The VICE Guide to San Francisco
America's most beautiful city is in the middle of a wild transition.
All photos Marko Knezevic
San Francisco is America's most beautiful city. At least that's what people say all the time, and it maybe still is, on the outside. Where else in the country can you find a bazillion adorable homes that look like they were blueprinted by five-year-olds? Or watch fog billow over 80-degree steep hills? Or find the beach, the woods, and an internet porn studio within the radius of a few miles?
On the inside, though, its rebellious heart is being gnawed away by big money. That's also why now is the best time to come. You're observing a city in the midst of a wild transition. There's a version of the culture war happening here on just about every corner that is palpable. It's fascinating to observe, and it's so essential to experience the lingering spirit of what San Francisco was while it's around.
One day soon, most of the colorful old shops and people, those loveable die-hards who fought with so much heart and so much weirdness to make the city something close to paradise, will probably be wiped out or priced out. For now, some gems remain. Get here fast.
NEIGHBORHOODS WE HAVEN'T GIVEN UP ON
It's hard to keep track of neighborhoods when you're in San Francisco. The city is tiny (seven miles by seven miles, 7x7), but hungry realtors keep cutting it up into more and more micro-neighborhoods. (Oh, you thought you lived in Western Addition? Nope! It's NoPa now.) So don't be surprised if you take a turn and are suddenly in a part of town that has a name or a vibe that didn't exist just a few short years ago. Of course, you likely won't know either way.
If you believe the hype, San Francisco has turned into a tech haven filled with Google Glass–wearing millennials who fancy themselves innovators. And in the wrong neighborhood, you might overhear a conversation or two about seed funding and "Uber, but for small talk." But many special places remain if you look hard enough. The thing to remember when you're visiting is this: San Francisco, stripped away of all the artisanal bullshit, is a view city and nature city. We have tall hills, giant parks, and beaches. It's not LA, so pack a jacket, but don't let 55 degrees be an excuse to stay inside.
These are the San Fran neighborhoods we haven't given up on.
You might think of Haight Street as a must-see spot, the window into the Summer of Love and acid and Jerry and Manson and Janis! And it's true that you can see a crowded drum circle on Hippy Hill, shop at overpriced boutiques cashing in on the history, or even at the new Whole Foods that just opened! But then again, you can also not do any of that. Instead, go a few blocks east to the neighborhood of Lower Haight and get a drink at one of the beer-centric, slightly motorcycle punky bars that set the tone for the neighborhood. Molotov's was the site of the famous Google Glass incident, so don't wear your pair in there. Down the street, Toronado is a lively dive bar with an amazing selection on tap. And next door, Rosamunde has the best sausages in the city. Eat one there, or pick up some to go and walk to Duboce Park or Alamo Square Park (right next to the Painted Ladies/the Full House houses).
The Mission is tricky for San Francisco natives. The district is ground zero of gentrification in the city—the traditionally Latino neighborhood hosted first punks and artists, which then led to yuppies, and finally to techies, who have priced out many of the Latino families and artists that made the neighborhood desirable in the first place. But, even as much of the culture is being forced out, the Mission still has the city's best food, bars, and our only pirate supply store. Grab a burrito (at Taqueria Cancún or El Farlito), and bring it to Dolores Park to eat and people watch at the perma-crowded grassy hangout. There are more cops patrolling than there used to be, but you can usually still brown-bag a beer, and you'll almost definitely be offered some sort of baked edible. If you need a pickup, grab a drink at Four Barrel Coffee, and go roaming through 826 Valencia, Dave Eggers's amazing pirate supply store and tutoring center. For daytime boozing, go hangout in Zeitgeist's giant backyard patio.
Keep your eyes open while you walk around—the Mission is covered with incredible murals (make sure to see the one covering the Women's Building on 18th Street). Also, check out the Galería de la Raza on 24th Street and Bryant, which always has a free exhibition and hosts a bunch of events. People will tell you the Mission ain't what it used to be, and it's not, but it's still a highlight of the city. And hopefully, somehow, it will stay that way.
Potrero Hill, with its incredible bay views and constant sun, has a nice small town feel if that's your thing. Down the hill, in Dogpatch, the old industrial neighborhood has transformed into a home for hip cafes and design-centric bars and restaurants (an example of the transformation: "Toxic Beach" has been cleaned and redubbed "Water Cove Park"). Still, the best places in the neighborhood are the oldest. Plan ahead, and try to reserve a spot on the Anchor Steam Brewery Tour. For $20 with a reservation, you'll get a history lesson at the hundred-year-old brewery and then get to hang out and drink a bunch of beer in the tasting room. You should be able to find the brewery because when the winds right, a lot of the neighborhood smells like hops and barley. If you can't get on the tour, check out the Ramp, an old school San Francisco bar that used to be a 1950s bait shop, with a patio right on the bay. It's kept some of the bait shop character and is much less pretentious than your average waterfront bar.
For a long time, the city's southwest district was sleepy and residential. There are large swaths that still are, but down by Ocean Beach, the foggy, frigid strip of dunes where the city touches the Pacific, a little restaurant and cafe scene has started to pop up. On Judah, check out Outerlands for fresh baked bread, homemade soups and sandwiches, and a great brunch. Right next door is Trouble Coffee and Coconut Club, famous for espresso drinks and cinnamon toast. And if you're willing to venture away from the beach, Quan Ngon has some of the best pho in the city. This neighborhood is usually coated with fog, but on the rare sunny day, it totally changes. The beach gets packed, and everyone's out there. Most days, though, you'll find a few surfers and some old hippies out by the freezing cold water.
The northwest neighborhood, which is separated from the Sunset by Golden Gate Park, is another district underrated because of lack of sun. This neighborhood has a younger feel than the Sunset due to the University of San Francisco kids that live here. Geary and Clement Streets are home to a ridiculous number of great Asian restaurants. Make sure to walk around the Inner Richmond (between Arguello Blvd. and Park Presidio Blvd.): Get a full meal for $2.50 at Good Luck Dim Sum, check out Green Apple Books, and then sink into the bizarro fantasy world of collector toys and incredible ice cream at Toy Boat Dessert Cafe. But also make sure to get down by the beach for some of San Francisco's most underrated nature spots. There are hikes all along Land's End, the cliffs that sit above the point where the Pacific takes a turn toward the bay. The views of the Golden Gate Bridge are amazing, and if you're so inclined, plan ahead and bring a joint and some lunch. If you're not in the hiking mood, but want some outdoor time, check out the ruins of Sutro Baths, a giant public pool built at the turn of the century, and don't miss Sutro Heights Park—Adolph Sutro's regal-looking property—and the Cliff House, which once housed the strangest, best old arcade (it was moved to Fisherman's Wharf), but still is a site to see.
