A rapidly growing tech industry may be changing the fabric of San Francisco — but there are still plenty of places to discover the city's more analogue charms.
Once known as the “Paris of the West” and America’s most European city, San Francisco has shape-shifted, perhaps most markedly over the last five years, into the technology capital of the world. Beatniks, hippies, and artists have been replaced by a fleet of young tech workers; and as a result, much of the city has evolved to cater to their tastes. But while many of the central neighborhoods have trended towards gentrification, the funky charm of old San Francisco is still alive and well on the fringes.
Here’s how to explore it, district by district.
Many San Francisco residents don’t know that there’s a surf culture in the city. In fact, thanks to the fog that shrouds the city in gray for most of the year, many don’t know (or forget) that San Francisco is home to a pristine 3.5-mile beach. From the shore, the break may not look like much, but don’t be fooled. Ocean Beach is one of the most challenging and dangerous surf spots in the world, and the people who surf it make up what may be San Francisco’s last subculture. Although it’s less than 10 miles from the center of the city, OB and the neighborhood that borders it feel completely apart from the rest of San Francisco.
Fuel up before you head to the sand at Trouble Coffee, a tiny, no-frills neighborhood institution that serves coffee, coconuts, and toast. The heavy metal music blaring from inside the shop should offer good warning that this is not health-conscious whole grain toast topped with an astringent mix of mashed avocado and lemon juice. Rather, it’s an ode to childhood in the 1980s and '90s: a thick slice of white bread loaded with butter, cinnamon, and sugar. Phones are not allowed in the shop, so if you want to photograph your latte and toast for Instagram, take it out front. Continue down to the end of Judah Street until you hit the beach. If the waves are decent, you’ll get to watch the masters at work on the waves. When you get hungry for real food, head to Hook Fish Company, a surfer-run sustainable fish market and restaurant, for a poké burrito or fish tacos.
Although Ocean Beach is great for watching surfers, it’s not the best place for a swim, as the current is strong and claims several victims each year. If you want to go for a dip, head to the northwestern tip of the city, into the Presidio, to Marshall’s Beach. Accessing this hidden gem involves a bit of a hike, but you’ll be happy you worked up some body heat when you feel how cold the water is. It’s ice cold. Take the Batteries to Bluffs trail — a Chutes and Ladders-esque arrangement of cliffside stairs — down to a secluded strip of bright sand and rocks. Looking north up the beach you’ll have the best view of the Golden Gate Bridge in the city, and (if it’s a warm day) a plethora of nude sunbathers for company. Marshall’s Beach is one of California’s most infamous nude beaches, known for its predominantly gay crowd. It’s a San Francisco classic — one that thankfully remains free of selfie sticks.
The hike to and from the beach may leave you ravenous, so when you’re done sunbathing head to nearby Clement Street for the best selection of ethnic food in the city. The stretch from 11th Avenue to Arguello Boulevard is the focal point of the Inner Richmond neighborhood, an enclave of Chinese immigrants and stellar Chinese restaurants. On the weekends, the most popular dim sum restaurants will run a (long) wait all day, but your options are nearly limitless: Vietnamese, Burmese, Japanese, Thai, Korean, Indian, and even Turkish. Picking a spot needn’t be complicated — if there’s a crowd inside, it’s good.
North Beach is San Francisco’s greatest holdout — it’s a neighborhood that seems to be the most immune to change. Although it got a reputation for being touristy, it has recently been re-embraced by locals craving a break from the tech crowd. It’s best enjoyed by night, when the neon signs for strip clubs on Broadway have an odd, nostalgic allure, and the traditional Italian-American cafes on Columbus feel charming. For dinner, Tosca Cafe can’t be beat. Once the neighborhood’s seediest dive, the venue was bought and reopened as a cleaned-up version of itself by chef April Bloomfield in 2013. The dinner menu of modern trattoria fare is reliably good, and the dimly-lit, intimate dining room makes it a haven for visiting celebrities. The Golden State Warriors frequent the private dining room upstairs, so you may catch a glimpse of Kevin Durant passing through as you nurse a house cappuccino at the bar.
Finally, get a nightcap and a taste of the city’s Beatnik heritage across the street at Vesuvio. The cozy spot has a narrow second-floor balcony that looks over the bar, and the noise level tends to be manageable, making it an ideal place to hold deep conversations and even write poetry, as the likes of Kerouac and Dylan Thomas once did. It’s also one of the few remaining bars where you can get a good martini for $8.