From the pine-shaded towns of Georgia they come. From the sprawling suburbs of Ohio and the cramped apartments of Manhattan. By Boeing jet, by Greyhound, by wood-paneled station wagon and Harley-Davidson. They come bearing uncomfortable walking shoes and empty suitcases yearning for souvenirs. They come with dreams of Jack Kerouac, Carol Doda, and free fog for all.
They are the San Francisco tourists.
And you are their tour guide.
It doesn’t matter that you didn’t ask for this job. Just by living in this great city, near this great city, or even a day’s drive from this great city, you have volunteered your time, energy, and sofa bed to the vacation enjoyment of others.
When faced with these obligations, it’s tempting just to steer your guests toward Pier 39 and consider your duty done. Unfortunately, these are people you know, people you love. You owe them something a little more personal.
It isn’t that difficult. First, think carefully about your visitors. Consider their ages, their dispositions, their loves and hates. Do they like jazz? Are they afraid of heights? Can they order in Cantonese? Then ask yourself what little slice of San Francisco these people will want to take home and treasure.
To help you find the answer, we’ve woven together these five tourist tales. So gather round and listen. You may find your own guests in these stories—stories that begin, "Once upon a time, in the kingdom of San Francisco . . ."
They Like Ike
At 5:23 a.m., it begins. A creak of bedsprings, a loud clearing of sinuses. By the time you stumble bleary-eyed into the living room, they’re drinking Folgers instant coffee and talking loudly over the Todayshow. Uncle Irv and Aunt Edna. By some bizarre twist of genetics, your relatives.
After a stack of Swedish pancakes at Sears Fine Food, your first stop is the Jeremiah O’Brien.On board the World War II liberty ship, the voices of the Andrews Sisters ring through narrow hallways. Edna avoids the steep steps into the engine room, but you follow Irv down to where a bright-eyed veteran is explaining how scenes from Titanicwere shot using Jeremiah’striple-expansion steam engine. Irv couldn’t care less. He’s too busy poking around the pipes, peering into the boilers. "Look here," he beckons, pointing to a 3-foot-long box wrench. "Won two bits for putting my head through one of these."
After the Jeremiah,Irv is itching to go see the World War II Pampanitosub, also docked at Pier 45. You and Edna decide to visit the nearby city museum, in the Cannery building. As you work your way through, the city’s legends spring to life: Joshua Norton, self-declared Emperor of the United States; Lillie Hitchcock Coit, spunky heiress and fire aficionado. Just as you and Edna are poring over bottles melted in the 1906 inferno, Irv reappears. "How was the Pampanito?" you ask.
"Tighter than a sardine can. Let’s eat."
On the western edge of Golden Gate Park, the historic Beach Chalet is crowded with couples sipping microbrews and chatting over salads. While you wait, you study the vibrant WPA murals of San Francisco. Edna stops before a panel of women in one-piece swimsuits that show their strong legs and rounded stomachs. "Now that’s what a gal should look like," she says approvingly. "Well-fed."
After lunch and two stops in Golden Gate Park—the arboretum for Edna and the fly-casting pools for Irv—you cruise down the Great Highway to Fort Funston. A faded wind sock sails taut to the east, beckoning to hang gliders. You pause to watch a group struggling into their pupa-like harnesses, then head to the ocean overlook.
"Holy mackerel!" bellows Irv as the first glider leaps off the cliff. The three of you sit spellbound, squinting up at the silhouettes whirling on an updraft. Afterward you walk along the cliff tops, where Edna befriends every scrappy terrier that bounds past.
By now you’re craving Indian food, but you’re going to play it safe: Years ago you took Irv and Edna out for Ethiopian and they still haven’t let you forget about the lack of silverware. You decide on Kuleto’s downtown, where you like the dark, stylish decor and Edna and Irv will be satisfied with the large portions of pasta.
On nearby Nob Hill, hundreds of World War II servicemen downed their last martini at the Top of the Mark before shipping out. Tonight, Wally’s Swing World is re-creating the sounds of the era, and Edna pulls Irv onto the dance floor before he can finish complaining about his dress shoes. You walk to the window and gaze at the lights of the city.
