Feelin' Groovy in S.F.
Blame it on the beatniks. In the early ’60s, those poetry-spouting pioneers of American counterculture fled the rising rents of San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood and brought the seeds of change to the tumbledown Victorians of Haight-Ashbury. Soon they were trading in their guitars for sitars, their bongo-backed poems for the psychedelic sounds of Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead, and the innocent perks of espresso for batches of LSD cooked up by amateur chemist Augustus Owsley Stanley III.
The result was a neighborhood like no other, a brave new world of possibility on the edge of the continent. Quickly its siren song of free love and new drugs reverberated across the country, electrifying kids and alarming parents. The Establishment’s views on class, race, and morality were being reconsidered, if not rejected outright. All set to a beat you could dance to.
Today the ’60s are still a celebrated part of the Haight. Visitors wander, star maps in hand, past the former homes of famous flower children. There’s 710 Ashbury, onetime headquarters of the Grateful Dead. Janis Joplin lived at 112 Lyon until 1968, when her landlord evicted her for possession . . . of a dog.
But Haight-Ashbury at the millennium is more than a memorial to its past. The one-bedroom crash pads of yesteryear now rent for $1,500 a month, and while the neighborhood still bustles, the scene is more hip boutique than head shop. You may come for the nostalgia, but you’ll stay for the colorful restaurants, funky stores, and the opportunity to soak up the sun—or the fog—in nearby Golden Gate Park.
Before starting your explorations, fortify yourself with a Louisiana crab omelet or andouille hash from the Cajun-style Crescent City Café. Or head across the street to the venerable Pork Store Café, where short-order cook Nadia Musleh has been dishing out banana pancakes and chicken-apple sausage to locals for more than 18 years.
With the coffee and eggs still settling, buckle up your Birkenstocks, secure that flower in your hair, and step out for a little shopping. Stylish boutiques line Haight Street; for reasonable prices head to Ambiance, home to chic dresses and accessories. Secondhand and vintage clothing stores are another neighborhood institution. Two of the best, Aardvark’s and Wasteland, are perfect for getting into the ’60s spirit, with embroidered tunics and over-the-top, Austin Powers-style suits.
Shoes are practically an art form in the Haight, and some stores are so protective of their unique designs that they forbid photographs. You’ll understand why when you catch sight of such extraterrestrial creations as silver-sequined running shoes or 8-inch leopard fur platforms. Shoebiz, Villains, and John Fluevog are all must-sees for their eye-popping designs, and they also sell sturdy, simple footwear for those who’d rather not be mistaken for a Spice Girl.
Round out your shopping trip by picking up a few souvenirs. Tie-dyed socks and love beads from Positively Haight Street make ideal stocking stuffers. Or pick up an Age of Aquarius concert poster at Amoeba Music, the city’s renowned emporium of new and used CDs.
By this point your new shoes from Villains are probably chafing, and that bottle of patchouli oil has leaked all over your new crushed-velvet pants. Perhaps it’s time to swing by your hotel to clean up and lighten the load.
In the middle of the Haight Street action, the Red Victorian is a funky guest house where proprietor and earth mother Sami Sunchild encourages interguest mingling at communal breakfasts. There’s something fitting about staying in the Summer of Love Room here, but if you’re still tethered to the Establishment (i.e., insist on having your own bathroom), there are more upscale options. The Stanyan Park Hotel, on the edge of Golden Gate Park, is a convenient choice. Or for sheer wow factor, try the Spencer House B&B, a lavish Victorian where guests are treated to luxurious rooms (think feather beds, down duvets, Oriental rugs) fit for Queen Anne herself.
Unburdened of your purchases, make a beeline to one of Haight-Ashbury’s many lunch spots. At Massawa, you can forget about utensils and use a handful of fluffy injerabread to eat your way through spicy Ethiopian platters. Fruity aguas frescasand squirrel-sized burritos are just down the street at festive El Balazo.
Afternoons are best whiled away in Golden Gate Park, where thousands of hippies tuned in, turned on, and dropped out during the Human Be-In of 1967. Follow this precedent with some blissful loafing in the park’s eucalyptus-scented groves and meticulously landscaped gardens. Miles of pathways are perfect for exploration, particularly on Sundays, when many roads are closed to cars; head to Avenue Cyclery to rent bikes, or Skates on Haight for Rollerblades. Other must-do activities include a boat ride on turtle-filled Stow Lake, a stroll through the Strybing Arboretum and Botanical Gardens, and tea in the manicured Japanese Tea Garden.
If you’ve had your fill of the outdoors, visit the park’s three excellent museums for a dose of culture. The Asian Art Museum’s extensive holdings include art from more than 40 countries, with an emphasis on Chinese ceramics. In the same building, the M.H. de Young Museum houses an impressive collection of American art dating back to Colonial times. At the California Academy of Sciences, kids will enjoy the earthquake simulator and the dazzling aquarium.
Dinner provides an opportunity for an authentic Haight experience: devouring Mediterranean delights at Kan Zaman while sprawling sultrily on pillows. Belly dancers add to the atmosphere most nights, and guests can sample apple tobacco from a huge hookah. Cha Cha Cha is another favorite, with crowds queuing up for Spanish tapas and lip-smackingly good sangria. True foodies should trek the few blocks south to Cole Valley and Eos, where chef-of-the-moment Arnold Wong turns out such breathtaking Asian-influenced dishes as pan-roasted, tea-smoked salmon.
As the sun sinks into the Pacific, the persistent young panhandlers who seemed innocuous during the day may make some visitors uncomfortable. Keep your wits about you and head to the cozily dim Magnolia Pub & Brewery, where a pint of homemade, cask-conditioned ale will start your night out right. Movie buffs can catch eclectic films at the Red Vic movie house. Or for a true Haight experience, don those 1940s duds you picked up during the day and head to the stylish Club Deluxe. It was here in the early ’90s that a group of martini-sipping renegades originated the swing craze that has seized the country. Yet another example of the Haight’s enduring role as the incubator of tomorrow’s culture.
Photos by Rick Gerharter and Robert Holmes
This article was first published in November 1999. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.