Out of Town

San Francisco Treats

Andrew Collins | November 20, 2003

The Little Black Book
  • Bay City Bike (2661 Taylor St., 415-346-2453
  • Bay Model (2100 Bridgeway, 415-332-3870)
  • Blazing Saddles (several locations near Fisherman's Wharf, 415-202-8888)
  • Books Inc. (2275 Market St., 415-864-6777)
  • Brand X Antiques (570 Castro St., 415-626-8908)
  • Castro Video (525 Castro St., 415-552-2448)
  • Charanga (2351 Mission St., 415-282-1813)
  • Chenery Park Restaurant (683 Chenery St., 415-337-8537)
  • Cliff's Variety (479 Castro St., 415-431-5365)
  • Delfina (3621 18th St., 415-552-4055)
  • A Different Light Bookstore (489 Castro St., 415-431-0891)
  • Does Your Father Know (548 Castro St., 415-241-9865)
  • Does Your Mother Know (4079 18th St., 415-864-3160)
  • Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market (1 Ferry Building, Market St. and Embarcadero, 415-693-0996)
  • FinDecor (258 Noe St., 415-437-6789)
  • Liberty Cafe (410 Cortland Ave., 415-695-8777)
  • Marin Headlands Visitor Center (Fort Barry, Field and Bunker Rds., 415-331-1540)
  • Mitchell's (688 San Jose Ave., 415-648-2300)
  • Nancy Boy (2319 Market St., 415-626-5021)
  • Rolo 450 (450 Castro St., 415-626-7171)
  • Rolo on Market (2351 Market St., 415-431-4545)
  • San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau (415-974-6900)
  • Especially among gay travelers, San Francisco is sometimes stereotyped as one of those "been there, done that" destinations. Just as it's easy to get into a rut and either visit the same places again and again, or hit all the obvious touristy spots if you're in town for the first time, it's also quite simple to view the City by the Bay from a new perspective.

    You don't have to avoid the city's most popular neighborhoods to enjoy them time after time - just try visiting them with a different game plan. Here are three suggestions for putting a fresh spin on some favorite areas in San Francisco.

    Bike the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito

    This wildly hilly city can be a challenge for inexperienced bikers, but here's a cycling tour that can be managed even by novice two-wheelers. You have to begin this trip with a foray into what is unquestionably San Francisco's most touristy neighborhood - the unabashedly cheesy Fisherman's Wharf - because it's home to two of the San Francisco's best bike-rental outfits, Bay City Bike and Blazing Saddles.

    From here you can begin the breathtaking ride along the city's northern edge, fringing San Francisco Bay, toward the magnificent Golden Gate Bridge. After crossing the bridge, stop at the scenic viewing area just off the U.S. 101 freeway and enjoy panoramic vistas of the city skyline. For even more spectacular scenery - as long as you don't mind pedaling up some steep terrain - take the first exit after the viewing area, hang a left back under the freeway, and head up the hill into the Marin Headlands. This area falls within the Golden Gate Recreation Area and includes numerous scenic viewing turnoffs, the remnants of several World War II-era military installations (including a defunct Nike Missile Site), and Point Bonita Lighthouse, which is reached through a rock tunnel and over a narrow suspension footbridge. Stop by the Marin Headlands Visitor Center to orient yourself.

    Back at the first highway exit you took after crossing the bridge, you can ride down the hill just a couple of miles to reach the artsy and charming village of Sausalito, where you can admire the colony of houseboats along the bayfront and check out the remarkable Bay Model, an amazingly realistic 400-foot scale replica of the entire greater Bay Area. When you're ready to return to San Francisco, just hop aboard the Sausalito Ferry, which welcomes bikes on a first-come, first-serve basis (up to 25 are permitted on each crossing); the adult one-way fare is $5.60. Ferries run from Sausalito to the ferry terminal in downtown San Francisco about 10 times a day on weekdays and six times a day on weekends; the ride takes 30 minutes. From the San Francisco ferry landing, it's a short and easy ride along the Embarcadero back to Fisherman's Wharf.

    It's about a 9-mile bike ride from Fisherman's Wharf to Sausalito, and the entire trip can be managed in a minimum of three hours, but you'll need more time to explore the shops and cafes in Sausalito. Also, figure a few more miles of rigorous riding if you plan to venture very far into the Marin Headlands. Bike rentals cost about $25 to $30 per day.

    Shop the Castro

    The palpably queer Castro district is rightly famous for its bars, cafes, and restaurants, but it doesn't always receive attention for its genuinely engaging supply of shops and boutiques. The retail variety has increased markedly over the past few years, too. A lot of gay visitors relegate their Castro visits to the evening, but consider spending a couple of hours here window-shopping during the day. The best browsing is along Market Street between Sanchez and Castro streets, and then along Castro Street from Market down to 19th streets.