South Mission/Bernal Heights
The southern part of the Mission District has been a bit slower to gentrify and has kept some of the flavor that Valencia Street has lost (it's still ridiculously expensive). El Rio is the best spot for an outdoor drink (and sometimes food in the smoker-friendly backyard), and Chicken John's Chez Poulet is a beautiful gallery space. Check and see if there are any events going on there (and try to poke your head in, though you might get chewed out, depending on the day Chicken John is having). If you go up the hill to Bernal Heights, the neighborhood completely changes (it's nicknamed Maternal Heights). Cortland Avenue is the main drag in Bernal, and Progressive Grounds is a good spot for coffee and working. Bernal Heights Park has an insane 360-degree view of the city.
San Francisco is a view city and a nature city. But in terms of block-by-block, street-level beauty, no neighborhood rivals North Beach. San Francisco's Little Italy, this hood is packed with amazing restaurants, cafes, and gelato spots. It also was home to the beatnik movement and the late 70s art punk scene in the city. At night it fills up with Wall Street tech bros ("The gold rush is on, bro!"), but during the day, it can feel like a time machine. Grab a coffee at Caffe Trieste (or just peek in to check out all the old photographs). Then make sure to go to City Lights Bookstore, Lawrence Ferlinghetti's legendary bookstore/beat poet clubhouse. By now, you've earned a drink—go to Vesuvio Cafe right across Jack Kerouac Alley.
SoMa, or South of Market, is a large neighborhood to the south of downtown. As tech has moved into the area, the once shady neighborhood has started to morph, though there are still some rough patches. The monthly Tech Dude Complaining About Poor People on Medium Post usually focuses on SoMa.
While you're walking around the area, make sure to pop into the Museum of the African Diaspora and see the Grace Jones Project exhibit. A little farther away from the water at the site of the Folsom Street Fair—the annual celebration of leather and fetish culture in the city—is Brainwash Cafe, a laundromat with food, strong coffee, and pinball machines.
The Giants put their stadium in SoMa, and the area around has built up with bars, restaurants, luxury apartments, and grocery stores. But, right on the water, a few blocks from AT&T Park, is Red's Java House, an old-school diner from the 1930s on Pier 30. Get a greasy-spoon burger on a sourdough roll and a Bloody Mary, and look at the incredible view of the Bay Bridge. This neighborhood is huge and changes block to block, but don't wander around here at night unless you know where you're going. And please don't write a Medium article complaining about it after your trip.
This neighborhood/national park was a military base until the mid 90s, and San Franciscans will be quick to tell you stories about getting hassled for smoking by the MPs. There are a few stores and restaurants starting to pop up (mainly down by the base of the Golden Gate Bridge), but really, this is a neighborhood to chill outside in. If it's not too windy, Crissy Field has barbecue pits and touches the bay (swim at your own peril—the water is kind of gross, but most people we know have swum there and they're OK!). Baker Beach is the city's best beach spot, but if it's hot out, get there early, because it will get completely packed. The Presidio opens up to the Marina right by Lucasfilm, but don't go to the Marina. It's pretty, and there are some fine restaurants and cafes, but it's overrun with the worst kind of bros. Make sure to get to the Mission or Lower Haight when it's time to drink.
WHERE TO EAT
Let's be real: Eating in San Francisco today requires both a healthy bank account (or an expense account, you lucky bastard) and a hearty tolerance of the queue. Sure, there are still affordable holes in the wall and quiet neighborhood restaurants, but part of the joy of the San Francisco food scene right now is the sheer ambition of it. Bay Area restaurants have never been shinier, more palatable, or more Instagrammable. There's even been chatter recently that the city has hit "peak restaurant." Which is troublesome to local chefs and food industry types, but for the traveler, it basically means you'll eat really fucking well. So yes, you'll wait and you'll overspend, but we say roll with it, embrace your inner tech magnate, and just be grateful you don't have to pay to live here.
Liholiho Yacht Club
Before Liholiho, getting a taste of Hawaii meant either a) quality time with a bag of Maui onion chips or b) a five-hour plane ride. But then the Oahu-born chef Ravi Kapur popped up. Literally: Liholiho did time as a pop-up before Kapur made his fried rice, flecked with homemade Spam, and spot-on tuna poke a permanent thing. Get the buttered togarashi popcorn, a.k.a. Hawaiian crack. Eye the wine list, but order the briny, sherry-based Castaway cocktail. Go nuts over the pork belly or, if it's in season, the asparagus with bone marrow béarnaise and little chunks of brioche for wiping the plate clean. Ignore those I'm so full cues and order the Baked Hawaiian, made from caramelized pineapple ice cream, chiffon, and dreams—there's a reason there's one on every table. What's the catch, you say? Unless you have an ESP-like connection to Open Table, you'll need to eat at the grandma hour of 5 PM to avoid crowds.
If you are from New York, Chicago, or Italy, we really don't want to hear you spout about how much better the pizza is back home. We have pizza here! Try it! We promise our people (who just might be from New York, Chicago, or Italy) know what they are doing. For a blistery Neapolitan pie, hit up Del Popolo, which after three years of roving around in the world's most bangin' food truck, is now a restaurant with real tables and chairs. Using a brick oven shipped over from Italy, pizza wizard Jon Darksy pumps out his tender pies topped with squash or huckleberries or brussels sprouts. Don't want any of that fancy, Bay Area nonsense? Try Arinell, home of NY-style slices served ginormous, greasy, and with time-honored toppings like sausage and green peppers.
Tony's Pizza Napoletana
Like we said, this city isn't known for its pizza, but Tony Gemignani seems maniacally focused on changing that. After becoming the first American to win the World Pizza Championship in Naples (which is a thing, apparently, and something we'd be happy to judge), he opened Tony's Pizza Napoletana, which Forbes called the best pizzeria in the country. Tony's makes regional slices from all over—St. Louis style, New Haven style, Detroit style, etc.—but the best pizza there is the simplest. Try to get yourself the wood-fired margherita, but you gotta get there early because Tony's only makes 73 pies a day. What? You didn't think San Francisco could turn pizza into a small-batch, artisanal, exclusive affair?
In the Bay Area, Chez Panisse is like Harvard: People who graduate automatically have an edge when they strike out on their own. Case in point: Sylvan Mishima Brackett of Rintaro, who spent nearly a decade working with Alice Waters before launching his Bay-Area-freshness-meets-Japanese-izakaya spot. Translation: locally sourced wasabi and bamboo shoots dug by hand turned into deeply snackable yakitori. Don't miss the dashimaki tamago (omelettes with daikon) and the charcoal-grilled chicken skewers, which go down easily with the house-made plum wine.
Want to get your Michelin star on without feeling like a stuffed shirt? Al's Place is one of the least pretentious planets in San Francisco's Michelin galaxy. The food is weird in a very, very good way (Pickled fries? Pork belly with galangal soda? "Fish head under a brick"? Wha??). The restaurant is sunny and blue and tiled, like a cafeteria imagined by an IKEA designer gone wonderfully rogue. The servers don't treat you like you're made of glass. Being anointed top dog in Bon Appetit's 2015 best-of list made getting reservations insufferable, but the restaurant recently rolled out a new system to preserve a few walk-in tables every day so that you don't have to be Zuckerberg to get in.
