California Soul: The Most Expensive City

Perhaps you’ve seen that recent Dockers commercial, set in San Francisco, with the catchy song: “Like a sound you hear that lingers in your ear/You can’t forget from sunrise to sunset….No matter what you do, it’s gonna get a hold on you/California soul….”
Often bundled in a sweatshirt, in its typically chilly July, I caught a taste of this soul.
The right wing whips out the boogeyman of San Francisco whenever it wishes to present the dark specter of liberalism. What these scaremongers fail to mention is the friendliness and beauty found there.
Friendliness is associated with the South, but San Francisco should share this reputation—-often accompanied by good food. Make no mistake, San Francisco has a well-earned reputation as a food mecca and it could be a challenge to find a poor meal. National chains are an anomaly; I’d say 90% or more are local.
For instance, we stopped for breakfast at the classic diner the Olympic Flame Café on Geary, downtown in the theater district.. For about $7.00, you can pick up a traditional omelet (like a Western), or something unusual that might include shrimp, avocado, or artichoke hearts.
Since locals or visitors speaking German or French filled the tables, we sat at the counter, elbow to elbow with other diners, and met an older American woman who had teamed up with an Australian Harley-Davidson group, traveling up to Sturgis.
On the other side was a Scotsman who had just moved here a few weeks before, with his diplomat wife.
Also, we had a five minute conversation with a barista serving marvelous cappuccinos at the Steps of Rome Caffe in North Beach. It turned out he hails from Crookston, Minnesota. You meet the world in San Francisco, even those from home.
We enjoyed a fresh, tasty appetizer of cozze all ‘aglio, with mussels, garlic, tomato, and spinach, and sopped up the broth with slender bread sticks.
I enjoyed a small entrée of spiedini di gamberi, with shrimp/calamari/scallop kabobs, served with asparagus wrapped in pancetta.
North Beach is home to many Italian eateries, like Tosca and The Stinking Rose, a moniker that refers to the prevalence of garlic in its dishes.
Walking or driving up and down the almost perpendicular hills, it’s good to rest in that haven for bibliophiles City Lights, also in the North Beach area. Owned by Beat poet Laurence Ferlinghetti, this is still an iconic stop, and a place to fill several hours perusing the shelves for books you may never find elsewhere, even at Barnes and Noble.
For me, a lingering surprise was the Eden-like beauty of the vegetation, from the yellow poppies, to the red flowering gum trees lining the streets. Some resembled props from a ‘50s sci-fi movie, plants that may not look threatening enough to swallow a limb, but might endanger a small finger.
Towering eucalyptus, their reddened leaves falling like a brilliant papery carpet at our feet, filled the valley at the Stern Grove Festival, a free outdoor concert series on Sundays in the summer.
Performances range from jazz to opera to ballet. The Sunday we went, a Latin Rock group played music of Santana. Stalls served hot food, and sold t-shirts. For setting and people-watching, it can’t be beat.
Families with small children played on the grounds, while several others smoked marijuana furtively in the shade, or gyrated to the rhythms.
In the air of celebration, the grounds seemed haunted by Jerry Garcia and Jefferson Airplane.
For some, touristy Fisherman’s Wharf holds more of an attraction. It’s flooded with t-shirt stores and seafood restaurants and affords a view of Alcatraz. You may be roped into sight-seeing ferry rides, which apparently are worthwhile. Given time limits, we preferred to watch the sailboats and see the seals sunning on concrete slabs.
One of the best areas to visit is Golden Gate Park . Larger than New York’s Central Park, it holds botanical gardens, the Japanese Tea Garden, the de Young Museum, and the Palace of Fine Arts.
It’s also a place for horseback riding, fly fishing, bison—and the excellent Beach House Chalet Brewery and Restaurant, a refurbished 1925 building with a coastal view, and meaty fish and chips, fat burgers, Sunday brunches, and, of course, beer.
Walking the grounds of the park, again bundled in sweatshirt and long pants, you can catch a view of the Golden Gate Bridge itself, a red slit across the water, through clear blue sky, or watch fields of cloud roll in. Indeed, you may feel you’ve caught a glimpse of your own Shangri-La.
We stayed, for the weekend portion, at a Holiday Inn Express South at the airport, at about $150 a night. It was clean with a hot breakfast included and no parking fee; in addition, it has microwave and refrigerator.
One of the problems with downtown hotels is that parking overnight is around $30, give or take a couple of bucks.
One thing we found too is when we stayed downtown, we were in a neighborhood with a character that changed at night, a little scary.
The downtown hotel we stayed at was the Hotel California, on Geary. It was a refurbished hotel, charming. Rates during the week were $115 a night; during the weekend, rates more than double.
The Fisherman’s Wharf area seems clean and relatively safe, but even the “cheap” Travelodge, considered a two-star budget hotel is $175 a night.
Be sure to reserve in advance—sometimes a considerable time in advance. Some areas, like the Wharf, were filled up a month or more in advance, if their rates were “reasonable,” ($200 or less).














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