Tuesday, December 1, 2009

A New Star in Point Reyes

There's a new little star -- stellina, in Italian -- in Point Reyes Station. After reading reviews that described Osteria Stellina as a restaurant worth driving long distances for, I headed over with a friend on a recent sparkling clear day.
Stellina is smack in the middle of this small West Marin town, across the street from Toby's Feed Barn and a few steps from two other of my usual stops: Bovine Bakery and Point Reyes Books. It's a casual place (everyone seems to be in jeans and hiking boots) , in a corner building where a bare-bones Mexican restaurant once stood.
The food reminded me a bit of Delfina in San Francisco, with clean flavors of simple, local ingredients prepared very well. We started with conserved tuna and bean salad that had a hint of fennel, then split a pasta dish and entree: orecchiete with rapini and housemade sausage and a Tomales Bay seafood stew full of mussels and clams in a rich flavorful broth. The earthy, crispy bread served to sop up the broth is from Brickmaiden, a bakery set up in a backyard cabin of a nearby house that produces one of my favorite breads in the world. Everything was delicious and, to cap it off, the dessert was a dreamy -- and tangy, creamy -- chevre cheesecake topped with caramelized almonds and surrounded by huckleberry sauce.
You can't visit this area without taking a long walk somewhere beautiful -- this is, after all, a terrific place for a weekend getaway. We headed out to the long swath of white sand and surf at Limantour Beach in Point Reyes National Seashore for a stroll and nap in soft, cushy dunes. The beach, a Marinite favorite for dog walking, kite flying, bird watching and simply enjoying, is about a 20- to 25-minute minute drive west of Point Reyes Station.
My life isn't usually this decadent but this was the second day of great eating. The previous day I met up with two friends at Della Fattoria in downtown Petaluma. Lunch at this bakery-cafe turned out to be sandwich heaven because of the lovely breads made from a variety of organic flours that Della Fattoria bakes in its wood-fired brick ovens (in San Francisco, the loaves are sold on Saturday mornings at the Ferry Building). We split three grilled panini: a croque baton of ham and gruyere, a gruyere and apple and a smoked salmon and egg salad, which were served with a crispy green salad. Sorry that I forgot my camera that day. Trust me, these are some terrific sandwiches.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

San Francisco's Best Burger?

After years of wondering what the fuss was about, I finally made it over to the corner of Mission and Silver in San Francisco's Excelsior District to try a burger at Joe's Cable Car restaurant. This is the place that's often cited as serving up the best burgers in the city. The reason is relatively simple: they grind their own beef steak fresh every day. I brought my nephew, Nick, an ice hockey player who knows burgers. We loved the atmosphere: kitschy, bright and with lots of crazy stuff hanging from the walls and the ceiling. Wonderful neon signs illuminate the big windows. It's hard not to smile when you're seated at one of the comfortable booths and look around at the surroundings. The choices on the menu are straight-forward: you choose patties of 4, 6, or 8 ounces and toppings, including the usual cheese, bacon, mushrooms, grilled onions, etc. We were served in a few minutes. The sesame bun was toasted and the meat was very good, no question about it. The fries, however, were disappointing. They lacked that nice crispness that make fries irresistible. And, although I enjoyed it, my 6-ounce burger, which came to $13.75, was plopped and served unattractively on a small black styrofoam plate. For a premium burger at a rather hefty price I expect a real plate. But if you're looking for a fun, casual evening and a real meat burger, head to Joe's. You may want to bring your own plate, though.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Fall Color at its Peak -- Here in California

In the Eastern Sierra, the aspen, poplars and cottonwoods are at their peak of fall color this week and, with the weather report forecasting a sunny weekend, it's the time to go. I wish I could get away. For me, this year, looking at photos like these will have to do. Next October, I'm there.
The photo of June Lake (above) in the Eastern Sierra is by Greg Newbry and taken last Friday. The Napa Valley vineyard photo is by John Poimiroo, longtime tourism official at Yosemite and for the state of California. He shot it last weekend.
John, who is behind the wonderful web site, www.californiafallcolor.com, points out that Lake County is a good place for fall colors. It's a closer drive to San Francisco than the Eastern Sierra. The leaves turn first along the shores of Clear Lake and then in the higher elevation on Cobb Mountain. "The cottonwoods are a riot of gold at Forest Lake, backgrounded by dogwoods and oaks," he says. And, "Near Loch Lomond off CA-175 at 2,500 feet at the site of the historic 19th century Salmina's Resort, the trees are at their prime color." Thanks for the report, John.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Walt Disney Museum Makes its Debut