Trouble Coffee and Coconut Club
Yes, SF is the land of the $4 toast. And it all started with Trouble Coffee, a cubby hole of a coffee shop at the very end of San Francisco, in the Outer Sunset. Once you try the cinnamon toast here—the OG San Francisco toast—any qualms you had about overpaying for something you can make at home will fade like footprints on the Pacific-washed sand that's just five blocks away. The world is softer out here, a little SoCal-like given its proximity to the ocean. Make like the surfers who hang here and order the "Build Your Own Damn House": small coffee, toast, and a whole young coconut with a straw.
Off the Grid
Sure, you could troll Twitter to find the truck selling that Korean BBQ/pour-over coffee/lobstah roll you just have to try. But the savviest of San Franciscans know that you get the most bang for your queuing buck at Off the Grid, a 30-strong collection of food trucks that rumbles to Fort Mason—near Fisherman's Wharf—every Friday. (There are also regular music and truck events from April through October.) If you visit San Francisco in July or August, it will probably be cold and foggy as fuck. But go to OtG anyway, where you can earn the honor of living like a true local: freezing and tweeting while waiting 30 minutes for a Naughty Naan from Curry Up Now.
Unless you're rabidly anti-joy and all things happiness, you'll probably want to eat dim sum in San Francisco. There are many options, but we recommend getting as far from touristlandia as you can. That might mean Chinatown, home to places like Great Eastern. If you follow the moves of POTUS, you might recognize this white-linened spot as the restaurant where Obama ordered take-out dim sum from the plastic photo menu (we're guessing he went with the Shanghai dumplings). Want the more traditional banquet-hall, dim sum-cart experience? Yank Sing is your palace. Operating at a full roar on Sundays, the restaurant requires lightning-quick chops to order from servers who push, roadrunner-like, carts piled with baskets of shrimp and scallop-stuffed dumplings and other yums.
Less expensive than the legendary Yank Sing, and less stressful than Hong Kong Lounge, Ton Kiang is the perfect place to come with a group and give yourself that special kind of pork-bun-powered food coma. Waiters are constantly showing up with bamboo baskets of steaming dumplings and plates of stir fry and vegetables (the vegetable dishes are the best of any dim sum spot in the city). Expert tip: Don't blow your load too early; you're gonna want to try a bit of everything.
If you get drunk in the Mission (and you should!), you will wind up here, stuffing your face with a burrito the size of your forearm. If you want to pick a fight while drunk in the Mission, start popping off about the city's best burrito. We're no LA when it comes to our Mexican food, but we can certainly work up a lather about our carnitas. At La Taq—considered, very unofficially, by 54.3 percent of us to be the best—the foil-wrapped bundles of joy come with plenty of carnitas, guac, and pico de gallo (but no rice). Cue local squabbles.
Every true San Franciscan has two things: a go-to nature spot where they go and light up a spliff and a burrito spot they ride for. You'll likely hear lots of talk about La Taqueria (above), El Farolito (named best burrito by Esquire magazine a few years back), and Taqueria Cancun. Truth is, you can't go wrong with any of them. Taqueria Guadalajara, tucked away in the Excelsior, the foggy stepsister of the Mission District, deserves to be in the conversation as well. A burrito is meant to be a day-altering, decadent experience, and Guadalajara's massive offerings and impossibly rich meat will leave you stuffed and happy and a more than a bit sleepy. An insider tip: to turn the overindulgence up a bit, order a Super Mixto with two meats for 65 cents more. The grilled chicken and al pastor is a great combination.
Some people say Souvla is overhyped and overpriced, but, well, those people suck. There's not much in the way of great Greek food in this city, and Souvla's souvlaki (wraps) fill the void with their lamby, spit-fired, yogurt-dabbed goodness. Though we identify very comfortably as carnivores, the garlicky sweet potato wrap with kalamata olives and walnuts is delicious enough to make us swing to the veggie side for a day. And, yeah, there's a permaline here, but isn't that what phones are for? Just don't make the mistake of skipping the froyo with baklava crumbles and syrup.
San Francisco is famous for its changing face nowadays, but this bar/restaurant/meat paradise stands gloriously unaltered (except for more wall clutter and better beer on tap) for the last half-century. Local legend has it that Janis Joplin, who lived next door, was once seen nibbling a turkey carcass out of the restaurant's trash bins late one night. Don't judge until you try this spot. When you walk in, wait in line in front of the carving station, where you can order plates of roast beef, brisket, ribs, and turkey with a choice of sides, all for about $10. Against the other wall, there's a bar with some of the cheapest pitchers of beer in the city. The place is all old-school, gritty San Francisco. And they serve meat. Did we mention the meat?
Super Duper Burger
There are many great burgers in SF, but when it comes to straight up no-frills, always-delivers burger goodness, Super Duper is a ringer. The local chain has a definite fast food vibe, but being in the Bay Area, it also champions local meat, dairy, and buns, plus an all-you-can-eat pickle bar (made on-site, of course).
Anchor Oyster Bar
Consider this a tourist PSA: You don't have to stay on Fisherman's Wharf to get great cioppino. While the Tadich Grill is a classic—and definitely worth the $$$—for pure enjoyability, our money's on Anchor Oyster Bar, an impossibly tiny hole in the wall serving enormously flavorful bowls of the famous tomato-based seafood stew. Marvel over the dance the servers do behind the narrow bar as you chow down on crab claws and fresh mussels. Bibs are required. And wiping your bowl with buttered sourdough is heartily embraced.
Very rarely do old guard SF joints get modernized without losing their soul. Tosca, a North Beach icon, escaped that fate when, in 2013, April Bloomfield and Ken Friedman gently restored the nearly century-old bar/don't-fuck-with-anyone haven for beat poets, Russian dancers, Hollywood stars, and local politicians. They did a fine job. You can now sit beneath the carefully preserved murals of yore while eating smart, contemporary versions of bucatini and roast chicken with potatoes cooked in pork fat and listen to Bay Area techies talk shop. Perhaps the most famously restored element of Tosca is its house "cappuccino," a mix of cocoa and brandy made now with Dandelion chocolate and local cream. And, as folks are fond of saying, the beverage didn't (and still doesn't) contain a drop of coffee—it was designed as a Prohibition-era disguise for booze.
