Big Sur

Driving the Pacific Highway

Day 1 – San Francisco to Monterey

Leave San Francisco with heavy clouds gathering overhead. It won’t be long before they break, chucking their contents down on us.

Our hire car is a Mazda 2. It’s not the sort of car you fantasise about in any context, let alone for one of the world’s top “drives to do before you die” or similar hyperbolic nonsense. It’s actually pretty good although there’s no sat nav. Which will be interesting.

The rain starts before we even reach the sea. At San Gregorio beach people have built driftwood bonfires in anticipation of the weekend’s Halloween festivities. “Poor fuckers,” sympathises Rob. The wood is drenched now and useless.

Santa Cruz beach

Stop at Half Moon Bay where we stand on rocks shiny with water and try to have fun. Take pictures of an interesting house with wood tiling and elaborate gables. A stone angel is built into the roof. “Are you sure that’s an angel? Looks a bit… pagan.”

There’s a sign out front: California Sun Centre for Wellbeing. We beat a swift retreat.

California sun centre for wellbeing

At Santa Cruz we park in a near-flooded lot and dash to the nearest cafe. Clothes beyond sodden. On the plus side, the sandwiches at The Picnic Basket are excellent.

Wander round the damp, deserted boardwalk taking photos of brash signs for cotton candy and tater tots, the latter of which is an entirely new concept to Franki. Brightly coloured fairground rides are backed by endless, billowing grey.

Santa Cruz boardwalk

“It reminds me of a zombie movie,” volunteers Rob. “You know, after they’ve cleared the place out.”

Directly to our left a door slams. Two sets of skins are nearly vacated. It’s just a janitor.

Carrying on towards Monterey it’s Franki’s turn to drive. Six months as a licensed driver but why not? One has to take the bull by the horns.

The rain really gets into its stride now, hammering down on the windscreen, roads slick and treacherous. The grey and green of California’s most famous highway flashes passed, lit occasionally by the oncoming lights of a passing car. Gripping the steering wheel she recites stopping speeds in her head.

Highway 1 California

Arrive in Monterey around 5. Too cold, soggy, and miserable to do much. The town is in a state of costumed revelry. We go for dinner on Cannery Row. The food is plentiful but unremarkable. Somewhere some very poor live music is being inflicted on people. The bars have too much neon in their windows. Suspect this is not the future Steinbeck envisioned.

Cannery Row is like Disneyland for sardine fishing. It is still cold and drizzling.

At a bar in town we are served by Cruella de Vil. A non-specific superhero and an American football player with a bloody bandage round his head elbow their way past us and order two shots of Jagermeister and two Stellas. We go back to the hotel.

Day 2 – Monterey to Morro Bay

It’s still raining. We head out of town towards 17-Mile Drive.

Breakfast at the Monterey Hotel was minimal. Eat bananas on the beach instead. To make a California road trip look like a wet weekend at the British seaside is no mean feat.

17 mile drive

On the saturated sand we snap pictures desolately. The ocean beneath the battleship sky ranges from palest turquoise to dark, brooding, petrol. The sea birds hold out their wings to dry. In vain, it seems.

Around mid-morning blue sky emerges; bright, hopeful patches between the still-dripping branches of the cypress trees. We drive on to Carmel-by-the-sea.

Pristine and perfectly formed, the town calls to mind a high-end ski resort. Everything is elegant and tasteful, everything you need is here. For a price. Also, there are evergreens.

We buy sandwiches in Bruno’s deli which will later be consumed high on the cliffs of Big Sur, overlooking the now glistening ocean.

Bixby bridge

By the time we reach the “historic” Bixby Bridge (built in 1932) the sun is out and the wild lavender that clings to the cliffs either side is fragrant and blooming. Sunglasses are on. Janis Joplin makes her way from Rob’s iPod to the car stereo.

Driving the Pacific Highway

Big Sur is everything they told us. Sweeping curves, precipitous drops, towering redwoods and shimmering cobalt water become our backdrop. Rob’s eyes are on the road but out of the corners he sees green and blue, green and blue. Sunlight flickers through the trees.

At Pfeiffer State Park we walk the path to the waterfall. Once it cut through the rock and dropped straight into the ocean but landslides caused sand to build up. Now it drops onto the beach. Like a natural shower. Like a fairytale grotto on a beach that cannot be accessed.

Pfeiffer State Park waterfall

The elephant seals are just north of Morro Bay. We aren’t expecting them but suddenly there they are, dozens upon dozens, covering the beaches. The name does not mislead: they are huge. Against the sunset a pair play. Or fight.

Morro Bay is delightful. The Sandpiper Inn has bright green paintwork. This is not a criticism. We eat “naked” fish at the The Galley. It’s fantastic. It tastes of fish, a novelty, we’ve found. This country likes its salsas, its marinades, its spice rubs.

Fish eaten, wine drunk. We walk back to the motel, tired and happy.

Day 3 – Morro Bay to Santa Barbara

Time to explore the wine lands. But first: coffee.

Stop at Pismo Beach. Out on the wooden pier we watch the surfers. Fishing rods lean against the wooden rail, their owners reclined in chairs. On the deck a pelican looks on hopefully as a man cleans and de-scales his catch. He is rewarded shortly. The man cuts off the fish head and flicks it in the air. The great sagging beak opens and closes on its prize.

Pismo Beach pier

Inland the picture looks like this, from front to back: road, vineyards, mountains. At Roblar Vineyard in Santa Ynez we eat sourdough pizza and work our way through six different wines. Not Rob, though. He’s driving.

