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The New San Francisco Hotel Boutiques
Besides big bang hotels, there is also a raft of new boutiques in San Francisco.  See National Geographic Traveler, October 2005, pp.39ff.  We have not tried them, but plan on taking a look.  They’re not anywhere near as pricey, but it takes a little looking around to separate the wheat from the chaff.  They include: Hotel Vitale (, Hotel Des Arts (, Carlton Hotel (, The Laurel Inn (, The Metro Hotel (, Hotel Del Sol (, Argonaut Hotel (, and Elements (  They range from the meager (almost like dorm rooms) to the funky.  These are just some new selections—for the adventurous at heart—and it is a far from comprehensive list.  For instance, there seems to be a new Orchard Hotel that’s worth a look.  There once was a steal on Sutter Street by that name, but the new iteration is on Bush, and at least the reviews look promising.  See  (11/16/05)

Best Old-Economy Seafood in the Financial District of San Francisco
Neither the food nor the atmosphere at Sam's Grill is Nuevo California, but Sam's does boast the old hearty fare you used to find around town.   Probably, if you haven't been before, you should have the sand dabs and a martini.  According to the menu, the establishment dates back to 1867, which is pretty old for California.  The patrons are still proud of their guts and their boisterous laughs.  Better for lunch than dinner.  Sam's Grill.  374 Bush St.  GA-1-0594.  Email:

Best Shrimp Dumplings at a Chinese Restuarant—San Francisco
As soon as she heard we were coming to San Francisco, an old friend exclaimed, “I must take you to Ton Kiang for dim sum!”  A few chilly afternoons later, we were bounding up the stairs to the second-floor dining room in a state of gustatory anticipation.  We were not disappointed.  At a corner table, over cups of fragrant chrysanthemum tea, we surveyed a never-ending parade of morsels, so irresistible that soon every inch of the table was covered with small dishes.  Most appealing were the delicately flavored shrimp dumplings--gao choy got (with green chives), dao miu gao (with pea tips), and boi choy gao (with spinach)--so fresh and light that  you could eat a dozen without blinking.  But that would be a shame, because then you wouldn't be able to sample the turnip cakes with sweet rice, eggplant with shrimp, sauteed pea shoots, spicy pot stickers, or the strange-looking but delicious mango and coconut pudding.  Not to be missed:  Petite steam buns stuffed with rich barbecued pork.  Ton  Kiang, 5821 Geary Boulevard, San Francisco, CA 94121.  Telephone:  415-387-8273.

Best 12-Table Italian Restaurant in North Beach—San Francisco
Everything about L’Osteria del Forno is inviting, from the warm, golden walls hung with copper pans to the open kitchen and the frazzed, but good-natured staff.   The restaurant is tiny, just a dozen tables, and with a no reservations policy, you’ll probably have to wait in line until you’re half mad with hunger.  But it’s hard to be irritable once you’ve snagged one of those coveted  tables, and a cheerful waitress has delivered a basket of focaccia hot from the oven along with a glass of the house red.  The owners, who are from Bologna and Varese, have devised a simple, almost rustic menu that occasionally approaches the sublime.  We missed the milk-braised pork, a local favorite, but were pleased by the freshly pureed artichoke soup, and by exceptionally light pumpkin ravioli in sage butter, the sweetness of the pumpkin wonderfully offset by flecks of orange zest.  Plump grilled tiger shrimp served  over a green salad, and crespelle, crepes in bechamel sauce stuffed with ham and sauteed porcini mushrooms, brought smiles all around.  L'Osteria del Forno, 519 Columbus Avenue, San Francisco.  Telephone:  415-982-1124.  Website:'osteria/.

