by Frank Dunnigan
Tourism has been a growing business in San Francisco ever since the Midwinter Fair of 1894 lured visitors to the temperate climate and scenic attractions in Golden Gate Park and nearby areas. Most people who visit today will end up seeing the usual tourist spots the city has to offer—Fisherman’s Wharf, Chinatown, cable cars and Lombard Street—but when you want to show off the beauty and charm of San Francisco a bit closer to home, keep in mind that there’s plenty to see and do in the western half of town.
While the following handy guide is useful for first-time visitors, it is also highly suitable for returning natives who savor a taste of home but who are not sure where to start. This tour incorporates the best of the past, with a nod to what’s gone, and with some dazzling examples of what’s new.
Start by booking a room at the Ocean Park Motel at 46th Avenue and Wawona Street. It’s as old as the Golden Gate Bridge, having opened the same year, and the large art deco-style rooms may well remind many former San Francisco residents of the living rooms, bedrooms, and bathrooms that they remember from the past. It’s an easy walk from there to the Zoo (free admission to San Francisco residents one day each month, so plan to play host to your out-of-town guests—free dates posted on the Zoo’s website).
Although a car is handy for some of these adventures, the L-Taraval streetcar boards right at the motel’s corner to whisk visitors away on a day’s journey and then re-deposit them back to their rooms at night. At least once during a visit, ride all the way to the end of the line and then take the F-Market back up Market Street again, taking in all the sights—particularly the corner lots from Castro Street all the way to Octavia Street, many of which are now sprouting new apartment/condo buildings where there were once corner gas stations. With a transfer in hand, you might jump off for a visit to the classic old Tennessee Grill at 22nd Avenue or the newer Copper Kettle Irish Café at 33rd Avenue, and then hop back on the streetcar to your final destination.
John’s Ocean Beach Café, a popular beach dining spot since the early 1980s, and just around the corner from the Ocean Park, is closing for demolition of the block housing the old Roberts at the Beach Motel (John’s will return as a ground floor tenant in the new condo building that will soon rise on the site), so if you are not taking a streetcar ride, then you might want to drive to the foot of Noriega Street for a bit of breakfast at Devil’s Teeth (nothing satanic—just an old term for the Farallon Islands) Baking Company. Sit in the small “parklet” in front of the store, sip your piping hot coffee and enjoy a breakfast sandwich, “donut muffin,” or brownie. If the atmospheric conditions are right, the fog will begin to clear, and a glorious sunshine-filled day will be your cue to move on to the next step of your travel adventure.
Drive east on Noriega and then turn north on 34th Avenue to Lawton and explore the blocks between 33rd and 36th Avenues for the large number of classically built Rousseau homes that stand out like gems amongst their neighbors. Although Henry Doelger was the most prolific builder in the Sunset District, Oliver Rousseau homes still have a certain cachet that sets them apart more than 75 years after construction.
From there, drive west on Kirkham to the Great Highway, and then north past the tip of Golden Gate Park, where you will want to stop in to admire the murals, mosaics, and architectural detailing of Beach Chalet. Continuing north, try to recall the sights and smells of Playland-at-the-Beach (Laughing Sal, merry-go-round music, pink popcorn, and the enchilada sauce served at The Hot House), all gone since 1972. Go past the Cliff House, which is one of the oldest local restaurants around, serving food, drink, and views since 1863—though now operating out of a blandly restored building, courtesy of the National Park Service. Next visit the ruins of the classic old Sutro’s (1896-1966), with a stop at the new Lands End Visitor Center, which has an excellent selection of San Francisco-themed books. Louis’ Restaurant, a family-owned enterprise since 1937, still dispenses great meals with a view (be aware, though—they accept CASH only). If you are lucky, their long-time sweetheart of a waitress, Rosie, now retired, may be making one of her occasional return visits. Stroll through Sutro Heights Park and imagine the oceanfront mansion that survived the earthquake and fire of 1906 only to be torn down by the City in 1939. Know that the Seal Rock Inn across the street is home to another great little breakfast-lunch spot.
Then head to Mrs. Spreckels’ glorious Palace of the Legion of Honor and its spectacular views—both indoors and out. Sadly, El Camino del Mar has been a dead-end street from Point Lobos Avenue since about 1957 or so, otherwise that route to the museum would be a required drive for visitors and natives alike. Admission at the Legion of Honor is free to all on the first Tuesday of each month and also to active-duty military personnel each year on Veteran’s Day. In addition to priceless works of art, there are also clean and fully accessible restrooms on the premises. The nearby VA Hospital cafeteria, located on the ground floor of Building 7 at Fort Miley, is open to the public during weekday business hours and offers a spectacular glass-walled view of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Marin Headlands while dining.
Stop and admire the ongoing tiled steps project in Lincoln Park (built by the same artist who has created many other tiled stairways—see Streetwise: Stairway to the Stars) before heading to Balboa Street to see what’s playing at the classic neighborhood Balboa Theatre. Take note of the mosaic signs marking the shopping area, as well as the new planters and street furniture designed to make strolling a bit more pleasant. From there, head north into the Presidio by the Lincoln Boulevard entrance near 25th Avenue. Stop in at the restored Officers’ Club and Visitor Center—containing part of an old adobe wall going back to the 1700s—though the club is certainly not the oldest “building” in town, no matter what some people say.