Michael Jackson lived nearby. “Shall we go to Neverland?” Bit creepy. But why not?

The walls outside the front gates – you can’t see the house, it is literally miles away – are covered in the loving graffiti of heart-broken fans. “I miss you, Michael,” “I’ll never forget you,” “Your music was my life.” And this one, succinct but poignant: “I’m bad!” The security guard tells us, “Take as long as you need.” We get back in the car.

Neverland

Solvang is an odd place. A Danish village in Southern California. Quaint chalets – or modern American notions of chalets – house supermarkets and pharmacies. We pass patisseries and delicatessens. There’s a ‘Hamlet Inn’.

Sundown comes at El Capitan State Beach. We clatter along the cobbles trying to capture the light, the colours, on our cameras. Give up and use our eyes instead. Fire blends into water. Sunset over the Pacific. We are as far west as we have ever been.

El Capitan State Beach

Drive into Santa Barbara in the dark. The white streets are almost unreal. It is a concept, surely, this place. An idea someone once had of the perfect beach town. Then they built it all in one go.

We have seafood again. It’s average. We drink overpriced wine in an awful bar with a fire pit. We return to the Agave Inn which has crisp white sheets and colourful Latin American-style blankets.

Day 4 – Santa Barbara to LA

Breakfast is easily the best thing we do today and it’s over by 10.30.

Franki wanted a ‘proper American breakfast’. Jeannines does just that. We won’t need to eat til dinner time.

The highway runs through Malibu. The highway more or less IS Malibu. Houses stack up the hill on one side, beaches on the other. Drive into a canyon and up to a lake. Very beautiful and exclusive with absolutely nothing to do.

Malibu canyon

Rob likes the sound of a ‘lagoon’ so we go to Malibu Lagoon State Beach. Not the kind of lagoon he imagined. It’s a service station for migrating birds. In no way a bad thing. Pelicans, gulls, kingfishers, coots, sandpipers, cormorants, egrets (snowy and otherwise), those ones that drill their whole beaks into the sand.

Malibu Lagoon State Beach

Camarillo is charmless. Go if you like outlet stores and freeways. There is a ‘delighful Old Town’ but it’s next to a freeway and not very old. Maybe it’s old if you’re not from Europe. Maybe it’s delightful if it’s open. It’s not open.

Planned to go to the Getty Villa but we can’t find it. Says it’s in Malibu. We’re almost back in Santa Monica before we spot it. It’s now 5pm. The call of cold beer and a relaxed dinner in Venice is too strong. We drive past. Next time…

Pacific Highway

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San Francisco houses

San Francisco: The Debrief

What we did and what we reckon you should do too…

Eat: Oysters.

Regularly named as one of the world’s top oyster towns, you can’t come to San Francisco without sampling this iconic dish. If you’re anything like me, you tried an oyster aged about 13, decided it tasted of sea water and snot and have refused to touch the things ever since. Trust me: it’s time to have another go.

There are dozens of bars and restaurants vying for the coveted top spot and if you’re interested in trying out more than one, there are some good round-ups HERE and HERE. I’d have loved to do the research for you but I was already on a mission to review every coffee shop in SF so the oysters had to take a back seat. We went to the Hog Island Oyster Co. housed in the old ferry terminal on the Embarcadero where a dozen mixed oysters for $36 (£23) slipped down a treat.

Hog Island Oyster Co

Drink: Coffee.

Were you really expecting us to say anything else? For Franki’s full guide to San Francisco coffee houses, see HERE. A special mention also goes to breakfast cocktails, as detailed in Rob’s recent Booze of the World post. From Bucks Fizz to more potent combinations, we found that no weekend brunch was complete without a cheeky tipple.

Try: Cycling up a hill.

The locals make it look easy but don’t be fooled. We rented bikes for $25 (£16) each a day in order to see the city parks and to cross the Golden Gate Bridge – a thoroughly awe-inspiring experience which we sincerely recommend – but even our supposed ‘flat route’ was chest-clutchingly difficult in parts. I’ll be honest, we got off and pushed more than once.

Cycling San Francisco

It was well worth the effort, though. We picked up our bikes from San Francisco Bike Rentals in the morning and headed straight to the bridge before making our way back, via the Beach Chalet brewery and restaurant at the Pacific end of Golden Gate park where we stopped for lunch. The afternoon was then a leisurely meander back through the park to Haight-Ashbury and the bike shop.

Cycling San Francisco

Buy: Shoes. A MUNI pass.

SF is undoubtedly a good place to buy shoes but on reflection we felt the transport tip was of more use to the general travelling public. A boring one, admittedly but getting a week’s travel card on the MUNI public transport system really opened up San Francisco for us. Seven days costs $29 (£18) and covers all buses, trams (Franki’s personal favourite – see HERE for details) and cable cars. The network is excellent and you really can get to pretty much any part of town – and that’s coming from a Londoner!

And if you do happen to find yourself in a footwear emergency, Haight Street is the place to go.

Do: Familiarise yourself with the local sports team.

We were lucky enough to be in town to see the San Francisco Giants win the World Series. As someone who’s never had more than a passing awareness of baseball, it turned out to be a truly fantastic experience and a privilege to witness. For Rob. who’ll watch pretty much any sport as long as it isn’t American, learning the rules and getting into the strategy of it proved engrossing. Plus, asking about the rules helped endear us to people in bars.

The impromptu street party in Lower Haight:

San Francisco Giants World Series

And in the Mission District:

San Francisco Giants World Series 2014

Don’t: Say no when people offer to pay for your drinks.