With walls and windows packed to the brim with imported wines, cheeses, and Italian canned goods, this frenetic and crowded slice of Old North Beach still makes the best sandwich in the city. Don't get distracted by the stocked deli case—the nine simple, delicious special sandwiches are the reason this place has been around for over 100 years. North Beach, the traditionally Italian neighborhood, is changing along with the rest of San Francisco, but Molinari's Delicatessen remains as old school as they come—you won't find any gluten-free options sneaking their way onto menus here. The deli has managed to hold onto a bit of Old San Francisco—walk in, grab a ticket and your own roll of bread from a case in the back, and be ready to order when your number's called. The sandwich, like the rest of the Molinari's experience, is a no-frills affair—it's all about fresh bread, insanely flavorful meat, creamy mozzarella, and imported olive oil. The Renzo Special—with prosciutto, pesto, mozzarella, and sun dried tomatoes—is the best sandwich you'll ever have. Hands down.
You will not find Toyose unless you're looking for it. This Korean spot's storefront, in the middle of the residential Sunset District, is literally a garage door. But somehow the restaurant is constantly packed with slightly drunk customers (progressively more drunk the closer you get to 2 AM when the place closes, naturally). The chicken wings, kimchi fried rice, and all of the stews are incredible, and if you're feeling adventurous, try the seafood pancake, which is odd, a bit funky, and pretty amazing. The bar scene in the inner Sunset is lacking, so indulge in as many soju drinks as your heart desires—this place only gets more fun the later you're there.
There are a few different locations of Henry's Hunan in the city, but this place is not that kind of chain. The restaurant specializes in an authentic southern Chinese style that centers around ridiculously delicious smoked meat dishes. Go to the downtown Henry's Hunan, on Sacramento Street, for lunch. It's always busy, but the lunch service is quick, and the heaping rice plates are incredible. Our favorite for lunch is the sliced Hunan smoked ham and vegetables plate. It's hearty and much less sweet than Szechuan-style Chinese food. For dinner, go to the location on Church Street in Noe Valley. That spot is much cleaner and more intimate—the downtown location shares a staircase with a rundown apartment complex and is, how can we say this, less decorum-focused. Make sure to try Marty's Special, with smoked ham and chicken in a black bean sauce. This spot is a little different than the Chinese food you're used to, but that's OK. You're a grown-up.
House of Nanking
On the edge of Chinatown, right between North Beach, Nob Hill, and the Financial District, House of Nanking is a perfect lunch stop if you're touring around. The line can be long, so midday and midweek is your best chance to not wait an hour. But even if you have to wait, it's always worth it. As far as we can tell, the whole menu is amazing—the chicken special, deep fried with a sweet sauce and served with pea shoots and yams, is a favorite. But however long you spend with the menu, it probably won't matter when it comes time to order. The owner, Peter Fang, is always there, and though he may ask what you're leaning toward, he usually makes the final decision for you himself. Just trust the man.
San Francisco has a few great Peruvian spots, but Limon's location and its chicken set it apart. The menu is huge, but you're making a mistake if you don't try its specialty, the Pollo a la Brasa—rotisserie slow-roasted chicken over an open flame with two sides and two of its dipping sauces. Get some ceviche to start—the ceviche de pulpo y camarones has the place's incredibly bright leche de tigre marinade, but you can't really go wrong with any of the options. And though it looks fancy, if you split the chicken with a friend, it ends up being pretty reasonably priced. Spend all the money you saved at the bars nearby. Your rotisserie-chicken base you've laid down pre-drinking is like a minor superpower.
San Francisco has one of the largest Burmese communities in the country, and no spot is better (or faster growing) than Burma Superstar on Bubble tea–happy Clement Street (there are also outposts in Alameda and Oakland, should you stray across the bay). Start with a tea-leaf salad (tossed at the table), and then get a mix of curries, stir fries, noodle dishes, and stews (Burmese food borrows from Indian, Chinese, and Thai). The pumpkin pork stew is so delicious and soothing, it'll make you wish it was freezing out. But it won't be. It'll be 55 degrees. It's always 55 degrees here. You don't even need Google Maps for this one: Just watch for the huddle of people queuing for Burma's legendary garlic noodles and samusa soup.High Treason (a new wine bar) and the Bitter End (a pub) are both really close by, and you could wait there too. You'll be hungry, but patience builds character.
nopa is in a part of the Western Addition that was once rough, but now is overflowing with trendy shops and boutique cafes. This restaurant, which was literally the namesake for the micro-neighborhood (NoPa stands for North of the Panhandle, but got its name from the restaurant), could be held up as a frontline gentrifier. But once you get there, and try the insanely fresh food, take in the hip without being douchey ambiance, and see that locals eat there too, it's hard to not to love. nopa is basically impossible to get into, but if you show up at 5 PM and wait at the bar until the kitchen opens an hour later, you'll usually get seated. The scene is always energetic and loud, the wine list is stacked, bar manager Yanni Kehagiaras makes the best sherry cocktails in the city, and though the menu is always changing, the pork chop is a staple. Also, the butterscotch pot de crème will make you happy and fat. We've heard these men serve brunch on weekends, but also that men have walked on the moon—the evidence seems solid, but we've never met a person who has actually done it. Speaking of brunch...
Given the long wait times here, a lazy weekend breakfast spot is best selected by personality here: Consider yourself a beachy type with a locavore bent? Head to the Outer Sunset's Outerlands, where the walls and ceiling are made from weathered wood and the apple-topped Dutch pancakes are made from all things organic and local. Like a side of hipster with your frittata? Beretta is buzzy, in the Mission, and does an Italian-esque brunch all day. Prefer to drink your breakfast, ideally with a breeze ruffling your hangover? The Ramp, a divey spot in the more industrial part of the city, has built a reputation largely on its Bloody Mary and fantastic outdoor deck.
If you want to treat a lady (or a lad) to a fine, quirky night out, book a table at this Mission fixture. You can eat grilled Kobe while watching The Goonies! Or slurp Hammersley Inlet oysters while watching Gigi! Foreign Cinema also does a great brunch, should your date go well.
Zuni Cafe (150)
Serving the city's best roast chicken since 1987, Zuni Cafe is a must, especially if you have access to an expense account. It's the happy, California restaurant of your dreams: Sunny and full of organic endives and polenta during the day; glowy and passing expertly made Aperol cocktails and sea bass with Jerusalem artichokes at night. Sigh.
It's not easy to find quirky modern food with a down-to-earth vibe and reasonable prices in San Francisco. But Rich Table is a triumvirate near the Opera House, where friendly servers deliver how'd-they-think-of-that bites like sardine chips with horseradish crème fraiche and porcini donuts with raclette dip and mains like rib eye with black garlic salsa negra. And, given its proximity to downtown, it's relatively easy to get a seat at the bar, which serves a full menu. Our only beef is that the drinks and menu are every so often overly ambitious, but the service is unfussy and the desserts kill every time.
Follow the fish sauce (literally—it gets a little aromatic) to this hard-to-find spot in Union Square. Forget everything you thought you knew about Thai food because what Bangkok-born restaurateur Pim Techamuanvivit imagined here is light years beyond the limp, overly sweet Pad Thai that permeates most Thai menus. Order the curry-basted kua kling ribs or khao soi, a comforting, curried soup topped with fried noodles and pickled mustard greens, and you've sailed to northern Thailand by way of San Francisco.
