My Gift to SF Restaurants: The Dimmer

People here are very proud of their restaurants – it’s a point of “city” pride. And to be fair, there are a number of very good restaurants in San Francisco, especially when compared to most of the rest of the country (not New York of course, but we’ll get to that in a moment). There’s a big push for fresh and local ingredients (which is good) and decent selection to keep you discovering new places for a few months.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that there are two overarching problems with the vast majority of San Francisco eating establishments:

1) Bad Lighting. I have come to the conclusion that restaurant owners here are so damn proud of their food that they feel compelled to use 600 watt light bulbs and targeted spotlights to shine full force on their glorious creations. Even most “romantic” restaurants are so bright that you never need to pull a candle over (or use the light from your cell phone) to read a menu. It’s just not right.

2) The Elusive $12 entree. While there are plenty of more expensive restaurants (i.e. $25+ entrees) and the “city” is lousy with good (and cheap!) taquerias (where you can eat well for $6), it’s difficult to find the yummy $12-$14 entree. Especially if you also want a good environment. Sometimes you just want to go out and grab a good easy dinner, like Three of Cups, Old Devil Moon, Bread in New York, Cafe Moto in Williamsburg, or roughly a billion other places in the surrounding area.

It’s just not that easy here.

BUT, I have found a few great places that have managed to capture the spirit, lighting and pricing of a great, comfortable and intimate New York-style neighborhood restaurant. They’re out there, but they not the easiest to find. Periodically, I will profile these restaurants (starting with the first entry on Monday), providing a guide of my favorite and will maintain links in a new blogroll header (to the right) called “Weird Restaurants“.

Bon Apetite. And don’t forget your sunglasses.

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Utrecht Conspiracy?

Far from Holland...

Far, Far from Holland...

Relax, while there is a good probability that you have at least a small contact-high from all of the marijuana floating through the San Francisco atmosphere, chances are you’re not hallucinating. It’s a well publicized fact here in San Francisco that you can not get a contact-high from mushroom tea, so more-than-likely, you are not inadvertently tripping.

And yes, that is a giant windmill at the far western end of Golden Gate Park.

No, it doesn’t work.

As I intend to provide factual information here at SFIW.com, I have conducted some extensive research about the wayward windmill (i.e. typed “San Francisco Windmill” into google) and have uncovered an incredible conspiracy! It seems that an organization called Golden Gate Park Windmills (plural!) insists that there are TWO windmills at the far western end of Golden Gate Park. Even though this Street View from google maps clearly shows only one!

Perhaps I am hallucinating? San Francisco is Weird, but at least there’s a windmill. Or two.

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SAFEWAY!

A beacon of hope...

A beacon of hope...

Back in the day (i.e. five years ago) before there was such a thing as Whole Foods, most New Yorkers conducted the majority of their food shopping at corner bodegas that smelled faintly (or not so faintly) of cat pee. The Korean woman behind the counter barked at you to hurry up and there was exactly one type of anything you could possibly need: One box of Kraft Macaroni ‘N Cheese. One cup of chicken flavor Ramin noodles. One bottle Clear Eyes saline solution (size small). One single roll of scratchy toilet paper.

Life was simple.

But once you move here you’ll quickly discover one of San Francisco’s true treasures…Safeway!

Like Disney World, Oz or Neverland Ranch, there is just something magical about Safeway. First off, they’re huge. It’s like walking into a happy magic food palace. Coming from a bodega on the lower east side, the selection is staggering! Their prices are great and you can get almost anything there, including wine and alcohol! Yes, in San Francisco (in all of California actually), you can buy a case of nice (even very nice!) Napa Cabernet and a 750ml of Patron at the grocery store!

But Safeway is more than just food (which, by the way, you can order online and have delivered), most of them also have a bank, coffee depot (often Starbucks or Peets), pharmacy, sell postage stamps, offer western union services and sell monthly Muni passes!

I have yet to see tourists clumped together working nervously through the produce section taking photos of organic arugula, but if I was a local tour guide it would definitely be on my list. It’s just that weird.

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You Dirty Cat

Occasionally grownups disagree.

If one of these grownups happens to be a member of a union, and they happen to make their livelihood in New York City, then one of the grownups will often illustrate their frustration by inflating a terrifying 20’ tall rat in front of the offending entity’s place of business. These nasty and frightening effigies are a mainstay to New York City life, often encountered many times throughout the day around the city. I don’t know who the original artist is, but they have done a horrifyingly good job bringing these giant, diseased, pustule-ridden, teeth barring rodents to (bigger than) life.

