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Elaine, the Road Sage

Top Ten List:  San Francisco

(Filed from San Francisco, California at 2:40 p.m. on May 15, 2000)

Fen and I are lucky -- we live in one of the best tourist cities in the world, San Francisco.  And yet, we never actually play tourist in our own home town.  I decide to turn the tables on my boy and create a weekend filled with touristy pleasures and insider's delights as a way to celebrate his birthday.  Finally, I'll ferry him off to Alcatraz and get him an up-front seat for "Beach Blanket Babylon."  Along the way, I'll include some only-in-S.F. pleasures for myself, too.

If I were to chronicle our weekend revels in the form of a top ten list, it would look something like this...

10.  Alcatraz .  "The Rock" is indeed a jumble of rock about a mile and a quarter from the shores of San Francisco.  Site of the West Coast's first lighthouse, this island outpost was a Civil War fortress and a military barracks before it became home to the meanest, most incorrigible prisoners in the land.  Alcatraz was a federal penitentiary for less than thirty years (1934-63) but in that brief time played host to Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly, Creepy Karpis and Robert Stroud, aka the "Birdman of Alcatraz."  Several things strike me on our visit, such as how terribly small the cells really are and the fact that the bars in the cellhouse are painted pink.  Three guys tried to break out of Alcatraz in 1946 and actually did get out.  The prison noted at the time, however, that no trace of them was ever found, thereby presuming them dead.  I prefer to think that a spirited swim across San Francisco Bay got them to the Buena Vista Cafe just in time for last call and a warming Irish coffee.

9.  Palace of the Legion of Honor .  It was the largesse of Alma DeBretteville Spreckels that got the Palace of the Legion of Honor museum off the ground.  Known as "Big Alma" to many, this large and exceedingly wealthy woman (her husband was a sugar magnate) filled a palazzo overlooking the Pacific with riches from around the globe.  The museum's permanent collection is truly something to behold: Spanish and Dutch masters, a Rodin Gallery, Van Goghs, Monets, Manets, Limoges enamels and Sevres porcelain just for starters.  At the very start, specifically as you walk into the museum, is The Thinker by Rodin.  One does a lot of thinking -- and oohing and aahing -- at the Palace of the Legion of Honor.

8.  Dinner at Stars .  Chef Jeremiah Tower, a disciple of California cuisine and former colleague of Alice Waters at Chez Panisse, opened a small boite called Stars in San Francisco in the early 80s.  It wasn't soon before real stars started showing up to sample Tower's extraordinary cooking, a melding of the freshest ingredients into truly inspired preparations.  Stars became so successful, as a matter of fact, that Tower started opening up Stars bars and restaurants and cafes all over the place...can you say spreading yourself too thin?  Yep, thin as a silky aioli on a Tower entree.  Inevitably, the celebrated chef exited stage left and left the pieces of his restaurant empire, name and all, to a group from Singapore.  Last fall, Stars reopened at the same location under its new ownership so I had to give it a try.  Biggest surprise?  The food, under new chef Christopher Fernandez, is utterly accessible.  The same fabulous ingredients, but in far simpler preparations.  As a result, everyone will now feel right at home at Stars, star or not.

7.  A stroll through Pacific Heights .  I'm lucky enough to live in this corner of San Francisco which is known for its bay views, bold Victorians and one very scary movie starring Michael Keaton as the tenant from hell.  It's also the place where you'll find Mrs. Doubtfire's house (corner of Broadway and Steiner) and the abode which romance novelist Danielle Steel calls home (corner of Washington and Octavia).  Betwixt and between, you can spend a glorious afternoon (I did) walking up and down the hills and playing a spirited game of "if that one was mine..."  Not to be missed are the view of the bay and the Golden Gate from the corner of Broadway and Fillmore and the grand Victorians and painted ladies on Broadway from Fillmore to its end at Lyon Street.  Ten points if you can guess which house belongs to oil heir Gordon Getty (clue:  it's pale yellow and surprisingly modest).

6.  Coffee at Caffe Trieste in North Beach .  While the Beat movement didn't exactly begin at Caffe Trieste, it certainly refueled there.  Opened in 1956, this creaking coffeehouse played host to Ginsberg and Kerouac more than once, indulging their poetry readings and love of cheap red wine.  Trieste still looks much as it did on day one, which is a large part of the cafe's charm.  Founder Gianni Giotta wanders in and out most days, although it's granddaughter Ida who now pulls the creamy espressos.  The house coffee, or caffe, is my preferred cup -- order it bianco and you'll get it with a splash of steamed milk.  Pair it with a bear claw from the pastry tray and you'll be in heaven, poetry or not.

