The Streets of San Francisco

By Ewan McDonald

No Alcatraz. Or Fisherman's Wharf. Ewan McDonald goes back to a favourite town and avoids the tourist traps. And the cable cars.

Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco's "Ground Zero of hippiedom". Photo / Thinkstock
Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco's "Ground Zero of hippiedom". Photo / Thinkstock

Seems every time I come here, the locals have a different shorthand for the city (of which one of the official, and unofficially favourite, nicknames is "The City"). This time it's EssEff.

This is my fourth stay in San Francisco, and the aim is to go where I haven't gone before, which rules out any, and all, of the tourist attractions and traps: no Alcatraz. No Fisherman's Wharf. Especially, no cable cars. For four days, and evenings, I want to walk the streets of San Francisco.

Perhaps because it was one of the first airports of call for our national airline outside the traditional stopovers of Honolulu and LA. Perhaps because you can avoid LAX by landing here. Perhaps because of its louche past, recent and present. Perhaps because it's a little like home (the bridge, the bays, the boats) and completely unlike it, San Francisco is said to be No. 5 in New Zealanders' top 10 destinations.

And perhaps it might go up a berth or two, now that the 2013 America's Cup is being sailed smack-dab in the middle of town, under the Golden Gate Bridge and around Alcatraz and Fisherman's Wharf and other places that won't be mentioned again in this story.

It's a warm late-autumn afternoon when I step out of the hotel. Quiet. Only a few locals and not many more visitors in the streets around Union Square, the tiny square of green that's just about the only grass downtown. Even the boutiques - you know the brands - and the vast consumer temples of Macy's and Saks Fifth Avenue are quite in the holiday-season sales.

Not the bars. It's the fourth game in baseball's best-of-seven World Series and - miracle above miracles - the SF Giants are leading the Texas Rangers 2-1. Win down south tonight and they'll come home to AT&T Ballpark on the brink of claiming the ultimate prize for the first time in... ever.

As the New York Giants they were the winning-est team in the sport: that changed when owners moved the club to the West Coast in 1957. Fifty-three years of strikeouts ago. A city dares hope: council staff are laying artificial grass over that real lawn for the civic reception.

The place to watch is Lefty O'Doul's Bar and Grill, near the square, originally owned by one of the game's superheroes. Think Cheers on steroids. The orange-and-black cap crowd goes berserk as their stoner hero Aubrey Huff (that guy from ZZ Top playing pro baseball) swats a home run.

In his front-row seat, Texas' No 1 fan and former owner sits beside his glum Mom and Dad. Between innings, he drives a golf cart into the infield with Dad as The 4 Troops - four tenors in uniform - sing God Bless America before father-and-son Presidents.

Lefty's crowd hushes for the song, then rips into their "Let's Go Giants, Let's Go!!" anthem. Tonight, the Giants are beating around the Bushes.

This part of town is the Tenderloin. So, dinner is steak. With nostalgia on the side: John Ford and Humphrey Bogart filmed their noir classic, The Maltese Falcon, at John's Grill in 1941. There's a table upstairs with my name on it.

Well, my New York cut, bone in, rare, with baked Idaho potato, beans, salad and vinaigrette that is more vinegar than -grette. Beneath photos of Dashiell Hammett and Bogey canoodling with... whoever, aged front-pages, memorabilia. Heavy curtains shroud leadlights, darken '30s-striped wallpaper and a jazz guitarist noodles, if one can noodle in a grill room.

The waitress asks my wine choice. Given the time and place, Francis Ford Coppola's merlot. San Francisco Bay booze.

I Left My Art In...

FIRST TIME I came here, first time I ventured into any real, grown-up city (Sydney doesn't count. Then or now) the cathedral of shopperdom, in the middle of Market St, was a vast, rambling, eccentric department store dating from the Gold Rush called The Emporium.

Now it's the largest Westfield mall in the US - imagine Sylvia Park rising five storeys instead of covering half of Mt Wellington in concrete. You don't have to imagine any more: it's got Borders, The Body Shop, Footlocker, L'Occitane and every other depressing brand you can think of. If it were not for the 19th Century skydome, the marble floors, the antiseptic cleanliness, it could be Sylvia Park.

And apart from the gourmet foodmarkets underground... sorry, in the concourse which, like Sylvia Park, leads into the metro station.

After the first hit of the morning (do not go to Starbucks. SanFran gives great coffee), it's only a few steps into the SoMa district and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

In California-speak this is rendered SFMOMA, pronounced EssEffMoMa, one of the great experiences in a still-expanding lifetime of great art experiences. Lichtenstein. Pollock. Warhol. Duchamp. I could go on, and the brochure does.

