Living in this great metropolis by the bay has it's civic responsibilities.
The most important of which does not involve voting in political elections, serving on juries, recycling, riding on public transportation or carrying our own reusable shopping bags.
These things may have their uses in most civilized societies but in San Francisco they must take a backseat to the Bay Area's citizen's gravest, most time-honored tradition.
They must give way to the thing that makes this city great; the most important aspect of residing in the 415 area code; the very backbone of this beacon of golden light and civilization in the Western United States.
You know what I'm going to say, don't you. Of course you do!
Yes, each one of us has the solemn duty to act as personal concierge for every family member or the acquaintances of every family member that come to visit our fair Gotham.
Those of us who are single or married but childless are doubly bound to act in our capacity as this city's ambassadors.
We are not a volunteer army.
Oh no, we are drafted into the position by a vigorous and demanding committee of aunts, uncles, cousins, stepparents, parents and their ilk. We cannot threaten to move to Canada because chances are the posse would follow us to our exile, anyway, and we'd be stuck with even higher income taxes and no Kara's Cupcakes.
So, we must not only be fonts of knowledge about the latest greatest restaurants likely to please the diverse (and sometimes pedestrian) palates of our guests; but we must also be acting tour guides with a wealth of information on the fascinating facts of San Francisco's storied history ("Hey Lori, who was that Milk toast guy who got shot by Fidel Castro?" or "Where are those Rice a Roni trolleys that go down that crooked street?") while providing mountains of Ghiradelli Chocolates and Sourdough bread bowls for all.
While I don't mind assisting the occasional foreign tourist with directions to Chinatown or trying to discern the meaning of their questions ( I once had a young French couple come up to me, hands waving frenetically, brows deeply furrowed as the gentleman ejaculated, "Steve MAkeen, Steve MAkeen. BOOlet! BOOlet!" while pointing questioningly at the various slopes around him on Russian Hill. Querying me, or so I gathered, on where the famous car chase scenes in Steve McQueen's movie "Bullet" were shot. ), catering to the dietary requirements of friends and family does have its pitfalls. They are more likely to complain about your choices for them than enjoy your company.
It loses its charm quickly. For all of us. I'm lucky because our family are eaters and willing to give anything a try but they are on vacation, San Francisco is a beautiful place and it's incumbent on me as the resident to provide a hospitable environment which is fairly easy to do in this city as long as I don't think too far outside the box.
Spring is upon us, with summer to follow. These are the prime houseguest months for the spring and summer breaks, so gird up your loins and get ready to rumble. It's tourist season, baby!
That being said, there are places in town that are always crowd pleasers. I'll not bother mentioning Alcatraz because your guests will anyway. The same goes for Lombard Street.
You may be bored to tears; but, if your guests are between the ages of 8-85, are not hipsters and have never been to San Francisco before, these places are probably perfect for them (unless they are foodies, of course, but that's for a different post). Some of the places are downtown because, hopefully, your guests are staying in a hotel and not with you.
These spots have been selected for their views, unique locations and proximity to San Francisco tourist attractions. They all have large menus and/or a variety of options which is particularly important if, and this is often the case, your guests food preferences are not immediately known to you (if, however, you know someone is vegetarian and likes Indian Food, you don't need me to recommend Dosa). These options are all tried and true with mid-range concepts and prices but by all means do take them to your favorite joints, too. Just don't ask them to eat sweetbread gratin, braised beef tendon and tripe stew unless they are offal enthusiasts.
Some of the restaurants have food that is fairly mediocre or just o.k. (meaning uninspiring & average; not bad tasting or inedible) but they are good in a pinch, have great locations and will not terrify your mid-western guests. Coi, Orson or even Spruce would be too intimidating for many of them. Remember this post is for a non-foodie, middle American demographic. I have successfully entertained many non-foodie baby boomer and depression era relatives with these options. What that actually says about me is too terrifying to contemplate, so we'll move on.
Here are some of my recommendations and the links to their websites in no particular order of preference:
- Cheesecake Factory: Huge menu, chain restaurant with edible food good for kids, views of Union Square with outdoor seating (killer wait at peak times; not good for the impatient)
- Cliff House: Huge menu, edible food that's especially good for breakfast, views of the Pacific Ocean, &, sometimes, surfer dudes
- Izzy's Steakhouse: Huge portions, edible food with Izzy's cheesy potatoes always a good side , views of Marina Yuppies
- Fog City Diner: Huge booths, edible food, site of an '80's Visa commercial
- Il Fornaio: Huge Italian menu, edible food for a chain, views of Levi Plaza with an outdoor garden room
- In-N-Out Burger: For better or worse, it's become synonymous with California if your guests are of a certain age (under 20) & it's on Fisherman's Wharf, you'll be killing two birds with one stone. Be sure to visit the sea lions on Pier 39 and pass by the "Bush Man" if you want to give your mother-in-law a coronary incident.
- Mamacita: Likely to be one of the only restaurants you'll really love on the list, huge pitchers of Margaritas, great Mexican food and so loud you'll never hear your stepmother complain about the noise, the spicy food or anything else. Every Eastcoaster I know wants to try "real" Mexican food. This will satisfy their Mexican jones & finally give you something yummy too.
- Waterbar: Amazing views, pretty room, good service. Excellent classic seafood restaurant to take the parents or in-laws. Few palates will be displeased. The food is fresh, simple and straight forward and they'll get a kick out of all the little Kuleto flourishes like the floor to ceiling aquarium columns.