Continue on to Crissy Field for a walk through a marvelously restored wetlands area, and relax with a beverage (cool or warm, depending on weather conditions) at The Warming Hut, while admiring the natural beauty of the area. Exit the Presidio by the Arguello Gate and drive to Temple Emanu-El at the corner of Lake Street. Ten-minute “drop-in” tours are available, based on staffing, or visitors can call ahead for an appointment. The timeless courtyard and massive domed sanctuary, dominated by stained glass windows, are all classic architectural design.
From there, head to Clement Street for window shopping and dim sum delicacies at one of many restaurants, or if it is a bit later in the day, drive farther west to the ever-popular Bill’s Place near 24th Avenue for a burgers-fries-milkshake meal in the Zen-like tranquil rear garden that has been delighting locals for more than 40 years.
Venture to Golden Gate Park and drive by the Portals of the Past—the salvaged entranceway of a Nob Hill mansion that was destroyed in 1906—San Francisco’s singular, subtle monument to that disaster. Then walk off lunch with a stroll through the Music Concourse and the de Young Museum. Although the museum charges a $10 admission fee except for first Tuesdays, access to the gift shop, café, (plus restrooms) and observation tower are free. The adjacent California Academy of Sciences building (including the Steinhart Aquarium, Morrison Planetarium, and the Natural History Museum) carries a hefty adult admission of $34.95 and is truly an all-day affair. As you head east along John F. Kennedy Drive, give a nod to the gorgeous wedding cake of a building that houses the Conservatory of Flowers, a spot that has been delighting park visitors since 1878.
Exit the park on Arguello, noting the Clarke Gate, the ornate twin pillars at the corner of Arguello and Fulton Street, installed exactly 100 years ago. Circle the nearby University of San Francisco campus, checking out the views in all directions, and step into 101-year-old St. Ignatius Church for a moment of quiet reflection and admire the stunning architecture and stained glass windows. From there, head to the top of Twin Peaks for a daytime or evening overview of the city as it converges on Market Street. From there, take Portola Drive westward, and meander through the neighborhoods of Forest Hill and St. Francis Wood to get a feel for the “residential park” architecture that was first being developed here nearly 100 years ago by designers like Julia Morgan and Bernard Maybeck.
Take a stroll down West Portal Avenue and admire the village-like atmosphere of a neighborhood shopping street that still has everything from a hardware store to a shoe repair shop, books to jewelry to clothing, all nestled amid a variety of eateries that offer cuisines from around the globe. Meander west on Vicente to 19th Avenue and take note of the drought-tolerant plantings that have been installed on the center divide and the construction project at Larsen Park playground, where a replica of those old fighter jets from the 1950s and 1960s will soon be placed to delight new generations of children. If it happens to be a summer Sunday afternoon, be sure to drop in at nearby Sigmund Stern Grove for the free summer concert series and relax in the shaded glen, enjoying the smell of eucalyptus.
At the end of your day, head out Sloat Boulevard to the ocean, taking in the magnificent views, then turn left and follow the narrowing road (gradually being eroded by the waves) to Lake Merced Boulevard. Veer a little south to Daly City and check out the reconstruction project at Joe’s of Westlake—now known in its architectural remodeling drawings as “Original Joe’s-Westlake.” From 1956 until its closure in January 2014, you had to fight the locals for a table as early as 4:00 p.m. when the shift from lunch to dinner service began. Specifics are hard to come by, but it is said to be reopening sometime in 2015. Enjoy a month’s worth of vitamins with a bowl of their minestrone.
Then head back north on Lake Merced Boulevard as it passes between the Harding Park Golf Course and the iconic apartment community of Parkmerced, built by Metropolitan Life Insurance before World War II (with eleven tower buildings constructed after the war). Take a good look, as Parkmerced is about to embark on a massive renovation/expansion program which will result in a complete transformation of the community—from 3,200 units to nearly 9,000 units—by demolishing the original garden apartments and replacing them with a variety of higher-density mid- and high-rise towers. Plans include the addition of office and commercial spaces, more greenbelts, and a re-routing of the M-Oceanview streetcar line through the development, with a transit link to Daly City BART. Ground-breaking for this massive 20-year project is set for the fall of 2015.
Head north onto Sunset Boulevard (hopefully, the city will have figured out a permanent solution to the dead/dying lawns by the time of your visit) and take the Sloat overpass—a marvelous WPA engineering project from the early 1930s, though devoid of its original light fixtures—west to the Ocean Park.
Gradually approach your starting point as the fog drifts in, and a restored Doggie Diner dachshund head (a relic from the 1960s fast-food chain) will smile down at you benevolently from its permanent perch on the center divide of Sloat Boulevard—a reassuring sign that you are indeed back home in our beloved western neighborhoods.
Contribute your own stories about western neighborhoods places!
Page launched 8 March 2015.