The Presidio just keeps getting better and better. Yesterday, what is destined to become a star attraction opened: the Walt Disney Family Museum.
Diane Disney Miller and Walter E.D. Miller, daughter and grandson of the creator of Mickey Mouse, Disneyland and dozens of beloved movies, cartoons and TV shows, designed a place where they and the public can celebrate the life, the work and, most of all, the inventiveness of Walt Disney, the man -- not the big corporation he founded.
It's located in one of those handsome red-brick barracks buildings that line the Presidio's old parade ground. Inside, there's no doubt where the $110 million that the Walt Disney Family Foundation spent went: everything in the building was renovated with high quality materials, and the result is stunning, including one gallery with floor-to-ceiling plate glass windows overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge.
The museum is expected to draw 450,000 visitors a year, 80% of them 45- to 65-year olds, said Richard Benefield, museum director. It's a "walk down memory lane" for baby boomers who grew up with Disney.
The museum does not disappoint. Those who love Disney will spend hours here and even those with just mild enthusiasm for his creations will enjoy it. Anyone interested in animation and movie-making will visit again and again.
For one, it's a terrific history lesson in Americana. The ten galleries trace Disney's life from his childhood in the Midwest, the move to California, the struggles in building his business and, most of all, the creativeness in designing his enchanting characters, the first animated movies and, finally, Disneyland.
There are scores of interactive exhibits, display cases of fascinating memorabilia and large video screens playing snippets of movies and interviews with the main himself. Even some of the controversies are addressed: you can listen to Disney's testimony before the House Un-American Committee where he stated that he thought the studio strike that shut down his studio for several weeks was the work of Communists.
One of the final galleries contains a model of Disneyland as Disney envisioned it (left). There's also a large gift shop with merchandise unique to this museum (which is operated separately from Walt Disney Co.), a small cafe and a theater that shows Disney movies three times a day (separate admission charge).
Tickets are $20, with discounts for seniors, students and children. They are sold online at www.waltdisney.org using a timed-entry system allowing 60 visitors to enter every 50 minutes. Local residents may enjoy museum membership that allows unlimited visits per year.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Epicurean Travel Radio

Catch me on the Epicurean Travel radio show on Thursday Oct. 1, at 8 p.m on KUSF-FM 90.3 in San Francisco.

I'll be talking about what to look for while wandering the Ferry Building and the Embarcadero.

Photo at left is from the market last Thursday.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

A Moveable Feast: Walking the Embarcadero

It's out, finally. Visual Travel Tours, a California company that produces audio/visual travel programs, has released my tour of the Ferry Building and the Embarcadero.
I worked on this -- a new type of writing and photography for me -- for some time early this summer, spending several days walking the Embarcadero and getting to know the Ferry Building inside and out. I then wrote a script, uploaded dozens of photographs and Visual Travel Tours' audio/visual specialists put together a very cool program, complete with professional narration.
What is it, exactly?
It's basically a walking tour of the Ferry Building and the Embarcadero that you buy online, download and can take with you, using your cell phone, Ipod or other mobile device to follow along, learn some history and pick up tips on enjoying the area to its fullest. The tour is also available in CD format or to simply download to your computer.
Think about those audio tours at museums. It's like that. You can start and stop the program when you like.
The tour starts in front of the Ferry Building, takes you upstairs where the arrivals and departures of the old ferryboats used to be, through the new food hall and Saturday farmers' market and then north and south of the landmark building, giving history of the Embarcadero and visiting the Muni Railway Museum, the waterfront promenades and some historic sites, such as Rincon Post Office.
Today, I was back there to check out the Thursday market, which has become another culinary attraction with some terrific food booths, including Pizza Politana (which cooks up crackling pizzas in a wood-burning oven, photo at right), Korean food specialist Namu and Tacolicious from the people behind wonderful Laiola in the Marina district. In the other stalls, tomatoes and dahlias were at their most brilliant (upper photos).
For more about my walking tour check out the youtube video. Or to purchase, go to the VTT site. Enjoy!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Sonoma's Hollywood Connection

