Monday, December 13, 2010

Downtown Napa Revival Well Underway

 Downtown Napa used to be a sleepy place, with working-class roots that set it apart (some might say pleasantly so) from its increasingly chic and expensive "up valley" neighbors: Yountville and St. Helena. But these days Napa is turning into every bit the wine country destination. With about $700 million in public and private investment flowing into downtown, Napa is abuzz with more than a dozen new restaurants, several luxury hotels, wine tasting rooms, a refurbished theater and opera house, a public market and a sleek riverfront residential and commercial district.
   It's all due to a flood control project to tame the Napa River, which overflowed its banks to disastrous
 effect several times in the last 100 years, the most recent time in 1986 causing $200 million in damage. The project transformed the river, restoring the natural habitat at its shores, creating a curved channel and opening space for development. Celebrity chef Masahuru Morimoto of Iron Chef fame opened his $5 million restaurant, Morimoto along the riverfront last year.
Other notable downtown restaurants have drawn much attention: La Toque, which was recently awarded a Michelin star; Bradley Ogden's Fish Story; Angele; Oenotri, a southern Italian pizzeria; Ubuntu, a vegetarian restaurant combined with yoga studio; and Greg Cole's Celadon, one of the older of the newbies (it opened in the 1990s and later moved to the historic riverfront Hatt building).
The latest addition to the dining scene is by Food Network star Tyler Florence, who opened Rotisserie & Wine, earlier this month.
Just a few blocks from the river, in an area now called the "West End," upscale boutique hotel Avia (photo below) made its debut in July 2009, bringing a sophisticated addition to downtown with its 58 "tub suites" with in-room soaking tubs for two and a large terrace with comfortable chairs for lounging around firepits on cool wine country evenings.
I hadn't been to the Oxbow Public Market (top photo) for a couple of years -- since a disappointing visit when I found little of the bustle that makes such food halls so much fun to explore. This time was different. All the food stalls are rented out and even on a wintry weekday morning there was a lot of energy in the air, tables full of diners. The range of eateries and food available is impressive: Hog Island Oysters, the Oxbow Cheese Merchant, Ritual Coffee Roasters, The Olive Press, The Fatted Calf artisanal charcuterie (middle photo), Napa's decades-old Model Bakery, Kara's Cupcakes and a newcomer, Ca'Momi, an Italian-run pizzeria with an excellent and authentic pastry selection (a third-generation pastry chef from Tuscany is visiting for several months and his custard-filled cream puffs are delicious).
I walked through downtown Napa's historic district with George Webber, who conducts fascinating two-hour tours, and then poked through market and some local wine shops with Andrea Nadel of Gourmet Walks, a company that offers walking tours that include visits with chefs and artisan food producers. My two-day trip to downtown Napa was sponsored by the Napa Downtown Association, which is eager to show off the revitalized area. Check out its downtown visitors center where you can buy Taste Napa Downtown, a $20 card that allows users to sample wines at 14 tasting rooms within walking distance. Included are notable Ceja Vineyards (one of few Mexican-American-owned California wineries) and GustavoThrace (one of the growing number of women-owned wineries).

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Big Sur's New Discovery Center

 Just 20 miles south of Carmel and not far from the much-photographed Bixby Bridge (top photo) lies Andrew Molera State Park, one of Big Sur's most accessible hiking areas. The gentle, flat camp trail of only a couple of miles follows the Big Sur River and leads past campsites to a long, curved beach and a secluded cove nestled against high bluffs. Also along the camp trail is the Cooper Cabin, built in the 1860s and the oldest structure in Big Sur. Early settler Molera ran his dairy farm here, producing some prized Monterey Jack cheese.
(Check the park's website for latest on trail conditions because there's some work being done on the trails this winter and a seasonal footbridge over the river was not up when I visited in late November).
The park is a 4,800-acre swath of wilderness with meadows, oak and redwood groves, wildlife and beautiful three-mile-stretch of Pacific coastline where you may spot sea lions, sea otters and migrating whales.
Andrew Molera also includes a quaint old farmhouse, picnic area and fruit orchard that's open to the public where you can see how the early settlers, cattle ranchers and dairy farmers lived. And, I learned on a visit last week, the park has a new addition, the Ventana Wildlife Society's Discovery Center, which opened in the last couple of years in a restored old barn near the farmhouse and park entrance.
This local non-profit group, dedicated to native wildlife and their habitats, worked to reintroduce the bald eagle to central California. Restoring the wild population of California condors is now the society's focus and the center has several interactive exhibits on these ugly-but-fascinating animals, which are the largest flying birds in North America, their wing spans reaching more than nine feet. If you've wondered where best to see them and how to identify them, this is the place to go (hint for identifying them: there are white or mottled triangles under their wings, unlike turkey vultures). Who knew that condors mate for life, have no vocal chords and can live for 50 to 60 years?