I’m not saying this will definitely happen, but on two occasions – TWO – the people we were talking to insisted on buying our drinks. And you know when I say insisted I mean it because we’re British and “oh no, please, you really mustn’t, honestly no, please, don’t be silly, that’s quite unnecessary… [ad infinitum]” is something we don’t tire of easily.

Overall San Francisco was a place where we really witnessed the renowned American friendliness. We met people from New York, Boston, somewhere in Philly (in town for a Pearl Jam gig), a couple who’d just moved to SF from Cambridge, Mass, (envy!) an elderly couple who’d lived in the city all their lives, and countless groovy bartenders, waiting staff and baristas. And most of these seemed genuinely happy to help us out, give us tips, share their own stories and occasionally get the drinks in. As the first stop on a round-the-world tour it was a fantastic lesson in shaking off the characteristic reserve and getting stuck in chatting to people.

Plus it meant we had conversations with people other than each other which can only be a good thing for our sanity.

And not forgetting…

…when a man got on the bus with a live snake in his bag. It started out innocently enough. An odd-looking chap in dirty clothes, a slightly vacant air, and apparently talking to himself under his breath, sat down opposite us on the Number 5. So far, so San Francisco. But then he proceeded to fiddle with the zip of his holdall from which we suddenly realised was protruding a rather long, pale yellow, and distinctly reptilian tail. Next to me Rob, whose one major phobia is snakes, tangibly froze in horror.

Mumbling words to the effect of “better put him back in” the man then proceeded to ineptly stuff the curling lengths into the holdall while fellow passengers looked on, half in fascination, half in mounting terror. Finally he got the thing contained and zipped up but it’s safe to say we couldn’t get off that bus fast enough.

Til next time, friends!

Cycle Golden Gate Bridge

Booze of the World 1: California

In the first instalment of a regular feature I’m oh-so-cleverly calling Booze of the World, here’s a run-down of tremendous tipples and wonderful watering holes from LA to San Francisco.

Californian wine gurus may not want to admit it, but there’s not much they can do that the French haven’t done first.

As a Brit who has holidayed in France, where even a dirt-cheap vin de table can be delicious, it’s going to take something pretty special to measure up to what’s on offer just a short hop across La Manche.

When it comes to beer though, the US can claim to have blazed a trail. The old cliche in the UK is that Americans swig watery Budweiser by the gallon without stopping to taste the stuff, with flavour sacrificed to the greater aim of getting legless. Why else would you drink that swill, right?

But while bearded British ale snobs have been cocking a snook at our American cousins, for the past decade and more they’ve quietly been leading a craft beer revolution. So what’s on offer?

Los Angeles

If we’d stayed longer than three days i’m sure there would have been more bars to tell you about but the casual tourist can’t go wrong with the Venice Ale House, a beachside people-watching venue mentioned in LA: The Debrief.

Still getting used to the novelty of hot sunshine in October, I went for a cooling slow-fermented Alaskan Amber Ale, which proved thirst-quenching and not too hoppy. I instinctively feel like hoppiness is better on rainy cold days, don’t ask me why.

India Pale Ale fan Franki opted for the Stone Ruination, which did the job without being spectacular. To be honest, we were so jet-lagged that our tastebuds weren’t firing on all cylinders just yet.

If you’re in Hollywood, it’s also worth dropping into the Snake Pit Alehouse on Melrose Avenue. It’s fairly short on variety but still stocks some delicious craft beers, albeit nothing that out of the ordinary. On Abbot Kinney Boulevard, pretty much hipster central, there’s a great selection at The Other Room, although i’m always suspicious of any bar so darkly lit that you can’t see your own shoes.

My only regret about drinking in LA (Remember that song? Wasn’t it awful?) is not managing to sip a White Russian at a bowling alley, Big Lebowski style. What can i say Dude, i was out of my element.

San Francisco

This easy-to-love city’s blend of groovy nonchalance and youthful creativity makes for some fine watering holes.

Every bar or pub serves a strong selection of ales and lagers to put the average British pub to shame. I was particularly glad to find plenty of examples of an old favourite of mine from living in Germany – a refreshing Koelsch lager.

Putting beer aside for the moment though (it’s alright, you can pick it up again later) it’s also worth stopping into flavour-of-the-month eatery Nopa. In this ultra-popular spot, a late brunch can be accompanied by some pretty special cocktails.

My poison was a simple and refreshing Montenegro Lime (Amaro montenegro, lime). Franki sipped a Poinsettia (Cranberry juice, Gran Classico, Cava).

Make sure to reserve, or you might find yourself waiting an hour or more for food while sifting through what’s on offer at the bar. Which may not be a bad thing, of course.

Magnolia, on infamous Haight Street, is a pub-brewery-restaurant bearing architectural vestiges of its previous incarnation as a 1920s pharmacy. There are plenty of quality ales here should you need refreshment after wading through the thick cumulo-nimbus clouds of marijuana smoke suffusing original hippie hangout corner Haight-Ashbury. Try the Spud Boy IPA, brewed on site.

By far the highlight of San Francisco (booze-wise) was Monk’s Kettle, the daddy of San Francisco gastroboozers. We happened to visit this spot in the Mission district on the night that San Francisco’s baseball team, the Giants, won the World Series.

We walked straight from a raucous street party (imagine what it would be like if England won the World Cup) into this Mecca for beer-lovers. If such a notion isn’t inherently blasphemous.