Most Atmospheric Tea Room in China TownSan Francisco
We fell for Imperial Tea Court the moment we stepped across the threshold.  This mellow tea house, adorned with birdcages and polished rosewood tables and chairs, was created less than ten years ago by visiting Chinese artisans, but feels as though it had been in place for a century.  As tea-inspired music plays softly in the background, helpful ladies show the visitor how to brew and drink tea in the classic gaiwan, or lidded cup. Dozens of premium teas may be purchased by the ounce or the pound, from rare teas such as Bai Ji Guan (made from white tea leaves which resemble the comb on a rooster’s head) to western-style, lavender-infused Earl Grey.  Here one can also find an enormous array of elegant Yixing clay teapots, prized for the porosity of the clay from which they are made.

Imperial Tea Court was created by Roy Fong, a Hong Kong native, ordained Daoist priest, and impassioned lover of fine teas.  Every year Fong visits small tea gardens in China and Taiwan to personally supervise the production process; carefully nurtured relationships with other growers have made it possible for him to obtain rare teas unavailable elsewhere in the West.  His website is exceptional, with a vivid description and photograph of each tea, a map showing its origin, and specific brewing instructions.  Click on “Classroom” to learn gong fu and gaiwan tea preparation, or “Tea Tour” for a tantalizing itinerary of a China trip planned for 2002.  Imperial Tea Court, 1411 Powell Street, San Francisco, CA 94133.  Telephone: (415) 788-6080.  Fax: (415) 788-6079.  Website:

Best Breakfast Hotel in San Francisco
Campton Place is very central (just off Union Square), very obliging at breakfast time, and is equipped with a dining room that is very right-sized and quite calming when you are starting the day.  Probably it is just down the hotel ladder a few rungs from the Mandarin, which makes it very good, indeed, and the dining room has a better ambiance than Silks.  Occasionally, the hotel's rooms are a bit too snug, but we understand that they all have been reworked to be more capacious.  Of all the hotels, there is more attention to design details (some quite successful) than in all the other hostelries around town.  We hear the bar and restaurant are to be redone--for the better we hope--even though management may be messing with a good formula.  Campton Place Hotel.  340 Stockton Street, San Francisco, California 94108.  Telephone: 415-781-5555.   Fax: 415-955-5536.  Website:

Update: We recently paid another very extensive visit to Campton Place and found it to be as good as ever.  First, hurray for the restaurant, which has finally reached the first rank.  It and the bar outside have undergone a light redesign, but it’s nothing dramatic and the tone has remained reasonably understated.  The banquette at the back has turned slightly more uncomfortable, since the padding pressed up against one’s spine is not quite right.  At night you will want to sit in the booths on the left.  By day, get a position near the windows since the lighting is mildly depressing otherwise.  The service at night is as good as ever, though we did not see the old hands who had a bit more knowledge about the food.  The food in the old days was a little fruity precious (new California chefs trying too hard); things are now more complex and very decorative but very mellow.  It’s all a bit filling, so go empty and don’t plan on visiting too often.  Despite the fact that it’s a better restaurant, it does not seem as crowded—for any meal—which, of course, is a very big plus for the discerning.   

Breakfast is still quite pleasant but with some caveats.  You have to pick your way through the menu and be a little demanding.  For instance, we eat the egg white omelet which will come out a little watery (just pour the waste onto a saucer), and the vegetables, which strangely are not wrapped into the omelet, tend to blandness.  It helps if you ardently spell out what you want in the omelet and caution the staff on the cooking.  Likewise the breads are mixed: a croissant was respectable, but the attempt at an English muffin could even be said to be gluey.  Do try the jams and jellies.  But it’s a quiet place to kick off the day and to carry on civil business conversation. 

The hotel staff is ever willing and the rooms have grown more comfortable over the years.  There are a few trifles that need to be repaired.  The front desk can be dilatory about getting a bellboy to the room or effecting a simple transaction that requires a bit of creativity—in other words, balls do get dropped there.  Nobody polices the front lobby, so an unruly guest can prowl back and forth yapping for a long time on a cell phone, disturbing more temperate guests.  Generally, however, it attracts a genteel clientele.  The flaws probably arise because management is rather invisible.  Room service really ends at 10:30: this is not quite luxury.  But the papers really do make it to your door in the morning, even if they are not on the table in the restaurant which sports too many copies of USA Today and the emasculated San Francisco Chronicle.  The maid will do a fast clean up in a pinch.  It’s quiet in the rooms, and the double seal glass protects one against rather noisy streets.  Unusually we found ice in our room every night—without asking. The towels have a reasonable nap and there are enough at hand.

