San Francisco rewards food lovers with authentic dishes made the 'old way', writes Louise Southerden.
'Move inside! Face the windows! No drinks! Take off your backpack!" The conductor's playful orders make riding the Powell-Hyde cable car from Union Square to Fisherman's Wharf a quintessential San Francisco experience. But when I disembark - "Wait until we come to a complete stop!" - I find myself in two worlds.
First, there's Chinatown, where it's noodles for breakfast and people practise tai chi on any available patch of grass. A few steps on and I cross an invisible border into San Francisco's little Italy, North Beach. Suddenly, English is spoken with Italian accents (or not at all), power poles are striped red, green and white and I pass Michelangelo Ristorante & Caffe on the way to Mario's Bohemian Cigar Store, where I meet Tom Medin, my Local Tastes of the City Tours guide.
A food-lover's walking tour of North Beach seems an apt way to start a visit to San Francisco, given that eating is a big deal here. San Franciscans love to eat seasonally, locally and well. But there's more to food in this foggy city than the famous French Laundry and Alice Waters's Chez Panisse.
Behind the big names are unknown, even nameless, artisanal bakers, coffee roasters and pastry chefs and North Beach is the perfect place to taste their goods.
Dressed in black, Medin is the epitome of San Fran cool, a cookbook author who is passionate about farmers' markets and putting the city's communities on the tourist map.
"I never wanted to do just a food tour," he says. "You can go to a restaurant for that [to eat]. It's about people and exploring a neighbourhood."
Our first stop is Caffe Roma, where Medin orders me a "moe-ka" (mocha) while I chat with the cafe's owner, Tony Azzollini, who has been working in this family business for 22 years.
When he learns where I'm from, he says he loves Australia. "We know how to make a 'flat white'; can you tell everybody in Sydney that?"
Moving on, we taste Earl Grey truffles, tequila truffles, even vegan truffles at XOX Truffles Inc's chocolate truffle shop, and Roman-style square pizzas at Cinecitta. "Everything we taste here is made here," Medin says, but Victoria Pastry Co's melt-in-the-mouth cannoli, filled with home-made ricotta, are something else. "When I say 'fresh', I don't mean made this morning," Medin explains, "I mean made just before we got here."
On the steps of Saints Peter and Paul Church we stand where one of North Beach's most famous residents, the baseball great Joe DiMaggio, once stood - to be photographed with his new bride Marilyn Monroe after their City Hall wedding in January 1954. We go "backstage" at the Italian French Baking Company to see its 100-year-old brick oven, the oldest still baking bread in San Francisco.
The older the oven, the better the bread, Medin says, and the ciabatta we taste is deliciously crusty on the outside, a cloud of softness inside.
There's no name on the blue awning of one shop we visit; they have no website, don't use email and never advertise. They don't need to. This family-run bakery, called Liguria, starts making focaccias at midnight, opens its shop about 7am and is sold out soon after. "All we have left is onion," says one of the two aproned women standing in front of a wall of empty shelves when we arrive mid-morning.
North Beach isn't just home to Italians; it has been hallowed ground for beatniks ever since San Francisco Chronicle journalist Herb Caen coined the term in 1958, blending references to Russia's Sputnik satellite and the Beat Generation. Local Beat writers such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg made themselves at home in North Beach's cafes, including one of our last stops, Caffe Trieste, where Francis Ford Coppola later wrote the screenplay for The Godfather.
When the tour ends, I keep walking, back through Chinatown in search of the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory. Fortune cookies may have been invented in San Francisco, California at the very least, America certainly. Not that you'd know it from this place; the "factory" is little more than a hole-in-the-wall in an alley. Inside, three women sit at Industrial Revolution-era machines peeling pancake-like cookies off a drum and folding them in half while they're still warm, enclosing the precious paper messages.
At Boudin on Fisherman's Wharf is something as San Franciscan as cable cars and the Golden Gate Bridge: sourdough. It dates to the California Gold Rush, specifically 1849, when thousands of prospectors flocked to the city (these "49ers" later gave their name to San Francisco's football team). Around the same time, a family of migrant French bakers from Burgundy discovered that wild yeasts in the air gave their baguettes a certain tang, which became popular with the gold diggers.
The Boudin bakery employs 25 bakers and turns out 15,000 loaves of bread a day - but still uses a simple artisanal sourdough recipe: unbleached flour, salt, clean water (from Hetch Hetchy dam in Yosemite National Park) and a piece of original "mother dough".
A unique culture of that wild yeast and the fog-loving Lactobacillus sanfrancisco, Boudin's "mother dough" starter has been "alive" for 162 years; it survived the great earthquake of 1906 and pieces of it are couriered across the country every two weeks to ensure San Francisco sourdough made in, say, New York keeps the flavour of its home city.
For a bread-lover like me, Boudin's museum is a sliced loaf of heaven. You can watch bread being made, see the grand old "mother dough" in its tub, peer through a microscope at Lactobacillus bacteria and learn what kind of bread you are - a sweet sesame, perhaps, a sourdough baguette, a garlic volcano or a dark rye. There's also a wall display of edible inventions. Who knew mai tai cocktails (from the Tahitian expression "mai tai roa ae", meaning "out of this world!"), the martini (originally called the "martinez" by a 19th-century bartender who mixed it for a gold miner heading across the bay to Martinez) and chop suey (made by resourceful Chinese cooks chopping up bits of "this and that" to feed railroad workers in the 1860s) all came from San Francisco?
