes
and decided they could make a significant mark by creating a club in the most
traditional sense: one with a members-only policy. It would be a sort of Soho
House for the Golden Gatesociety set, a West Coast outpost of the kind of spot
more readily associated with New York or London or Berlin.
In fact, Nicolo Bini, Otis's architect, cuts quite a figure in local society
(I see his photo in the social pages of the paper three times while I'm in town).
Bini tells me he looked at the city itself for inspiration: Otis's eclectic
décor reflects San Francisco's nutty amalgam of flamboyant and folksy—a
mural is painted with gold leaf, the light fixtures are modeled after costumes
worn by Moroccan belly dancers, and porcelain antlers decorate the walls. "There's
so much here, such cultural diversity," Bini says, beaming. When I point out
that Otis's door policy seems antithetical to the ethos of the town, he looks
genuinely hurt. "No, no! We're going to find a way to have different age groups,
different income levels. We want diversity! We want it to be like a juke joint."
I have my doubts—it hasn't been my experience that freewheeling, inclusive
nightspots have a VIP list—but then again, there's something sweet about
this longing for sophistication and polish in a city that tends to eschew the
merest whiff of affectation.
Though Otis is Union Square's single haute boîte, there have long been
plenty of high-end shops in the area, including Gump's, the old-line San Francisco
department store that sits just across the street from Otis. As long as I'm
in the neighborhood, I visit a few favorites: Lang Antiques, for its ravishing
heirloom jewels; Babette, whose Issey Miyakeish clothes are perfect for travel;
Wilkes Bashford, where I covet the alligator loafers; and Three Bags Full, a
sweater store specializing in hand knits, many from England, that sell 12 months
a year in this crisp climate. I pause for a moment to mourn the passing of City
of Paris, a department store with a fabulous glass dome on Union Square. Neiman
Marcus gutted the space (save for the dome, which is still extant) after preservationists
waged, and ultimately lost, a fierce battle.
Early the next morning, I take a taxi to the almost finished De Young Museum.
The driver, who is brimming with enthusiasm as he takes me out to the site,
is hardly the only one excited about the museum's new building—Nicolo
Bini fairly crowed when I brought up the De Young. "It's turning San Francisco
around! There have been a lot of naysayers, but it'll knock your socks off!"
I'm ready to lose my socks as the cab meanders through Golden Gate Park and
pulls up to the reborn museum, which, despite its avant-garde exterior—including
a striking overhang, ribbon of windows, and spectacular observation floor—looks
right at home in the park.
The old De Young was irreparably damaged in the 1989 earthquake. When it came time to rebuild,
municipal funding problems emerged, so Dede Wilsey, a reigning society queen (and the subject
of a scathing new memoir by her stepson, Sean Wilsey, that casts her as an evil stepmother),
raised the money single-handedly. The famed Swiss architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron
was hired to design it, and though the result is uncompromisingly modern, the De Young is
nothing like, say, New York's Whitney Museum, a building that always seems to have a chip
on its massive shoulder.
The angular, copper-clad structure, which manages to be both dramatic and inviting,
will patinate to a rich green as the copper oxidizes, a process that in the
sea air may be more rapid than the planners at first imagined. The patterns
embossed on the copper have a pretty amazing backstory: the architects photographed
dappled sunlight on the building through the tree canopy, translated the images
into stencils, then transferred them onto the façade. There's not a single
duplicated pattern in the 960,000 pounds of sheathing, and, in a nod to the
environmental consciousness of the city, all the metal is recyclable. Inside,
the galleries offer an unusual sense of transparency—showcases are constructed
so that you can walk around an object and view it from all angles.
My second stop is photographer Catherine Wagner's warehouse studio, in the
Mission District. The renowned San Francisco artist's show "Re-Classifying History"
will be the inaugural exhibition at the De Young's Connections Gallery. As I
enter Wagner's sun-flooded workspace, she's poring over photos of an installation
she did for the Comme des Garçons store in Kyoto. Wagner and I bond over
a shared love of Rei Kawakubo; the artist says she sometimes finds things on
sale at Susan, the one place in town that stocks a good assortment of Japanese
designers. Indeed, when I visit Susan, on Sacramento Street in Presidio Heights,
a few days later, I'll spend a lot of time trying on clothes by Undercover,
a Tokyo label so wacky that it's exceedingly hard to track down even in Manhattan.
Then I'll wander around the neighborhood, which is hushed and expensive and
feels like a West Coast East Hampton. (It's the sort of place where Carrie Bradshaw
might have shopped if she'd married Big and moved to Napa.)