Anyone growing up watching "My Three Sons" with Fred MacMurray would never guess that the big-time Hollywood actor ("The Apartment" is one of my favorite movies) actually spent a lot of his time not on a southern California backlot but on a sprawling ranch in Sonoma County. It's where he and his wife raised their four children. The ranch is now a winery, MacMurray Ranch, and it's owned by E.J. Gallo. But there's still an actual MacMurray connection: Fred's daughter, Kate (right), who lives on the property, in a cabin built by her father decades ago.
She works for Gallo promoting the MacMurray Ranch label. I recently had the chance to chat with Kate in the main house on the idyllic property (upper left), tucked in a lush, redwood-ringed valley off of Westside Road between Healdsburg and Forestville. Her love of the place is obvious. She said her father discovered the land on flyfishing trips in the 1930s when it was owned by the descendants of the Potter family who first came to the ranch in 1840 from Arkansas. After years of asking the Potters whether they would sell, he was finally able to purchase the property in 1941. Fred made more than 100 films and spent 12 years on "My Three Sons" but he was able to spend enough time here to turn the property -- a plum orchard under the Potters -- into a cattle ranch, with Black Angus he had shipped from Scotland. She recalls long driving trips between Sonoma County and their house in Los Angeles (this was before Interstate 5 was built) and stopping at a Foster's Freeze in Gilroy, all four kids and their movie star father climbing out for burgers and milkshakes. There was no TV and little Hollywood-style glamour at the ranch, only some hard work and lots of old-fashioned fun as the children were free to roam the property, ride horses and explore. "We didn't have a lot of worries. We were allowed to run free and go outdoors. It was magical," she said.

The 1,500-acre spread is not open to the public normally but you have a chance to spend time there over Labor Day Weekend when MacMurray hosts the Sonoma County Vintners' 30th annual Taste of Sonoma, which features 150 wineries offering samples of thousands of wines and 60 local chefs cooking up dishes to pair with the pourings. It all takes place around the charming old home where Kate grew up and in the barn that her father built with his own hands. General admission is $150 per person, although Visa Signature cardholders receive a special price of $95. Make sure you sample some of MacMurray's yummy pinot noir and pinot gris.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Quiet Sierra Lakes, Easily Accessible

My favorite mountain getaway for camping and easy backpacking is off of Bowman Lake Road where there's a beautiful landscape of lakes, creeks, meadows and granite mountaintops in a little-known spot called Grouse Ridge Recreation Area.
Tom Stienstra of the San Francisco Chronicle has written about the area over the years (most recently on Sunday, Aug. 2 in his Sunday Drive column) but, despite the publicity, you don't find many people here. To escape the summer fog in the city I went up a couple of weeks ago with a friend. Unfortunately, the gray weather followed us and we found ourselves in a Sierra storm, with dark skies that turned to rain and even some hail. But it was worth it (in the photos, as you can see, it was still very pretty).
One reason that I love this area is that it so accessible. You take Interstate 80 east 40 miles past Auburn to Highway 20. Drive four miles on Highway 20 to the Bowman Lake Road and turn right. (Or, if you're coming from Nevada City, it's about 22 miles on Highway 20 to Bowman Lake Road). If you're not much of a camper or backpacker, you could spend the night in Auburn or Nevada City and drive over for some spectacular day hikes.
The trails I love to hike start at Carr and Feeley lakes. To get to the trailhead, drive about eight miles on Bowman Lake Road and then take the turn for Carr and Feeley and drive a couple of miles on a bumpy and rocky dirt road. High-clearance vehicles are recommended on the road but cars seem to do okay. There are a few primitive campsites at Carr Lake but my favorite thing to do is to pack a backpack and walk in a couple of miles to gorgeous granite-studded Island Lake and find a spot along the shores.
It's a flat, easy trail to Island Lake past lush ponds covered with lily pads (see left) and, because it's so close to the trailhead, it's almost more like camping than backpacking. When I go with friends, we sometimes even bring a small cooler and beach chairs. Check at the trailhead, but campfires in designated spots are usually permitted. Dogs are permitted, too.
There are dozens of lovely lakes to explore, many from the trails that radiate from Island lake (the USGS Emigrant Gap topo map covers the area), including little picture-perfect Round Lake, Milk Lake and Penner Lake. You're close to civilization (at night if you listen closely you can hear the rumble of vehicles on Interstate 80 or more distant trains) but a world away in a beautiful Sierra landscape.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Sunday, Sunday, Sunday!