Even Irish coffee is said to have been perfected, if not created, here. A short stroll from Fisherman's Wharf is the Buena Vista, a cafe where, in 1952, owner Jack Koeppler and Pulitzer Prize-winning travel writer Stanton Delaplane spent an idle evening concocting the coffee-whisky-cream drink Delaplane had had at Shannon Airport, Ireland. Trouble was, the cream kept sinking to the bottom. So they called San Francisco's mayor, a dairy farmer, who enlightened them: cream will float if it's allowed to mature for 48 hours before frothing.
"What you do is sip the hot coffee through the cold cream at the top," the surly barman says as he brings me an Irish coffee at the "BV". He should know; he makes 2000 of them a day. The other tourists here seem to be enjoying their mid-afternoon pick-me-up but I can't finish mine. So I walk a couple of blocks to Ghirardelli Square, the site of a former chocolate factory, to sweeten the whisky taste with a sea salt caramel hot Cocoa from Ghirardelli, which happens to be another San Franciscan brand, set up by Italian immigrant Domingo Ghirardelli in 1849.
That afternoon I walk with a friend through the Presidio, San Francisco's Central Park. Because it's a former military base and was off-limits to the public until 1994, it's now a 600-hectare environmental time capsule, preserving plants and animals no longer found in surrounding developed areas.
There are deep, dark pine forests, grasslands, sand dunes, tidal marshes, endangered birds and coyotes. The Golden Gate Bridge, partly obscured by low cloud, looms above, reminding us we're still in the city.
Our destination is the cosy-sounding Warming Hut, a former warehouse with a jetty out the front where men fish and California sea lions angle for their leftovers. The Hut has been eco-renovated with, for instance, salvaged timber furniture and wall insulation made from recycled denim. It's more of a bookstore/gift shop than a cafe but the coffee is good. On summer weekends, a cart outside sells organic hot dogs - in this city, even the junk food is good.
A short drive south around the coast brings us to the Cliff House, a former Victorian-era beach resort overlooking Ocean Beach. Its main restaurant, Sutro's, has floor-to-ceiling windows facing the grey-green sea and from our table we can see tugs and container ships, cormorants and brown pelicans as the summer sun sets. But the view is only half the attraction; dinner starts with fresh Acme bread (the Berkeley-based company bakes for all the best restaurants in the Bay area, including Chez Panisse) and continues with Dungeness crab cakes, pan-roasted Alaskan halibut and a sublime frozen lemon souffle.
Not far from Cliff House is the California Academy of Sciences, in Golden Gate Park. It is open late on Thursdays and has live exhibits so you can literally "drink with the fishes". Beverages in hand, we wander past open pools containing sharks and rays and glass tanks full of tropical fish. For fresh air, and peace, we take the lift to the greenest feature of the world's most sustainable museum, its Living Roof - seven grassy hills blanketing the academy's 12 buildings.
It's not such an odd place to end a food-infused day, not in a city that claims Irish coffees and fortune cookies as its own and whose bread is as famous as its bridge. San Francisco's food scene is nothing if not original.
Louise Southerden travelled courtesy of V Australia and California Tourism.
V Australia flies to San Francisco from Sydney and Melbourne for about $1380 low-season return, including tax. Fly to Los Angeles (about 14hr non-stop), then on SkyWest to San Francisco (about 80min); see vaustralia.com.au. Australians must apply for travel authorisation before departure at https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov/esta.
San Francisco CityPASS allows seven days' unlimited use of cable cars, admission to the California Academy of Sciences, a one-hour bay cruise and other discounts, for $US69 ($70); see citypass.com.
The Handlery Union Square Hotel, a historic building (built in 1908, renovated last year) on Union Square, has rooms from $US179; $US209 with breakfast and wi-fi; see sf.handlery.com.
Local Tastes of the City Tours has three-hour walking tours of North Beach/Little Italy at 10am and 2pm for $US59 including food and drinks; see sffoodtour.com.
Golden Gate Fortune Cookies Co, 56 Ross Alley. It costs US50¢ to take a photo inside; a bag of cookies costs about $US5; phone 415 781 3956.
Boudin at the Wharf is open 8am-9pm Sunday-Thursdays, 8am-10pm Fridays and Saturdays; there are bakery museum tours 11.30am-6pm every day except Tuesdays. There's also a Bakery & Cafe in Bakers Hall, Bistro Boudin restaurant and Bistro bar; see boudinbakery.com.
Buena Vista Cafe, 2765 Hyde Street, is open 9am-2am weekdays, 8am-2am weekends; see thebuenavista.com.
The Warming Hut Bookstore & Cafe, 983 Marine Drive, Crissy Field, is open 9am-5pm daily; see nps.gov and go to Presidio.
Sutro's at the Cliff House is open daily for lunch and dinner; see cliffhouse.com/sutro.
California Academy of Sciences at Golden Gate Park, is open every Thursday 6-10pm to visitors aged 21 and older; entry $US12. The museum is open to all ages, 9.30am-5pm Monday-Saturday, 11am-5pm Sundays. Entry $US29.95. See calacademy.org/nightlife.