Today the special exhibitions are the life and times and lenses of the master photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson and the contemporary history of wine. Other galleries tempt: perhaps the de Young; I contemplate the Palace of Fine Arts, home to Rodin's The Thinker, and more; but this is the bomb.

California's a Garden Of Eden ...

SoMa EXPANDS to South of Market (= Queen St), once an unlovely, unloved downtown cut off from its waterfront by motorways and overpasses, until a stroke of luck about 20 years ago: a mother of an earthquake levelled the Embardero freeway and mirrorglass towers. When they sorted out the legalities, and dynamited the rest, the city was left with an unparalleled opportunity to start again.

The gallery, downtown theatre precinct, Moscone convention centres and hotels, upmarket shopping and the Yerba Buena Gardens permanent funfair were council initiatives. The Old Ferry Building has become a gourmet food court, the best farmers' market outside Italy or Provence.

The equivalent of Quay St carries traffic, bus lanes, cycle lanes, a broad strolling path, and a tramway using vintage vehicles begged and borrowed from the US, Milan, Melbourne, Tokyo. Ferries, discarded in the '60s, sail to the suburbs across the bay. Buses, bikes, cars, trams, bikes, mobility scooters, skateboarders, even pedestrians, live and walk in harmony.

In and out of the port buildings and wharves winds a public promenade with the signs: "Public Shore - open 24 hours". What if Auckland... don't start me. It costs $2 to ride one of those trams or a train or trolley bus as far as Titirangi or Howick. Don't start me...

Dancing In Da Street ...

NORTH BEACH is the most typical old-school Italian city outside Melbourne or New York. Trattorie. Pizzerie with names like Caffe della Sport, Toscana, Firenze, Vesuvio and Luigi's Tuscan Grill. Courtyards, cars, carbon monoxide and noise.

The hill, home to Kerouac and all those beat poets you can reference but haven't read, is a baseball town tonight.

Another Frisco institution. I eat at The Stinking Rose - "we serve food with our garlic" - and to prove the point, a 120m garlic braid winds around the rafters and past that American tradition of photos of famous people who've dined here. Like Alice Cooper. Probably bit the head off the chicken with 40 cloves of garlic, the signature dish.

Love it, have to try it. We do better at home.

From here to home through Chinatown. Shop signs change: Canton Bazaar, Old Shanghai, Peking Market, Linda's Boutique. A little girl skips home in her intricately embroidered yellow silk tunic. It's eery, silent, until six men shuffle - a cliché, but there is no other word - on to the footpath outside the Far East Café and strike up their koto orchestra.

Two doors down, outside Old St Mary's Church, an old man plays his one-string violin. I pick out the tune. Auld Lang Syne.

Downtown, outside Café de la Presse, homeless men in wheelchairs watch the World Series finale. "Dey gonna be dancing in da street tonight," one tells me. Two blocks later he's right. The umpire flashes his thumb and all 420 men on the Giants squad invade the diamond.

By the time I reach the c-car terminus at Powell and Market streets, all of San Fran, Frisco, EssEff or whatever is tootin' and hollerin', jivin' and high-fivin'. By the way, there's an election on.

Let's Go Where the Flour's Ground...

ELECTION DAY dawns. To be scrupulously correct, it's several hours past dawning on the East Coast and - what a surprise - Faux News is trumpeting the Republican victory. The nation is at their Beck and crawl. Even if most of it hasn't had the opportunity to vote yet.

Downtown for a bite. IMHO, San Francisco's greatest gift to the world (excluding Jerry Garcia) is sourdough bread. So, coffee and a sandwich at Boudin, a legendary bakery. Ham, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, mustard, mayo... no crisps. It's only breakfast.

On every street corner campaigners beg my vote for Senate, Congress, Board of Supervisors (city council), local reps. And propositions, by which they mean referenda, I hasten to point out. On anything from banning McDonald's offering toys with Happy Meals, to parking fees or requiring the state - the world's 10th largest economy - to balance its books.

I have to tell these passionate souls I can't vote in their democracy where, rather than heading to the local school or library, the enfranchised duck into makeshift, sacking and trestle booths in garages beneath apartment blocks or empty shops. I'm tempted to cast a ballot when - standing in the Civic Center, on UN Plaza, so named because that's where the whole schemozzle was set up - I'm offered the chance to vote for a politician called "Anna Conder".

It's a day of wandering. On Alamo Square, facing the oft-postcarded Painted Ladies row of Victorian houses, I strike up a conversation with a policeman, like me taking a comfort stop. He cops my accent and wants to chat about New Zealand, the countryside, the weather. "You have a good holiday now."