I finally got a chance to check out one of the best new programs San Francisco has going: Sunday Streets. It's the program that Mayor Gavin Newsom started last year to encourage people to get out and exercise -- walk, bicycle, skateboard, roller blade, you name it -- on selected city streets that are closed to traffic on the first Sunday of the month. It's already been done along the Embarcadero and in the Mission. Today, Sunday Streets took place out in the western part of San Francisco -- on the Great Highway along the Pacific Ocean. All four lanes were closed from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. from Golden Gate Park all the way to the San Francisco Zoo (where a furry penguin met us, see photo right).
We couldn't have asked for better weather. The day started out with a bit of fog that clung just along the beach, but it burned off by about noon. The temperature was in the mid 70s.
Now, there's nothing new about biking and walking along the Great Highway. There's a lovely path along the eastern side of it that's always very popular. But it was something else to actually bike down the middle of the road, the sand dunes and ocean to the west, the stretches of Sunset District houses to the east, along with thousands of other people. Musicians performed along the way and there were stands set up offering drinks, a bite to eat or a chance to chat with representatives from local nonprofits, such as the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, that encourages people to drive less and bike more.
With such gorgeous weather, most people hung out at the beach long after the highway reopened at 2 p.m. "Next time, let's keep Sunday Streets going until sunset," someone said. Yes. We've got the chance soon: the next Sunday Streets is scheduled for Sept. 6 and it's going to take place again along the same stretch of the Great Highway. Mark your calendars.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Grand Dame of Union Square Shines

The Westin St. Francis, which has towered over San Francisco's Union Square since 1904, has undergone a $40 million renovation. I toured the hotel with General Manager Jon Kimball recently to see the redesign of the main lobby and the rooms in the historic building overlooking the square.
The new decor is both classic and contemporary, which was the concept behind the project -- to refresh the St. Francis, which is known for its elegance, sophistication and the integral role it plays in the city and its history, he said.
One of the first new features of the renovation was the Clock Bar (right) which opened just off the lobby in July last year. It's been a popular spot since then, making a name for itself for its unique cocktails.
The is a terrific place to start -- or end -- a night on the town. Two columns lined in lovely colored glass hold clocks showing the time in cities around the world. The theme springs from the St. Francis' famous Great Magneta Grandfather Clock, built in 1856 in Europe (it was shipped by steamer around Cape Horn), which has stood near the hotel entrance off and on since 1907. The clock has been a traditional meeting spot for San Franciscans.
On the other side of the lobby from the Clock Bar is one of San Francisco's most highly rated restaurants, Michael Mina, by the award-winning chef. If you love lobster and haven't yet tried Mina's Maine Lobster Potpie, make plans now.
Much more casual, in the adjacent Tower Lobby, is Caruso's, a cafe and wine bar that's open all day and evening. Tuesdays through Saturdays from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Caruso's features what's being called the Unwind Hour, with a flight of three two-ounce pours of wines paired with gourmet hors d'oeuvres. The price is $15.
The renovated guest rooms were redone in restful neutral colors, with dark wood furniture accented by light-colored walls, upholstered furniture, crystal chandeliers and the plush Westin Heavenly Beds in their snowy white linens. The beautiful old architecture really shines: the decor highlights the handsome curved high ceilings and ornate moldings.
History buffs will enjoy six new displays in the Tower Lobby. The cases, designed by Bill White, curator at San Francisco's deYoung Museum, show visitors the role the grand hotel played in the rich history of San Francisco. The cases are filled with photos, menus, china, old guest ledgers, among other interesting old pieces.
The downturn in the hotel business has brought good deals at properties all over San Francisco, including the St. Francis. An example are five packages offered in conjunction with the blockbuster King Tut exhibit at the de Young Museum, which will run through March 28, 2010. Among the hotel's plans is a one-night stay, breakfast for two in the Oak Room and two tickets to the exhibit. Rates for that option start at $205 per night.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Upper Sonoma County Getaways

