Treasures of San Francisco

In The City by The Bay, trendy places have their moments. But it's the tried-and-true vistas and hideaways that hold on to your heart.

Text by Susan Haynes

During the many years I lived in the embrace of San Francisco, the hooky monster rose from time to time, saying, "Don't work today." So I'd walk to the Buena Vista Café above Aquatic Park. On weekends and way into the nights year-round, tourists pack the "Bee Vee," as it's known. But try it around 9 a.m.

That's quiet time for regulars, who read the Chronicle as they work through vast servings of eggs Blackstone or crab Benedict. They may even kick the day into gear with a piping-hot Irish coffee. I've spent mornings here again and again, and it's never changed.

While San Francisco continually boasts new cafés and shops, emerging neighborhoods, and improved parks, some of the best places may have faded from the headlines or have never been widely known. But, like the Buena Vista, they remain beacons for local habitués. In this city made for walking or busing, all you need to reach these pocket destinations is a good pair of shoes and a Muni transit pass.

Forget the car. Scenic bus routes include the No. 29 through the Presidio, Golden Gate Park, and the Richmond and Sunset districts; No. 14 to the Mission District; and No. 30 through the Marina District and Chinatown.

For tucked-away romantic dining, chef Jacqueline M. Margulis has been whipping egg whites into savory and sweet soufflés since 1979. Little has changed at Café Jacqueline―certainly not the soufflés-only menu. A lobster soufflé entrée and delicate hot lime soufflé dessert make good choices before or after Beach Blanket Babylon (BBB) at nearby Club Fugazi.

Celebrating its 30th anniversary this June, campy BBB keeps reinventing itself for current humor, and many locals have seen the evolving show a dozen times or more. Its headdresses and clever costumes have become more outrageous and dazzling over the years, but the underlying plot never changes: Ingenue Snow White leaves San Francisco with her little red suitcase and meets up with sparkling satire and song as she travels the world in search of Prince Charming.

Never known for keeping late hours, San Francisco mourned last April when Pearl's popular jazz venue closed. But a spiffed-up Pearl's reopened in September at the same Columbus Avenue location. The City's only exclusively jazz nightspot again fills the house for performances until its 2 a.m. closing.

Such late outings won't keep San Franciscans of every stripe from showing up at Glide Memorial Church's Sunday morning gatherings in The Tenderloin neighborhood. The T.L., as many call it, rocks and rejoices with soul, blues, gospel, and jazz from Glide's choir and instrumental combo. Known here 40-some years for his rousing and inspiring messages for all faiths, Rev. Cecil Williams ends the service with a smile and a command to the musicians: "Play somethin' for me, baby!"

After Glide, or any day from about 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., The City's array of dim sum parlors can satisfy the appetite. For an authentic Chinatown experience, the not-new New Asia restaurant fills the bill for shrimp dumplings, meat-stuffed buns, flaky custard tarts, and turnip cake (that has no turnips and isn't a cake). Ellen Leong Blonder, author of the evocative cookbook Dim Sum, swears by Ton Kiang, in the Richmond District. "It's sometimes less intimidating for people not used to dim sum, and the food is outstanding," she says.

When hunger strikes again, there's the ever-delightful Fog City Diner. Once the darling of the press with its glitzy opening in 1985, Fog City has settled into a lively middle age. Locals still frequent the bar and wide booths for drinks, imaginative "small plates," and hearty comfort food. Thankfully, the spicy Red Curry Mussel Stew remains a staple.

Many visitors might snub wacky-looking Caffé Sport, in North Beach, thinking it a tourist trap. Big mistake. Here's the place for rich, garlic-infused, old-fashioned pastas and fish, and big simple salads, all served on oversize oval platters. Waiters used to bring out what they wanted you to have, despite your order. Now the customer rules. "We became a little more nice," says waiter Eduardo Riena, who's worked here 21 years.

Panoramas abound along San Francisco's waterfront and from numerous hilltops. Locals treasure the tucked-away Black Point Battery, at Fort Mason. Four large picnic tables, which may be reserved through the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, take in mesmerizing views of the bay and Aquatic Park. Another beloved scenic is the Vallejo Street steps. From Jones Street to Taylor, the descent skirts a quiet little park that pans the bay to Berkeley and Oakland.

Town gems include uniquely San Francisco shopping. Since 1861, people have revered Gump's emporium of home luxuries. "Anything you want, we'll find," says assistant Lucie Marcotulli. On Geary, four-storied Britex Fabrics beckons shoppers from around the world. Many pop in just to ogle this home to 30,000 buttons and every weave of cloth imaginable.

Since 1946, Biordi Art Imports, on Columbus, has been the source for exquisite Italian pottery. Gumshoe fans shouldn't miss the San Francisco Mystery Book Company in the charming Noe Valley neighborhood. And for an unusual twist on galleries, the Academy of Art locations purvey fine student work from sculptures to oils to illustrations, and more―at reasonable prices.

The arms of this city extend a bouquet of treasures hard to leave behind. At the close of each BBB performance, star Val Diamond delivers the robust lyrics "San Francisco, open your golden gate." When she gets to the part about "other places only make me love you best," any local, or former local, knows just how she feels.