SAN FRANCISCO – “Home to Both Sommeliers and Somalians”

It’s Spring Break and we’re homeless! It’s time to wander again…

One of the perks of living in a tourist town is the ability to rent out one’s home. It always surprises me how much people are willing to pay to stay in Coronado…much more than I am willing to spend on our vacations. But, hey…works for us! Not only does it pay for our vacation, but it leaves a little bonus for our bank account.

DESTINATION: San Francisco! One of our favorite cities…eliciting minimal complaints from our pre-teen and teenager.

DAYS 1 & 2

El Cordova Hotel Coronado California

El Cordova Hotel (Coronado)

The first few days of our vacation we played tourist in our own town – at least I did. The kids had a couple more days of school and Lance had a couple more days of work. I had a couple of days to enjoy Coronado…

Our temporary home was the El Cordova Hotel, right across from the Hotel Del Coronado, but at half the price. Love this place…it’s the perfect fit for us. A quaint boutique hotel with brightly colored Spanish decor, a welcoming courtyard complete with trickling fountain, and a small pool and spa. We could walk everywhere and there was just enough room for all of us in our one-bedroom suite. I never did set foot in the kitchen…I am on vacation after all.

DAY 3

To further cushion our bank account, it would be a road trip to San Francisco. We tried to time our departure to avoid Los Angeles traffic, but that’s asking for a miracle. We got jammed. Thank you, L.A., for that hour of obligatory sight-seeing…stunning graffiti, interesting freeway-frontage real estate, that soft tan hue to the sky, and such a fresh smell. The rest of the drive was uneventful, which on Interstate 5 is a good thing. It was almost scary how quiet the kids were…not a peep almost the entire eight hours. The person who invented Benadryl has earned a special place in Heaven…

Interstate 80 becomes a parking lot at peak commuting hour. The person who posted the traffic delay alert (one hour vs. 15 minutes) on the sign before the last off-ramp also earned a special place in Heaven. All of our stomachs were rumbling and I knew I had to act fast to avoid a serious group breakdown. There are a lot of people earning post-life perks…I add the inventors of the Droid and the mobile Yelp app to my growing list. I was able to find a 4-star restaurant just in time for Lance to veer off the freeway and head into Emeryville. We never did find Wally’s, but we did “settle” for sushi at Miyozen. Good food tastes even better when you’ve narrowly averted disaster, making this particular meal quite outstanding. I would have to conclude that the conveyor belt is one of the most brilliant restaurant sales strategies…starving people tend to be impulsive and kids (even big ones) love the novelty of grabbing little colored plates off of a moving track no matter what they contain. Definitely not the cheapest meal we’d ever eaten…

Beresford Arms Hotel Union Square San Francisco California

Beresford Arms Hotel (Union Square)

When we re-entered I-80, it was totally clear…15 minutes later we arrived at the Beresford Arms Hotel near Union Square. It was just as described by fellow Yelpers…great location, a tad tired, but one of the best deals in the city. Our room was a former one-bedroom apartment – with a full kitchen, a Murphy bed, two TVs, and a huge bathroom with a jet tub. All for $199/night! We were unpacked in minutes…

DAY 4

So apparently one reason the hotel is priced so well is to compensate for some seriously clanky radiators! I swear that there was a sadistic handyman with a sledgehammer in the crawl space beneath our room…all night long. The rest of the noise was courtesy of the “hood”. I took inventory – one crazed woman screaming “You wanna f*ck me in the a*s??? Is that what you wanna do???” for a good 15 minutes (I was seriously hoping the kids were in REM sleep!), at least six full blown police, fire and EMT incidents, several muffler-challenged motorcycles, and a group of Friday night revelers sharing their joy. Thank God we’re not early risers…

OK, so Lance is an early riser…no matter how tired he is, he’s up with the sun. This morning the kids and I benefitted…he scoped out a great breakfast place just up the street. He channeled Yelp…Honey Honey had 4 stars. Everyone was thrilled to feast on dessert crepes for breakfast – usually involving Nutella – before we morphed into tourists.