Now just because San Francisco is a cute little “city” doesn’t meant that people here don’t also have disagreements (yes they do!). Taking a cue from their grittier cousins in the east, San Francisco-based unions have their own giant inflatable icon… a big kitty cat.

Evidently the purpose in San Francisco is not such much to humiliate or strike fear into the hearts of their adversaries (that wouldn’t be very nice, would it?), but instead to entertain and evoke a “how cute” reaction.

You see, San Francisco is not just weird…it’s adorable too!

Yucky NY Rat

Yucky NY Rat

Cute SF Kitty

Cute SF Kitty

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A Time for Change

A few months ago I posted a couple of primer about the SF transportation system (part I and part II).

While I had hoped my previous posts would adequately cover all of its oddities, a recent trip on the BART uncovered a fascinating new quirk:

Note: Despite the notable forthcoming idiosyncrasy, my previous BART posts/warnings and the location of your final Bay Area destination, the BART actually can be a fast and convenient transportation option to/from SFO.

No fancy credit cards please

No fancy credit cards please

A Cautionary Tale:

I arrived at the Embarcadero station, little BART ticket-thingy safely in hand. (As devoted SFIW.com readers will recall, BART riders must first decipher a complex algorithm to successfully calculate their fare before purchasing a ticket-thingy from the unintuitive ATM-like device. Finally, you are expected not to loose the ticket-thingy before reaching your final destination – since the ticket-thingy is required to unlock the turnstile before exiting the station.)

Like a pre-loaded Metro Card (sort of), I had a balance left on my ticket-thingy from a previous trip, but evidently not enough. A turnstile at the exit flashed a notice that I needed to add currency to my ticket in order to exit. I looked up and sure enough there’s a couple of “ADDFARE” machines nearby. I headed over but quickly notice a problem: I was not carrying any money and the machines, in a theatrical flashback to 1983, only take cash. To be specific, the machines only accept $1 or $5 bills. No credit cards. No debit cards. No $20 bills (not that I had a $20 bill).

How quaint.

How do they make money? Volume.

How do they make money? Volume.

Now, if I happened to have a $20 bill there is another machine located near the “Add Fare” machines labeled “Change,” which will turn your $20 bill to two $10’s and a $10 bill to two $5’s.

Yay technology!

But unfortunately, with no money I’m in a bit of a quandary.

I ask the (always friendly!) attendant what to do in this particular circumstance. No problem. He’ll buzz me out, I can leave the secure area, use the ATM-like machines around the corner (that do accept credit and debit cards) to add the appropriate fare to my ticket-thingy, then return through the security area (hi friendly attendant!), immediately turn around and exit again through the turnstile – this time with my now properly fared ticket-thingy.

I mean come on! That’s just weird!!!

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Warning: People are Really Friendly Here!

One thing that will take time for any new San Franciscan to get used to is that people here are actually, earnestly and genuinely nice. No, I’m serious. Most people are super incredibly friendly.

It’s really weird and a highly unsettling.

Strangers help nurse drink beer

Strangers help nurse drink beer

People you don’t know, people that you’ve never even seen before, and that seemingly have nothing to gain by an interaction, will make eye contact with you on the street! And it’s not the “what the hell are you looking at?” normal kind of inadvertent subway eye contact that you’d expect, it’s the unnatural “hey, how are you?” kind.  Even more bizarre, often this seemingly friendly eye contact will be accompanied by a nod or (shudder) event a smile!?!?

And on not-so-rare occasions, let’s call it half-the-time, this eye contact/nod/smile triumvirate will be followed by a friendly “hello.” An actual greeting from an actual stranger!

While I have now grown accustom (albeit not accepting) of this odd regional custom, the first few times it happened I almost threw my neck out looking for who this unknown person might be addressing. When I realized they were speaking to me my heart quickened as I was certain they were hoping to distract me while their cohorts further down the street or around the corner jumped me or demanded money. As to be expected, I would divert my eyes, quicken my pace and approach corners and alleys cautiously, always to be greeted by either nothing, or yes…even another pleasantly smiling and nodding person.