People abuse the phrase "temple" of,but the Refuge is deserving of a pass (and also an Uber, because it's really far down the peninsula from SF). It truly is a temple of pastrami, which is lovingly, painstakingly crafted right there in the restaurant, and Belgian beer. And there's no hipster shit on the walls—you come, you eat sloppy Reubens, you drink high-octane beer, and you go home fat and happy.
WHERE TO DRINK
Let's get the bad news about drinking in San Francisco out of the way. This is a city full of downward dogging, expensive pastry eating, and getting blazed at the park. In other words, activities that are generally left to daytime hours. It's perfectly possible that you'll find yourself somewhere nice around 11 PM, ready to settle in for the night with homies. Then the bartender will yell "last call," so he or she can get in line for those pastries the next morning because he/she can't afford to Taskrabbit this sort of thing like so many other residents.
Speaking of income disparity, most bars fall into two categories: You have awesomely dingy dives with vinyl seats, pool tables, and beaucoup kitsch that feel like time warps to old SF; and then you have a bunch of flashy cocktail joints that cater to tech assholes with money to burn and a Tinder date to impress. The latter are not all bad, but the former are dropping like flies, because as your New Yorker friend has probably expressed freudenschade on Facebook, San Francisco rent is $$$$$ and has eclipsed every other metropolis in America.
Now to the good news: Daytime drinking is obviously fun. You can do so properly at a bunch of bar patios or any public park without a cop caring so long as you're not an idiot about it. And don't get us wrong, some bartenders serve drinks until 2 AM, when they aren't legally allowed to anymore. That's especially true of these establishments.
ABV took home a big prize in 2015 at Tales of the Cocktail, a big global bartender circle jerk in New Orleans. It's a really solid spot in the Mission where you can get a $15 cocktail with a name like Whiskey in Church (smoky and boozy without a serious bite) or Mumbai Mule (a Moscow Mule with coriander and saffron) that is actually worth $15. And the food—namely the falafel-battered merguez dogs and mapo pork buns—is also legit. Go at brunch if you want an obscenely large Bloody Mary served over crushed ice. It's pretty consistently crowded, but the owners had the cocky foresight to build an insane amount of seating.
Before ABV opened, Trick Dog fed the Mission's crassly expensive cocktail habit. The neighborhood has been Ground Zero for tech guys since the city began running shuttle buses to and fro the neighborhood and Google's offices in Silicon Valley back in 2013. It's the sort of spot where you can expect to stand up, ask your friends "WHAT?!" often, and be sized up by a doorman before entering, but the drink menu, which changes seasonally and is themed around anything from the Tarot to Chinese restaurants, is hard to fuck up.
Just about everywhere in San Francisco feels gay-inclusive (more on LGBT-specific spots later), but Phone Booth is one of those rare gay-straight-whatever kind of safe spaces that you don't find often in the States. It keeps busy without getting crowded and serves heavy-handed Greyhounds and well drinks. Pretty much the best part, though, is the jukebox, which plays everything from the Stones and Fleetwood Mac to the Sugarcubes. If you grab a burrito from La Taqueria and want to get buzzed after, this is your closest, best option.
Perhaps the most choice place in the city to drink outdoors. In fact, only go if you want to drink outdoors. The inside of this place is cramped and blows. The place runs at least 40 beers on tap at a time, and it has a large backyard patio with tons of benches. If you want to fit in among the locals, ask for whatever IPA you haven't heard of before and say it like it's the only thing you've ever ordered. San Franciscans love India Pale Ale almost as much as they love speculating when the housing bubble will burst. A word to the wise: The bartenders here have more East Coast than West in them. They're salty without cause and are known to toss out reasonably drunk patrons on a whim. One guy reportedly had his ID confiscated because the State of Alaska makes Monopoly-quality driver's licenses; another got chucked because he proposed to his girlfriend and did so too loudly.
Martuni's is a magical institution—the sweetest piano karaoke bar that has a suspicious number of mirrors, fake flowers, and private bathrooms. It's basically like an old coke den full of happiness. People get piss-drunk and sing everything from REM to that Frozen song. Chances are you'll run into at least one kid from your high school who was in theater and knew that one day it would get better. It did, and this bar is proof of it. Cherish it for as long as it lives.
In 2014, when Google Glass launched, punk-rock dive Molotov's made headlines: SF Resident Attacked at Bar While Wearing Google Glass. Shortly after, several spots in town banned the device. So it's probably wise not to go to Molotov's wearing the thing. Instead, go there, play pinball, and don't be a dope. These guys allow dogs and outside food and only charge you $5 for a shot of whiskey and a can of Hamm's. You should know it is located in the Haight, meaning there are lots of homeless, mentally ill youths with dreadlocks wandering the streets. They'll heckle you when you're walking in and out. Be a decent person about that when it happens.
So you want to bring a honey somewhere really nice and cozy? Trou Normand is just about the most perfect date spot to drop $50 on drinks and appetizers without feeling had. Grab a seat at the bar, under the enormous line drawing of a tastefully nude lady. Then order anything with calvados (an apple brandy) or any of the wines, along with a spread of charcuterie. This place makes every last one on its own. In fact, if you walk to the bathroom, it's possible you'll cross paths with a busser who is rolling a whole pig into the kitchen.
This SoMa wine cafe has that "let's pretend like we're in a living room and not a bar" vibe down with two floors of couch seating. It only serves natural wines—those made without chemicals and as little technological interaction as possible. Basically that funky stuff that 30-somethings with doulas and au pairs serve at their dinner parties. If you have some time, ask the folks behind the bar what they're pumped on, and they might pull out a bottle they smuggled back on a recent trip to Italy.
Tonga Room and Hurricane Bar
Tiki bars are having a resurgence right now across the country, but Tonga Room is an OG of the breed, located inside the old fancy Fairmont hotel. It's a bit silly, with bamboo everything, a giant lagoon, and tri-hourly fake rainstorms, but so is drinking, like, a gallon of punch that was set on fire and served with four straws. Just roll with it. Not that this place is really about the drinks, but to the bar's credit, these guys are more light-handed on sour mix than they could be and use fresh juice in many cases.
If you ever find yourself in Copenhagen, seek out Mikkeller, a tiny hole in the wall spot that is to beer geeks what Tulum is to fashion publicists. If you find yourself in San Francisco instead, go to its not-so-tiny beer hall in the middle of the city near Union Square, home to GAP stores and all the shitty hotels. Everything on the massive list of 40 taps and endless bottles is curious, and, more impressively, the bartender will pretend to not be annoyed if you ask for samples of the artisanal chocolate stout and black currant sour. If you're with a gluten-free creature, you can sell them on the fact this bar serves amazing cider.