The beer menu is so door-stoppingly large it could be serialised in a Sunday newspaper. Browse it here in all its glory.

The Levitation Ale is a smooth-drinking amber that slips down like ambrosia, the crisp Reissdorf Koelsch was a taste of the Rhine-Ruhr, while IPA-lovers should enjoy the Idiot, a well-rounded Double/Imperial offering draft that impresses without trying to do too much in any one aspect.

The knowledgeable waiting staff here are happy to help you choose and tables close to the bar have blackboards and chalk, for tipsy games of hangman. This is where beer lovers who have been extra good go when they die.

Highway 1

We drove from San Francisco back to LA, taking the scenic Highway 1 through beautiful Big Sur, staying in Monterrey, Morro Bay and Santa Barbara.

Special mention should go to The Libertine, a rough-and-ready tavern in the picturesque fishing village of Morro Bay with a wide and rotating selection of rare and local beers. ’48 rotating draft handles’, boasts the website.

But no trip down the Cali coast would be complete without visiting a winery along the way. Perhaps i came across a bit sniffy about Californian wine earlier in this post and that wasn’t fair. Inspired by a bottle of lush, apricotty Viognier from the Victor Hugo Winery (served at the excellent The Galley fish restaurant in Morro Bay), we stopped at the Roblar winery in the Santa Ynez Valley.

We enjoyed a tasting of five wines each, although sadly i was driving in the afternoon and had to donate part of my allocation with heavy heart to Franki. Here’s a picture of me with a heavy heart.

Highlights were a mouth-dominating cherry-noted 2011 Grenache and the 2012 Santa Rita Hills Chardonnay, which offered rich fruit flavours rather than the minerality i usually dislike about this grape. Both went very well with Roblar’s delicious flatbread pizzas. The winery itself is in a peaceful sunny estate that wouldn’t look out of place in the depths of rural Provence, despite being only a stone’s throw from the freeway.

The wining/dining area itself is rather less rustic but stylishly decorated in the manner of an old farmhouse renovated with modernist flair.

The verdict

In our limited experience, California is something of a tippler’s haven, with beer, wine and cocktails to write home about. It’s also hard to get about without driving though, so make sure you have a designated driver or enough greenbacks for a cab/Uber.

Top tipple: Work your way through those local Californian IPAs but i loved the Reissdorf Koelsch.

Gourmet’s choice: 2011 Grenache (14.9%, $32 a bottle), a blend from Roblar and the Camp 4 estate.

Bubbling under: Irish Coffee was supposedly popularised by the Buena Vista Cafe near Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. It’s a creamy treat.

What to slur drunkenly: “Hey careful man, there’s a beverage here!” [The Dude, 1998]

Next stop on Booze of the World: Guatemala

 

Fuck the flat white: An espresso-drinker’s guide to San Francisco coffee

Hi, and welcome to the internet’s billionth blog post about coffee in San Francisco (trust me, I’ve read at least half of them myself so I am aware that this is well-trodden ground). So why am I bothering? Well, I like  coffee. And I like drinking it in nice places. And any city that caters so extensively to that surely bears some further examination.

I wouldn’t by any means call myself a coffee connoisseur. I’m not geeky about it. I just want it to taste good. And to me that means strong. I don’t add milk, water or – heaven forbid – any manner of syrup, sugar, or flavouring.

At a push I will drink cafetiere coffee but I will usually need a ‘proper’ coffee afterwards. I was recently introduced to the Chemex method and although I admit the thing looks sexy, I just can’t get on board with the weak taste. A hazelnut macchiato to me seems more like a pudding than a coffee. Flat whites? Give me a break (actually I didn’t really see an awful of lot white-flatting going on, the trendy coffee here seems to be the “drip” coffee but the title worked better).

That’s not to say, I’m not interested in knowing where the coffee comes from, how it’s farmed, blended and processed. But offering 36 different blends of coffee is wasted on me because if you only do one type of espresso, that’s all I’m going to end up sampling.

So rather than focus too much on what bean blends and vile “coffee creations” a place offers, I’ve endeavoured simply to tell you which places I rated and which I didn’t. I was only in the city for a week so this is by no means an exhaustive report but I hope I’ve covered some decent ground.

So with all that in mind, here is my guide to San Francisco’s coffee scene…

Ritual, 1026 Valencia St

Ritual coffee San Francisco

The look: Airport-chic.

The staff: Cool and aloof.

The espresso: Bitter as hell.

The WiFi: I was too scared to ask.

I know it’s fashionable but I find these big-open-space cafes a bit soulless. I also don’t like it when the bar area takes up most of the room. I know you want to show off your science lab-style brewing and grinding devices but to be honest I’m not all that interested. A few more tables would make this place more buzzing and I wish places would stop thinking long communal tables are the way we want to be seated. I’m from England, I like cosy corners and nooks. And, more crucially, I’m from London so I hate other people. On the plus side, there is a mini garden at the back with cacti in which is the kind of quirky detail I enjoy.

Coffee in San Francisco Rob enjoying the cacti. The coffee, not so much.

 

The Mill, 736 Divisadero St

The Mill San Francisco

The look: So fresh and so clean.

The staff: Effortlessly trendy.

The espresso: Photo-worthy. Otherwise ok.

The WiFi: You’re kidding, right?