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Oh-so-Sweet Victory for the San Francisco Giants!

What an amazing week in San Francisco!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

San Francisco's Ferry Building Tour Receives Accolades

The Ferry Building, Saturday morning
 My tour of San Francisco's Ferry Building and the Embarcadero was recognized this week with a bronze award in the audio travel broadcast category of the Society of American Travel Writer's annual Lowell Thomas travel writing awards.
The timing couldn't have been better: today the Ferry Building was named one of the 10 "great places" of the year by the
American Planning Association.
My tour was produced by Visual Travel Tours, a California company that offers downloadable programs for mobile devices covering travel destinations all over the world.
I wrote the script and took the photos of the Ferry Building and Embarcadero waterfront, an area that has undergone a renaissance the last 10 years (the voice on the audio tour is a professional broadcaster, however, not me).
The judges had some nice things to say about the tour: "Laura Del Rosso introduces old-fashioned tourism to the full power of modern multimedia. She has produced an elaborate but easy-to-understand travel guide to San Francisco that you can put in your computer -- save on your iPod -- or simply slip into your pocket stored on your cell phone. Wherever you keep it, you'll be glad you have it....It's the closest equivalent you'll find to having a good friend show you around a city she loves. Travel can be tricky. With Del Rosso's guide, it should be a treat, instead."

MUNI's historic F-Line streetcar
 The tour, which is designed as a two- to three-hour stop-and-start walking tour, covers the Ferry Building and its food hall, the farmers' markets and the Embarcadero waterfront north and south of the landmark building, with a special focus on the history of the area going back to the Gold Rush.
The tour can be purchased in four ways: 1) in text and photos for print 2) photos and text for mobile devices 3) an audio-visual tour for mobile devices and 4) a complete package, including a CD. Enjoy!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

September is Wine Month

Not only is September harvest season in the wine country but it's also officially California Wine Month (as proclaimed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger). It's the seventh year for the wine month promotion, which showcases the state's mind-boggling array of wine regions.

The California Wine Institute, a trade organization of the state's winemakers, is behind the event. It created a lovely, useful web site with lots of great information on the state's wine areas and wineries.

At a promotional event last night, I spoke with Jim Ryan of Concannon in the Livermore Valley, one of California's less well-known wine areas. Ryan said the valley -- where grapes were first planted in 1854, long before Napa -- is getting better known, in part thanks to the economy that's keeping people closer to home and looking for bargains. Places like Livermore are where the wine values are to be found. "We've got great values and it's location, location, location." It's a relatively fast drive from many places in the Bay Area: without much traffic it takes only 45 minutes from San Francisco. And, tasting rooms don't cost as much as at the state's more famous competing wine zones: typical Livermore valley wineries charge $5 for sampling seven wines. At Concannon, you even get to keep the glass.

Evan Goldstein, master sommelier, gave a talk on the importance of California wines. "We take it for granted at times," he said. California is critical in the U.S. wine industry, with nine out of 10 bottles produced In the U.S. from the state. Forty-eight out of California's 50 counties grow grapes. Goldstein said wine lovers are getting more adventurous about visiting more of the state's wine regions and trying different types of wines, beyond standard merlot, cabernet, sauvignon blanc. "We've got more than 100 types of grapes grown commercially in California and lots of different appellations." That's lots of opportunities to explore.
(Photos: at top left, Domaine Chandon. At right, a vineyard in spring, outside Healdsburg).

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Al Fresco Dining Weather (Finally) Arrives

The coldest summer in memory didn't put a damper on one of the best new events in San Francisco: Off the Grid. It's part of the food cart/truck movement that offers relatively inexpensive street food in a sort of roving festival of brightly-colored vehicles. Think really cool taco trucks. On Friday evenings, Off the Grid hits the Fort Mason parking lot 5-9 p.m.

It's kind of a funny scene: A couple dozen of the trucks circle like wagon trains. In the middle there's a bar, some tables and folding chairs, although not nearly enough. Even though it's held in a bayside spot where fog and wind whip through, the event draws hundreds of people. One recent blustery, cold evening that called for wool hats and fleece jackets 4,000 crammed into the truck circle over a four-hour period. Lines were long but everyone seemed to be having a good time.