"May I have this dance?" It’s Irv, looking bashful. You take his rough hand and he catches you up in a graceful twirl and a cloud of Old Spice. Edna looks on, clapping and smiling. In an instant the predawn wake-up is forgiven. They are, after all, your relatives.
The Young and the Restless
Despite the fact that she slept until 11, Mel still looks venomously cranky this morning as she slips on her leather jacket and pins back her dark hair. You know what this face means: You have exactly 10 minutes to locate caffeine or Mel will self-destruct.
There’s a line of sunglass-shrouded hipsters outside Boogaloos in the Mission, but you squeeze past the crowd and return with an orange juice for you and a Depth Charge—coffee with an extra kick of espresso—for Mel. By the time she drains the last muddy drops, her mood has brightened considerably. She points to the Bay Guardianshe’s been leafing through. "Hey, get this: ‘Eco-warrior seeks Buddhist nudist for spiritual interludes.’ Who are these people?"
At the table, the conversation shifts from the personals to her latest Super 8 film project, pausing only slightly when the huevos rancheros arrive. Completely sated, the two of you stroll down sunny Valencia Street, ducking into thrift shops and record stores before turning down to the BART station on Mission. When the train reaches Powell Street you head toward the unmistakable silhouette of the Museum of Modern Art. Inside there’s a visiting black-and-white photo exhibit that Mel won’t stop talking about and a diorama show that she calls "the most bogus thing I’ve seen all year." The biggest hit is the vertigo-inducing catwalk.
You while away the last hour of the afternoon in the green oasis of nearby South Park, then head to the Brain Wash Cafe for Mel’s second caffeine infusion of the day. On the way you stop for photos at the Defenestration Building art project, an abandoned building with Dali-esque furniture hanging out its open windows.
"What’s defenestration?" Mel asks, peering up at a food-filled refrigerator suspended in midfall.
"It means to throw something out a window," you sagely reply, thankful you looked the word up.
Knowing Mel’s love of drama, you made dinner reservations weeks ago for Asia SF, home of some of the city’s finest gender illusionists. As the sleek walls shift slowly from red to purple to yellow, Mel gives her order to a Ru Paul look-alike with a pale orchid tucked behind his left ear. Ten minutes later this same waitress is towering atop the bar in 5-inch silver platforms. As he struts and strides to "I Will Survive," Mel leans over to whisper ruefully, "He’s got nicer legs than I do."
It’s a tough decision what to hit next: a campy classic at the art deco Castro Theatre . . . madcap snapshots in the photo booth at Uncle Mame’s variety store . . . Then it comes to you: the Beauty Bar. When you arrive at the faux beauty parlor, the crowd is busy nursing pink cosmopolitans and admiring the 1950s kitsch. Mel grabs a spot under a hair dryer and you head to the bar to order. When you turn around Mel has moved to the manicurist’s table and is waving a still-wet set of orange nails in your direction. "It’s called ‘Dork.’ Whatcha think?"
"No come on, really."
After another round, Mel begs you to take her dancing, even though you haven’t updated your moves since high school. Finally you agree and catch a cab to Nikki’s.
As you step inside you’re hit with a wave of sweat, sound, and energy. The whole place is pulsing to Michael Jackson’s "Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough," and before you can help yourself, you and Mel are grooving in the thick of things. Three songs later you’re still going. As soon as a bad song comes on, I’ll take a breather, you think.
By 1:30 you still haven’t stopped dancing and your knees are officially on strike. You give Mel the signal to head out. Outside in the chilly air she grabs your arm conspiratorially: "Man I’m starving. Let’s get some grub."
You stare at her incredulously but you’re too tired to argue. As the cab pulls up to take you to El Farolito for burritos, all you can think is tomorrow it’s Mel’s turn to buy you a Depth Charge.
Lawyers in Love
For a guy who never wore anything but jeans and a sweatshirt in college, Steve seems completely at ease this morning in his button-down and Dockers. "Lookin’ sharp, big guy," you say as you clap him on the back and kiss Victoria on the cheek.