A surprising number of tasting rooms, shops and places to wander and dine have popped up in tiny Geyserville, which is only two or three blocks long and just north of Healdsburg in Sonoma County. Most recently, Pete Opatz (above), formerly of Chateau St. Jean, opened the rustic and charming Route 128 tasting room in a section of a former auto dealership (across the street from the old General Store). He makes Bordeaux varietals in the tradition of southeastern France. His flagship is the delicious Pelu Rouge, made with Zinfandel, Syrah and Viognier. One of the older tasting rooms is Meeker Vineyards in a 100-year-old bank (the wine is stored in the old vault). The winery, owned by former Hollywood studio chief Charlie Meeker, is known for its hearty reds and the fun-loving atmosphere of the tasting room.
Two of the newer Geyserville tasting rooms offer an assortment of local Alexander Valley and Dry Creek wines as well as selections from farther afield. The sleek and handsome Terriors Artisan Wines, by winemaker Kerry Damskey who specializes in "high-elevation wine" from northern California, was built in a renovated old red-brick building that once housed a print shop. It showcases four different labels produced by Damskey.
The more low-key Locals was started seven years ago to present the wines of boutique wineries in one location. Owner Carolyn Lewis (right) is usually on hand to guide a wide variety of flights for tastings.
In a light-filled modern building next door is Geyser Arts Gallery, a stylish shop selling handmade crafts and artwork from regional artists.
The big buzz in town is the departure of Santi, everyone's favorite Italian restaurant in these parts. The restaurant is moving to Santa Rosa in October, and the beautiful space is scheduled to be filled with another, as yet-unnamed, restaurant. But the culinary scene here has been kept fresh with the opening of Diavola, a pizzeria that is packing diners in with thin, crackly crusted pies (top photo) topped with delicious local and seasonal ingredients. It's the handiwork of Santi's Dino Bugica, who spent seven years in Italy where he apprenticed with cooks and butchers (Diavola also specializes in Bugica's salami and sausages).
Geyserville even has its own coffehouse. Mornings find locals heading to the tiny Geyserville Mud for a cup of joe from Thanksgiving Coffee Company, which is the favorite coffee of upper Sonoma and Mendocino County residents.
To see a bit of the farm town that Geyserville has been for more than 100 years step into the 19th century General Store, where you can usually find a few old-timers shooting the breeze. Browse through the huge collection of hats (left), buy a saddle and grab a small brown bag to stock up on nails, which are sold by the pound, just as they were in the old days. Nice way to wrap up a Sonoma County weekend getaway.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Geyserville Summer Nights

Just a few minutes north of Healdsburg on Highway 101 is the Sonoma wine country burg of Geyersville which has managed to keep its low-key farm town atmosphere as its better-known neighbor a few miles south gets tonier and tonier. I checked out a few places to stay on weekend getaways last week, each one different from the other so that you get a wide variety of options even in such a small place.
Those who are looking for some elegant comfort in a hotel environment should head to the Geyserville Inn, which, despite the name, is actually more of a resort-like hotel. There is a swimming pool and 38 rooms, many with fireplaces and balconies. Most have nice views of the vineyards. It's a modern place with a charming bit of Sonoma history attached -- the Hoffman House, an early 20th century farmhouse transformed into a restaurant with full bar.
Nearby is something completely different: the Hope-Merrill House (left), a lovely Victorian bed-and-breakfast inn whose rooms are lavishly romantic and accented by silk-screened wallpaper by Bruce Bradbury. An incredible five-course breakfast is served each morning. And, there's a beautiful swimming pool surrounded by lush landscaping and vineyards. Check out the first floor Sterling Suite with its own private entrance for the ultimate in extravagance (priced under $300, a good rate for such a luxury accommodation).
Finally, I visited Alexander Valley Lodge, a former B&B (photo above and below) on a hill overlooking the valley. It has been turned into a vacation rental by owners Danielle and Scott Alexander who live in their own house a few hundred yards uphill from the property. This is a six-bedroom, five-bathroom lodge-like home with a pool, Tiki bar and hot tub that is ideal for family reunions, girlfriend getaways and retreats. Danielle told me that, with the economic recession and the trend to "staycations," their business is good this year as families and friends look to save by going in on a house rental and cooking meals together.
The views from the house -- of Geyser Peak and the Alexander Valley -- are phenomenal, particularly at sunrise and sunset when the area takes on a warm glow (especially after a glass of the local zin). You're on your own for meals but the Alexanders can arrange for a local chef to cook dinners and for a masseuse who can provide poolside massages. The Alexanders also give guests tours of the 53 acres of vineyards and wooded terrain they own on this hilltop by a "mule," an ATV-type vehicle. And, of course, they offer plenty of suggestions for wine tasting. However, in a spot like this, guests may never want to leave.