The West's Best Architectural Bookstore
Near a fine Japanese art gallery in Jackson Square, still a very pleasurable antique and design district.  You can browse here without being assaulted by customers or the staff.  William Stuart Architectural Books.  804 Montgomery St, San Francisco, CA 94135.  Telephone: 415-394-6757.  Also, William Stout Design Books in South San Francisco at 415-495-6757.  Website:

Bernard Maybeck
Much Bay Area architecture is devoid of charm and character.  After all, it was the housing developments south of town that gave birth to Malvinia Reynold's song about boxes.  And even expensive works have a certain blandness.  Not Maybeck.  His domestic houses around the area—especially in Berkeley and San Francisco—are charming, durable, and symbolic of a more hopeful age in San Francisco history.  The Palace of Fine Arts, meant to be a romantic ruin, has achieved venerable status among tourmasters and politicians.  Incidentally, at one point, only he and Frank Lloyd Wright had been honored with Gold Medals by the American Institute of Architects.  To see Maybeck's work, go to
html.  To  read about his impact and historical significance, see Bernard R. Maybeck (1862-1957): A Regional Solution to Modernity.

Best Japanese Folk Art Shop—San Francisco
Tucked away in Japantown’s Kinokuniya Buillding  is a shop that could not offer greater contrast to its sterile surroundings.   Ma-shi-ko Folkcraft is so crammed from floor to ceiling with wondrous handmade objects from Japan that one could spend hours just trying to see half of its wares.   The shop specializes in rustic ma-shi-ko pottery, which has been made in the same area for centuries, but there are also antique tansu chests and laquer bento boxes, fierce samurai kites, exquisite tea bowls, stone basins for the zen garden and hundreds of other objects rich in tradition.  We nearly fell over--and then fell in love with--a handsome 19th-century carved cherry wood fish with a particularly flippant tail, once used to suspend cooking pots over a charcoal fire.  If you can put up with the owner’s continuous complaints about pilfering and lack of local support (“all my customers are from New York and Boston”), this is a fabulous place to find unusual, well-priced objects for the home.  Ma-shi-ko Folk Craft, Kinokuniya Building, 1581 Webster Street, San Francisco, CA 94118.  Telephone: 415-346-0748.

San Francisco's Best Little Book Shop
Tillman Place Bookshop.  And it's just off Union Square.  We have seen it stay supreme under two different owners.  It's a literary shop--not for business books and the like.  A small nook up a small alley, it's always decorous and pleasant to visit.  And somehow it's not as glitzy as the rest of the retailers in Yuppieville.  8 Tillman Place, San Francisco, CA  94108.   Tel: 415-392-4668. 

Note: Unfortunately, this proud bookstore has since had to close.

Most Peaceful China Town Escape (in China Town)--San Francisco
Years ago, we lived just a few blocks from the Tien Hau Temple, but mysteriously never discovered it.  Climb three flights of stairs (past the locked door to the mah jong parlour), ring the buzzer on the grill, and the elderly caretakers will admit you to this beautiful shrine to the Queen of Heavens and Goddess of the Seven Seas.  Dozens of glowing red and gold lanterns line the ceiling, incense swirls from lighted joss sticks and pyramids of oranges adorn altars to the spirits of the departed.  Over it all presides the benign image of Tien Hau, flanked by other legendary deities and guardian angels.