And, Friday nights' Off the Grid should become even more pleasant during warmer September and October evenings.
Some of the most popular food trucks are Chairman Bao, which specializes in steamed and baked buns, Hapa Ramen, dishing up noodle soup using local and organic ingredients, Calidogs, offering unusual varieties of spiced hot dogs, and the Creme Brulee Cart, serving up little cups of this warm, custardy dessert, comforting on a chilly night. Off the Grid is arranging other food cart events and some of the food cart operators are active on Twitter: if you become hooked on a certain dish (and it sounds like lots of San Franciscans have), you can hunt down the cart and follow it around town.
For more civilized al fresco dining (table service and no lines!) I spent a lovely morning having brunch with friends on the small and charming patio at the rear of the Blue Jay Cafe on Divisadero, which serves wonderful fried chicken and waffles. I've always loved the atmosphere at this American-style diner with its big horseshoe-shaped counter, but hadn't stepped out back. There are only three or four tables, but it's warm and cozy, with tall brick walls and big red umbrellas providing shade. The food is reasonably priced ($7.25 for the chicken and waffles) and there's a lot of down home southern flavor, with biscuits and corn muffins always on the menu.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Quick Healdsburg Nosh-and-Coffee Break

On my way to Mendocino recently from the Bay Area I stopped in the Sonoma wine country town of Healdsburg to stretch my legs and grab a quick lunch. Usually, I head to the swell Oakville Grocery right off the square but I'm on a budget these days so I decided to look around for something less dear.

Friends in the area have raved about Big John's, the high-end supermarket about a mile north of the town square. I headed over there, finding one of those independent, old-fashioned grocery stores with warm and friendly service and a big assortment of local produce, fruit and products -- Redwood Hill Farm cheese, Sonoma County olive oils, mustard and jam -- which make wonderful souvenirs to bring home from a trip to the wine country. Prices are probably less than you'll find at fancy winery gift shops.

I later learned that the "Big" in Big John's doesn't refer to the girth of the owner but is an acronym for Better Independent Grocers and that the store is not the decades-old institution that I assumed but actually relatively recent to these parts, having opened in 1994.

With a turkey-and-tomato sandwich on sourdough (for less than $7), some juicy local nectarines and a bottle of water I headed back the Healdsburg square for a quick picnic in the shade of redwoods.

Then, to keep me alert for the drive ahead, I headed to Flying Goat Coffee (right off the square) for a strong and rich macchiato. I picked up a gift for my hosts in Mendocino County -- a pound of Flying Goat's most popular roast, Mrs. Garland's Blend, forgetting that I was traveling to Thanksgiving Coffee Co. territory.

We'll let fans of Sonoma County's Flying Goat and Fort Bragg-based Thanksgiving, which is beloved on the north coast and by my friends in Mendocino County, battle it out. It's remarkable that we've got such choices in good coffee in these parts.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Point Richmond's Plunge Set to Re-Open

Maybe you've heard: The Plunge, the largest swimming pool in California, is reopening in Point Richmond.

The huge pool, built in 1926 in a handsome building on the railroad tracks on the edge of town, was closed in 1997 and now, after a $7.5 million renovation, is scheduled to re-open on Aug. 14 with a celebration ribbon cutting and tours. I walked outside on Saturday and workers were putting the finishing touches on the place, which houses the 9,600-square foot pool. From the looks of it, the Richmond Municipal Natatorium, as it's officially named, will be pretty swell, like it was in its heyday when it was known as the East Bay's version of San Francisco's Sutro Baths.

The Plunge is just one claim to fame of Point Richmond, a lovely place to spend an afternoon. A few good restaurants dot the streets around the central square, which is called The Triangle because it's not in the shape of a square. There's a new farmers' market Wednesdays 4 p.m.-8p.m. there that sounds worth a visit.

A couple of art galleries and gift shops surround the triangle, many housed in early 20th century buildings, restored and pretty spiffy. A friend and I fell into Hidden City Cafe not realizing it's THE place to eat in town. It's a nice little spot with a red-brick facade and, true to its name, is hard to find unless you are walking right in front of it.

The owner and chef is Shellie Bourgault, formerly of Chez Panisse. As you'd expect, she uses wonderful organic, fresh ingredients. I had the polenta scrapple with eggs and toast -- panfried wedges of polenta spreckled with pieces of Hobb's applewood bacon and herbs -- that was delicious. I've got to go back and try the pancakes, which I learned later Hidden City is famous for (it's only open for breakfast and lunch). Also, apparently, this is a favorite lunch spot of the animators at Pixar Studios: Hidden City's exterior was used in a scene in the movie Wall-E.