5.  The "F" streetcar.  Most visitors to San Francisco come to the city with three things in mind:  cable car ride, Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz.  Noble goals all, but have you ever tried to get on a cable car?  Those pups are pretty crowded.  My humble suggestion is the "F Market" streetcar, a clinging, clanging contraption which runs from Market and Castro Streets out to the Ferry Building, where it makes a sharp left and continues along to Fisherman's Wharf.  As one would expect, the car then turns around and retraces its steps.  The F Market line employs refurbished streetcars from around the world so you might catch a ride on a turn-of-the-century trolley from Kansas City just as easily as you'd find yourself on a vintage streetcar from Italy.  While there are other, more modern streetcars racing around the hills of San Francisco, none of them has the old-world charm of the F Market line.  Ask the conductor to call out your stop just for fun.

4.  "Beach Blanket Babylon."  How to describe the spectacle which has been charming locals and visitors alike for nearly thirty years?  Okay, I'll give it a try: a non-stop musical revue which skewers everything and everyone having anything to do with pop culture.  Oh, and big hats play a big part.  Conceived by theatre impresario Steve Silver during the brassy, sassy seventies, "BBB" is as irreverent as San Francisco itself.  On our recent visit, the cast poked fun at everyone from Bill and Hill to Monica, Madonna, Prince, The King, Babs and Carlos (Santana).  Knowing a whole lot more would only spoil it for you so I'll stop right there.  "BBB" is a really tough ticket to get so call well ahead of your visit.

3.  A meal at Millennium .  Vegetarian as boring? You won't be playing with your peas at Millennium, that's for sure -- you'll be stealing your friend's.  An organic vegetarian restaurant in the shadow of San Francisco's City Hall, Millennium is a festival of flavor and pretty darn healthy to boot.  Open for dinner only, the restaurant serves brunch on but one day a year, Mother's Day.  I take advantage of this opportunity to celebrate Fen's birthday and invite eighteen of his closest personal friends to join us.  Our meal begins with an assortment of homemade pastries:  blueberry spelt scones (positively addictive), hazelnut Asian pear focaccia and apricot-almond bars, all served with a creamy maple-date spread.  Next up is our appetizer, an Asian spring salad of avocado, grapefruit, strawberry and mixed greens tossed with an oh-so-light sweet sesame ginger dressing.  I polish off my salad and then catch the smiles around our table.  We have a choice of entrees for brunch, one of the best reasons for coming with a group.  I choose the "Benedict," consisting of grilled smoked tempeh, Maui sweet onions, sauteed spinach and roasted tomatoes over house-made focaccia, all swaddled in a citrus champagne Bernaise; Fen's whim is the whole wheat French toast served with rum-glazed caramelized apples and a Tahitian vanilla sauce.  Oh yeah, there's dessert, too:  I dig into the warm apple rhubarb crisp while Fen indulges in the deep chocolate cake with a strawberry compote.  Uh, did I hear someone say vegetarian was boring?

2.  Kabuki Springs spa .  "Bathing is a ritual sacred to all cultures.  Gently come and wash your mind and body."  So says the sign at the Kabuki Springs spa, a blissful retreat on the edge of San Francisco's Japantown district.  A visit to Kabuki consists of an elaborate bathing ritual, although I prefer to call it the ultimate chill pill.  Kabuki's communal bath is an expansive room adorned with shiny white tiles, wooden benches and rice-paper lanterns.  Serene touches abound, among them dribbling fountains and softly melodic music.  If you follow the spa's advice, you'll begin your path to bliss with a rinsing shower, ideally at one of the Japanese-style seated showers.  Proceed to the steam room next, redolent as it is of eucalyptus and mint.  A visit to the large dry sauna follows, followed by a dip in the hot pool and an even quicker dip in the (icy) cold plunge.  This ritual can take an hour or five, depending on how much time you've got, and the spa has smartly arranged certain days of the week as ladies, men and co-ed.  Walking out of Kabuki can be quite a shock to the system:  was that really San Francisco, Toto?

1.  Museum of Modern Art (MoMa).  Home town pride suggests that I have to make the following challenge:  I'll put my MoMa up against anyone else's MoMa.  Any takers?  Yep, that's what I thought.  San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art, ensconced in Swiss architect Mario Botta's magnificent building since 1995, is the kind of art-filled urban oasis of which it's impossible to tire.  The building, with its blocks and cylinders and recurring stripes, is art itself.  Inside the MoMa is a smorgasbord of 20th century art, everything from latter-day Impressionism to O'Keeffe and Diebenkorn.  On a recent Thursday night visit Fen and I catch two excellent retrospectives:  the work of conceptual art pioneer Sol LeWitt and the surrealist fantasies of Belgian artist Rene Magritte (think the bowler-topped man with the green apple obscuring his face).  Perfect.


2000 Elaine Sosa
San Francisco, California

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