I’ll say one thing. It’s lovely and bright in here – all white tiles and sanded wood. As a European I would instinctively call this ‘Scandi’ style but I am assured this is pure San Francisco. Gorgeous but in a slightly intimidating way (as in: I feel like you also have to be gorgeous to go in and I fall quite drastically below par). Another whopping great bar area but it’s at the rear of the shop so doesn’t dominate in the same way. Plus they make bread here so you have to assume they genuinely need the space. Not enough tables for my liking and the airiness wouldn’t inspire you to hunker down for long but perhaps that’s the point.

If I was staying nearby (which I was) I would quite happily swing by this place of a morning. I would probably get take-away though so as not to sully the place.

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The Mill coffee San Francisco

 

 

Matching Half, 1799 McAllister St

Matching Half San Francisco

The look: Eclectic botanical (is that a thing?)

The staff: The first to actually talk to us in a way that extended beyond “what can I get you?”

The espresso: Great. Plus I had a mini-rant about how much disrespect I felt there was in other places for the humble espresso and the barista had the good manners to laugh.

The WiFi: I want to say yes but I actually can’t remember. And I didn’t make notes. I’m the worst blogger ever. It’s ok, you can say it.

Alright, I don’t know what ‘eclectic botanical’ is either but they do have plants in here and outside which instantly gives it more of a ‘local community’ vibe rather than the ‘caffeine warehouse’ look channelled by so many others. It’s small, which I like, there are tables outside, and the staff were super friendly. It was also a bit more cluttered, with an array of artwork and decorations on the walls, countertop cake stands (unusual – see below for more on the subject of cake), and it just generally felt like a place with a bit more character. Ok, I’m going to come right out and say it: this was my favourite. Kind of ruined the suspense, haven’t I? If you’re still interested in hearing about the others, then do by all means read on.

Matching Half coffee shop

 

The Grind, 783 Haight St

The Grind San Francisco

The look: Friendly neighbourhood cafe.

The staff: Friendly (obvs).

The espresso: Good. I was absolutely gagging for one by the time we got here so I pretty much just knocked it back.

The WiFi: Available on weekdays. We sat with our laptops for a good hour without anyone minding (or seeming to mind).

The outside looks trendy but inside it’s just a standard cafe, really. They do quite a lot of food as well as coffee so you don’t get that wonderful coffee-smell as you walk in the way you do with some of the others but there are plenty of tables and the veranda area at the front is quite a pleasant spot to sit in and people-watch.

 

Wicked Grounds, 289 8th St

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The look: Student-flat-meets-kinky-boudoir.

The staff: Underwear-clad but not very friendly.

The espresso: Fine. It’s not really about the coffee here but it’s good to note they can do a decent job of it.

The WiFi: Present and correct although they clearly didn’t like us sitting there using it for as long as we did. Perhaps I should have bought a sex toy to sweeten the deal.

I’ll be honest, we only went here because it bills itself as a “kink cafe” and who wouldn’t be curious about that? However, it does neither kink nor cafe particularly well. The boutique aspect consists of a few whips and paddles in various materials (including REAL raccoon tail – I was tempted) although there are some interesting books. There are (rather poor) portraits of people in varying stages of rope bondage on the walls and a lot of postcards and flyers advertising various erotic and educational services around SF but beyond that it wasn’t very inspiring. Seats are largely faded sofas that look like skip-salvage (perhaps they are) and there was only one item of furniture upholstered in red velvet which seems like a missed opportunity to me.

I genuinely wanted this to be a ground-breaking synergy of sex-positivity and coffee but I found it completely lacklustre. However, I’d be interested to pop in again to see if they’d developed it at all or just when it was a bit busier.

 

 

The Buena Vista Cafe, 2765 Hyde St

I didn’t take a photo but it looks like this:

Buena Vista Cafe

The look: Irish pub crossed with cafe-diner.

The staff: Slightly manic.

The espresso: In a wild deviation from my whole ethos, I am going to make room for a discussion of “other kinds” of coffee because there’s really only one reason you come here and that’s for the Irish coffee.

The WiFi: Found it, logged onto it, used it.

Of course, like so many coffee creations (pumpkin-spiced latte, I’m looking at you!), Irish coffee isn’t coffee at all but a coffee-flavoured pudding (with booze in). I accept that and I only include it in my coffee guide because otherwise there isn’t really anywhere I can get it in. The Buena Vista claims to have been the first place in San Francisco to serve them and I must admit, they are excellent. I even got over my  irrational fear of dairy to consume the full-cream they come topped with. The bar is crammed full of tourists and the staff deal with you as only people who churn out sixty billion Irish coffees a day can: with slightly intense efficiency.

 

Mojo, 639 Divisadero St

Mojo coffee San Francisco

The look: Quirky workshop.

The staff: The barista seemed a little dazed. That’s not necessarily a criticism…

The espresso: Good. Although it seemed to take an inordinate amount of time to make. And I was partially distracted by Rob inexplicably ordering an Americano.

The WiFi: Mon-Fri 7am-3pm.

I actually loved it in here. It’s part coffee shop, part bike store and workshop, a bit like Look Mum, No Hands! in London but far, far less pretentious. Also, the bike area is through the back which means if you’re not a bikey person you can still come here and not feel like a 12-year-old who just accidentally wandered into the 6th form common room. Despite the communal tables, it felt quite cosy and there were plenty of smaller tables outside too. The walls are wood-panelled and the industrial-look lamps hang low. So far, so on trend but it all works and doesn’t feel overly contrived. NB they only take cash.

Mojo coffee San Francisco

Other cafes I walked past but didn’t have time to go in:

PhillzSupposedly THE place to go in the Mission, it just looked like a regular cafe to me. Apparently they do really good mint mojito iced coffee though so… *raises judgemental eyebrow*

ReveilleThis looked lovely – all fairy lights and sunny outdoor patio, tucked underneath a big Victorian town house. But we were both starving and it was quite busy so we rushed on by to find somewhere to eat.

