As if 2012 hadn’t already been exciting enough, Gerard and I decided to slot in a casual little trip to San Francisco (via Seattle – flying from there was a steal!) for my quarter century birthday. My expectations of a city that has such a culturally diverse population, rich literary and iconic cinematic history, and interesting architecture, were absolutely exceeded in three whirlwind days.
The trip started on THURSDAY, with a pleasant drive across the border to Seattle. This city is like our second home here in North America. It’s only three hours away by coach, and whether we visit for a few days or in this case a few hours, we know that we’ll always be guaranteed a great time. We arrived hungry, and in search of beer, so we headed straight to Six Arms, a pub built as part of the ever-expanding McMenamin’s empire. The McMenamin brothers are chaps from Portland, who have injected new life into old buildings by vamping them into quirky pubs, serving their own quality ales and fantastic food. Our Captain Neon burgers (w/ blue cheese and bacon) were excellent, as expected, and were washed down perfectly with Wheat Ale and a Nebraskan guest bitter.
Once we’d refueled, we headed to the Narwhal, a magical and strange underground bar (below the Unicorn) which is bizarrely decorated like a travelling fairground ride, with traditional American tattoo-style artwork on the walls and tables. We had a great time in the bar’s built-in pinball arcade, enjoying wasting quarters and feeling young again. Walking back to the hotel, our already-kindled inner children’s eyes lit up when we saw a neon skittle emblazoned with the word ‘BOWL’, and we were eagerly sidetracked to enjoy a few games of 10-pin. I’m so bad at bowling it was rather ridiculous, but we thoroughly enjoyed our strikes and misses, and took advantage of the long islands on special. There’s something so nostalgic about going bowling as adults, something wonderful happens when you lace up those red & blue shoes, and there’s nothing quite like the feeling you get when you hit a strike; I really hope that bowling as a pastime never dies away in the digital age. After a good few games at a really reasonable price ($5 an hour per lane!) I was losing too badly to ever redeem myself, so we headed back to the hotel before midnight. We were asleep as soon as our heads touched the pillow.
We awoke early FRIDAY morning, and I was given a quick ‘happy-birthday’ and opened my gifts and cards from home. We took the 40-minute trip to Sea-Tac airport via Link Light Rail, and went through the necessary check-in and security procedures just fine. The Virgin America flight itself was very pleasant, and our seats had TV screens and computerized mah-jong to keep us entertained. We arrived in SFO to see ‘Go Giants’ signs all around the airport, then took the BART train into downtown San Francisco. We were greeted by a friendly homeless man wielding a wad of Street Sheets (SF’s version of The Big Issue), and he gave us helpful directions and tips on transportation for our stay. After a strenuous uphill walk to the hotel, which was only 9 blocks but felt much longer (taxi next time, promise) we arrived at Hotel Vertigo, where scenes from Hitchcock’s famous 1958 movie were filmed. The recently refurbished hotel certainly played on its claim to Hollywood fame, with the iconic movie playing 24/7 on a flat screen at the front desk, and the entire interior designed using elements from the orange Saul Bass movie poster, including the spiral motif which was worked into our bedroom mirrors. The front desk staff were very helpful & knowledgeable, and overall the Vertigo was a comfortable boutique hotel, which still had a few giveaways that it was once an old, shabby speakeasy.
As we headed out onto the busy streets, we saw a zombie arm installed on Sutter street, literally breaking out of the ground, and then walked down towards the Embarcadero, double-taking as we passed a completely naked (apart from a pair of furry moon-boots) middle-aged man who was casually strolling around. In a city like San Francisco, these things seem pretty normal. We stopped by Gott’s Roadside at the Ferry Building for just a quick bite (as we had very important and very exciting birthday reservations, which I will discuss later!); the fresh fries and warming squash soup was just what we needed. As we sat watching the twilight sky change from blue, to violet, to purple, and to navy, we witnessed a scheduled, fancy dressed, anything-goes bike ride. Hundreds of cyclists of all ages, many halloween costumed, many with speakerboxes strapped to their bikes, pumping out attention-grabbing music, and some almost naked (one guy was wearing a customized pair of levi’s, and by ‘customized’ I mean he had cut them into a tiny thong, and was wearing nothing else) took to the streets. The procession of cyclists continued for around 10 minutes, during which time not a single car passed the busy Embarcadero.
We walked up towards Broadway & Columbus, past seedy neon signs advertising ‘The Garden Of Eden’ and ‘The Roaring Twenties’ clubs, and stopped outside the famous City Lights bookstore, where the store’s publishing of Allen Ginsberg’s ‘HOWL & other poems’ received national infamy. Close by is Jack Kerouac alley (Kerouac famously wrote On The Road while living in an apartment in this part of town, and frequented the bar Vesuvio where we stopped for a beer). An inscription on the ground reads “The air was soft, the stars so fine, the promise of every cobbled alley so great…” (The words following this line, from On The Road, are: “I thought I was in a dream.”) The same could be said for us, as our wide eyes took in the bright lights and our five senses prepared for their trip to The Stinking Rose.