Chinatown San Francisco California

Entrance to Chinatown

Today was our three-hour walking tour of Chinatown. The kids looked at me like I had totally lost it. I know I had said “No more tours.”, but I had done some serious homework and was confident this one was going to pass the Dore family test…plus, it ended with a dim sum lunch, so there was always that. I knew I was screwed when we met up with our group in front of St. Mary’s (the first Catholic cathedral on the West Coast). First of all, our guide was most definitely not Asian (where was Linda Lee…the woman who grew up here that was mentioned in all the 5-star reviews???). Second, two of the other families (from the Midwest…or, maybe Appalachia?) with five young bedraggled children between them looked around them like they had just been plopped down on another planet. I tried to dodge the glares from my kids. Over the next two hours we visited every single place I had already read about in my guide book – and listened to the identical stories. As I mourned the loss of $160, I assured my kids that this really would be our very last tour. (I don’t think they believed me.) Maybe Sophie’s good fortune from the Tin How temple (“Travel is good and all lost things will be found.”) would end up ensuring that we got our money’s worth. And, Lance was convinced that his donation of a few bucks to the toothless Asian “goddess” holding out a metal cup would buy him some seriously good karma. We’ll see. There were definitely some priceless moments…the gamblers in Portsmouth Park, the funeral procession complete with marching band, the small parade compliments of one of the benevolent family association, and the facial expressions on the Midwesterners while eating (or merely inspecting) the dim sum. After the tour ended, we went in search of The Natural Tea Shop, where I hoped to find some top quality Jasmine tea. We found the place tucked around a corner and were treated to a demonstration of the “art” of tea brewing and a tasting of several different varieties of tea. I should have listened to my gut and walked out tea-less when the clerk told me the grand total…but, instead I left with $65 less in my bank account. Oh well, I guess the “art” and tasting weren’t really free after all.

Chinatown San Francisco California

Spencer walking in Chinatown…

I was cramming a lot into this day as the forecast for the next two days included a fair amount of rain. My plan for the afternoon was to take a row boat out on Stow Lake in Golden Gate Park. The problem is that we arrived an hour after they closed! Our consolation prize was one “trike” (for the pre-teen), one quad (for the teen), and one very embarrassing two-seater surrey (for two formerly cool parents). Yes, it was pricey, but we were buying fun (and my reputation back), so it was worth every penny. I particularly enjoyed it when we “elderly” parents kicked some youthful butt pedaling back up the hill the kids were so thrilled to race down at the start of our ride. When we were returning our “vehicles”, Lance turned to me and asked “Do you remember when I asked if you heard that noise?” Ummm…yes (we had both chalked it up to some weird noise specific to surreys). He cursed…that noise was his prescription Armani eyeglasses hitting the pavement. Sophie screeched…”My fortune…all lost things WILL be found!” We hopped in the Jeep and retraced our ride with kids hanging out car windows and all eyes on the road for one small pair of brown glasses. No luck. Sophie was not convinced…in her 11 year old world, fortunes are never wrong. We sent Spencer back to the surrey to see if maybe they were hanging onto the frame. The bike guy saw him and asked “Is this what you’re looking for?” Confucius say…”A couple of bucks buys a lot of good karma.”

My brothers came – up from Monterey and over from Moss Beach – to have dinner with us at Park Chow (Spencer still hadn’t forgotten the baked artichoke he ate there a couple of years ago and had begged us to return). Thank God we had the sense to make reservations because the place was jammed. Other than the removal of muddled strawberry lemonade from the menu (reserved for summer), the place was just as we remembered…I even unknowingly ordered the same thing and it was just as delicious as it was two years ago.

