I visited San Francisco a few weeks ago for AltConf 2015, a free conference across the street from Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC). Since WWDC moved to a lottery system last year in the face of overwhelming demand, AltConf began offering networking and conference presentations for free to anyone.
Always before, when I’ve stayed in San Francisco, I’ve focused on the stretch from Pacific Heights and the Marina down to the Financial District and SoMa. I’ve rarely ventured out of this small semicircle at the northeast of the city. This time, I decided to explore some different areas, so I rented an Airbnb in Twin Peaks, a quiet residential neighborhood overlooking the Castro and Noe Valley.
When I arrived, I was stunned by the beauty of Twin Peaks. It was a clear day, and I could see from my street (and from my host’s living-room window) cleanly across eastern San Francisco to the bay. In the evening, fog drifted across the hilltop and blanketed the peaks in clouds.
Before attending AltConf, I spent a few days exploring the nearby neighborhoods, rather than returning to the usual tourist spots I’d seen before. If you’re looking for something a little different in your visit to San Francisco — a trip through quiet streets and local spots — this guide is for you.
The Castro is renowned as a gay neighborhood and is scattered with great shops and restaurants. Here are a few I tried:
Chow on Church: Breakfast and brunch are unbelievably delicious — much better than lunch or dinner, in my opinion. I ordered a quinoa ragout with mushroom, spinach and poached eggs. I actively dislike quinoa, so I’m not sure why I took the gamble, but it paid off: This single dish changed my mind about quinoa forever. I also tried a cottage cake — a pancake with cottage cheese in the batter. With organic raspberry sauce on top, it reminded me of the jelly donuts I ate as a child from a local bakery. Advice: Don’t miss the weekend brunch — it ends at 2 p.m. Weekday breakfast is 8 a.m. to 11 a.m.
Eureka! Cafe: They serve organic ice cream from Straus Creamery. I ordered the brown sugar banana flavor and it was delicious. A nice end to my wanderings for the day.
Buffalo Whole Food & Grain Co.: A small but well-stocked grocer in the heart of the Castro. Tiny organic raspberries that were much tastier to me than those big Driscoll ones.
Noe Valley lies just south of the Castro over a large hill (hint: don’t walk, take the bus!). It’s a family-friendly neighborhood with a strip of low-key shops and restaurants on 24th Street. A couple of highlights:
Bernie’s Coffee: A great cafe with free WiFi in Noe Valley. The food was good, but the highlight was the atmosphere: low-key and productive, with plenty of space. I never felt rushed or crowded out.
Saru Sushi: Delicious sushi and a great choice for lunch. Surprisingly, the salmon roe was the best thing I ordered, and I also enjoyed the Taramiso (marinated black cod) nigiri.
When I finally ventured downtown for the conference, I wasn’t particularly happy to return to SoMA with its loud noise and heavy traffic. But I found some worthwhile places amid the hustle:
Samovar Tea Lounge in Yerba Buena Gardens above the waterfall. There’s a delicious new toast menu for breakfast (in addition to the regular menu). I had the poached eggs-with-butter toast and the Greek yogurt toast with honey and basil. It was affordable and awesome, until I ordered tea without checking the menu price. Seriously, who charges $17 for tea? Oops.
Creperie St. Germain – Not what I expected, because it’s a food truck and not a full restaurant. But the crepes were delicious and organic, and I found a nice place to eat in the shade near the Children’s Carousel Museum.
Workshop Cafe (not in SoMa but close by) – 180 Montgomery Street. This coffeeshop/coworking space has great healthy food, plus a huge amount of space. To enter the coworking space, it’s $2/hour, or you can sit in the front of the cafe for free. For first-timers, the coworking space is also free for up to 10 hours. Wonderful staff and service made this experience great, and the hot cereal with granola, steamed almond milk and organic fruit was awesome.
The Elephant in the Room
My trip to San Francisco was wonderful. The weather was shockingly warm for June, reaching into the 70s and making my black fleece jacket unnecessary on some days. Almost every day, sun streamed over Twin Peaks and lit up the valley below. I enjoyed the absolute quiet of the Airbnb where I stayed, my hosts were welcoming and wonderful, and I loved the opportunity to re-visit one of my favorite cities.
That said, San Francisco has downsides as well as highlights, and it would be dishonest to ignore them. The biggest downside is probably this: For a city awash in so much money, the size of the homeless population is staggering. One of New York’s best organizations for combating homelessness has been Pathways to Housing, which uses a “housing first” model: Just place people in housing and then deal with their other problems later. It works, and it’s expanding to other cities. Before San Francisco cycles from boom to bust yet again, the city and its residents would do well to channel some of that boom money toward housing the homeless.
This may not be the brightest note to end this trip log on, but it’s an honest one.