I don’t mean to frightened or discourage you from moving to this town. It does have much to offer (i.e. the coffee is pretty good), I do want to prepare you for what you might experience. Following are only  a few of the real-life examples of what my wife and I experienced:

  • Upon arriving in San Francisco a random passerby took the time (unasked) to help carry our baggage up three flights of stairs. They did not try and steal anything. They did not demand (or even accept) a tip.
  • My wife had a 10-minute discussion with a stranger in the deli about different brands of soy milk.
  • While sitting by the water one day, three different passersby asked a friend and I how we were doing. Neither of us knew the people.
  • At the supermarket (a massive Safeway mind you, not a small “mom and pop” establishment) the cashier introduced herself to us, welcomed us to the neighborhood, called over the manager and two baggers who all eagerly met us.
  • At a local store, a clerk voluntarily reduced the price of a desk after we had already agreed to purchase it at a higher price.

These are not isolated incidents. We have heard similar stories from dozens of other San Franciscans.

And if you’re not from New York and think that I’m just being cynical, and that people in your small town in New Hampshire say hi to each other too, remember that San Francisco is ostensibly a city. You know, with big buildings and a public transportation system and gangs and stuff.

People are friendly here. Just another reason that San Francisco is Weird.

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Apples and Thursday

Transamerica BuildingEmpire State Building (duh)If you are planning on moving to San Francisco, just moved here, are visiting, or  even have a loved-one here, this is probably the single most import post to read.

It’s taken me almost a year to have this realization, and it’s the most important concept to (try) and wrap your head around. I’ve spoken to dozens of other New York City transplants, and it really comes down to this:

You can not compare, San Francisco to New York.

Stop. Stop right now. You’re just going to hurt yourself. Yes, they are both places you can live, but that’s pretty much where the similarities end. I’ve heard many new San Franciscans desperate try and make neighborhood maps to ease the transition:

  • Mission = East Village (circa 1985)
  • Marina = Upper East Side
  • Castro = Chelsea, no, no, no…Christopher Street!
  • SOMA = Battery Park City

And while these analogies will help orient you a little, you can not approach San Francisco as if it is just a smaller, cuter, foggier, version of New York. With most restaurants closing at 9pm (or earlier), a population density 1/10th that of New York, and a genuinely friendly (albeit unstylish) population, it’s just a very different place.

I must admit that after almost a year here this place is starting to grow on me a little. It has it’s charms and in future posts I will begin to point them out and continue to help provide a realistic filter about what to expect and how to navigate this adorable town.

Until then, please remember that trying to compare New York to San Francisco is not like comparing Apples and Oranges.

A more accuate approach would be the futile comparison between Apples and Thursday.

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2009, The Year of Fog

At the beachFirst, Happy New Year!!!

Second, I know, I know…I’ve been terribly remiss and keeping San Francisco is Weird updated. Horrible actually.

But with the changing of our calendars I have the same opportunity as billions people around the globe (and approximately 750,000 in this cute little town): to reset. It’s like Yom Kippur in the blogosphere, except you don’t have to fast. With the best intentions in our hearts we apologize (I’m really sorry)  and have the opportunity to wipe the slate clean and start again – unfettered.

So, with optimism in my heart and resolutions on my side, I proudly proclaim that San Francisco is Weird is back! I am reinvigorated to keep you up-to-date and in the loop about the best, worst and most bizarre of this spunky city with the can-do attitude and a preponderance of fleece, tattoos and piercings.

I hope your new year was safe, happy and healthy, and look forward to fulfilling my resolution to keep SFIW current. Wish me luck.

– Adamahata

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What, exactly, is this supposed to be?

Looks like a bagel

So very, very sad

I’ve heard some people refer to San Francisco “bagels” as “rolls with holes,” but that’s not quite accurate. I honestly don’t know the technical specifications about how bagels are constructed, but in San Francisco it tastes like something went horribly awry.

I’ve heard it suggested that New York bagels taste the way they do (delicious) because of New York water, but that doesn’t make sense to me since New York water just tastes like water. And to be fair, so does San Francisco water.

The “bagel” shops here certainly look similar to bagel shops in New York. There’s typically a glass counter with a variety of “bagels” on display and a very nice person or two standing behind the counter. The only sign that something might be amiss is an often odd array of available types: “seeded” (everything without garlic and onion – whatever), “sun dried tomato” and (shutter) “blueberry”.