For part of her De Young installation, Wagner is making a video in which she
asks foreign-born Americans to give their impressions of Christopher Columbus.
One of her interviewees is Charles Phan, who opened the incredibly popular Vietnamese
restaurant Slanted Door in the Mission in 1995. (He has since moved to digsin
the Ferry Building with sweeping bayfront views.) Phan also happens to be among
Wagner's best friends: he threw a birthday party for her at the restaurant when
she turned 50 last year.
"This is such a small town," Wagner admits. "My art-world friends are always
asking me, 'When are you going to leave that sleepy little fishing village?'"
But she's fiercely loyal. "We're still recovering from the trauma. Before the
dot-commers lost all their money, you couldn't get into your favorite restaurant.
Or, you'd be sitting at a table next to a 21-year-old who didn't even like wine,
and he'd ask the waiter, 'What's the most expensive bottle on your list?We'll
have that.' Well, now all those people are back living with their parents."
Wagner says she can feel the town returning to life—Valencia Street's mélange
of traditional Latino businesses cheek by jowl with boutiques; the new Muni light-rail line
down Third Street; the massive project to redevelop the Mission Bay waterfront; and, perhaps
dearest to her artist's heart, the fact that San Francisco will soon boast not one but two
world-class museums—the fantastical De Young and the San Francisco Museum of Modern
When I tell Wagner that I'm off to interview hot chef Dennis Leary at his minuscule
new restaurant, Canteen, in the Tendernob neighborhood (set between the Tenderloin
and Nob Hill), she says, "Tendernob?That's new! Never heard of it." I'm taken
aback for a moment, but realize that neighborhoods are springing up so quickly
that even the most clued-in residents may have missed a newly minted moniker.
Dennis Leary, who looks like Steve McQueen during his Cincinnati Kid period, opened his 20-seat luncheonette in the former coffee shop of the Commodore,
a fleabag recently brought back to life as a budget boutique hotel. When I enter,
he's sitting on one of his counter stools, dressed in checked pants and white
chef's jacket. Leary was the prize-winning chef at the famed Rubicon in the
Financial District (co-owned by Robert De Niro) for six years, so he's the perfect
person to ask about San Francisco's reverence for good food. We chat about the
city's tradition of culinary appreciation. There's the fact that it was settled
by Spanish, Italians, and Chinese (all from food-centric cultures); there's
also the city's proximity to some of the best agricultural regions in the world.
Then there's the theory that San Francisco has always been a boom-and-bust town,
with the gold rush, then silver, then railroads, and, most recently, the dot-coms.
("Restaurants are an expression of good times," Leary explains.) And finally,
there are the mavericks like Leary, chefs whose inﬂuence branches out
across this small-town city.
Canteen, which receives a rave review in the Chronicle two days after
we talk, reaffirms Leary's decision to leave behind big corporate jobs. "I wanted
a stripped-down experience—no pretensions, good service, serious food,"
he says. "It's been fun not working for anybody."
Leary says his vision as a restaurateur is particularly suited to his city. "I want to do this with a sense of humor. San Francisco can't carry off something really fancy like New York. I get socialites, a lot of foodies, old bachelor guys who've lived alone for years, a lot of gay couples. It's a real mix."
Even as the city welcomes new ultramodern elements, some people cling to its
vintage hallmarks. Surprisingly for such a forward-thinking chef, Leary turns
out to be one of these old-fashioned souls. Just as he embraces retro décor
and dishes like pot pie at Canteen, Leary loves the sentimental side of San
Francisco: the camera obscura at the Cliff House, high on a bluff over the Pacific;
the WPA murals in Coit Tower; and the old seal on the ﬂoor of the Ferry
Building. He sighs. "There's a kind of quirkiness here that refuses to die.
You see naked people running down the street all the time here! It's a freak
show and I love it." (I think this is pure hyperbole, but the very next day
I see three older guys, stark naked, riding bikes on the Embarcadero with FREE
SPEECH scrawled across their backs. Certain things about this city will never
After two nights in the dimly lit recesses of the Ian Schragerowned, Philippe Starck-designed
Clift hotel, where I spend my off-hours curled up on a mammoth ivory divan under a faux-mink
throw, I move to the Hotel Vitale, a brand-new property on the Embarcadero. If the Clift is
about smoldering glamour, the Vitale is about health and sunshine and relaxation: there are
complimentary yoga classes and soaking tubs on the roof, the concierge can arrange a Rolfing
session upon request, and a video of migrating birds plays in the elevator. Hotel Vitale also
has startling 180-degree views that take in the Bay Bridge and the Ferry Building, a landmark
so beloved that the legendary Chronicle columnist Herb Caen once observed, "The waterfront
without the Ferry Tower would be like a birthday cake without a candle."