The Stinking Rose is, simply, a garlic restaurant, whose slogan is “We season our garlic with food”. Having reserved a table a month in advance of our trip, and whetting our appetites by taking advance previews of their menu, which contains items such as ‘garlic soaking in a hot tub’ and ‘40 clove garlic chicken’, it’s fair to say we were ridiculously excited for this gastronomic experience. And it did not disappoint. The aroma of garlic hits you from outside, and inside, it pervades the entire atmosphere. There’s a giant braid of garlic bulbs, officially the longest in the world, zig-zagged across the ceiling, and various garlic-related photographs adorning the walls (my favourite being a ‘no vampires’ sign). I know that the restaurant might sound a little gimmicky, and yes it is unashamedly so, but the food itself was of such great quality (and quantity!) and the service so fantastic, that it felt as though all the funny décor was just part of the bigger picture and added to a great experience. We started with sizzling iron-skillet roasted mussels, in white wine, which we dipped into a hot bubbling cup of garlic butter. The mussels came with a scattering of whole cloves, which didn’t taste harsh or pungent but instead were soft and delicious. For the main event, I opted for the garlic roasted prime rib, which was the largest and most tender steak I’ve had, and Gerard went for the ‘Silence of the Lamb Shank’ (with chianti glaze and fava beans). Both meals were huge and never-ending, and the garlic Yukon gold mashed potatoes and creamed Swiss chard were winning accompaniments. I received an unexpected and hilarious birthday serenade, when a posse of staff members crept to our table and sung Happy Birthday to me (replacing the ‘happy birthday, dear _____’ part with ‘happy birthday, little stinker’, such a highlight) and placed a garlic bulb hat on my incredulous little head. This moment was so good, and so unplanned, and the complimentary birthday cake – which was garlic-free, I think! – was the perfect way to end this memorable meal. Afterwards, we headed straight to a corner shop for a pack of minty gum, but I think it would have taken about 10 packs to extinguish the lingering taste of garlic from our mouths. We had a drink in an Irish bar, where a bad metal covers band were playing, and then attempting to suppress our pungent breath in the taxi home, so as not to offend the driver, we headed home.
After brushing our teeth numerous times on Friday night, and again on SATURDAY morning, we left the hotel to glorious sunshine, and headed straight to the Haight neighbourhood to explore. Stopping for a quick breakfast of burritos at The Little Chihuahua – we still tasted of garlic from last night, so what harm would a little salsa do? – we walked to Alamo Square to view the ‘Painted Ladies’ that have adorned so many San Francisco postcards. This row of Victorian houses, which survived the massive 1906 earthquake, look perfectly unreal, especially as they are backdropped by the postmodern architecture of downtown San Fran. The sun was bearing down on the grassy square where many people chose to picnic or read books under trees, and a cheeky little dog snarfed my foil-wrapped leftover burrito.
Later, we walked down Haight St, classic Hippieville, which was still so full of long haired, headscarfed, spaced-out folk that it felt like we were in the mid-60s. The area is full of smoking shops, tattooers, and eastern inspired jewellery, but we bypassed all of this to make a beeline for the fantastic Amoeba Music. This giant record store, which used to be a bowling alley, has over a 100,000 CDs and vinyls. That’s a lot of music. Waiting for the bus, we saw a young, eccentric looking man carrying a cardboard box down the street, and offering from it packages of fresh food (salads, sandwiches etc.) to the many homeless people who lined the streets. The guy was working on behalf of the Haight Street Food Program, and it was comforting to know that in a city so notorious for its large homeless population, there is such fantastic work being done by ordinary people to lessen the problem at street level.
We caught our bus to the Cartoon Art Museum, a small, quirky Museum featuring such exhibitions as the History of Cartoons, and Sketchtravel, a pass-the-parcel sketch project in which 71 artists from around the world each contributed by filling a page in a sketchbook with a drawing to represent their take on the world. Some of the sketches were fantastic, and I enjoyed seeing photographs of the artists passing the sketchbook by hand to the next person. The museum was a fun way to spend an hour, and the entry fee was only $7.
