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Reinventing San Francisco

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

Photo: Catherine Ledner

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 else?—gourmet food.

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 the boutiques.

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 barn doors.

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 pre–Civil 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!"

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