Since your VW is in the shop, you’ve agreed to take their rented Explorer to the Marina. On the way, Steve and Victoria reminisce about their last visit, when they toured Union Street. Oh yes, you recall grimly, the day you became a human pack mule for shopping bags.
After picking up steaming lattes and croissants at the Grove, you continue to the Palace of Fine Arts. A remnant of the 1915 world’s fair, the Palace looks majestically anachronistic as you approach, and by the time you’ve finished your outdoor breakfast, several brides have been photographed against the classical columns.
Steve and Victoria are home-hunting in Denver, so you cruise up to the moneyed neighborhood of Sea Cliff for a house tour, pointing out a white colonial here, a Mediterranean villa there. You gesture nonchalantly toward a sprawling mansion. "That’s Robin Williams’s house."
"Really?" Steve rolls down his window. He sits expectantly, searching for signs of stardom.
"I see him!" he yells suddenly, causing you and Victoria to press up frantically against the window. As a figure in white disappears behind the manicured shrubs, Victoria sinks back into her seat. "Honey, that was the gardener."
At the end of Sea Cliff you stroll down to the tiny crescent of China Beach. Steve skips rocks as Victoria takes photos of the Golden Gate with her digital camera. Off the rocky point, a lone surfer bobs like a shivering seal.
After the wind and fog it feels good to reach the sun- filled interior of Zuni Café, where you slurp up salty oysters and people-watch out the windows. As you head down to the next highlight—the ornate stone-and-plaster interior of City Hall—you realize you’ll have to traverse shop-lined Hayes Street to reach your final destination, the Victorian Painted Ladies. Stay calm, you think. The Hayes boutiques may be upscale, but they’ve got a little too much attitude to appeal to these two.
After only a block you are proven wrong. First there’s the Hayes & Vine Wine Bar, where Steve and Victoria each sample a handful of vintages. Then two shoe stores, a watch shop, a home furnishings store, two galleries. Before you know it, you’re lumbering behind, laden with bags. Next visit, you swear darkly, you’ll insist on an Anchor Steam Brewery tour and a Giants game.
Finally you reach the row of pastel Victorians that slants against the cityscape. "Wow, is that the Mrs. Doubtfirehouse?" Victoria asks, pointing to the corner home.
"No," you say wearily, "that’s further down, on Broadway." You’ve been upstaged by Robin Williams again.
Two of the city’s sleekest restaurants—Absinthe and Jardinière—are nearby, but you’ve got something even more dramatic in mind. When you descend into Loongbar’s dragon-themed dining room and hear the gasps, you’re glad you broke your rule about eating at Fisherman’s Wharf.
Just as the black pepper ribs arrive, Steve’s cell phone rings and he heads outside to take the call. By the time he returns, the ribs are in your stomach and their spot taken by sweet-and-sour snapper. As you take a bite, you hear the waitress telling Victoria that Don Johnson has just bought the restaurant. "It’ll be reopening as something Vietnamese," she whispers. "He may even feature it on ‘Nash Bridges.’ " You sigh. Don Johnson. Robin Williams. Maybe you should just move to Hollywood.
After dessert, you stand to leave, patting your pocket. Tickets to Rentstill there. Stomach satisfied. You’re feeling good. "Hey guys, why don’t we take the cable car downtown and grab a cab back? It’ll be fun."
Steve and Victoria turn and look at each other in bewilderment. "What? And leave the Explorer?"
You’ve Got to be Kidding
World’s Coolest Grown-up. These are the words shining in Natalie’s and Derek’s young eyes when you tell them you’re taking them for a doughnut picnic at the Wave Organ. Martha and Bill’s concerned looks seem to suggest "World’s Highest Dental Bills," but you know they’ll come around once they bite into a chocolate éclair.
After procuring the candy-pink box from All Star’s, the five of you walk down the Marina breakwater, pointing out Angel Island and Alcatraz. At the end of the path, a Dr. Seussian series of pipes gurgles and sighs to the incoming slosh of the sea. Nine-year-old Derek presses his ear to one. "Sounds like Dad’s stomach." Bill grins and pats his belly.