Coffee Cantata (see main photo above) – Really liked the slightly dark cluttered look of this place  as well as the genuinely retro tiles and signage. Also, what oh what is Boba tea? I may never have the chance to know.

ONE LAST THING ABOUT COFFEE SHOPS IN SAN FRANCISCO AND THEN I’LL SHUT UP.

Where are the cakes? It’s a serious question. I’m not even a cake person but I couldn’t help noticing the lack of pastries and biscuits on offer. In Europe you walk into a coffee shop and it’s all cream-topped sponge, sugared pastry, glistening tarts, squidgy brownies, strudel, croissants, cornetti, and not to mention the dreaded cupcakes. But in San Francisco a few dried up muffins and the odd stale-looking scone were all we really saw.

It’s probably a good thing. Heaven knows easy access to pastry hasn’t done the UK’s obesity figures any good. But there’s something a bit sad about walking into a coffee shop and seeing only this:

Coffee shop San Francisco

So what do you think? Did I miss anywhere (I obviously did)? Do you agree with my reviews? Do you have any recommendations? I’m heading to Latin America next where good coffee may be hard to come by so any suggestions you have will be very gratefully received.

For more round-ups of San Francisco coffee houses check out Thrillist, Mr Archer, and SFist – all of which I referred to regularly in my hunt for coffee.

Coffee girl

San Francisco cable car

My San Francisco love story

It took me less than four hours to fall in love with San Francisco.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: four hours isn’t love; it’s barely even a fling. But trust me, I have found The One. When you know, you know. You know?

First things first: the houses. From the grand Victorian architecture complete with gothic lines and details, to the bright colours and often elaborate means of access, these are truly my dream houses.

San Francisco Victorian houses

San Francisco Victorian houses

Parapets! Pediments! Turrets! Frankly, who wouldn’t want to live in one of these? And that’s before I even get to the steps! You see, ever since I was a little girl I’ve wanted a house with steps up to the door. Call me whimsical but there’s something about the notion of climbing up to your front door that I find romantic, even a little bit magical (I also wanted bunk beds – maybe I just have a thing about steps?) But in SF they take it to the next level [literally]. You can stand on the pavement and look up at a front door some six feet above your head.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAwesome.

But I know, I know. This isn’t love, it’s lust. And I can’t deny that San Francisco is a good-looking city. With the Bay on one side, Pacific on the other, mountains to both the north and south and in between the rolling hills of the city itself, it’s certainly a stunning location. But clean cut has never really been my thing. I like things a bit scruffier, a bit dirtier, a bit edgier. Luckily SF does that very well too.

It’s not a big city but each area manages to convey its own distinct style. There’s the Mission for hispanic architecture, fantastic food and also for any time you want to don your skinny jeans and drink craft ale while playing hangman on the blackboard walls (yup, we did this). There’s Haight-Ashbury for vintage shopping, stocking up on incense sticks or just whenever you need a hit of psychedelia (metaphorically, of course…), Russian Hill for when you want to ride a cable car up a really steep hill (which obviously locals don’t do but still, it’s there if you want it). There’s Castro for partying with your LGBTQ buddies… or eating really good cake (there are loads of bakeries), Fillmore/Alamo Square for when you just need to look at some really awesome houses (see above)… and of course the parks, the marina, the beach, the bridge. Ok, I’m going into raptures. I’m sorry, I’ll rein it in. Here are a few pictures while I collect myself:

Cliff House San Francisco

Haight Ashbury San Francisco

Cathedral San Francisco

Fisherman's Wharf San Francisco

For me I think it was the cocktails with brunch at Nopa on Saturday morning, the fantastic shops on Haight Street (special mentions to Fluevog, Shoe Biz, and Piper’s Shoe Parlour), the oysters on the Embarcadero, the coffee (so much coffee), the bike ride over the Golden Gate Bridge, the rainbow streets in Castro, and the mosaic steps over in the Sunset district.

It really is a diverse and exciting place and because it’s small, it’s really easy to get around all these difference areas. The public transport is excellent. Buses run everywhere and yes, you really can hang off the side of a cable car if you want to (I’m slightly embarrassed to admit it because it is SO touristy but we did do this. In our defence we’d just had two very strong Irish coffees at the Buena Vista Cafe and there were no seats available so it seemed like a hilariously good idea.).

However, my favourite mode(s) of transport were the vintage streetcars that run up and down Market and round the Embarcadero. The trolleys and trams come from all over the world including Japan, Switzerland, and Italy. There’s even one from Blackpool apparently although I didn’t spot it.

San Francisco tram

NB This is not my photo. I didn’t take any photos of the trams myself because I’m an idiot but here’s one of Rob hanging off a cable car like a boss:

San Francisco cable car

And here’s me being a bit more sedate on the bus:

San Francisco bus(I’m not sure why I felt I had to provide evidence that we took public transport but there it is nonetheless.)

But you don’t have to bother with any of these if you don’t want because contrary to all my expectations, San Francisco is a bike city.

“But the hills?!?” you cry. “How do they do it?”

Honest answer? I don’t know. I do not know. I mean, I cycle in London which is not a flat city and where we live, just north of Camden, is at the foot of the highest hill in the city. It’s not steep but it’s pretty much uphill all the way home from town and the last five minutes gets me every time. But this all becomes meaningless nonsense in the face of SF. We hired bikes and although our route was largely flat I feel like I worked harder in one day than I would in an entire weekend of London cycling.

