Francisco, the Golden Gate
by Corinna Lothar
them from my window, the heavily laden container ships, the huge tankers,
the pretty sailboats gliding through the water, as they passed beneath
the two towers of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Sometimes, the bridge gleamed golden beneath a cloudless
bright blue sky; sometimes I could see the top half of the towers when
the morning fog hid the rest of the bridge; and sometimes I couldnt
see the bridge at all when it was enveloped in a silent blanket of white
fog. The mournful sound of foghorns mixed with less romantic city sounds.
Golden Gate Bridge in the morning fog.
When I was growing up in San Francisco many years ago,
the foghorns lulled me to sleep. Radar and other technological safety
measures invented in the ensuing years made the foghorns obsolete and
the city silenced them. But public outcry at this very San Francisco
sound brought them back. They are no longer necessary for the safety
of ships, only for the citys sense of self.
I was lucky to be apartment sitting for a few weeks
in the apartment of a friend who was off in London for a holiday. Her
picture window in the living room framed the bay, the bridge, Angel
Island and Alcatraz, no longer a threatening reminder that crime doesnt
pay. Like parts of the city itself, Alcatraz has been revamped into
something more contemporary, and the Rock is now a tourist site.
The apartment was situated on one of the citys
steep hills on the north side of Pacific Heights, overlooking Cow Hollow,
the Marina and the Palace of Fine Arts. I spent three happy weeks exploring
the San Francisco I remembered and discovering the changes that had
occurred in the intervening decades.
Pacific Heights Lyon Street Steps
San Francisco cannot grow, except in height, as it is
the tip of a peninsula, surrounded on three sides by water, and on the
fourth side by the county line below which is the separately incorporated
city of South San Francisco, which locals are quick to inform you is
not part of The City.
High rise buildings replace the four and five storied
buildings that once housed the downtown offices and shops where gentlemen
in ties and hats and ladies in gloves and hats went about their respective
In those years of my childhood, women would not think
of venturing downtown to go shopping in the White House,
Magnins, the City of Paris or even the less fancy Emporium on
Market Street, without being properly dressed. Ladies were not permitted
unescorted in the bars of the Fairmont and Mark Hopkins Hotels atop
Nob Hill. My mother and I were once asked to leave the bar at the Top
of the Mark for that reason. The slowly rotating bar still exists, but
the rules have changed.
The Fairmonts Tonga Room, once a must
locale for dating couples as well as tourist groups, is barely hanging
on. Theres talk of closing down the funky bar with its timed rain
showers and exotic drinks.
What hasnt changed are many of the residential
neighborhoods: Presidio Heights with its elegant mansions; the ubiquitous
Victorian and Edwardian houses San Franciscos painted
ladies - some beautifully renovated, but others badly needing
repair; the Sunset with its rows of pastel colored two story houses
lining the avenues near the beach.
In North Beach, the sun shines most of the time and
the Italian restaurants and cafes are more numerous than ever: Lupos
which opened in 1935 with the first wood-burning brick pizza
oven on the West Coast - is now called Tomassos but continues
to be famous for its pizza; Molinari Delicatessen still has its house-made
salamis hanging above the counter. City Lights Book Store, once home
to Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Jack Kerouac and the rest of the Beatniks,
as well as Vesuvio Café, where they hung out are only slightly
changed. Tiny Café Trieste continues to froth the best cappuccinos
and espressos in the city.
North Beach, Corner Broadway and Columbus
Grant Avenue, Chinatown
Chinatown, which adjoins North Beach (and where theres
an alley named for Jack Kerouac), is perhaps more Chinese than it ever
was. The shops and restaurants along Grant Avenue are a tourist destination
but the streets are alive with the chatter of Chinese women at their
daily marketing, old men playing card games in doorways, and children
skipping happily on their way home from school.
Out in the Richmond District, Clement Street once was
home to shops and restaurants run by Europeans, refugees from World
War II. Today, Clement Street is almost exclusively oriental with Chinese
grocery stores, dim sum take-out shops, Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese
restaurants. The fabulous Green Apple Bookstore offers a browser great
South of Market (SoMa) has changed a lot.