There's just about no experience more famous in the city than getting stupid high in Dolores Park off weed truffles and watching all the crystal-clad burners juggle energy. Bi-Rite, the local pricey grocery store with great taste, is the closest spot for park favors. Pick up a bottle of Basque rosé and beers that aren't Budweiser along with báhn mì, organic Sriracha cheese puffs, or whatever the fuck the best version of you craves when you're messed up. It also has great produce from local farms, will tell you what is honestly good or bad at the moment, and offers up a sample of anything to support its claims.
Club Deluxe in the Lower Haight serves reasonably priced mojitos and hosts free live jazz shows just about every night of the week. It's the kind of spot where lots of old guys who probably have estranged kids go on a daily basis to cope with life. It also serves thin-crust pizzas that aren't anything to Yelp about but do the trick just fine when you're a couple of drinks deep.
The Blue Light
Aw shit, you found yourself in the Marina, the epicenter of frat bros and girls who love them. The bright side is that this little pub Blue Light has a cheap happy hour, decent music, and isn't the worst place on Earth if you avoid it during major sporting events (the same could be said of San Francisco, tbh). Go on Tuesday for $2 fish tacos and Red Stripes. It also serves nachos with that radioactive yellow cheese sauce if that's your thing.
The whole city is pretty much homosexual, but most of the bars in the famously gay part of town, the Castro, are filled with terrible beings. Harvey Milk is six feet under rolling in his grave at the Muscle Milk chugging Equinox clan that inherited his old neighborhood. Meanwhile, there are still bars with rich queer history that haven't succumbed to skyrocketing rent prices just yet.
In the late 60s, John Waters used to hit up the Stud, which still hosts a really fun, campy, edgy, busted drag show every Friday night called Club Some Thing. It themes nights around everything from Nina Simone to murderous lovers. It's likely a drag queen will light a dozen blunts and pass them into the art-school-kid crowd. If you're lucky, another will do some Yoko Ono shit and scream into a microphone for five minutes to scare off all the basic gays and straight tourists.
Aunt Charlie's Lounge
Aunt Charlie'sis smack dab in the middle of smack town basically, in a rougher corner of the Tenderloin, and has been a hub for drag since the 80s. It has a chill disco night every Thursday called Tubesteak Connection. It's dead until 11, and then all of a sudden you can't get the bartender's attention. The walls are plastered in old Burt Reynolds-y porn, along with kitschy dirty stuff on the TV, and you can't have your cellphone out, or a drag queen calls you names and shames you for being averse to human interaction. This place just takes that no-phone rule really seriously, which is cool because you actually meet people.
Twin Peaks Tavern
One place in the Castro worth mentioning: Twin Peaks, which is right near the old Castro Theater and this intersection that used to be a hangout for chill dudes who liked to show off their wiener in public. Walk by during the day and at least one will probably be protesting the nudity ban that was enacted a couple years ago. Back in the day, bars blocked out their windows to protect customers from homophobic assholes on the streets. Twin Peaks was the first bar in town to say fuck that and serve drinks loud and proud with regular old windows. Less important, it has a famous old neon sign that some person in your feed has probably Instagrammed.
Every summer, Folsom Street Fair attracts the most dedicated leather daddies, bears, otters, people who like to pretend to be puppies, and piss enthusiasts from around the world. The rest of the year, those guys hang out at the Eagle, on Sunday nights especially, when the venue hosts a backyard barbeque. Its backyard patio is covered in Tom of Finland posters—those sketches of mustached cops from the 70s with giant bulges—and is well-covered in the event California is actually getting rain again.
Sadly, the city's one lesbian bar shut down recently. It's already a glitzy cocktail joint with velvet couches and pate. While El Rio isn't a "gay bar," a lot of women who like women (and men who like men for that matter) flock to it for various queer events hosted in the backyard, or just to hang out and play shuffleboard with a can of Tecate. About once a month, it hosts Swagger Like Us, a queer hip-hop party that you should buy tickets to in advance unless you enjoy waiting for half an hour in line.
WHAT TO DO DURING THE DAY
Since the mid 1990s, San Francisco has been remodeled as an upper middle class Shangri-La for white suburbanites who, in equal parts, hate the uninspiring blandness and FOMO of living outside a major city, and who are also deathly terrified of inner-city crime, poverty, and bad schools. As such, San Francisco has been transformed into the perfect infrastructure of uninterrupted luxury, built on the backbone of a struggling service class (which almost entirely lives in Oakland), tied together by iPhone apps, against a backdrop of unimaginable natural and architectural beauty.
Go Thrifting, Buy a Jacket
You invariably forget to bring a jacket to SF because you had a preconceived notion that California is all sunny all the time. Well, San Francisco is overcast and windy all the time, and you need a jacket all the time, dummy. Lucky enough, that means you have the opportunity to comb through Frisco's 60-plus thrift stores, which are almost entirely supplied and run by the city's artist underclass, who have made a career buying and selling well-tailored, aggressively trendy clothing.
Just like in Los Angeles and New York, the best bang for your buck comes from known resellers like Buffalo Exchange, Crossroads, and Wasteland, where all the hard work of sorting out JINCO jeans from APC is done well in advance. If you want an even cheaper option, traditional thrift stores like Mission Thrift and Goodwill are a dime a dozen, and represent the rapidly dwindling working class population of San Francisco. The epicenter of these two worlds is at Community Thrift, a nonprofit shop on 17th and Valencia in the Mission, where you should find yourself anyway if you're keen on San Francisco's flavor.
Walk Up a Hill and Look Around
Effectively every view in the city offers a long series of Victorian homes breaking into lush, dark treetops cutting through a heavy blanket of fog. From the confusing but palatable mix of Victorian design tacked onto bay windows, to the steel, glass, and cement modern condominiums erupting out of demolished historical landmarks, the flavor of this city taken in all at once is heady and intoxicating. There is literally no shortage of steep hills to climb, and they'll all provide the perfect backdrop to your most viewed Snapchat or Instagram of the day.
The walk to Land's End, a park near Golden Gate bridge, is the most stunning, refreshing, worth-the-hassle hike in the city. To get there, drive to the Coastal Trail entrance. (Or, because parking there is so bad, take the 38/R to its last stop on 48th Street and walk northwest for five minutes and you're there.) On your way down the trail, the trees will filter the light in the most beautiful way, and everything will feel less shitty. Then you'll hit a clearing and look out over a cliff, the Pacific Ocean, and the ruins of Sutro Baths, a saltwater swimming pool complex that burned down in 1967 and almost touches the shore. All in all, it takes about an hour and a half.