By the time the box is empty the kids are frothing to be set loose in the Exploratorium’s cavernous hall of science. Derek practically trips in his eagerness to experience centrifugal force on the spinning machine; Natalie is slightly more dignified as she hurries toward the giant bubbles shimmering up from the center of the room.
You catch up with them at the large shadow box, where Natalie performs a shaky handstand against the wall and Derek leaps into the air. Flash! An upside-down Natalie is captured in shadow, her younger brother two feet off the ground beside her. Before long, you, Martha, and Bill are elbowing kids aside, twisting sideways against the wall in pharaoh profile as Bill hums "Walk Like an Egyptian." Suddenly, you see Natalie standing in front of you, arms folded. "You guys are so embarrassing."
So much for World’s Coolest Grown-up.
Cheeseburgers and malteds at Mel’s Diner soon smooth over the Shadowgate incident, and Natalie even joins in when "The Chipmunk Song" comes on the jukebox. With preteen scorn defused, it’s time to rent skates and head for Golden Gate Park.
Since it’s Sunday, the park’s main drive is blocked off, and a legion of in-line skaters weave expertly through orange cones, leaping over obstacles. It looks effortless. A hundred yards later you’re cursing what seem to be ball bearings strapped to your feet. Just as you hit the ground for the second time, Martha whizzes by. "Looking good, Martha!" you shout in admiration.
"Where are the brakes?" she shrieks.
By the time you reach the Japanese Tea Garden you’re happy to settle into the shady teahouse with a plate of almond cookies. The kids won’t stop clambering over the bridge that arches across the koi pond, and you eventually convince the whole family to perch on its perfect half-circle. "Say ‘bonsai trees!’ " you call out and snap the photo.
The long second stretch of skating goes smoother, and when you finally reach Ocean Beach you’ve stopped clutching your chest in fear. Martha doles out street shoes from her backpack and you head up to the Cliff House and the Musée Mécanique, home of the old arcade games from the Playland-by-the-Sea amusement park. You’ve brought a roll of quarters so everyone can watch the dancing marionettes, hear the player pianos, and peer through the aging stereoscopes, but most of the roll goes to feeding Laughing Sal, the mechanical redhead whose maniacal cackle elicits peals of laughter.
If you didn’t have to return the skates, you’d take the kids down to the Sutro Baths to poke around the ruined foundations and salty tide pools. Happily, the cab ride back to the Haight carries its own entertainment value for two suburban kids.
You’re hoping Isobune’s circular sushi bar will be a similarly successful novelty, though it’s a stretch for children raised on grilled cheese and fries. As wooden boats piled with mackerel and spicy tuna float by, Natalie decides she’s sticking to California rolls. Derek, on the other hand, is delighted with the idea of raw fish. "Hey, Nat! Nat!" he yells, wiggling a pale strip of halibut at his sister. "This one isn’t dead yet!"
So much for cultural enrichment.
At 8:30 in the morning, Lydia is waiting outside the Red Victorian B&B as promised. She jumps into the car with a jangle of jewelry and you head toward Fort Mason and Greens restaurant. They won’t have table service for several hours, but you pick up buttermilk scones at the to-go counter and take a seat overlooking the harbor. There’s a calm hush in the dining room that befits a place owned by the Zen Center.
Although you have a few suggestions for today—the Asian Art Museum, a walk along the coast to Land’s End—you decide to ask Lydia what she wants to do. "Well," she muses, "we could pick up some herbs."
Chinatown. A car-parker’s purgatory.
Just as the thought of narrow alleyways and double-parked delivery trucks begins to incite a migraine, you remember your salvation: the Sutter Stockton Garage.
Along Stockton Street the herb stores are cluttered with bins of bright red wolfberries and dusty ginseng. Lydia decides on a bag of yucca roots that look like chalky tongue depressors. As you continue eastward, the two of you duck into Waverly Place alley and climb up to the Tin How Temple to light incense at the gilded shrine of Tien Hua, Protector of Travelers. You wonder where they keep the Protector of Hosts.
Chinatown bleeds into North Beach as you reach Columbus Avenue and the legendary City Lights Bookstore. Lydia crosses herself as she steps through the doorway and clomps downstairs to find the Eastern philosophy section. You wander up to the Beat area and are soon lost in the pages of The Dharma Bums.When you return to the main level, Lydia is chatting up the cashier and stuffing two books on meditation into a canvas backpack already bulging with the harmony balls and Buddha charms from Chinatown.
