What image does that conjure up in your mind. Even if you have never visited, images, thoughts immediately spring to mind whether it be Steve McQueen in that amazing car chase in the movie Bullet, or Vivienne Leigh and Marlon Brando in A Street Car Named Desire, or Clint Eastwood in The Rock, or the film Birdman of Alcatraz, or the TV series Tales of the City based on the books by Amistead Maupin, or The Streets of San Francisco, or The Presidio, or the city of destination for many new thinkers and pop musicians in the years of love and flower-power back in the sixties. So we arrived with plenty of mental baggage but what were we to find?
San Francisco did not disappoint. It is now a thriving centre for the new web and IT based industries, youth and money are everywhere. The houses of the turn of the 19th/20th centuries are grand and freshly painted in vibrant colours, their exuberant gothic styling providing an ever changing vista. The residential areas of Russian Hill and Nob Hill are as steep as they appeared in any film with stunning views of the Bay opening up on every corner. Lombard Street came upon us as a surprise, famous the world over, tourist cars were attempting to negotiate its chicanes as this narrow suburban street fell precipitously down the hillside.
Downtown the wealth that had built the city showed itself in grand old office blocks whilst the modern wealth was to be seen in larger modern edifices such as the Transam pyramid building.
The docks, once so important, are now preserved for the tourists and as twee business offices, that soon lead on to Fishermans Wharf, a tourist trap that still has some of the best seafood restaurants in town.
The parks of the town stretch on for miles and are filled with bright young things running, or doing Tai Chi exercises in the sunshine and the coastal paths around the Golden Gate provide superb views back to the bridge and out to sea where the Pacific Ocean belied it’s name by hurling crashing waves onto the tree covered rocky headlands.
The ethnic mix is wide and this directly impacts the cuisine. There is a large Japanese population that traces its roots back to before WWII focusing on fresh and raw, Hispanics primarily from Mexico bring chilis and spice, Europeans bringing sausages, steaks and wine, all living in an area of warmth and sunshine that makes almost everything grow and flourish, by a sea that is abundant and profligate, and in a port where everything can be imported and with a customer base eager to try the new or unusual.
We had superb Sashimi and Nigiri in Sausolito at a restaurant called Sushi Ran.
We found small wine bars that offered glasses of excellent local wines along with Arneis from Italy,
Albariño from Galicia, Cot from France and Txakoli from the Basque area. We found small family
owned diners providing wholesome filling meals based on beef, or pork, at modest prices.
But all is not golden in the city. Within feet of the magnificent office building entrances homeless crowd the doorways. Within yards of the colourful gothic Victorian homes old camper vans, trucks and cars are home to those unable to afford the $3+million the houses cost. Drug addicts huddle trying to keep warm on vacant lots next to the “line” of the wealthy young who are queuing to enter the latest “cool” bar, or trendy restaurant. Coffee shops, serving excellent coffees, are full of people sitting at tables alone focusing on the keyboards of their Apple Macs.
So where did that leave us? San Francisco is still the place of dreams for many, but the contrast between “haves” and “have nots” is shockingly wide. It is a place of beauty and wonder for those who have success and a place of despair and emptiness for those that society discard. But it is still a great city. It’s location and environs makes it unique amongst cities and special in all measures. A great and wonderful place to visit but the dark side is right by your elbow.