Poetry and Stand-Up
San Francisco is a Greek Siren. It promises tolerance, community, creative freedom, chill vibes, and big salaries. But for the thousands of creative writing, art history, and theater majors here, the city is a big fat dead end. Crammed six per apartment, and desperately working to support SF's service industry, leaves many artists here frustrated and unfulfilled. Lucky for you, the best artistic expression comes from desperately trying not to feel like a failure, meaning that community-built live shows are exactly the right place to hear disgruntled talent baring its soul. The city's poetry and comedy scenes are renown for up-and-comers on their way to Los Angeles or New York, and there is never an empty night at impermanent venues in bookstores and video rental shops (there are still at least two in the Mission).
But while venues like Adobe Books (See Music and Nightlife), and Alley Cat are great to find comedy and poetry on the spot, the real heart of SF's spoken word scene (that hasn't fled to Oakland yet) is in dingy crowded apartments found via public but unlisted Facebook event invites. To gain quasi-exclusive access, check out open mics at fan favorite spots like Artists' Television Access, and instead of being a wallflower in a strange city, submerge yourself into the slouching, chain-smoking, zeitgeist crowd to score an invite to something fleeting and real in a packed 700 square foot apartment.
Seeing as San Francisco is (or, as is increasingly the case, was) a self-made, self-identified, self-serving stereotype of the gayest city in the world, it's not actually surprising that the Bay hosts the best LGBT+ parties on the West Coast. Although SF used to be a place where queer folks would run away to, the ultra-high rents have made it prohibitive to see the city as a haven instead of an exclusive club that necessitates a buy-in versus an opt-in. But those that've stuck around still clearly know how to have a gay ol' time.
Hard French, located at popular Mission bar El Rio, is one of the events they go to do that. Hard is more for the alt gaybro, but it plays great oldies, and it is full of friendly cute guys #lookin4love. Quick plug for Oakland's Ships in the Night, a favorite of queer POC bae area girls (although in recent years that vibe has somewhat dissipated), whose organizers are particularly aggressive about barring cis white straights from attending, so win/win.
Back in the 7x7, the most San Franciscan thing to do in "San Francisco proper" is to waste time at Dolores Park. Jammed right in between the nicest part of the Mission and the nicest part of the Castro, Dolores is perpetually sunny while the rest of the city shivers under the fog. You can spend hours day drinking on the slopes, watching guys with farmers' tans and beards hooping and juggling amid a sea of couples on blankets, and seeing a roaming edibles dealer who has a five star Yelp page.
StrEat Food Park
Food trucks are an integral part of San Francisco's borrowed authenticity, and you can find them en masse, three times a month as part of SF's many street fairs (Cherry Blossom, Folsom Street Fest, How Weird, Bay to Breakers, Carnaval, Pride, Fillmore Jazz, J-Pop Summit, Jerry Garcia Day, Fleet Week, etc.). But San Franciscans are lazy, and for a midday fix, head to StrEat Food Park, an under-the-freeway collection of rotating food trucks, neighboring a large homeless encampment in the SoMa. The location reeks of desperation, but so does the business model behind throwing a kitchen into a van, and that turned out OK, didn't it?
Golden Gate Park
The park is always worth walking or biking through and encompasses every possible aspect of San Fran culture. You can buy drugs on Hippie Hill, wander through the Japanese Tea Garden, check out the de Young Museum while the MoMa is closed, take your kids to the giant outdoor playground, hike Strawberry Hill island, and if you take the right bike path, you'll wind up at the beach. That said, recommending the biggest park in the city is a bit like trying to convince a Trump supporter he or she is wrong: What's the point?
Baker Nude Beach
This frigid shoreline starts in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge, and it was once the epicenter of the—now hilariously commercial—Burning Man festival (it moved after four years to Nevada because you can't legally burn a giant effigy in a region that's prone to annual, billion dollar wildfires). In this creative spirit, Baker is also "technically" a nude beach, although, like all nude beaches, is mostly populated by elderly men who may or may not be aware they're nude. When the weather picks up a little, you'll see more bushy moms and #sorrynotsorry Academy of Art students stripping down, but at a five-to-one ratio of gawking tourists to peens and hoo-has. Nonetheless, nude beaches are far and few between, so get your fill of non-sexual naturism. But bring a jacket, because it is always 55 degrees.
Vintage shop buyers from Tokyo make trips to Painted Bird for the perfect black Bowie tee they can mark up 800 percent back home. That fact is half because the shop's owners don't charge too much, half because they just edit their donations really well and send the other crap down the street to Buffalo Exchange. You'll find anything from well-worn Levis and slinky sweaters to overalls and housecoats from extinct French labels. Everything is arranged by color, and you'll be hard-pressed to spot anything non-monochromatic. The vibe is basically 90s normcore to the extreme.
This Moorish building from the early 1900s was originally built to house the San Francisco National Guard. Then, in 2006, porn site Kink.com paid $14.5 million for the place, so it could film videos of naked humans hogtied by their ankles or cramming things into their bodies. The company hosts tours that walk you through the history of the building and various BDSM sets: dungeons, interrogation rooms, infirmaries, and good-old fashioned boudoirs with slings. It's located in a busy part of the Mission, so have a perfect stranger from an app drive you there, or take the bus.
San Francisco's Japantown is only a few blocks radius and one of three of its kind left in the US. Its most notable fixture is the Japan Center, a gloriously dumpy five-acre mall from the 60s that is full of weird beauty counters, dollar stores, boba tea shops, arcades, book stores, ramen bars, and izakayas. It often hosts various cultural events where Japanese people and white people appropriating Japan culture gather to sumo wrestle or wear traditional geisha clothing for visitors. If you want to make a day of it, go across the street to Kabuki Springs spa, a Japanese bathhouse that locals hit to get butt naked and unwind.
THE EAST BAY AND OAKLAND
Let's address the elephant in this incredibly expensive room from the outset: Yes, we know Oakland and the East Bay are not San Francisco, and including them in a guide to that city may rub some the wrong way. After all, you wouldn't include Camden in a city guide about Philadelphia. But then again, if Philadelphia residents were being driven across the river in droves by rising rents, and growing expenses, and a good part of the creative personality that made it great was beginning to survive and thrive in the New Jersey city, you might. So we're including the East Bay and Oakland into our VICE Guide to San Francisco, not because they doesn't deserve their own (honestly, there's such a rich and overflowing diversity of art and culture here, we're barely skimming the surface), but because not giving it due props would be weird, especially given that the wild transformation occurring in the Bay has forced so many responsible for the creative pulse of the area into the same boat. That's not always been the case.
San Franciscans used to smugly note the number of months or years it'd been since they crossed the Bay Bridge into Oakland. Lately, though, they're fleeing the city's outrageous cost of living for the relative comforts of the East Bay. Which means Oakland has begun to share San Francisco's problems: skyrocketing rent, rampant displacement, and civic regimes keen to accommodate business interests at the expense of long-standing cultural institutions.