Built in 1852 by the first Chinese to arrive in San Francisco as a thanks offering to the goddess for safely guiding them across the Pacific Ocean, this is the oldest Buddhist temple in the United States. To this day, many Chinese believe that they owe their prosperity and well-being to Tien Hau, hence the abundant offerings at her temple.  To sit here for ten minutes is to escape the hustle bustle of Chinatown and contemplate another more spiritual realm.  Tien Hau Temple, 125 Waverly Place, San Francisco.  No phone.

Best Place to Have a Chop Made in China Town--San Francisco
Tucked in amongst the glitzy chandeliers and made-yesterday lacquer furniture on Grant Avenue is a real shop, Chew Chong Tai, where the genial calligraphers will translate your name into Chinese characters and either paint them on rice paper or carve a chop for you to use on your stationery.  Occidental names are transcribed on a “sounds like” basis, so that, for example, “Alexandra,” is composed of the characters for “Asia,” “tree,” “strength,” and “to arrive.” This is a good source for high quality brushes and papers, as well the crimson pigment for inking one’s chop.  Poking around on the dusty glass shelves we discovered fragments of old Chinese embroidery and replicas of opium pipes.  Chew Chong Tai, 985 Grant Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94108.  Telephone: (415) 982-8479.

Playland 2001
When we were young, there were amusement parks where you could eat the hot dogs, visit clean bathrooms, not suffer lines on the rides, and have a good time whether you were a kid or an adult.  Such a park was Playland in Rye, New York, which is probably gone or drooping today.  Their successors--this or that park in Florida--are pretty grueling.

Not so at San Francisco's Metreon, Sony's entertainment center.  For years all the good things in San Francisco have been happening south of market.  Even the Beat Poets knew this years ago when they snuck away from North Beach to Potrero Hill.

At any rate, Metreon, on the edge of Yerba Buena Gardens, is quite terrific.  For starters, the Gardens provide the main patch of grass downtown, now that Union Square is turning to stone.  The several restaurants in and around Metreon vary from quite acceptable to pretty darn good, unusual in any amusement park setting.  The main game room itself is not wonderful, but it will sate kids tired of touring around San Francisco.  Just across the footbridge is a carousel (hardly advertised) which is attractive and a good deal price-wise.

Metreon is a showcase as well as for Sony and Microsoft products, all of which fits in with the Moscone Convention Center in the neighborhood. 

All these things are located in the Mission District, which was San Francisco itself under the Spanish.  The city began here where the sun shone best, but then the wealthy moved to the hills to get away from the hoi polloi.  Back in the Mission, San Francisco is getting back to its roots.

Parrot Pages
Mark Bittner’s website, which he has located on the home of Pelican Media, is as pretty a bird viewing as you are going to find.  He’s recorded his doings with a flock of wild parrots that hang about San Franicsco, and provides a little history of parrots there.  This has all led to a book, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill.  As with all budding authors, all has been pushed aside while he does a countrywide book tour.  Like Verlang, this is one of those offbeat, wonderful websites that illuminates the best parts of San Francisco that you are likely to miss.  See  (5/4/05)

This is a wonderful website about San Francisco architecture, with incidentals about its history, that you should not miss.  In a December 2004 Letter from the Global Province, we sang its praises as follows: It’s called Vernacular Language North (  It gives you a full tour of the architects who made the San Francisco area charming before it turned into a shopping mall, including Bernard Maybeck, with whom we are particularly acquainted, but also Julia Morgan, who fashioned Hearst Castle and other imaginative creations.  Maybeck once appeared before the Berkeley city government in defense of a tree in the middle of the street, which, as he said, was a “noble and thrifty tree” deserving of a very long life.  It will also link you to museums, galleries, and restaurants to which the discriminating traveler will want to pay heed.  

A timeline on the site gives you a wonderful quick history of the Bay Area, skipping back a few centuries.  To our bemusement, he also has a section showing offbeat bumperstickers he has seen since 2001 while driving and walking around the city (see  He provides you with a perfect escape from transience and the ephemeral, which are the essence of California itself  (5/4/05)


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