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.