Golden Gate Park San Francisco California

Golden Gate Park

On the drive back to the hotel, I was fantasizing about a hot bath. Lance fulfilled his own fantasy and ventured into one of the city’s best wine bars (The Hidden Vine inside the Hotel Fitzgerald), which happened to be right across the street. The kids plugged into the TV and the Nintendo DS. Everyone was at peace…

DAY 5

It was Easter Sunday…and, the bunny found us! I was reminded that as mature as the kids act (most of the time), they are definitely not yet grown. We were all thrilled that Honey Honey was open so we could devour more crepes. During breakfast, Lance told me about the excellent “sommelier” at The Hidden Vine giving me the perfect opportunity to share my well-developed intellect with my children. When Spencer asked what that was, I stated with far too much confidence that she must have been from Somalia. Lance doesn’t get very many opportunities to mock me, so I let him go for it…I kind of enjoyed a good laugh myself. (For those who were in my previous state of darkness, a “sommelier” is a wine expert…and, they can live anywhere.)

Sculpture in Hayes Valley San Francisco California

Art in Hayes Valley

Unfortunately, the weather forecasters were correct and rain was hovering on the horizon. Fortunately, our plans for the day were a good fit for a rainy day…the kids would be staying dry in the room (glued to the TV and the DS) while Lance and I ventured out – umbrellas in hand – for a gourmet food tour of Hayes Valley. Yes, another (pre-planned) tour…and, I was worried. Especially since it was Easter Sunday…I hadn’t heard from them and wasn’t entirely sure a tour guide would even show up. Avital, our Jewish guide, met up with us (and another young couple) to take us on a wet walk to taste a bit of Hayes Valley’s culinary offerings – miniature cupcakes at Delessio’s, tea and chevre-stuffed dates at Samovar, the city’s best French fries (and a crepe) at Frjtz, real French-style macarons at Paulette, shopping for sake at True Sake, artisan cheeses at Arlequin, and a spicy rum cocktail at Smuggler’s Cove (AKA “Pirates of the Caribbean for Adults”). Okay, so food tours rock! And, Avital was the perfect guide…telling us stories and feeding us bits of food trivia at each stop. It was in front of True Sake that yesterday’s vocabulary lesson would prove its worth – and call forth more laughter. When Avital described the owner as a “sommelier”, I immediately grasped that the woman was not from Somalia! We had another chuckle on our walk home when a grungy homeless guy shared his deep appreciation about the “color coordination” and “juxtaposition” of our umbrellas – with the entire block. Even the homeless people are cultured in San Francisco…

Love in Union Square

We felt kind of bad for the kids who had been holed up in the room all day eating string cheese and goldfish while we gorged ourselves on some of the city’s best food. Lance treated Sophie to a gourmet 6” from Subway and Spencer to some Thai food. Then, we all hopped in the car and headed to the Century SF Centre 9 Theaters for some 3D Alice in Wonderland. (Favorite line…said the Mad Hatter to Alice: “You used to be much more…‘muchier.’ You’ve lost your muchness.” Yep…it’s all about “muchness”.) All exhausted – and some even grumpy – we fell into our beds when we got back to our home away from home.

DAY 6

We tried to break our Honey Honey habit today, but our alternative fix chose this day to be closed. So, it was back for more crack (oops, I mean crepes!) one last time. After breakfast, we hit the pavement and walked toward the Cartoon Museum in SoMa. Strike Two…closed again (this is what happens when you relinquish control). I couldn’t be disappointed too long because the weather was looking up and, although pretty cold, it was nice to be outside. Lance wanted to show us the Ferry Building Marketplace knowing how much I love New York’s Grand Central Market. Oh, how right he was…this place is great! Smaller than New York’s amazing market, but with the same feel, it was filled with gourmet treats, fresh flowers, artisan wares, and more. Such a better place to eat than at the traps down at Fisherman’s Wharfor Pier 39 where we were headed next. We grabbed some lasagna, a BBQ beef sandwich, and a salad at the Golden Gate Meat Company and headed for the back deck for some killer views. We had to defend ourselves against Hitchcock’s birds, but it was worth it.