If you're going to check out Point Richmond, walk around the town a bit.

In front of The Plunge is one the last remaining wigwags, the old railroad crossing warning systems, now decommissioned. Turns out that there's quite a cult following of wigwags and efforts to remove them set off alarms (sorry, couldn't resist) from wigwag enthusiasts. I even found a youtube video of the Point Richmond wigwag, prior to its decommissioning (check out the brave -- or foolish -- bikers!). There IS something kind of endearing about them.

Several pretty old churches that date from the early 20th century were built on Point Richmond's hills. They are on leafy residential streets sandwiched in between old homes, some rather stately. After, get back in your car and take a right at The Plunge and drive through the Ferry Point Tunnel. The walking trails at Miller/Knox Regional Shoreline and saltwater lagoon make for a good after-lunch stroll. And, there's small, sandy Keller Beach nearby to dip your toes in the bay.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

'Floating White House' Sails from Wharf

The USS Potomac, the 165-foot vessel that served as Franklin D. Roosevelt's yacht during his years in the White House, docked at San Francisco's wharf last week to promote its new ties to the Red and White Fleet, one of the city's oldest ferry companies.

Red and White, the family-owned company that was founded in San Francisco in 1892, is now marketing the Potomac for corporate events, weddings and receptions on the historic yacht as it sails the bay.

The Potomac, which at one point sunk near Treasure Island, was restored and is operated by a nonprofit group, the USS Potomac Association. Michael Roosevelt, FDR's grandson and a Bay Area resident, is association chairman.

The boat, now a National Historic Landmark, is berthed at Jack London Square in Oakland but, for special events, the Potomac will depart from the Red and White Fleet's Pier 43 1/2 at San Francisco's Wharf.

On board, you can tour the cabin where FDR slept (it's small and spartan) and have a drink and appetizers in the salon where Elvis Presley, Danny Thomas and dignitaries were hosted for receptions. Organizers can arrange for FDR (a local gentleman who dresses the part and plays the role) makes an appearance or joins groups on the sailings.

The same evening that the Potomac and Red and White announced their partnership, just a block away was another debut of new wharf happenings. Rodney Fong, grandson of Wax Museum founder Thomas Fong, unveiled the newest figure -- Mariah Carey -- which joins other female entertainers, including Madonna, Beyonce and Gloria Estefan, in the museum galleries. Buxom Mariah will be out in front of the museum for a while greeting passersby.

For more on what to do at San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf, see my travel app on Fisherman's Wharf and North Beach, on sale at iTunes for .99 cents.

Friday, June 11, 2010

North Beach: A Recipe for Happiness?

The annual North Beach Festival is coming up June 19 and 20 and there may be no better ringside seat than one of the neighborhood cafes. The North Beach Chamber of Commerce says that tens of thousands are expected for the weekend. Count on every seat in every cafe to be filled.
About 125 arts and crafts booths, 20 food booths and three stages of live entertainment are on tap for the event, which stretches down Grant Avenue and around Washington Square Park in the heart of North Beach. (If you're driving, the chamber set up validated parking for $3 for the day at the Golden Gate Garage at 250 Clay, between Battery and Drumm streets, with a shuttle departing for North Beach every few minutes. You get a validation stamp at Calzone's restaurant at 430 Columbus. No purchase necessary).
At some point, you'll want to linger at one of the North Beach cafes, which are a main feature in my new North Beach app. (Yes, I know, a shameless plug). There's Caffe Trieste, of course, the best-known of them all because of its beatnik past. Caffe Puccini still attracts some of the old-time Italians left in the neighborhood and its Lucchese roots are showcased with posters of native son Puccini's works on the walls. Everyone's favorite sandwich and people-watching spot, Mario's Bohemian Cigar Store, stands as it has for decades on the corner of Columbus and Union. A young crowd packs Steps of Rome, where flirtatious Italian waiters keep things light and fun. With World Cup matches taking place, this cafe, with its big-screen TVs, will be rocking. There are probably a dozen more cafes around the neighborhood.
Find your own and think of this Lawrence Ferlinghetti poem -- "Recipe for Happiness: Khaborvsk or Anyplace" -- that I heard recited recently on a brilliant sunny day in North Beach. It made me teary, the way something beautiful and true sometimes does. Ferlinghetti, of course, was a co-founder of City Lights bookstore in North Beach and still is seen around the neighborhood. Even though a place called Khaborvsk is alluded to in the title, I like to think the poem was written at one of those well-worn tables in one of North Beach's old cafes:

One grand boulevard with trees
with one grand cafe in sun
with strong black coffee in very small cups.