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Ferry Building, Upstairs

I've been spending a lot of time at the Ferry Building (more on that in a couple of weeks) and, to get to know it better, I took one of City Guides' regularly-scheduled free walking tours. In 45 minutes, you get a good idea of the role this landmark played in the history of San Francisco from the day it opened in 1898 to today.
For one, the building and its 245-foot clock tower are two extremely resilient structures, especially when you consider that they rest on the same 5,000 pilings of Oregon pine trees that were placed into the ground as support in 1898. The building has survived two major earthquakes, years as one of the world's busiest transportation hubs and, after years of decline, it emerged from a massive renovation, revived as a major foodie mecca.
For the first time, I went upstairs to the Grand Nave, which is stunning. This 600-foot long hall is topped by a long continuous skylight that illuminates the marketplace below. At the height of ferryboat travel -- before the bridges went up -- thousands of passengers every day boarded and disembarked here from upper decks of boats, which docked right up against the Ferry Building. The first floor, where the marketplace stands today, was used to load and unload cargo.
During the 1990s renovation, the stone arches and beautiful mosaic floor (upper right photo) from 1898 were brought back to life. You can't miss the seal of California, with the state's black bear, the goddess Minerva and the depiction of the California coastline when the Spanish explorers arrived.

It's quiet up here and hard to imagine the hustle and bustle of this area when an estimated 50 million people a year crossed this floor. But if you stand at the railings and look at the often-packed marketplace below, you get a sense of it -- and a feeling that the Ferry Building has come full circle as one of the most vibrant places in San Francisco. The City Guides tour starts at the front of the building every Tuesday and Saturday at noon.

Monday, June 1, 2009

A Museum Named Railway

I stumbled onto the San Francisco Railway Museum the other day for the first time. It's only a half a block from the bustling Ferry Building but, possibly because it's tucked away in a little alley, it doesn't seem to get even a fraction of the visitors as that major city landmark.
The small museum, open just two years, is dedicated to San Francisco's surprising and fascinating long history with streetcars -- not to be confused with cable cars; that's another museum -- and occupies a space at the rear of the hip Hotel Vitale.
Its entrance is on block-long Don Chee Way, an alley off of Steuart near Mission Street. Appropriately, the historic streetcars of MUNI's F-Line rumble right outside its door.
This is the place to visit for background on all those charming old streetcars that make their way up and down Market Street and to Fisherman's Wharf.
It turns out that San Francisco has one of the most diverse collections of those vehicles in all the world -- some 90 in total, half in service at any given time. I've always been partial to the creaky orange ones from Milan (above).
The museum's exhibits include old photos of bygone places that San Franciscans love to reminisce about: Playland, Seals Stadium, Sutro Baths, Fleishhaker Pool, among them. And, if you've ever wanted to know the difference between a streetcar and a cable car, it's all described in delightful detail (hint: among the differences, cable cars do not have overhead wires and streetcars do).
I also enjoyed the one-of-a-kind merchandise, especially the postcards, notecards and posters of the streetcars that depict them in neighborhoods with landmarks such as the Castro Theatre, the Chinatown Gate and Grace Cathedral in the background. This is a terrific place to buy souvenirs -- and proceeds go to a good cause.
The museum, open Tuesdays through Sundays 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., is run by a nonprofit organization called the Market Street Railway, which promotes education and expansion of historic streetcars in San Francisco.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Gorillas in the Mist