The Mission District is a lively section of town where the sounds and
aromas of Mexican tiendas perfume the air, and walls are splashed with
murals. The Castro is the gay center of the city, where many of the
newer, trendy restaurants are located.
Mural in the Mission
In the downtown part of the city, South of Market is
home to high rise hotels, the Moscone Center and the Museum of
Modern Art, as well as a new station for trains running down the Peninsula.
Union Square remains the heart of San Franciscos
shopping district, but the names on the department stores have changed;
the Square has been cleaned up and now is a gathering place for the
lunch crowd. The St. Francis Hotel continues to reign over the Square
and a handful of the old-time elegant shops, like Gumps, are still
Commuters and visitors can take a ferry from the Ferry
Building to Oakland or to Marin County, but the building serves as a
high-end food court. On Saturday mornings, the sidewalk in front of
the Ferry Building and the area behind it are replete with vendors selling
wonderful California produce, flowers, breads, cheeses and prepared
foods. Several restaurants have carry-out windows for the hundreds of
locals and tourists who have come to shop, look and enjoy breakfast
and brunch specialties.
Saturday Market, Ferry Building Peaches
Young musicians and performers entertain the crowds,
entrancing the children. When the sun is out, the breeze is blowing
and the sky is a brilliant blue, its a scene to remember.
Saturday Market, Ferry Building Musicians
San Franciscans have always prided themselves on the
citys cultural scene: first class museums, an excellent symphony
orchestra, the countrys second largest opera company, the American
Conservatory Theatre resident repertory company, string quartets, community
theatres, art galleries and special events.
In Golden Gate Park, the Japanese Tea House (renamed
Chinese Tea House during World War II) is a lovely oasis within the
citys green space. The Steinhart Aquarium has become a complex
including a planetarium, natural history museum, and four-story rain
forest, as well as an aquarium with 38,000 animals from around the world.
Across from the aquarium is the newly designed De Young
Museum of fine art. The museum, founded in 1895 and named for early
San Francisco newspaperman M.H. de Young, was a fine arts museum showing
primarily European art. It was badly damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta
earthquake and has now been completely rebuilt into a contemporary structure.
The museums European collection was sent to the
Legion of Honor museum, and the de Young now showcases American art
from the 17th to the 21st centuries, international contemporary art,
textiles, and art from the Americas, the Pacific and Africa. Beginning
on September 25 until January 18, 2011, the de Young will show Post-Impressionist
Masterpieces from the Musee dOrsay in Paris.
On a hill, almost at Lands End, the western end
of the city, sits the Palace of the Legion of Honor, a three-quarter
scale copy of the Palais de la Legion dHonneur in Paris. It is
perched on an elevated site in Lincoln Park where the public Lincoln
Park Golf Course spreads out on the site of a former potters field,
the Golden Gate Cemetery, which the city bought in 1867. The cemetery
was closed in 1908 and the remains moved down the Peninsula.
The museum has been renovated into a bright, airy space.
Even if a visitor doesnt want to explore the museum itself, its
location offers a magnificent view of the Golden Gate Bridge and the
Marin County headlands.
The Asian Museum occupies what was formerly the San
Francisco Public Library near the Civic Center. The Jewish Museum and
a delightful small Craft Museum are near the Modern Museum downtown.
San Franciscos rich musical history dates back
almost 100 years to the founding of the San Francisco Symphony. The
orchestra has been conducted by many of the worlds most famous
conductors. Its current music director is Michael Tilson Thomas who
has been leading the orchestra since 1995. Performances are given thrice
Opera companies have been coming to San Francisco since
the gold rush. The San Francisco Opera was founded by Gaetano Merola
in 1923, and is the second largest opera company in North America next
to the Metropolitan in New York. Since 1954, the Merola Opera Program
has offered scholarships and training to outstanding young singers.
San Franciscans love the outdoors. Not only is the city
dotted with a wealth of small parks and spacious Golden Gate Park with
its wealth of tourist attractions, ponds and paths, but the Presidio,
a military reservation for more than a century, has become a large playground
for all ages.
The Presidios wooded hills, eucalyptus trees and
hiking paths lie at the northernmost tip of the San Francisco peninsula.