One not necessarily very beautiful
man or woman who loves you.

One fine day.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

North Beach and Fisherman's Wharf, by App

My new travel app on San Francisco's North Beach and Fisherman's Wharf is out and available on iTunes. I'll have more in future blog posts but check it out if you're looking for a guide to these two favorite San Francisco areas, among the top-visited places in the city.
I've included descriptions of more than 80 cafes, restaurants, shops, bakeries, bars, attractions and historic sites. It's an insider's guide: I lived in North Beach for many years and my Italian family has roots there.
I've also covered the waterfront from Ghirardelli Square south to Pier 39 where, amid the souvenir shops catering to millions of tourists, there's still authentic San Francisco in the colorful old fishing boats, the smell of boiling crab pots and oven-fresh sourdough bread.
The app sells for .99 cents and includes dozens of photos, interactive maps, telephone numbers and web site links to help plan a trip, and to use while visiting San Francisco.
It can be used together with my first app, San Francisco's Chinatown, which was released earlier this year and covers the city's Chinese quarter that, in some places, overlaps with North Beach.
Both apps were produced by Sutro Media, a San Francisco company that is creating a collection of worldwide guides of photos and useful travel information, downloadable onto computers and mobile devices. Enjoy.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Impressionism Exhibit Opens at de Young

The Impressionism exhibition that opened at San Francisco's de Young Museum this weekend has all the makings of a blockbuster event: nearly 100 paintings from the Musee d'Orsay's permanent collection that will never be loaned out for an exhibition as a group again, according to the French government.
Through Sept. 6, the first of two exhibitions is on view: Birth of Impressionism: Masterpieces from the Musee d'Orsay.
Eleven galleries are filled with art by Bouguereau, Manet, Renoir, Sisley, Caillebotte, Monet, Pissaro, Cezanne and Degas.
On a media tour on Wednesday, it was clear that this is the kind of exhibit you want to linger over and return to again if possible. The paintings are indeed masterpieces, the ones that people travel to Paris to view -- or only see in an art history book.
The works include The Fifer and Woman with Fans by Manet, The Magpie by Monet and The Floor Scrapers by Caillebotte. A famous American work is in the mix: Whistler's Mother by Whistler.
The exhibition breaks down the evolution of Impressionism in engaging and understandable pieces for a layperson.
It traces the origins of Impressionism and how it grew in the late 19th century when the political and social turmoil in France was reflected in the art produced by the greatest painters of the time.
Some art lovers may look at this exhibit, however, as a warm-up act: the de Young's second Musee d'Orsay exhibit this fall will be devoted to Post-Impressionism, with the works of Van Gogh, Gauguin and Cezanne.
The two back-to-back exhibitions are the only such exhibitions anywhere in the world. How did San Francisco get so lucky? The city was in the fortunate position to take advantage of the closure of the Musee d'Orsay as it undergoes a major renovation for its 25th anniversary in 2011. Besides a sister-city partnership between San Francisco and Paris, there is a close relationship between board members and the directors of the two museums that led to the mounting of the two exhibitions.
The de Young has instituted the timed-viewing arrangement that works well for these types of blockbuster exhibits. But there's also something new.
In addition to the regular hours and Friday Nights at the de Young series, the museum scheduled extended viewing hours -- until 8:45 p.m. (last ticket: 7:30 p.m.) -- on Thursday evenings from June 17 until Sept. 2. Called "Impressionism at Twilight," the Thursdays offer reduced admission and a special fixed price menu at the de Young Cafe. Also, the tower, usually closed in the evenings, will be open so that visitors will be able to watch the sunset from high above the museum.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