    There are, of course, the usual sex emporia, selling toys, porn, lube, and lingerie galore. A good one is the amusingly named Does Your Father Know; it's right around the corner from its sister store, the silly and slightly less hard-core gift and novelty shop, Does Your Mother Know. Also check out the well-priced Castro Video, which is best known for its extensive selection of difficult-to-find rentals but is also an excellent place to purchase videotapes and DVDs (both adult and otherwise).

    A Different Light Bookstore has long been the Bay Area's definitive source for queer lit, but bibliophiles should also browse the racks of Books Inc., a general-interest shop with an exceptional selection. Picture your average small-town five-and-dime, and then visualize it smack in the heart of the gayest neighborhood in America, and you've got Cliff's Variety. Sure, you can pick up the usual nuts and bolts, household necessities, and garden gadgets, but Cliff's also stocks a full range of drag accessories, campy novelties, irreverent toys, and rainbow-print tchotchkes.

    In addition to the notable shopping standbys listed above, consider places like Brand X Antiques for cool vintage furnishings, Rolo 450 and Rolo on Market for chic menswear, Nancy Boy for ultra-trendy beauty and aromatherapy products, and FinDecor for mod home accessories. Some of the goodies you find on a Castro shopping crawl may just surprise you.

    Dine off the Beaten Path

    In San Francisco, neighborhood restaurants are often the best places to taste some of the finest - and most creative - victuals in a city acclaimed for food. But dining at less-touristy, out-of-the-way restaurants is also a terrific way to soak up the local scene. On a relatively quiet block in the queer-licious Mission District, smart and sexy Delfina is so beloved - and arguably overhyped - that it can't truly be called a neighborhood hangout (you _need_ reservations for this one). But for all its acclaim, this hip, understated spot specializing in creative Mediterranean cooking maintains a surprisingly relaxed vibe and remarkably reasonable prices. It's absolutely worth planning ahead a little for a meal here. Also in the Mission, you can swing by tiny but hoppin' Charanga to sample superbly rendered pan-Latin delectables - maybe ahi tuna ceviche or grilled Niman Ranch pork chops with a kicky passion-fruit-and-jerk sauce. At this lesbian-chic hotspot, you'll find a short but sweet wine list and thirst-quenching sangria.

    Up the hill from the Mission, Bernal Heights has become increasingly fashionable with nesting lesbians (and increasing numbers of gay guys) who don't mind being slightly removed from the din of more central neighborhoods. Here the Liberty Cafe is a little gem that merits a trip from anywhere in town. The unprepossessing storefront eatery with just a handful of tables turns out a memorable chicken potpie as well as seasonal specials that utilize Northern California's bounty of fresh produce. Down the hill in the mostly residential Glen Park neighborhood, the bilevel Chenery Park Restaurant is truly a spot for a quiet meal away from the masses. The staff is super-friendly, and the contemporary cuisine - such as pan-roasted sea bass with fennel tagliatelle and a roasted-tomato Creole sauce - is deftly prepared. Relatively close to all of the aforementioned restaurants you'll find one of the best neighborhood ice cream parlors in San Francisco, Mitchell's, which is rightly renowned for such fresh and innovative flavors as ube (purple yam) and Mexican chocolate (laced with cinnamon).

    And finally, if you consider grazing to be a favorite pastime, plan to spend Saturday morning or early afternoon at the Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market (it's also open on Tuesdays from 10 to 2 and on Thursdays from 3 to 7). Okay, this is neither a neighborhood hangout nor is it off the beaten path - it's on the edge of downtown, overlooking San Francisco Bay. But this colorful market only recently found a permanent home at the gorgeously restored 1898 ferry building, and word about this food-lovers' orgy is still just getting out. You'll find stalls selling a dizzying variety of mouthwatering morsels: Acme Bread (they bake divine baguettes), Cowgirl Creamery's Artisan Cheese Shop (try the Point Reyes blue cheese), Hog Island Oyster Company (nosh on succulent bivalves on the half-shell), Ciao Bella Gelato (sample coconut-lemongrass sorbetto and chocolate-jalapeno gelato), Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker (for heavenly semisweet mocha squares), and, well, the list goes on and on. Wines, olive oil, sausages, coffee and tea, heirloom tomatoes, sweet corn - just about anything that makes your taste buds tingle can be found here. The Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market is like a hands-on museum of food, and what better place for such a shrine than San Francisco?

    Andrew Collinsis the author of 10 travel guides, including Fodor's Gay Guide to the USA.

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