As California decides whether to make marijuana legal for personal use, I stroll into Haight-Ashbury and inhale a flat white. The Ground Zero of hippiedom has recreated itself as a self-conscious tourist attraction, a main street of smoke shops with names like Day Dreamz, silks on sale at the Tibetan Gift Corner and Far Out Fabrics, Ben & Jerry's Peace Love and Ice Cream.

I get my fix at Coffee to the People. Recreation? Maybe it was always thus. Or this.

Some blocks downhill to Castro. The gay quarter, if you must. Election fever runs a higher temperature here, invoking the memory of Harvey Milk. They honour the assassinated politician with a station that's underground: the last thing he was. His old camera shop and unofficial city hall at 575 Castro is for lease: wonder what will come up next to the Hand Job Manicure Parlour.

Curiously like Remmers' shopping strip, it's colourful and not just because of the rainbow flags. Or the construction guys who add an air of the Village People. Or the two naked guys tanning themselves outside a sidewalk cafe over the road from the Sodom and Gomorrah preacher playing Glory, Glory Hallelujah on his trumpet.

We Built This City...

IN THE LATE 18th Century Spanish missionaries arrived in the area and found Indian people living in two villages on Mission Creek. They immediately converted the locals to the joys of slavery and compelled them to build their mission.

The men of God also realised that San Francisco (as they would call it) boasted microclimates. Each neighborhood can have radically different weather at any given time. The Mission was insulated it from western fog and wind; it's warmer and sunnier than the rest of the city. So: orchards. Vineyards.

Which, if you've read your Steinbeck or heard your Woody Guthrie, meant that during the 1940-1960s, the Irish, Germans and Poles moved out and Mexican immigrants moved in. Later, immigrants and refugees from Central and South America. Bad things: gangs, drugs. Good things: Carlos Santana, Faith No More.

Somewhere after 1 the Mission hasn't woken yet. By my clock it's half past lunch and this is where America slapped up against Mexican food (or Salvadorean, Guatemalan, Nicaraguan) so it's into one of many frying burrito brothers on Valencia St.

Bliss is a super taco with chicken, refried beans, guacamole, burning peppers and ice-cold Pacifico Clara cerveza. Why is it that here, Mexican food leaps into the mouth and jumps around, all tarantella and verve, and at home it sloshes around in the belly, trying to find any kick apart from that cheap chilli belch?

Another good reason to wander the Mission: since the '70s Chicano artists have taken their cue from Diego Rivera and painted walls and buildings throughout the neighbourhood with stunning, vibrant murals. Find Balmy Alley or Clarion Alley, or just walk around with your eyes open. Bad messages though: many people wander with empty eyes. Most signs are in Spanish but many shops are empty.

On A Warm San Franciscan Night...

LAST NIGHT in town, clambering from the shore to the high spots of the old city along Hyde St (where the c-c-- s rumble). Lit in soft focus: the firehose shape of Coit Tower, that prison island, the lacy lines of that other bridge, the longer one to Oakland.

Unwittingly, I'm in a tourist spot, top of Lombard St, so-called crookedest street in the world. How does one drive down the switchback with a 5mph speed limit?

A local in an elegant, expensive, expansive limo takes it at 20 and executes a neat turn into his garage. Five boys in a topless red Mustang tremble, their speedo quivering around 2mph.

When realtors market a property in Russian Hill as "exclusive", they mean it. Ambling downhill, young women jog and walk past, alone, in the dusk: a metaphor for the safety that I've noticed around much of SanFran. The apartments are very large and refined behind high fences, alarmed security gates and permanently placed concierges. There's not a friendly local trattoria taqueria or taverna in sight.

Just as well I have a hot date.

In America you gotta eat hamburger. Except they don't flip, like, y'know, burgers at Absinthe. This inner-city institution's idea of fast-food is a setting out of Wilde's Paris Left Bank period, a patty of locally sourced ground beef (grainfed of course), baby lettuces, red onion, house-made pickles, proper fries. Smoked gouda, sautéed mushrooms, gruyère, fried egg, spicy caramelized onions, gorgonzola on the side: at $32.50 before the tip (and the pomegranate-tequila, absinthe and limoncello cocktail), it may be the most expensive burger I've eaten. But it was worth the walk.

* Ewan McDonald flew with Air New Zealand and stayed at the Handlery Union Square Hotel. Air New Zealand flies direct to San Francisco up to seven times a week. Please visit airnewzealand.co.nz or call 0800 737 000 for further information.

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