A Destination Diner

The Putah Creek Cafe in Winters is the kind of place you hope to find on a long road trip. It's cheery, comfy and, even though it's relatively new, it feels as though it's been part of small-town life for decades. Oh, and the food is good.
This isn't the kind of diner that relies on a pre-packaged food distributor for its menu items. Most things are made on site, including pies and desserts such as apricot bars, which garnered a rave in the late Gourmet magazine some years back (Despite encroaching development, Winters remains a farm town, surrounded by orchards and the fruit is used in the restaurant).
I tried the locals' favorite (according to the waitress), the Buckhorn Farmer's Market Char-Roast Sirloin Sandwich with the side of cole slaw and French dip. It was delicious.
Then, I wandered the quaint old town and had an excellent espresso at a homey coffeehouse, Steady Eddy's, across the railroad tracks on the shady town park, which stretches to Putah Creek. A rebuilt, historic trestle bridge -- now for bicyclists pedestrians only -- crosses the creek and lies alongside another historic bridge, this one a concrete arch span for cars, built in 1907.
The Putah Creek Cafe is a sister restaurant to the better-known Buckhorn steak houses (there's one across the street at this intersection of Winters' Main Street) and in Marin County. All are known for their Angus beef.
I can now vouch for the excellent beef. Next time I'm going to get to Putah Creek Cafe a little earlier and try the breakfasts, which I hear are scrumptious. And, I'll leave room for a piece of pie.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Wet, Windy Jenner

I spent a rainy and windy Sunday and night at the Jenner Inn last week on the Sonoma Coast but it was a wonderful experience because of the hospitality of Richard Murphy, the inn owner. Murphy assembled the property over the course of years by buying ramshackle logging cabins on the Russian River estuary and transforming them into a romantic collection of bed-and-breakfast-style rooms.
Being with a group of friends from the local chapter of the Society of American Travel Writers made the gray, wet skies enjoyable. For the first time, I understood why the adjective "forbidding" is used for this kind of weather. The storm was so harsh that driving was a challenge. Our plans for hiking and kayaking quickly changed. We couldn't kayak the estuary and see the wildlife, disappointing because harbor seal pups are born in March and April, also big birding season.
Still, we braved the storm during a short break and headed out toward Shell Beach, starting at Goat Rock and walking muddy paths lined with wildflowers. Randy Johnson of Getaway Adventures was our guide. The waves swirled and crashed on the rocks and sea stacks. The scenery, even in the misty gloom, was spectacular.
Murphy, who has owned Jenner Inn since the 1970s, recently hired a new chef for the restaurant, focusing on local, organic food. He is realistic about the potential for tourism for Jenner, population 170. He knows it's not a place you stay for a while, unless you love the outdoors. Lots of his guests are out-of-state vacationers driving the California coast on Highway 1, staying a night only.
For northern Californians looking for a weekend getaway, it's a romantic spot that's well situated for exploring the beaches of the Sonoma County coast and simply relaxing by a fire or on a deck overlooking the water.
The inn's historic bar, with its big fireplace and large windows overlooking the highway and estuary beyond, was part of an early 20th century building that was once the general store and post office. There's also a cozy library room stocked with books, comfy sofas and wood-burning stove.
The 21 rooms are spread over a wide area, including up the road a bit (a short walk) in remodeled cabins perched above the water. I stayed in Mystic Landing (see above) with a deck, fireplace, antique furniture and good views that stretched beyond the estuary to the Pacific. I'm already planning a return in better weather for that delayed kayak trip with WaterTreks, a local outfitter run by Suki Waters, a native of the Sonoma Coast (who is part Pomo Indian).

Monday, March 22, 2010

Nothing Fancy, Just the Best of The Old-Time Delis

I loved reading Carl Nolte's San Francisco Chronicle column a few weeks back about the old Italian delis of San Francisco but it made me sad. It's true: there aren't many left, particularly in North Beach, where Molinari is the last of the old-timers. The atmosphere there in the narrow little store on Columbus near Vallejo remains the same as it has for more than a century: worn wooden floors, crates and boxes of canned tomatoes and tuna piled high, glass cases full of cold meats (still one of the best selections in the city), shelves packed with well-priced imported goodies from Italy, the long, housemade salamis hanging from above and the cheery camaraderie of the counter guys. It's all as comforting and familiar as a bowl of mom's minestrone.
When I lived in North Beach in the 1980s, there were several decades-old delis in operation: my family's favorite was Florence, which made good ravioli and had some of the best prices. Iacopi up on Grant was the place for sausages, however. A friend told me yesterday her Italian grandmother took the 5-Fulton MUNI a few times a week from Cole Valley, changed to the 30-Stockton to make her way to Florence or Molinari to pick up groceries. Her family still shops at either Molinari or Lucca in the Mission, but now those trips are reserved for special occasions -- Christmas holidays and Easter week -- when the deli counters are three-deep with a steady stream of customers picking up panettone (for Christmas) and colombe (for Easter) . It's not surprising that few of the old delis survive: 20-30 years ago it was difficult to find Italian specialties outside Italian communities. Today, all kinds of gourmet supermarkets carry Italian imports.
I poked around North Beach on a sunny, warm morning last week doing research on my next travel app and found Molinari as busy as ever. Their salami and sausages still are the best in the Bay Area. What fun shopping there. You just don't get that kind of earthy, old-deli smell -- think of the thousands of salamis that have been hung here over the last century, the dried mushrooms and the marinated vegetables -- at places like Trader Joe's or Whole Foods.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Springtime Sunday Drives