- The Rotunda at Neiman Marcus: Ladies who shop lunch place; food underwhelming but solid classic American. The amuse of chicken consomme & fresh hot popovers with strawberry butter are bound to please mom or auntie. They always love that stained glass dome, too.
- Yank Sing: Dim Sum is always a fun experience for newbies and Yank Sing has a huge variety of it. It's off Market but you could still incorporate a jaunt through Union Square to Chinatown to walk off the calories. They'll be too tired from food and walking to hang around Chinatown shops for too long and you can check another thing off the list.
- Sam's Anchor Cafe: Every tour of San Francisco winds up with a drive over the Golden Gate Bridge. Keep on going until you get to Tiburon & drive to Blackie's Pasture, park the car, take a look at the bronzed Blackie (a horse) and walk to Sam's if your guests are energetic. It's a beautiful walk & Sam's has great outdoor seating on the Marina with stellar views and decent chow. Then you can avoid all those silly shops in Sausalito that guests spend hours traipsing through but never buy anything from.
- Japanese Tea Garden: Unfortunately, it's the rare mother-in-law that really enjoys sushi beyond a California roll. To let them experience a little of the Japanese culture in the city, take them instead into Golden Gate Park for tea at the Japanese Tea Garden. It's quiet, pretty and reflective and allows you to drive through the lovely park. Combine it with a trip to the DeYoung Museum and don't forget to show them where the buffalo roam. If they do like sushi then take them to your favorite place but avoid the tatami mat seating if you go to Ebisu unless your guests are young and flexible.
- Ben & Jerry's: There are scores of better ice cream shops in the city but none of them are on the historic corner of Haight and Ashbury Streets. This is not about you. Out of town baby boomers and their kiddies will love to get their scoop of Wavy Gravy or Cherry Garcia from there. So suck it up, go and walk around the Haight. It's fun!
- Ghirardelli Square/Westfield San Francisco Centre combo: No trip to San Francisco is complete without a cable car ride. It's an integral part of the original San Francisco treat, Rice A Roni, "that flavor can't be beat..." Here's my recommendation, start at Ghiradelli Square in the late morning, walk around, avoid the lines for eating in Ghirardelli's Ice Cream Shop but let them browse if they insist & suggest a Kara's cupcake instead since you'll be eating lunch soon, go to Aquatic Park watch those crazy swimmers splash around in 52 degree water, brave the lines for the cable car with your trusty cupcake in hand to help you get through the wait, ride the cable car to the end of the line. Get off and go across Market to the Westfield. Let everyone gawk at the homeless & the looneys in disbelief (hopefully that Asian guy, Frank Chu, with the sandwich board is out there predicting the end of civilization). Enter the Westfield & let the roaming begin. Walk through Bristol Farms. Maybe you can catch a movie? Maybe you can eat lunch at Out the Door or one of the other many higher end food court spots. There's something for everyone to buy or eat.
- San Francisco Ferry Building: Farmer's Market days are especially fun but anytime is a good time to go to this historic Embarcadero building. Food options are endless with MarketBar and Mijitas being the easiest to get tables for; but, Taylor's Automatic Refresher, Boulette's Larder, Hog Island Oyster Bar and , of course, The Slanted Door (you'll really need a reservation if you want to eat there) are all there; among others. It's a great place for a quick snack, too with all the chocolate shops (Michael Recchiuti, yaay!), gelato, caviar, sausages on a stick, Acme Breads, Lulu's Sandwiches, Cowgirl Creamery, Starbucks, that little tea shop, wine bar etc, etc. Hell, you can even hop a ferry ride on a bay cruise, to Tiburon or to Sausalito.
- Exploratorium: great for children of all ages located in the beautiful Palace of the Fine Arts. Tons of hands on exhibits and experiments. The tactile dome, if it's still an exhibit, is quite an experience but not recommended for claustrophobics.
- Giant's Stadium: Last I heard it was Pac Bell Park but I haven't been there since last season, so it may have changed names & ownership by now. (It might be AT&T Park this year?) Whatever the name, it's still visually arresting and very intimate in scale for a stadium; if you can get tickets for your guests, do. Just remind them to dress warmly. Even a sunny day is chilly there. It's still worth a trip even if you just drive by.
- Presidio Social Club: The food is not cutting edge, half the time it's no better than what you can get at the prepared food section at Whole Foods; but, the portions are generous, the atmosphere is vibrant, the tables are huge and the desserts (as well as the cocktails) are very good. Best of all it was an old army barracks, it has parking and it's in a park-like setting. Scratch that, it is in a National park , the Presidio. Most out-of towners will feel at home with the Retro-American comfort food and will be impressed by the unique setting.
- Sociale: The setting is pretty, the food is unintimidating, upscale rustic Italian. The neighborhood will be a nice relief from the cacophonous, bustling downtown area; offering your mom and dad a different view of San Francisco.
- Zuni Cafe: Judy Rodgers' famed eatery is a classic American diner with a little French twist. It will keep everyone in their comfort zone & you can buy your aunt the cookbook as a parting gift. Try to include a trip over to the landmark Castro Theatre & catch a revival. It's beautiful, it's in a famed part of town & chances are your guests will have some great story about what they observed in that part of Gay Old San Francisco to take back to Wichita Falls with them.