In the late afternoon, we headed into the Mission District, a culturally diverse part of town where many shop signs and restaurant menus are entirely in Spanish. One of the typical ‘when in Mission’ pastimes is to try the authentic soft-shell tacos from one of the many taquerias lighting up the streets. We’d already had burritos for breakfast, but so what, you can never have too much Mexican food, and like I say, ‘when in Mission’, it’d be rude not to. The tacos at La Corneta were fantastic. At $3 each and absolutely huge, we tried the Carne Asada and Carnitas, and enjoyed the juicy contents as they spilled out of their shells. Along with a beer each, the meal came to less than $10, and we followed this with the cheapest beers of the trip at Doc’s Clock – $2 each! Doc’s Clock has some truly interesting décor, including bloody paraplegic Barbies hanging from the back bar, and intriguing handwritten signs (‘Don’t mention the unicorn. It never ends well’, if I remember correctly). Back into downtown, we stopped by a pub at AT&T park, catching the San Francisco Giants soar to victory in 3/7 of their World Series games against the Detroit Tigers. As we walked home down streets lined with orange & black, shouts of ‘Go Giants!’ and shirts proclaiming the impending ‘dia des los gigantes’, we knew that tomorrow’s game – the one which would decide whether the Giants would win the entire series in four straight games – was going to be a big one for this city.
We woke up on SUNDAY all set to be ‘proper’ SF tourists. We’d already done some of the more off-the-beaten-path type things, but today we’d see some of the more typical tourist attractions. We caught an Alcatraz cruise to the infamous island – now a National Park – and took the audio tour around the ex-prison. The tour was succinct (after all, it’s just a prison, there’s not that much to see apart from crumbled old toilets and iron bars) but the views of the bay, taking in the fog-enshrouded Golden Gate Bridge, and the downtown skyscrapers, were a real highlight. We took a walk to the OTT Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf, where we resisted the lure of tacky souvenir shops and sickly sweet candy vendors. The place was too busy, and the food we had was very underwhelming (chowder like Heinz Chicken Soup and a prawn sandwich with bread so hard you could knock someone out with it), but one high point on our traipse through Touristville was a whiff of the Boudin bread factory, famous for its sourdough. I experienced vertigo scaling the steep incline towards Lombard Street, the famous flower-lined zig-zag street, and made a brief stop for a wonderful milkshake at Lori’s downtown before heading out to catch the baseball game. We headed to Polk Street’s Hemlock Tavern, a likeable dive with a peanut-shell lined floor, an indoor smoking room (I’m not sure that’s even legal in California any more!) and an oval bar manned by two absolute bartending machines, serving from every angle and probably taking home more in tips that night that I would earn in a week. The entire bar was crammed with people, and it was nearly impossible to catch a view of the big-screen, but we just about managed it. The atmosphere was fantastic, everybody was kitted out in the orange and black Giants uniform du jour, and one guy was even selling homemade screen-printed t-shirts out of his rucksack at $10 a pop, which I gladly parted with my cash for. This was a history making night, I was already sure of it, the Giants HAD to win. The dark bar was lit with Halloween lanterns and skeleton lights, and the atmosphere went up a notch each time the Giants drew closer to victory. As the final pitch of the game was made, the place went up in a roar, half of my beer was spilt in joy and loads of high-fives were handed out and gladly taken. We chatted to lots of friendly locals, drank lots of tequila, and the last few patchy things I remember are more high-fives, a sponge ‘Cainsaw’, Hawaiian street pizza, and finding the way back home.
On MONDAY it was almost all over. The previous night had felt like a dream. We had been swept up in Giants fever, and awoke to news stories relating post-game riots, bonfires and buses being smashed up. Over the other side of the States, there was the devastation of superstorm Sandy, wrecking the East Coast. Then there was the realization that we had a day of economy class travelling to endure while trying to nurse our painful heads and bodies, and attempting to recollect the post-tequila details. We stumbled to Jack in the Box for a huge fast food combo. I think that helped a little.
Passing through the 7×7 square mile city, we saw one homeless man holding a cardboard sign reading ‘ass watching is a sport’. I realized that we had seen and done so much, and hardly cracked the surface of this diverse city. We hadn’t visited the Castro, where history was made in the 70s and the spirit of Harvey Milk still resides. We hadn’t had breakfast at Mama’s (well, we tried but the queue was just too long and we had a schedule to keep). We didn’t get the chance to scale the 400 steps of Telegraph Hill and see views out of Coit Tower. But I’m not complaining about that; walking the hilly streets was exercise enough. These things and more will all be on the list for next time, I’m sure.
Our visit was a whirlwind adventure, and I felt sad to have to leave. In a few short days we’d become adopted Giants fans, had tacos we’d have to go to deepest Mexico to beat, and seen iconic sights that many will only see on TV and cinema screens. It would take a few more days for all the garlic and tequila fumes to wear off, and a few good sleeps to recover from all the walking and travelling and reveling. But our memories of San Francisco have sunk in, and will be with us for a very long time.