Spring is nearly here, the clocks will be set ahead this weekend and, with all the rain we've had in northern California, it's finally time to get out into the poppy-flocked green hills and soak up some sun.
Remember old-fashioned Sunday drives? It's time to bring them back. And, it doesn't have to be a Sunday for a Sunday drive. Any day of the week will do. It's a matter of pace (slow) and time (you've got to have full day's worth).
I played hooky, taking advantage of a sunny, balmy break between storms last month and, with a friend, headed north from San Francisco. We didn't have any firm plans except for a vague idea of heading to western Sonoma county. That's how we discovered Coleman Valley Road, which turns out to be a spectacular drive.
From US 101 at Cotati take the Highway 116 (Gravenstein Highway) exit towards Sebastopol. Continue west through the countryside making your way to Sebastopol (if you want to stop for some of the best croissants this side of Paris, try Patisserie Angelica in the town center near the Whole Foods) and head north on 116 to the hamlet of Graton. Make a left from Highway 116 onto Graton Road. Here you can stop for brunch or lunch at the rustic Willow Wood Market Cafe, which has a homey selection of "piping hot" polenta dishes (one with spinach and roasted tomatoes is a favorite) or grilled sandwiches (pork tenderloin is lovely). It's a pleasant, convivial cafe-style restaurant with a patio in the back for warm days.
Continue on Graton Road and follow the signs to Occidental. This old logging town known for years for its old-fashioned Italian-American restaurants is a good place to stop (if you haven't yet) to grab a bite: Howard Station Cafe serves up big breakfasts and burgers and the historic Union Hotel offers a couple of very different choices: multi-course Italian feasts or quick lunches (in the cafe).
In the middle of the small town look for the sign on the right side of the highway for Coleman Valley Road. That's where you embark on a curvy, eight-mile journey through lovely and varied scenery: a pastoral valley, redwood forests, weather-beaten barns and a 19th century wooden schoolhouse and, finally, the top of a wind-swept ridge with wonderful views of the Sonoma Coast. You'll see hawks and seagulls, perhaps a stray cow or two. At the end, the road drops you onto Highway 1 a couple miles north of Bodega Bay. You're at Salmon Creek Beach, a gorgeous stretch of white-sand lined with dunes and dotted with driftwood, perfect for strolling, picnicking and an afternoon nap.
From there, it's south on Highway 1 through Bodega Bay, turning onto Valley Ford Road past a procession of dairies, farms and meadows that eventually leads to Petaluma and US 101 which you take south back to San Francisco. I'd say allow about six hours for the trip, allowing for an hour or so for lunch and an hour or so at the beach, all, remember, at a Sunday-drive pace.
Do you have a favorite Sunday drive in the Bay Area? I'd love to hear about it.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Hotel Deals Continue in San Francisco

San Francisco continues to offer some good deals for weekend or midweek getaways. Although it looks like the city's hotel occupancy and rates are inching up -- a sign of an economy that is improving slightly -- hoteliers are keeping rates relatively low. The average rate in San Francisco was $127.76 in 2009 and 2010 doesn't look much different.
The city's travel industry met last week at the annual Visitor Industry Outlook Conference and heard some good news: people are ready to travel again and the trend toward staying home on vacation -- the "staycation" dreaded by the travel industry -- may be ebbing.
David Bratton, a managing partner at Destination Analysts, which conducts consumer research, said recent surveys show that 32.6% of Americans will spend more on travel this year than last year. "People are definitely starting to feel better about the economy," he said.
San Francisco drew 15.4 million visitors in 2009, a 6% drop from 2008. Still, the city's hotel industry is in relatively good shape, reporting an average 71.4% hotel occupancy in 2009 (5% down from 2008). Even with the drop, that occupancy is higher than most other American cities. And tourism continues to be a major economic driver for the city: On an average day, 125,000 out-of-town visitors are walking the streets of San Francisco.
San Francisco's hotels have deals right now. Check Kimpton, Joie de Vivre and all the major chains. The Hyatt Fisherman's Wharf has a $119 rate for Thursday nights through April 30. And, check out the San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau site.
On another note, my travel app to Chinatown was written up by the Examiner here.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Five Top Chinatown Dim Sum Spots