Also, there’s a much greater propensity for healthy toppings (like sprouts and avocados – which I must admit I do enjoy) and a complete absence of fresh nova or sable.

The other odd thing is that when they serve you the “bagel” they don’t cut it in half unless you ask!!! And I often forget to ask so I get a whole, round bagelish thing. And it’s just not the same biting into the outside crusty edge of a quasi-bagel. I’m admitedly not a physicist, but I think there’s some issue related to the surface area of the cut edge interacting with squishy cream cheese product.

To be fair, you can get a great piece of focaccia here, but it’s just not the same for breakfast. And tastes horrible with scallion cream cheese.

Focaccia

Focaccia

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The Three Hour Pumpkin

Last weekend my wife and I drove down the coast 45 miles to check-out the Half Moon Bay Pumpkin Festival.

There is evidently such excitement about the annual Half Moon Bay Pumpkin Festival that over 200 million people descend on this little town from all over the region. It literally took us three hours to make the 45-mile trip.

At first I was very confused…what could possibly be so exciting about a pumpkin festival??? Then I saw this…

Gorilla

Gorilla

Where Pumpkins Come From

Where Pumpkins Come From

Unless you are a near-religious halloween pilgrim that just MUST worship at the feet of a giant gorilla that poops pumpkins or you’re an exceptional corn maze zealot, I suggest you avoid the Half Moon Bay Pumpkin festival at all costs.

Sorry if I sound bitter, I just miss buying a small lopsided pumpkin, a single roll of toilet paper and two Red Stripes at my local Korean bodega for $23.85.

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Taxi! Taxi! Taxi?

OK, so you couldn’t figure out the Muni schedule and you were tired of the incessant delays – time to throw in the towel (environmentalism be damned) and hail a taxi! San Francisco sure looks like a city, and there seem to be taxis driving about, how hard could it be to flag one down?

How hard indeed.

There are about a dozen independent taxi companies in San Francisco. They are all sorts of colors, but typically all have the little light thingy on the top of the cab. The little light thingy that typically (i.e. in a normal city) indicates if the taxi is available.

This is a taxi

This is a taxi

In San Francisco, the light is sort of an adornment that may or may not be lit depending on the mood of the driver and the latest maintenance on the cab. It certainly has no bearing on whether or not the taxi may be available.

In select neighborhoods, at specific times of the day (i.e. not morning or lunch or mid-afternoon) and during particular slivers of the evening (i.e. not dinner time, post-dinner, pre-drinks or anytime you actually need one) you may actually be able to flag down a rare random taxi on the street. But most often you’re going to need to call a taxi.

How adorable.

So you grab your cell phone and dial a number and wait…and wait…and wait… Through my informal research (i.e. hours of my lost life), I have determined that about 50% of the time the dispatchers will not pick up the phone. If they DO pick up the phone, you have a 40% chance of needing to wait over thrity-minutes for a cab to arrive.

Hardly convenient. But the good news is that San Francisco is a pretty small “city”, so you can always walk. Or, do what everybody else does here…drive.

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Bikes!

First a quick disclosure: I love my bike. I ride to work almost everyday, and I did it when I lived in New York too. I happen to think it’s a great way to get around.

In most other city you can choose to either ride your bike or not. You can enjoying it casually, ride it for exercise, whatever. Doesn’t really matter.

But when you get on your bike in San Francisco you’re picking sides.

There’s a not-so-cold war here pitting bicyclists vs. cars. You know the story: hippie bicyclists think that car drivers are destroying the environment, creating pollution and causing accidents, while car drivers think that there are too many bicyclists on the road, they don’t obey rules, and they’re often too nimbly to run over.

Biking is popular here and (except for the hills and the fact that it can drop 40-degrees an hour after you leave your house (see post on weather) it’s generally easy to get around. Except that there are a few “huge” “hills” every once in a while. No seriously, they’re huge. Even driving you start to navigate in three-degrees. It’s weird.

The other nice thing is that since it never gets warm you don’t break out that big a sweat. Unless you need to walk up one of those huge hills.

But don’t worry, there’s plenty of places to lock your bike once you get to your destination:

Don't

Don't

Bikes on fence

Bikes on fence

Bikes in a tree

Bikes in a tree

More bikes in a Tree

More bikes in a Tree

Bikes on a sign

Bikes on a sign

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