The Ferry opened in 1898, and for decades visitors passed through its portals
when they arrived in the city by boat. But with the coming of the automobile,
the building fell into obscurity; by the 1950's it was being used for humdrum
ofﬁce space. The Embarcadero Freeway was practically the last straw.
It went up in 1958 and shut out the tower's light and air for over 30 years.
Then something oddly miraculous happened: the 1989 earthquake caused so much
damage to the freeway that the city decided to tear it down. Fourteen years
later, a splendidly renovated Ferry Building reopened, showcasing—what
Chip Conley, the 44-year-old CEO of Joie de Vivre, the company behind the Vitale
and several other boutique hotels in town, agrees to spend a morning showing
me around the Ferry Building, where Saturday shopping has become an institution.
Conley is anxious to take me to Boulette's Larder, one of his favorite Ferry
Building stops, where we ogle the local foodies, who are in turn ogling a vitrine
full of quails stuffed with farro and currants. "Alice Waters shops here,"
Conley whispers reverently. We drop in at Mijita to try the Mexican hot chocolate
favored by the Ospitals, then head over to the historic Filbert Street steps
on Telegraph Hill, where Conley used to live.
Filbert Street, an almost vertical neighborhood of mid-19th-century cottages,
is reachable by a series of incredibly steep flights of stairs. I huff and puff,
almost too winded to enjoy the gardens lining the way and the—literally—breathtaking
views spread out in front of us. Conley reminds me that this is where Armistead
Maupin set Tales of the City, his campy, sex-filled novel of San Francisco
in the seventies. "One of the characters was based on Pat Montandon," he says,
which is funny: Montandon is Sean Wilsey's birth mother. Small town, indeed.
Conley drops me on Market Street, where I order a delicate silver bracelet
from Jeanine Payer, a jeweler with a distinctive style: she engraves sweet sayings
in tiny script on her pieces. You'd think her store would be on a picturesque
little lane, but she sits just a stone's throw from Old Navy. It's another example
of how San Francisco defies expectations—in most cities, exquisite jewelry
boutiques are not located next to discount emporiums.
Then I grab a cab to Valencia Street, past used-book shops and feminist bathhouses,
and visit 826 Valencia, also known as the Pirate Store, David Eggers's tongue-in-cheek
shop and literacy project. Here you can buy glass eyes and striped sailor shirts
while contemplating a huge vat that turns out to be an actual tub of lard. But
it's not just a funky junk store. In true San Francisco fashion, it has been
committed to higher purposes, including writing seminars and other cultural
activities (such as hand-shadow demonstrations).
Across the street, and in a radically different frame of mind, Den offers Midcentury Modern
furniture. In fact, the whole neighborhood is dotted with various insouciant boutiques. These
places have a homegrown, offhand quality, in marked contrast to the neighborhood's restaurants.
Here, as everywhere else in the city, the bistros are invariably more lushly appointed than
Before I leave town, I want to make sure I take a closer look at Hayes Valley, which is either
incredibly cool or completely overrun with precious shops, depending on who you talk to. Like
the Ferry Building area, Hayes Valley was a neighborhood able to make lemonade from the '89
earthquake: when U.S. Highway 101 was damaged and subsequently pulled down, new life bloomed
in the raffish quarter, which had previously been cut off from the fancier Civic Center neighborhood.
Now there are stores like Alabaster selling Fortuny velvet fabrics, mother-of-pearl frames,
and exquisite French Deco breakfronts; and Zonal, where picture frames are made from Iowa
I stop by MAC to say good-bye to the Ospitals; it's Saturday afternoon and the space is like
a town square, with neighbors stopping in, babies and dogs in tow, to shoot the breeze. I
admire a tiny shirt by a local designer who uses preCivil War prints for his 21st-century
styles, and then fall into conversation with a young dad who tells me I better not dare leave
San Francisco without having coffee at Blue Bottle Coffee Co., an artisanal micro-roaster
in Hayes Valley with a cult following. As I dive into the windy sunshine I hear him call out
behind me, "Be sure to get the ginger scone!"
WHERE TO STAY
DOUBLES FROM $225
495 GEARY ST.; 800/606-6090 OR 415/775-4700
DOUBLES FROM $269
8 MISSION ST.; 888/890-8688 OR 415/278-3700
Hotel des Arts
Small property bordering Union Square and Chinatown; each room has been
painted by an artist.