Aqua art outside the Ferry Landing Marketplace

The cure for one complaining over-walked daughter is a cuddle inside dad’s jacket and a ride on one of the city’s old-fashioned trolleys…all the way to Pier 39. Two minutes later, we hopped off at the pier and immediately went in search of Magowan’s Infinite Mirror Maze. Five minutes – and $20 – later, we were lost inside the maze. The kids were stoked – and, so was I – to get a taste of some local flavor and reinstate my travel prowess. (Of course, I didn’t receive any compliments for this great find to balance out all the complaining…I just have to absorb them from the smiles on their faces.) The owner lets you wander through the maze as many times as you desire, which we took full advantage of…I bowed out when the motion sickness kicked in. I have no doubt that if you ask our kids what their favorite part of the trip was, it would be Magowan’s Infinite Mirror Maze.

Inside Magowan’s Infinite Mirror Maze

We cruised around Pier 39, never staying put in one spot long enough to get trapped. This is definitely tourist central…not a local in sight. The sea lions were cute – but fragrant. There were a couple decent stores. Since Ghirardelli Square was right up the street, we decided to run through there as well. When I saw a gourmet cupcake place (Kara’s Cupcakes), I steered the kids there so I could introduce them to a “real” cupcake. Unfortunately, these were nothing like Delessio’s…pretty much a waste of $10. Lance got much more for his $10 at the Wattle Creek Winery tasting room next door. I have to give the “sommelier” (!) major credit for doing his best to turn me onto wine…and major thanks for the free tastes. He tried…but, it’s hopeless. I’m a confirmed rum drinker…and, only then, in combination with a significant amounts of fruit juice. We couldn’t leave here without tasting some chocolate, so we stopped off for a latte and hot chocolates at one of Ghirardelli’s shops. Definitely Heavenly, but not worth an extended journey to the square.

We knew better than to eat anywhere in this tourist-infested area without consulting Yelp first. It steered us to the Buena Vista Cafe, the home of the first Irish Coffee in the states…and sporting a 4-star rating. This placed opened in the early 1900’s, and is still slamming out the coffees. Our well seasoned grandmotherly waitress looked like she’d been here for awhile…she confirmed that she’s been serving up meals here for the past 20 years. This place could get by solely on tourist traffic, but it serves up a decent meal to both tourists and locals. Lance said there’s a reason they win contests…it was the best Irish Coffee he’s ever had.

Ghirardelli Square San Francisco California

Ghirardelli Square – Home to Chocolate!

It was time to head back to Pier 33 for our night tour of Alcatraz. Along the way, we stopped off at The Spy Shop where Spencer thought he’d died and gone to Heaven. Explosive Diarrhea Serum? Audio devices that make people nauseous? And, Lance denied him each and every one…I think he’ll pay for that for a long time.

We entered the cattle line at Pier 33 at about 5:30 p.m. A cold ferry ride – and a colder guided walk into the prison – with two very tired kids was making me wonder if I made the right decision about this whole night time thing. The dirty looks were starting again. Fortunately, we were set free after only 15 minutes and wandered around with our headphones while listening to the story of Alcatraz as told by former guards and prisoners. I was crossing my fingers that the kids would not slam me at the end. I was a bit disgruntled at the end of the tour when I came to the board listing the special tours (a perk of the night-time tour) and found out that we would only have time to catch the first one if we wanted to be on the first ferry back to the mainland. I knew there was no way I was going to convince anyone – even myself – to stay for the second ferry two hours later. The guy standing by the board said the first tour was a lot of repeat anyways, so we headed for the little room off the gift shop where we sat on a hard bench or a concrete floor for the next 45 minutes. A big thank you to the shuttle guy waiting outside of Pier 33 for all the tourists filing off the ferry…he took us right to our door in less than 15 minutes.