But now for the surprising part: I actually see this is yet another factor in SF’s favour. I love cycling and I already miss my bike. Yes, it would be hard to get used to but no one ever said relationships were easy now, did they?

Cycling Sasn Francisco The course of true love never did run smooth… much like the city’s cycle lanes.

But of course it’s not all pootling about in quirky shops and knocking back “drip coffee” in white-tile-and-sanded-wood coffee shops (although the latter are a BIG deal – so much so that I’m composing a whole separate blog on the subject). No lover is without their faults and to build a relationship is to understand and accept these faults, and even – where necessary – commit to helping find a way to work through them.

In the case of San Francisco I am referring, of course, to the huge homelessness issue. The traditional glib approximation is that these are people who blew their minds on acid back in the Summer of Love and never left. And while it’s certainly true that a lot of the problems stem from drugs (whether the long-term effects or the short-term dependence), it seemed clear to me that mental illness, learning disabilities and straight up poverty were playing as much of a role in keeping people disenfranchised as anything they might have inflicted upon themselves.

Successive mayors have promised to tackle it, some $1.5billion has been poured into projects designed to get people off the streets, but in 2013 there were still 6,436 homeless people in San Francisco (down from 8,640 in 2002 but up from 6,245 in 2005). This is about the same as the figure for London but bear in mind that London covers an area of around 600 square miles and has a population of some seven million while SF is about 230 square miles and is home to just under a million people.

It’s very difficult to write anything original or insightful on a subject which has, after all, been covered hundreds of times but I don’t feel I can ignore it either. It’s certainly something we were aware of before visiting the city and yet it still came as a shock to see that in a city as wealthy, as innovative, and as progressive as San Francisco, so many people appear to be slipping through the net. Still, if there’s one thing the city is not doing – and which many others around the world do on a regular basis – it’s turning a blind eye to their problems. And that gives me hope.

Painted Ladies San Francisco

Rob talked about feeling inspired by LA’s can-do vibe but San Francisco was where I really felt like anything (uphill cycling notwithstanding) was possible. I’m still reasonably sure if I sat in one of the city’s excellent coffee shops for long enough, I too would come up with a brilliant app or social networking idea. Surrounded by so much inspiration and innovation, I couldn’t fail to, could I?

Whether it’s to do with having Silicon Valley down the road, a long history of firsts for liberal politics, not least where gay and lesbian rights and representatives are concerned, a colourful legacy of arts, music, and creativity more generally, or being the cornerstone of the free love movement, you really do feel like you could do anything or be anyone here. And not in the grubby, covert way that London (the voyeuristic minx) lets you be anything or do anyone, but in an open, breezy, composed kind of way.

Yes, composed. It might be buzzing but there’s something very calm about the SF vibe. It’s a city that knows who it is and is comfortable in its own skin. And I almost feel… I almost feel if I lived here I too could be calm.

And when the initial heady excitement wears off, that, my friends, is the stuff that true love is built on.

Mosaic steps San Francisco No, seriously. This is what I look like when I’m deliriously happy.

LA: The Debrief

A quick guide to what we did and what you can do too…

Eat: Macrobiotic

No, seriously. LA is renowned for being health-conscious, sometimes maniacally so, and we were fully prepared to laugh in the face of this pretentious nonsense. But it turns out eating macrobiotic (ie fresh, unprocessed, largely raw foods) is really good. And “superfoods” are super tasty. Even committed carnivore Rob raved about the food at M Cafe De Chaya on Melrose Avenue near Hollywood. Kale salad with peanut dressing was fresh but richly flavourful, while tuna tataki and raw butternut squash salad with fennel and pomegranate were also tongue-pleasers.

There’s a reason everyone in LA looks like this:

Macrobiotic cafe

Drink: Craft ale

Californians love their craft ales and in LA a pint of draft beer will set you back anywhere between $6 and $10 (£4-£6). If you’re in Hollywood the Snakepit Alehouse is worth a try while The Other Room on ubercool Abbot Kinney Boulevard is fun, if a tad pricey, for the evening. But the best place we found to wet your whistle in the midday heat is the Venice Ale House on Venice Beach. A great selection of beers and they’ll help you out with a recommendation if you’re not sure what to try. The food looked tasty too and you can watch the weird and wonderful beach bums and surfer dudes from the terrace. [NB a US pint is about 20% smaller than a UK pint and we found a lot of places don’t serve half pints.]

Try: Recreating Grand Theft Auto V

One for the gamers, I’m afraid. If you’ve played a lot of GTA, a ride through the city is like a trip down memory lane. There’s the inner city golf course, scene of many a trigger-happy spree, the excellent death match venue that is Santa Monica pier, you can even recreate the battle with Merryweather at the Getty Center (the Kortz Center in the game). Just remember: not everyone is amused by you pretending to machine gun passers by. And by ‘everyone’ I mean Franki (although I hear the cops take a dim view of this sort of caper as well).

Spot the difference:

Kortz Centre

Getty Centre

Buy: Hats

Rob has never been able to find a hat that fits him but at Hollywood Hatters on Melrose Avenue, the knowledgeable proprietor Sal Rovero found him the Panama he’d been waiting for with a price tag of $45 (approx. £27). Listed by GQ as one of the best 7 hat stores in the whole of America, it primarily caters for the fellas (apparently Boy George buys his headwear here too) but I managed to pick up a white cotton sun hat for $35 (£22). Result.