You can drive or hike through it, from Pacific Heights north to the
Marina or west to the Pacific Ocean. A small herd of goats moves about
eating the grass and the poison oak.
Goats Eating Poison Oak in the Presidio
The Presidio has a long military history beginning with
el presidio real de San Francisco, the first Spanish fort established
in 1776. In 1846, the garrison came under the control of the U.S. Army
and the Presidio became a beautiful military post. In 1994, the U.S.
Army transferred the land to the National Park Service.
The houses once reserved for Army officers are now rented
by private citizens. What once was the Letterman Army Hospital has been
remodeled into the Letterman Digital Arts Center, housing George Lucas
Lucasfilm. Theres a childrens swimming school in the Presidio,
several commercial enterprises and Crissy Field has been transformed
from an airfield into a recreation area resembling the original shoreline
of dunes, lagoons and tidal marshes. Running from the Marina to Fort
Point, the only Civil War-era casemated fort in the West, Crissy Field
is now a reserve of walking and bicycling trails. Fort Point sits directly
below the Golden Gate Bridge.
The Presidio has several restaurants, including one
in what was once a barracks. Theres a warming hut
on Crissy Field for hikers in need of refreshment.
Food and drink have always been a San Francisco priority.
Not much is left of the wild Barbary Coast days. When I was growing
up, fine dining was limited to downtown San Francisco; Chinatown offered
group dining at about $1 per person. North Beach restaurants offered
spaghetti with red sauce and the young singers with operatic
aspirations entertained guests at the Bocce Ball.
Amelios, the Blue Fox and Ernies, alas,
are gone with the wind. But Tadich Grill in the financial district on
California Street still serves delicious sand dabs. And Swan Oyster
Company on Polk Street continues to supply the hostesses of Pacific
Heights with the freshest smoked salmon, bay shrimp and cracked crab.
The counter still seats only about a dozen people where you can enjoy
the best shrimp Louie the city has to offer, along with a glass of California
white wine and extra sour French bread.
Today, you find restaurants of all kinds in all neighborhoods.
The best Thai and Chinese food is found on Clement Street; much of the
old tenderloin district is now Little Saigon, with tiny restaurants
like the Turtle Tower, which serves a dozen different soups and unusually
tasty spring rolls.
In what once was a semi wasteland near the Ferry Building,
south of Market Street, there are now high rise office buildings, the
new federal court building and several very good restaurants, including
Prospect, the newly trendy contemporary American restaurant.
On Fillmore Street, theres the Woodhouse Fish
Co. where you can get a lobster roll as good as any in Massachusetts,
or a huge stuffed artichoke. Fillmore Street has lots of small, excellent
restaurants and the street is lined with interesting shops.
The owner of Suriya Thai Restaurant moved his restaurant
and his collection of beautiful wooden coconut graters, carved in animal
forms, to an unlikely industrial area south of Market. Well worth a
visit. The Hayes Street Grill has long been a good place for lunch before
(or after) a court appearance at City Hall, or dinner before a performance
in the Opera House.
On Union Street in Cow Hollow, there are ample choices,
such as Roses Café, Italian specials are prepared with
a light touch. Ristobar serves very contemporary American fare on Chestnut
Street. In the Castro district, Frances is popular for unusual small
The Cliff House has been a favorite tourist destination
in San Francisco since 1863. Todays Cliff House is the third one
to occupy the site high on a rock overlooking the Pacific Ocean where
the beach, long ago, resounded with Playlands merry-go-round tunes
mixed with the cries of seagulls. The Cliff House has been remodeled
and what was a simple bar and restaurant with a splendid view is now
a white tablecloth restaurant with a splendid view. The ruins of the
Victorian-era Sutro Baths next to the Cliff House are worth a look.
Gales blow around the building, even when the sun is shining, and the
Pacific is anything but pacific.
Look from a table by the window at Seal Rock and the
storm clouds blowing in while the gulls wheel above and the ships move
slowly out the Golden Gate, bound for Shangri-La and points beyond.
Youre at the end of the continent, safe from the coming storm
in one of the most beautiful and exciting cities in the world.
View from the Cliff House Storm Clouds Blowing