Alcatraz San Francisco California

Alcatraz

DAY 7

I didn’t get much argument about trying a new place for breakfast this morning. Yelp directed me right across the street to the 5-star rated farm:table. How had we missed it??? When we got there, I knew why…there wasn’t much to farm:table than the single communal wood table inside. Talk about local flavor…this place was awesome! Serving a small selection of baked goods, the BEST coffee (and loose tea), and three rotating breakfast dishes (a cereal, a toast, and an egg dish), this is just the kind of place I adore. Two people excelling at a few selected creations and serving them very personally to lots of happy customers. For us, that meant a delicious breakfast and a full table, so we got our order to go and went back to our hotel lobby to savor our morning meal.

I was extra hopeful about today’s plans. It was Hippie Day – and we were going to explore the Haight-Ashbury district. We arrived to one pissed off hippie screaming at a Christian missionary preaching hellfire and damnation on the street corner…“THIS IS WHERE I HANG OUT…I DON’T WANT TO HEAR YOUR CRAP HERE!!!” Ahhh…just the kind of scene that makes this place so interesting. We were all hungry and looking forward to today’s lunch…Caribbean fare at Cha Cha Cha. We gorged on plantains with black beans and sour cream, a roasted pepper and chevre sandwich, a flank steak sandwich, and a chicken quesadilla. Excellent. After lunch I started counting smoke shops…and shopping, of course. There were even enough eclectic shops to keep the guys engaged – especially Loved to Death, which was filled with stuffed dead animals, faux shrunken heads, bone jewelry, and all sorts of things to ponder. At the end of one side of Haight Street, I dragged the kids (Lance came very willingly) up a staircase into a lush wooded park until we peeked the sweeping views of the city…then, it was back to shopping the other side of the street until we reached the car.

Victorian houses Haight Ashbury San Francisco California

The colorful Victorians of Haight-Ashbury

We had just enough time to make a quick little detour before dinner…to Seward Mini-Park tucked away in a neighborhood just a few minutes away. We were in search of slides…and, maybe the Seward Street Witch (who yells at people going down said slides). The slides were a bit smaller than we had envisioned, and the park smelled strangely of vinegar, but we enjoyed zooming down the seriously fast slides several times. We never did meet the witch…I guess we were just too quiet. Darn.

Before heading to the renowned Zuni Cafe for dinner, I insisted on another mini-field trip (across the street) back to Delessio’s for some REAL cupcakes. I was beginning to salivate as I walked in the door in search of some salted chocolate treasures…my anticipation quickly turned to horror when I couldn’t find a single cupcake! I think the guy behind the counter sensed my panic (probably due to my involuntary facial expression) and asked me what flavors I was looking for…I could barely stand still as he disappeared into the back room. He returned with a single salted chocolate cupcake. We had a family dilemma on our hands..let’s just say that Lance and the kids got some delicious peppermint patty, peanut butter & jelly, and cinnamon chocolate consolation prizes…and, everyone was happy.

Dinner at Zuni was very good, but a bit of a letdown based on its stellar reputation. The biggest disappointment was that we were there during the “burger-free” time zone…they stop serving their famous hamburger after lunch and don’t resume again until 10 p.m.! What the heck???

DAY 8

My colorful girl, Sophie!

Today was road trip day…all the way back to San Diego. The most amazing feat of the day? Getting through LA without a single delay…this restored my faith in miracles.

What did I learn this trip?

  • Lesson #1: A “sommelier” is “a trained and knowledgeable wine professional, commonly working in fine restaurants, who specializes in all aspects of wine service as well as wine and food matching” NOT a native of Somalia. (Thank you, Wikipedia!)
  • Lesson #2: From now on, the only tours I will subject myself – and my family – must involve gourmet food (or something else totally unique).
  • Lesson #3: I will shop early for a unique travel book…the standard ones don’t get us far enough off the tourist track.
  • Lesson #4: I love cities – the architecture, the eclectic people, the unbelievable food, the soul. I will always have to have one foot in a city during my lifetime.
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