Hollywood hatters

Do: Use Uber to get around.

One local told us the smartphone app had ‘saved LA’. In a city where walking is something you do only as a workout warm-up on the treadmill, this is hardly surprising. However, the San Francisco-based app doesn’t pay its drivers well at all so tip with cash. It’ll still be cheaper than a cab.

Don’t: Admit to ‘riding the bus’

Trendy locals with look at you like you’ve taken leave of your senses. But at $1 a time, it’s actually a pretty good way of getting around. Just don’t let on – in LA, the bus is the preserve of school kids, weirdos and the very poor (all of whom seem to be considered potentially dangerous).

And not forgetting…

…that time we were picked up by a Scientologist Uber cab driver who used to be in movies, (including a starring role as ‘Bus Driver’ in the film Rat Race with Rowan Atkinson, no less). He told us how he had sold his house to help pay for medicinal herbs for his sick wife, yet practically spat the words ‘socialised medicine’ at the mention of the NHS. He also tried out his fossil fuel conspiracy theory on us (“They say it’s running out but does anyone actually know where it comes from or how it’s made?”). What a guy.

 

Hollywood hatter Lookin’ hot in our hats…

Surfers at the Pacific Ocean, Venice Beach

California beaming: How one day in sunny Los Angeles drove away the London blues

As a natural born cynic, I sometimes struggle to see the sunnier side of life. My former boss at the Daily Mail once claimed I have ‘the darkest moods of anyone I’ve ever known in journalism’. This is a man who has worked for more than a decade with famously combustible Fleet Street legend Paul Dacre, the inventor of the rhetorical tactic known as ‘double-c*nting’.

So it is with huge surprise that I found LA slapping me about the face with a dose of pure optimism. It came as a shock. I thought the only way to derive happiness from this famously poseur-laden city would be reliving moments from Grand Theft Auto V. “Oh look, that’s where I parachuted out of a helicopter before opening fire on innocent pedestrians with a minigun. Happy days.”

Instead I find myself filled with an unfamiliar feeling of goodwill to all humankind. Perhaps it’s the sunshine, the plethora of independent bars and shops, or simply the sense of freedom afforded by going freelance after eight years behind a desk. Whatever the cause, within hours of being here, I find my natural scepticism eroding bit by bit.

Don’t get me wrong, I know LA has its dark side. This is after all the city of Raymond Chandler’s seedy villains and the broken dreams of aging waiters still clinging on to the faint hope that their screenplay will be picked up by one of the studios. It has been the unfortunate scene of more than its share of brutal gang violence, as well as the 1992 riots triggered by the brutal beating of Rodney King. And one can’t help but notice that in the glitzy bars and restaurants, it is the Caucasian staff who work front of house, while the economically disadvantaged Latinos toil away in the kitchen.

And yet, on a morning walk from Venice down to the beach, I saw the best side of this fabled town. It started with Abbot Kinney, dubbed ‘coolest block in America’ by GQ. Sprinkled with independent shops and cafes, this strip has the quirky idiosyncracy of London’s Shoreditch but takes itself much less seriously. Each building has an individual architectural style, yet somehow this kaleidoscopic mish-mash of colours and shapes assembles itself into a coherent stylistic genre.

Just a few streets away is Venice, where wealthy Californians enjoy the good life in stunning homes bordering a network of canals. Sure, Shakespeare never wrote a play about this place, it has never had a doge as far as i know and I doubt the baccala mantecato is anything to write home about.

What it does have is this:-

Venice, Los Angeles

And this:-

Venice, Los Angeles

Debating how the average home here would cost (prices start at a couple of million bucks we were later told), Franki and I wandered towards the beach. Rounding a corner, a cyclist nearly ran us down. In London, both parties would have mumbled ‘Sorry’ while mentally cursing each other in the harshest possible terms. When I apologised for no real reason, California bike guy just grinned and said: ‘Hey no problem buddy, that’s why I got brakes!’

Down at Venice Beach, the sense of easy-going optimism is no different, the locals taking their behavioural cue from the Pacific Ocean.

Surfers at the Pacific Ocean, Venice Beach

A dude whizzes by on a skateboard, carrying a surfboard under his arm. Later, seeking refreshment in the heat of the afternoon, we pop into the Venice Ale House and happen upon a range of craft beers that would take you ten pubs to collect in London.

Even the mad tramps have a superior patter here. ‘Jesus and Gandhi were the same guy,’ one tells me. ‘Moses too.’

Something about all of this puts a smile on my face. People in Los Angeles act as if they’re in a film shot entirely for your benefit. They bristle with infinite possibility and it is incredibly contagious.

I can’t escape the premonition that we’ll be robbed and beaten up now that I’ve written this – after all, my inner cynic can’t stay suppressed for long. Still, i bet the inevitable mugging will be conducted with bohemian nonchalance. We’ll probably become friends with our assailant on Facebook – maybe even launch a Neighbourhood Watch smartphone app together. That’s just LA, man.

Update – I think Franki and I just had the most LA experience possible. We were driven to Hollywood by a Scientologist Uber cabbie who used to be in films, including Rat Race starring Rowan Atkinson. He fell on hard times and had to sell his house ‘to buy holistic herbs’ when his wife became ill. Despite facing economic ruin due to her poor health, he doesn’t believe in socialised healthcare. ‘In this world, there are makers and takers.’

Update 2 – After years of searching, I even found a Panama hat to fit my outsize noggin. Thanks Hollywood Hatters!

Panama hat