DOUBLES FROM $89
447 BUSH ST.; 800/956-4322 OR 415/956-3232
WHAT TO DO
De Young Museum
50 TEA GARDEN DR., GOLDEN GATE PARK; 415/750-3500
2534 MISSION ST.; 415/648-7600
Glide Memorial United Methodist Church
330 ELLIS ST.; 415/674-6000
151 THIRD ST.; 415/357-4000
Conservatory of Flowers
JFK DR., GOLDEN GATE PARK
WHERE TO SHOP
387 GROVE ST.; 415/863-3011
1855 HAIGHT ST.; 415/831-1200
135 POST ST.; 415/982-1616
323 Sutter St.; 415/982-2213
361 SUTTER St.; 415/837-1442
375 SUTTER ST.; 415/986-4380
THREE BAGS FULL
500 Sutter St.; 415/398-7897
3685 SACRAMENTO ST.; 415/922-3685
762 MARKET ST.; 415/788-2417
826 VALENCIA (PIRATE STORE)
826 VALENCIA ST.; 415/642-5905
849 VALENCIA ST.; 415/282-6646
597 HAYES ST.; 415/558-0482
568 HAYES ST.; 415/255-9307
29 MAIDEN LANE; 415/788-0828
WHERE TO DRINK
25 MAIDEN LANE; www.otissf.com
1 Ferry Building; 415/399-0814
With its remade Ferry Building—a mecca for food mavens—and a fresh slate of first-rate restaurants, San Francisco has sealed its reputation as a culinary capital. Many of the best spots are a short walk or cab ride from downtown.
Pizzaiolos pull perfect pies from a wood-fired oven, and patrons gather
at the bar, sipping wines from southern Italy and sampling simple but sophisticated
Neapolitan dishes such as petrale sole with capers and lemon leaves.
DINNER FOR TWO $80
2355 CHESTNUT ST.; 415/771-2216
The small-plates trend was growing tiresome when this Basque tapas restaurant
brought it back to life. Grilled meats and marinated seafood in Mini Me portions
and rotund sandwiches known as bocadillos make for relaxed, elbows-on-the-table
eating that complements the casual atmosphere.
Dinner for two $50
710 Montgomery St.; 415/982-2622
Like a quaint culinary lab, this small open kitchen in the Ferry Building produces
sauces, crèmes, and stocks for discriminating home cooks. At night a
large farm table (available for group reservations only) becomes a stage for
some of the city's most magical meals.
DINNER FOR TWO $240, BASED ON 10-PERSON TABLE
1 Ferry Building; 415/399-1155
Imagine if the Fonz had gone to cooking school in France. What was once a worn-out coffee
shop has been transformed into an haute diner by wunderkind chef Dennis Leary, with apple-green
counters and canoodle-friendly booths for two. Entrées like veal pot pie are served
with flair but without fuss. Dinner for two $50
817 Sutter St.; 415/928-8870
Meals come in trios—foie gras, scallops, tomatoes—and Modernist presentations
at this smart (and beautiful) restaurant, which overlooks the renovated lobby of the city's
landmark Westin St. Francis hotel. Ideal for special occasions and expense accounts. Dinner
for two $176
335 Powell St.; 415/397-9222
A restaurant worldly enough to serve citrus-glazed salmon in lobster sauce and relaxed enough
to deal in burgers too. The cushy, carpeted setting, perhaps the most comfortable in the city,
walks a similar line: it invites blue jeans and black ties alike. DINNER FOR TWO $80
470 Pacific Ave.; 415/677-8986
The redial button is required to land a reservation, but Chez Panisse alum Mike Tusk makes
it worth the extra work. House-made pastas like pork-and-veal-stuffed agnolotti are as close
as cooking comes to art.
DINNER FOR TWO $120
1701 Octavia St. 415/775-8500
Charles Phan's fans have followed his rise from his original place in the dog-eared Mission
District to his new home in the gleaming Ferry Building. The food remains the same sharp vietnamese
cuisine, light on the grease, heavy on the organic ingredients.
DINNER FOR TWO $90
1 Ferry Building; 415/861-8032
George Morrone, a chef never afraid of extravagance, goes for a big change in mood and
a slight change in food. The space is intimate, with soft leather touches and latticed woodwork,
and the menu, true to the restaurant's name, offers creative versions of the rare and the
raw (think ostrich tartare with pink peppercorns).
DINNER FOR TWO $90
550 Washington St.; 415/434-3100
Brick walls and straight-backed chairs whisper of a luxurious colonial schoolhouse, but the
scene at the bar clamors of the Financial District after dark. The menu delivers comforting
regional accents: gumbo from New Orleans, roasts and mashes from the heartland, and fennel-rich
cioppino that smacks of San Francisco itself.
DINNER FOR TWO $70
342 Howard St.; 415/908-3900