On the grass of Washington Square you bite into hearty focaccia sandwiches from Molinari’s deli, watching the wizened Italian men doze in the shadow of the church. From the square, it’s a steep and breathless walk up to Coit Tower, where cuddling couples peer out at the bayscape below. After peeking in at the Depression-era frescoes, you descend to the east along the garden-lined Greenwich Steps. Light laces down through giant ferns as a gray tabby slinks up and winds himself between Lydia’s ankles. A young man carrying a cherubic baby passes you and disappears into a shingled cottage framed in orange trumpet vine. "Can you imagine living here?" asks Lydia. "Paradise on earth."
You smile and nod. You were actually just thinking how miserable it would be to haul groceries up these stairs.
By the time you and Lydia return to the car there’s a throbbing blister on your baby toe and still an hour and a half until your appointment at the Kabuki Springs in Japantown. In the meantime, you’ll have to de-stress at Mad Magda’s Tea Room.
The fortune-teller’s table is empty when you arrive, and Lydia takes a seat beneath the colorful onion dome of St. Basil’s Cathedral. You order a pot of smoky Russian tea and head for the garden to sip and wait. After 15 minutes, Lydia returns, beaming. "What’d she say?" you ask.
"She told me I’m ripe."
"Open to new experiences, filled with possibility, blooming with potential," Lydia gushes.
When it’s your turn at the tarot table, your first card reveals a dark tower being struck by lightning. "Does this mean I’m ripe?" you ask hopefully.
When you arrive at the Kabuki, soothing Japanese music is drifting softly over the communal bathing pools. You’ve booked a one-hour shiatsu massage; Lydia has signed up for something called a Javanese lulur,involving yogurt. You don’t dare ask. When you emerge from the room, you’re almost too relaxed to drive to dinner at Angkor Wat. Inside the dining room, a young Cambodian girl in pancake makeup and a traditional gold headdress is onstage, dancing sinuously to atonal music. Lydia is mesmerized. "Do you think they offer lessons? I used to belly dance you know."
After finishing off her lemongrass salmon she leans over again. "Hey, did you see the ad for a nudist Buddhist in the Bay Guardian?I think I might call."
Sears Fine Food
439 Powell St.
SS Jeremiah O’Brien
Pier 45 (Pier 32 mid-Oct. to mid-May),
Pier 45, (415) 775-1943
Museum of the City
of San Francisco
2801 Leavenworth St., Third Floor
The Beach Chalet
1000 Great Highway
at John F. Kennedy Dr.
Skyline Dr., near Lake Merced
221 Powell St.,
Top of the Mark
Mark Hopkins Hotel
California and Mason
3296 22nd St.,
Museum of Modern Art
151 Third St.
Sixth and Howard Sts.
Brain Wash Cafe
1122 Folsom St.,
201 Ninth St.,
The Beauty Bar
2299 Mission St.,
460 Haight St.,
2250 Chestnut St.
Palace of Fine Arts
Palace Dr., off Baker St.
End of Sea Cliff Ave.
off 25th Ave.
1658 Market St.
Van Ness Ave.
at McAllister St.
Hayes & Vine Wine Bar
377 Hayes St.,
Alamo Square, Steiner
and Hayes Sts.
Golden Gate Theatre
1 Taylor St.,
All Star’s Donuts
2095 Chestnut St.
3601 Lyon St.
2165 Lombard St.
Skates on Haight
1818 Haight St.
Japanese Tea Garden
Golden Gate Park
1090 Point Lobos Ave., beneath the Cliff House
1737 Post St.
Fort Mason, Bldg. A
Sutter Stockton Garage
Sutter and Stockton Sts.
Tin How Temple
125 Waverly Place,
City Lights Bookstore
261 Columbus Ave.
373 Columbus Ave.
Russian Tea Room
579 Hayes St.
Kabuki Springs & Spa
1750 Geary Blvd.
4217 Geary Blvd., (415) 221-7887