written by
Margie Goldsmith

My husband Jamie and I have come to San Francisco for a three-day weekend, and we’re squeezing in as much as possible. We enter City Lights Bookstore that the Beat Generation made famous; the first signs we see on the wall read, “Stash your cellphone and be here now,” and “Educate yourself. Read here 14 hours a day.” Jamie ducks beneath an arch with another sign, “Abandon All Despair, Ye Who Enter Here.”

We next head to the Embarcadero’s free Musée Mecanique at Pier 45 with its collection of working antique coin-operated machines including arcade games, hand-cranked music boxes and miniature theatres with twirling ballerinas. Jamie plunks a quarter into a stereoscopic machine which flips through black and white stills in 3-D of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. How desolate the city looks in those photos, and how alive it is now with soaring skyscrapers, clanking trolley cars, and unlimited choices for food. Ah yes, food. We grab some clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl at Pier 39 and after, slide onto side-by-side horses on the hand-painted carousel.

Time for an adrenalin rush, the RocketBoat, a 30-minute boat ride which races full-speed up San Francisco Bay. We’re given ponchos that say, “Soak in San Francisco and no charge for the hairdo.” The boat whisks us past perfect views of the city towards the Bay Bridge, but it’s impossible to take photos because the captain is turning in circles intentionally trying to soak us all. Returning to the wharf, he slows down and we watch endless sea lions lazing on the pier. Nearby is The Aquarium By the Bay where giant octopi, psychedelic-looking jellyfish and eight-foot long sharks swim around and above us as we walk through the crystal clear acrylic tunnels.

Time for happy hour, San Francisco style. Each night at 5:30 p.m., The Ritz-Carlton on Nob Hill has a “Fog Lifter” moment in which they roll out a cart with seasonal libations and toast the foghorn. Also in the lobby is a giant glass jar of fortune cookies, ours for the taking. The fortune cookie was invented in the early 1900s by the owner of the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco, but the head of a Los Angeles Chinese noodle company insisted he created the fortune cookie in 1918. The dispute was finally settled in 1983 when San Francisco’s mock Court of Historical Review heard the case. During the proceedings, a fortune cookie was introduced as a key piece of evidence. Inside, the fortune read, “S.F. Judge who rules for L.A. Not Very Smart Cookie.” The court ruled in favor of San Francisco. Gotta love it.

Food-centric San Francisco has nearly 3,000 restaurants packed into its hilly 49 square miles, andone of our choices is The Ritz-Carlton’s Parallel 37. Cozy on a padded leather banquette, we savor Chef Michael Rotondo’s tasting menu: sashimi of Hamachi, octopus, and rib eye, all paired with wine including one of the world’s top 100 wines, a Luca Malbec 2012 from Mendoza.

The next morning we join Avital Tours for a threehour Mission District Food Tour. The Mission, now considered the heart of San Francisco’s culinary landscape, was once a scary, grimy neighborhood, similar to the old Bowery in NYC. In 1995, Vietnamese Chef Charles Phan opened The Slanted Door, a hugely successful restaurant, and dozens of eateries followed. Now, the Mission has become San Francisco’s Gourmet Ghetto.

Keila, our guide, points out Mission Dolores, built in 1776, which is both the oldest intact Mission in California and San Francisco’s oldest building — it survived the earthquake and fire. Everywhere are huge murals covering building walls depicting social political narratives. San Francisco has more than 1,000 murals, mostly concentrated in the Mission. The mural painted on the Women’s Building, our meeting place, is fourstories tall, wraps around the entire building, and took seven artists two years to create it from 1992-1994. The mural features narratives of feminine independence and strength, depicting famous women from Georgia O’Keefe to Aztec mythology’s Coyoxauqui. 

There are seemingly as many restaurants in the Mission as murals. First stop is a Tex-Mex eatery, West of Pecos, where we sample yummy pork flautas with chipotle aili and spicy salsa, washed down with Cherry Tomato Tequila Bloody Marys. At Tacolicious, we taste Pacific Cod tacos and a delicious mint salsa. The bottom of the menu says, “Save Water, Drink Tequila.” The blackboard at Hog & Rocks reads, “Did you know that 2 drinks a day can reduce your chances of giving a damn?” We down Shiso Collins (vodka, cucumber, lime, and soda) while sampling a miyagi oyster with Prosciutto di Parma and pickled cauliflower.

Our last stop is famous Bi-Rite Creamery and Bakeshop where the line outside the door sprawls down the sidewalk a good two blocks. Happily, we are whisked to the front of the line for salted caramel ice cream — a perfect way to end an afternoon of gluttony.

The next day, we try a different kind of tour: “Haight Ashbury, A Musical Trip of the 60’s.” Our guide, J.Joe, a twenty-something co-founder of Wild SF Walking Tours, has a guitar slung over his shoulder and wears a jaunty newsboy cap, a yellow vest, red bowtie, and polka dot pants. He says, “In 1906, the San Francisco earthquake had a 7.8 magnitude, but Haight Ashbury didn’t go up in smoke until the 1960’s.” We walk through the Panhandle wafting in the aroma of the eucalyptus trees and — yes — pot. What else would you expect in the Haight?

Janis Joplin lived here, J.Joe tells us, as did Jim Morrison, Country Joe MacDonald, Jack Kerouac and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Why hippies? They were young, under 25, and the rent was cheap. You could get a house for $175 a month, share it with a lot of people and live almost rent-free. “The 60s were about sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll, about peace, love and freedom,” J.Joe says. “There were free stores on Haight Street. The Grateful Dead played the Panhandle and Golden Gate Park for free. They lived opposite the Hell’s Angels who became their performance bodyguards. The Grateful Dead smoked pot with Country Joe.” Then J.Joe hits a chord on his guitar, points out Country Joe’s house and plays Country’s Joe’s Vietnam War Rag, which he says is the most famous anti-Vietnam song ever written.

He points out Janis Joplin’s house opposite Country Joe’s. “Janis wasn’t beautiful, but she was the pin-up girl of The Haight. She had one night stands with everyone.” He plays Joplin’s One Night Stand. Then he tells us that the song, If You’re Going to San Francisco was written by John Phillips of The Mamas & The Papas, but was sung by Phillips’ childhood buddy, Scott McKenzie. “That was the swan song, the nail in the coffin,” he says, He sings If You’re Going to San Francisco and says that in 1967, Jerry Garcia said “Don’t come to San Francisco and wear a flower in your hair. Bring a blanket and money.”

On Haight Street, the stores are straight out of the 60s: tattoo parlors and head shops, second-hand clothing stores and stores selling tie-died T-shirts with peace symbols. A sign at Ben & Jerry’s reads, Peace Love & Ice Cream. “This is Ground Zero,” J.Joe says. “It changed everything in the western world. Without the Haight, there would be no music festivals, no yoga or yoga pants and no Apple. Jobs and Woziack were hippies who spearheaded the personal computer to share love.”

We have time for just one more tour, this one spontaneously guided by me. After three days of bonding with the city, I have decided to claim my San Franciscan heritage. We find 20 Romolo Place in North Beach on a steep two-block-long street. The apartment building is khaki-colored and dingy. I don’t care — it’s on my birth certificate, my earliest home. For the first time in my life, I feel like a San Franciscan.

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