Who can resist dim sum: juicy little dumplings, plates of spicy spare ribs, slices of tender eggplant stuffed with shrimp and sweet egg custard tarts? Many Chinatown restaurants double as dim sum parlors at lunch and have a great, casual atmosphere: there's lots of conversation at large round tables as food carts circulate, servers stopping to uncover each dim sum delicacy as if presenting a gift.
If it's your first time here's what happens: When the cart rolls around to your table and the dishes are uncovered point to what you'd like: typically, you start a tab and the servers mark off how many dishes you've ordered, at what price level. It's part of the fun: you don't order from a menu and choose what you like by what looks good.
San Francisco's Chinatown is going to be bustling in the next week during the New Year's celebrations. It's a terrific time to visit.

Here are some picks for ever-favorite dim sum spots (unfortunately, they don't have web sites):

*City View, 662 Commercial, between Kearny and Montgomery. This is one of the most elegant of the Chinatown restaurants and serving some of the finest dim sum around. It's the place to take less adventurous first-time dim sum diners, or those who know dim sum (there's a lot of variety here) and want fancier surroundings than many of the traditional Chinatown dim sum parlors. Try the glazed walnut prawns, scallop dumplings, pork siu mai and potstickers.

*Pearl City, 641 Jackson, between Kearny and Grant. For many San Franciscans, this is the go-to spot for dim sum. It's inexpensive, rustic and the excellent dim sum comes in large portions.

*Dol Ho, 808 Pacific, between Stockton and Powell. Don't be scared away by the drab exterior and no-frills interior. Dol Ho is authentic, with fresh dim sum that the locals recognize as the real thing. Don't miss the spare ribs.

*Gold Mountain, 644 Broadway, near Stockton. This is one of those cavernous dim sum restaurants that draw in local Chinese families by the dozens. Because of volume of dim sum served, the dim sum is fresh and there's a large variety. Try the pork buns and chive dumplings.

*Lichee Garden, 1416 Powell, between Broadway and Vallejo. This traditional Cantonese restaurant is better known for its wonderful lunch and dinner fare but also offers top dim sum at lunchtime. Good service is a notch above the rest of the dim sum establishments.

Amy Sherman of Cooking with Amy informed me Lichee no longer serves dim sum. Drats, it was so good.

Here's another favorite then: Kay Cheung at 615 Jackson near Kearny. This is one of those hole-in-the-wall Chinatown eateries that are easy to miss. Like Pearl City, which is close by, this has authentic dim sum, nothing fancy but inexpensive and good.

Do you have a favorite Chinatown restaurant for dim sum or other Chinese food? Comment, please!

And, check out my Chinatown travel app for more, including interactive maps, descriptions and photos that you can download onto your iPhone or iPod Touch.

Monday, February 15, 2010

In Chinatown: It's Happy New Year

If you're headed to San Francisco's Chinatown for the big New Year's Parade Saturday Feb. 27 get there early and make a day of it. Have a dim sum lunch and stroll off the tourist-packed streets and onto the alleys that the locals use to get around. Forty-three such alleys criss-cross Chinatown. They date back to the late 1800s when all kinds of nefarious activities took place along these narrow passageways. Look along the bottom edges of the buildings on Pagoda and Ross alleys and you'll see narrow openings boarded over or covered by steels bars. Underground opium dens, gambling parlors or brothels may have operated there. It's said some were linked to a network of tunnels where people fled to avoid police raids.
On Pagoda, my favorite of the alleys, Hang Ah Tea Room, one of the oldest of San Francisco's dim sum restaurants, continues to do a brisk business even though the decor is stuck in the 1970s. There's something charming and exotic about walking along Pagoda where you can hear the frenetic clicking of mah jong tiles behind closed doors and stepping inside this narrow little restaurant.
Hollywood also finds the alleys picturesque: scenes from the Will Smith movie "The Pursuit of Happyness" were shot along Pagoda and Ross alleys. On Ross, next to the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory, where you can watch women making the cookies by hand, there's a hole-in-the-wall barber shop. Barber Jun Yu, who briefly appeared in the movie, often takes a break outside, serenading passersby on the erhu, a two-string Chinese violin.
You can often get an insider's peak at the alleys on City Guides' free tours that start from Portsmouth Square several days a week and cover many of the alleys on foot. Some of the guides are born-and-raised in Chinatown. For more places to visit and restaurants to try, check out my Chinatown travel app for iPhones/iPod Touches, which has interactive maps and more detailed information (all for .99 cents!).