My hometown of Pacifica has gotten on foodie radar because of Gorilla Barbecue, a tiny joint on Highway 1 about a half hour drive south of San Francisco. People line up even before Gorilla opens Wednesdays through Mondays at noon for pork ribs, beef brisket, pulled pork, chicken and hot links cooked up in a wood-fired smoker in an old bright-orange rail car.
I'm not a huge barbecue fan but I love this version. Rich Bacchi (in photo) calls it Texa-lina, a mix of Texas and Carolina barbecue. The meat is smoked Texas style but the sauce is Carolina variety, meaning vinegary, not heavy and sweet.
Bacchi and his partner Jeff Greathouse, like me Pacifica natives and Terra Nova High grads (go Tigers!), pack 36 racks of ribs a day in the smoker, but it's not nearly enough.
The spot has attracted a lot of attention in barbecue circles since it opened two years ago. The Food Network's Guy Fieri of the show Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives showcased the place and the big personalities of the two owners a couple of months ago. The episode is scheduled for rebroadcast this coming weekend (check listings). Bacchi said Fieri's followers have driven and even flown in from all parts of the country to check out the food here. Make sure you get to Gorilla early, though. On weekends, they typically sell out of ribs by 4:30 p.m. and on weekdays well before their 8 p.m. closing time. One way to tell is to check out the chimney. "If it's smokin', we're open" is Gorilla's slogan.

Bacchi is hoping to remedy the shortage by adding a second smoker sometime in the next few months. A warning: there's no place to eat at Gorilla, except for a couple of picnic tables set in the often chilly, fog-shrouded hillside above the rail car. You'll see lots of people sitting in the cabs of their trucks in the parking lot outside, or hurrying home with bags of mouth-watering barbecue.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Kudos for Great Escapes: Northern California

Sorry for the shameless plug but I'm proud to say that my book, Great Escapes: Northern California, was awarded the silver prize for guidebooks at the 2009 Society of American Travel Writers' Western Chapter Awards this week.
The judge called the book "a study in defining your audience and delivering exactly what you promise: ideas for people who have time only for a day trip or, at most, a weekend, often on the spur of the moment....With remarkable range for its slim 192 pages, it scores a direct hit, deftly covering the most important sights, injecting a bit of history and offering ideas for active pursuits as well as more languid exploration....The author rises to the challenge of paring down worthy sights and activities in this overendowed region and manages to take readers beyond the obvious."
I'm blushing.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Old and New South Beach

In the 1850s, San Francisco was a wild town where lots of young men were making lots of money very quickly. We can only imagine. There aren't many places left where you wander among buildings of that time but one is South Beach, where some of the city's oldest structures lie alongside some of the newest. On a recent City Guides tour of the area guide Ward Miller took a group of us from the corner of Mission and Spear to a few blocks south of the Bay Bridge anchor. First off was the still-handsome Audiffred Building from 1880, built by a French businessman who struck it rich in San Francisco. Today, it's still elegant, the home of the restaurant Boulevard.
But this area has seen its ups and downs. It was originally not land at all, but part of San Francisco bay. Early San Franciscans bought "water lots" with the prospect that the "lots," where ships from all the world docked, would be filled in -- and they were, making some of the investors very wealthy as the area turnerd into prime port property (their mansions nearby on Rincon Hill were testaments to that; however none remain). The 1906 earthquake and fire changed everything. Rincon Hill was heavily damaged and the area was not rebuilt. For years the streets were lined with flophouses, bars and warehouses. The Port of San Francisco got another hit in the 1960s with the advent of container shipping, which went to the better-equipped Port of Oakland, leaving South Beach/Rincon Hill further in the dumps. All that has changed in the last few years, of course. The tear-down of the Embarcadero Freeway, the building of the Giants ballpark and the construction of thousands of new apartments and condominiums have turned it into a new neighborhood. There still are remnants of its working class past. Red's Java House (above right), a funky and fun old diner perched on a pier, still dishes out chili and hot dogs.
Hills Brothers Coffee, which for decades roasted beans along the waterfront here, is today an office complex but you can walk inside, under the old silo where the beans were stored and see the statue of the company's trademark Arabian mascot (left). As the security guard at the desk and he'll let you see the small display of historic photos inside. Make sure to stop in the Art Deco-style Rincon Hill Post Office to see the murals from the 1930s. Pick up a brochure describing their history at the information desk. A block south, at the corner of Harrison and Spear, is one of the oldest buildings in the city, a warehouse from 1856 now turned into live-work lofts. Heading south under the Bay Bridge, stroll Delancey Street and, near Federal Alley, note the plaque in the pavement marking the shoreline from 1857. At Delancy and Vernon Alley look up at the Oriental Warehouse Company building, one of the original warehouses from 1870, now renovated. From there we were on our own to stroll back along the Embarcadero, which has become one of the city's most delightful walking areas, with the grassy area around Cupid's Arrow sculpture (top left) by Claude Oldenberg and Pier 41, both terrific places to take a rest and watch tugboats, ferries, sailboats and kayakers glide by.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Sacramento Saturdays

