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San Francisco's Hayes Valley

Cruise a revived city scene for smart design and indie shops.

sidewalk cafe scene in San Francisco's Hayes Valley district, image
Photo caption
You'll find fancy eateries and sidewalk café seating along Hayes St.


Along a tiny alley in the heart of the San Francisco neighborhood known as Hayes Valley, people line up until 6 p.m. seven days a week to get the most delicious cup of coffee in the Bay Area.

No sandwiches at this kiosk countertop. No flavored drinks. "We don't do tea," says Blue Bottle Coffee barista Jamie McCormick as he grinds a handful of fragrant beans, blended and small-batch roasted just a few hours earlier at the firm's home base in Oakland. "It's all about the coffee."

That sort of single-minded passion has, in the last decade, come to characterize the small community centered on a four-block commercial stretch of Hayes Street that runs west from Van Ness Avenue. The neighborhood has become and remains a hub for quirky connoisseurs of all sorts. Whether you seek the latest skateboarder's sneaker (at Huf), limited edition Italian stilettos (at Paolo), or a set of eyeshades that block all photons and leave room for cucumber slices (at mod travel boutique Flight 001), chances are you'll find a well-designed something to beguile you and those you love in Hayes Valley.

A cocktail of high and pop cultures, this shopping and dining destination is anchored on the Van Ness Avenue end by the War Memorial Opera House and Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall and on the other end by Laguna Street's Tandoori Grill, serving flavorful Indian and Pakistani dishes, and Suppenküche, a Bavarian traditional-style Wirtshaus.

Urban Knitting Studio has hundreds of textured and pashmina-soft yarns, along with classes that can help make even a newbie's scarf a work of art. 320 Fell St., (415) 552-5333,

In 1989, the earthquake that jolted all of San Francisco led to a more gradual but equally dramatic upheaval that transformed this part of the city. Until that point, Hayes Valley was dominated by a double-decker freeway overpass that shut out the sun and (temporarily) kept a ceiling on rents.

First came the artists, then the cafés, then the expensive shoe stores," says artist and gallery owner Terry Chastain. "It's the typical progression." It was helped along mightily by the 1992 and 2003 demolitions of the offending freeway off-ramps and last summer's opening of a handsome, ground-level thoroughfare. The new Octavia Boulevard Project—complete with Moulin Rouge streetlamps, a playground, and a community green—has helped to knit the neighborhood together. But even before the boulevard's christening, Hayes Valley had become a thriving destination for style hunters from all over the globe.

Around the corner from Chastain's gallery (Tinhorn Public Works) and near the new village green on Octavia, the African Outlet boasts fabulously carved masks from Nigeria and Gambia and stacked bolts of cloth from the Wodaabe, nomadic herders of Niger. Two blocks away, the Polanco gallery of Mexican arts is a riot of skeleton figurines, rainbow-hued Huichol Indian beadwork, Michoacán ceramics, and silver jewelry. Several other shops, including R.A.G., Manifesto, and Modern Appealing Clothing (MAC), showcase dozens of San Francisco clothing creators—some of them well-established designers and some just out of school—who bring fashion to every price point.

Don't forget to eat. Several of San Francisco's favorite restaurants are here, too. The pioneering Hayes Street Grill set a classy tone for seafood and comfort fare on the street when it opened in 1979, serving homemade sausage and farmers' market produce to city powerbrokers and the opera crowd. Citizen Cake sings a sweet variation on the comfort theme; try the warm spinach and bacon salad topped with a poached egg and Yukon gold potatoes, and save room for berry trifle parfait. Down the street, Caffè delle Stelle weighs in with Tuscan and Umbrian dishes such as roasted pumpkin ravioli with sage-infused butter.

Closer to the symphony hall and opera house, Absinthe Brasserie and Bar tempts patrons with oysters and imported cheeses before the ballet. For a quicker, less pricey nibble, stop in at Frjtz and order a crepe or a cone of crisp, Belgian-style fries.

Whether you're shopping, eating, or just passing through, it's hard to miss the up-and-coming vibe that pervades Hayes Valley—a creative thrum fueled by people who came here not by chance but because they wanted to be a part of building a cultural village within the city of San Francisco.

Photography by Terrence McCarthy


This article was first published in November 2005. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.