One Saturday evening each month the sidewalks in Sacramento's Midtown are teeming with people, New York-style, and restaurants, cafes and art galleries are abuzz with the kind of vibe you don't usually associate with the sleepy state capitol.
This is the area -- between 18th and 26th Streets a few blocks north of the capitol -- where the 2nd Saturday ArtWalk takes place on, yes, the second Saturday of each month. Businesses, including a couple of dozen art galleries, stay open until at least 9 p.m. and offer wine-and-cheese receptions while showcasing their collections of sculpture, painting and other types of art. Street musicians and bands perform outside, people mingle and wander the usually quiet neighborhood and, all in all, it's quite a happening.
The ArtWalk capped a full day in Sacramento where I traveled with a group of travel writers recently. We toured a couple of new hotels, including Le Rivage, a luxury property on the Sacramento River (and home of the local outpost of Scott's Seafood) two miles from downtown, and the snazzy The Citizen, (at right) which Joie De Vivre Hospitality opened in November. The San Francisco- based company, known for its unique and themed hotels in the Bay Area, completely remodeled a handsome 82-year old office tower downtown. The 198-room boutique hotel, with its elegant Art Deco lobby and restaurant, adds a touch of chic to Sacramento's chain-based hotel scene.
I was also able to check out a new exhibit of beautiful Indian baskets from 20 different California tribes at the California Museum (on display until March 14, 2010). It's amazing to see the intricate work such as that done by the Achumawi tribe of Shasta County whose baskets (below), made in 1900, were woven from pine roots, willow shoots, grass and other fibers.
A few blocks south in Old Sacramento I stopped in to revisit everyone's favorite railroad museum, the California State Railroad Museum. Even if you're not a rail buff, you'll understand why people get obsessive about trains when you hop on the steam locomotives, read about the engineering feat of laying track through the Sierras and see the golden "Lost Spike" up close.
Before setting out on the ArtWalk, we had a lovely dinner at Mulvaney's B&L where chef Patrick Mulvaney emphasizes local ingredients and American comfort food served under the tall ceilings of a restored 1893 firehouse. There seems to be more reason than ever to check out Sacramento.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Spring in the Pinnacles

April and May are the prime months to visit Pinnacles National Monument, the craggy remains of an ancient volcano that rise out of the Gabilan Mountains in central California, south of the town of Hollister. Last weekend, with the poppies and other wildflowers blooming and the hills a lush green, it was no surprise that the park's campground was at capacity. The weather was in the high 60s, perfect for the two main activities here: hiking and rock climbing. Even with parking lots full, you could still find plenty of solitude along the trails and in quiet moments gazing at the stars in the clear night sky.
Pinnacles is renowned among rock climbers, who love its dramatic outcroppings and sheer walls. The visitor center stocks climbers' guides describing routes. But most people come here to walk the trails and explore the caves and tunnels, many carved from the rock by the Civilian Conservation Corp. during a massive public works project in the 1930s.
A group of friends and I hiked the easy 2.2-mile Moses Spring-Rim Trail Loop, where the only challenge was crouching as we negotiated a few tight spots (with flashlights) in the caves. We came across a small bat taking an afternoon nap (photo at right), apparently part of a colony of Townsend's big-eared bats, which stay in the cave year round, according to park literature.

In recent years, the Pinnacles has become known for a much grander winged creature: the California condor. The park is one of only a few release sites in the U.S. and Mexico of this endangered species, which is the largest of North American land birds. A captive breeding program in the 1980s and 1990s has been successful and it's now common to see condors flying and swooping over the high peaks. Their wingspans can reach 10 feet. Two telescopes are available outside the visitor center to help with close up viewing and rangers are often close by to help with identification (they can easily be mistaken for vultures and ravens).
If you go, however, bring your own binoculars to carry along the trails. And, get to the Pinnacles before mid June when the wildflowers fade and the weather really heats up.