Next year, for instance, Uber is set to expand from its San Francisco headquarters into downtown Oakland, installing 3,000 employees in a previously vacant Sears, recently rechristened Uptown Station. Will the company also bring its homogenous workforce and churlish corporate culture across the bay? Many residents of the city—known in recent years for its especially tenacious site of Occupy, the genesis of #BlackLivesMatter, and the singular excellence of the Golden State Warriors—worry that will indeed be the case. This is, after all, "the soil where rappers be getting their lingo from," as E-40 put it, and the flatlands where Lil B foreran internet rap.
Shifting demographics—namely the expulsion of poor and black residents—is a plain and stark reality, one that's compacted by an absence of tenant protections and a lack of teeth behind politicians' pledges about "development without displacement." But Oakland's legacy of grassroots organization has manifested imminent ballot measures and potent acts of protest, which include an insurrectionary fringe bent on squatting foreclosed homes in the heart of global capitalism.
Amid the precarious, tense climate are simple pleasures, even affordable ones, especially in the way of bars and eateries. There's a vibe in East Bay and Oakland, one filled with a shadowy constellation of warehouses stowing industrial techno, cracked punk, and as-yet unnamed subcultures. What follows is a list of establishments run by immigrant families and bikers and guitarists subsisting on an income from a 20-year-old Green Day recording credit. Some of them have sheltered protesters from frenzied cabals of Oakland cops. Others boast regulars who haven't been to San Francisco in decades.
The Ruby Room
Arguably the quintessential Oakland dive, the Ruby Room is a notoriously dark, low-ceilinged, scarlet-tinted hallway—occasionally lit by a flaming bar—that leads to a small but vital dance floor and a separate room where smoking is not only still permitted, it's de rigueur. Expect stiff, cheap drinks and weekend bouts of amateur behavior followed by regulars' swift and merciless judgment. Also, mind the next-door liquor store; everyone does. Once a hideout for legal flacks from the Alameda Courthouse across the street, it became the Ruby Room in 1999, retaining a rock wall that reportedly dates back to the 1950s. For a long while, the Ruby Room featured Trevor Latham—president of the East Bay Rats Motorcycle Club who was recently profiled by author Alex Abramovich in Bullies—as its quintessential Oakland door guy.
A pretty filthy outpost amid a patch of wholesale produce vendors in Oakland's otherwise mightily gentrified Jack London District, Merchant's Saloon was founded in 1916 and for decades largely served nearby dockworkers. The trough that runs along the edge of the bar is no longer intended for sailors' easy relief, but the place still smells like piss. The structural integrity brings "shack" to mind. There's an ancient piano and occasional live music, which skews metal and punk or the sort of haggard country preferred by old punks. The Warehouse, the city's longtime cop bar, stood a mere three blocks away until shuttering earlier this year, which seems to Merchant's regulars like a victory. Here's to the salty watering hole outlasting the newfangled wine place across the street.
Cafe Van Kleef
Uptown wasn't known as Uptown when a Dutchman named Peter Van Kleef opened his eponymous bar there in 2004, blocks from the then-derelict Fox Theater. It was relatively sleepy, populated by artists and homespun cultural fixtures amid the vacancies—a far cry from today's strip of glitzy joints and an incoming Uber headquarters. And yet, Van Kleef looks much the same as it once did, the walls teeming with a colorful, delightfully senseless array of objects: swords and shields from France, an (operable) boxing bell, the stuffed head of a water buffalo, a DNA sculpture, etc. They were all collected by Van Kleef, who died last year. And the locally revered figure told a tall tale about each one. It does a brisk business and often smells of citrus. Bartenders constantly pulp grapefruits for the signature drink, a Greyhound.
The Night Light
Relative newcomer to the Jack London District, the Night Light's ostensible appeal is its old world swagger: brass-tacked leather chairs, lustrous wood, vintage light fixtures, and dark, paisley wallpaper. And the cocktails, which skew whiskey, similarly couple familiarity with detail-oriented craft. But unlike other buttoned-up bars, the Night Light is hospitable to free DJ nights and cheap gigs upstairs, where smaller national touring acts and worthwhile local acts regularly perform. Doug Kinsey, who opened the bar in 2012 with Johnny Nackley, often stalks the sidewalk out front, offering Parliaments to passing acquaintances. Importantly, he lends wide latitude to a rotating cast of local bookers.
The Starline Social Club
Originally built as an Odd Fellows Hall in the 1890s, the two-story building at the corner of Grand Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Way evolved through incarnations such as janitorial supply house and hip-hop club before it came into the possession of artists who started to throw underground events. And then one of the artists, Adam Hatch, partnered with noted restaurateur-types to bring the space into compliance with the city and launch the Starline Social Club. Downstairs, a bar winds serpent-like across the room, where patrons working on pricey entrees mingle with others who down cheap beer and stumble toward the karaoke annex. And upstairs there's another bar in the wooden, creaky 400-person capacity venue portion, where programming takes in experimental music, hip-hop, queer dance parties, and recurring events such as "Showga."
Exterior signage limited to a neon martini glass, the Layover attracts with its reputation for a churning dancefloor. Low, black ceilings lend the downtown establishment a cloak-and-dagger allure, which the otherwise colorful, thrifted décor then complicates. None of which seems to matter much on weekends, when one of the city's strongest rosters of resident DJs charge the fairly small room with an outsized club atmosphere. Its success since opening in 2009 is apt given the credentials of the cofounders: Zachary Turner, better known as Foreign Legion's Prozack Turner; and Tim Martinez, who'd previously founded the much-missed cafe, Papa Buzz (later Mama Buzz).
Missouri sounds like "misery," and that's the joke. Dives can indeed be miserable, but Missouri Lounge is mostly a joyful place. Anyway, Missouri is notable for its big, smoke-friendly patio, juicy burgers, and for being Berkeley's oldest dive. Its DJs are good, and beer-and-shot combos retail for $5. Plus, it's a safe enough distance from shitty college bars up the way.
This soulful little place—run by Chez Panisse alum Charlie Hallowell—put Oakland's Temescal neighborhood on the map. Lines formed immediately, made up of East Bayers hungry for a decent wood-fired pie (or rigatoni sauced with pork-rich ragu. Or clams served hot from that same stove, served with toast and green garlic). Reservations are definitely recommended, unless you actually enjoy watching other people eat for an hour and a half. Or you could try your luck at Hallowell's second venture, Boot and Shoe Service, just a couple of miles away.
An evening spent here is the easiest way to hop to Oaxaca, the south-of-the-border obsession du jour. There's no shying away from the theme: Shelves are lined with sugar skulls and a very fine selection of mezcal (booze nerds, take note), while the food is all blue tortilla tacos and pollo en mole pablano. We personally dig the salt air margarita, which comes with a foam made with imported Oaxacan sea salt. Final verdict: Tacos + mezcal + uptown hipsters = an acceptable gentrification of downtown Oakland.
A pop-up experiment made good, Kronnerburger is not for everyone. The burgers are served rare, the ketchup made in house, and the servers are occasionally eye-rollingly pretentious about the whole shtick (and the end of the day, we really are just talking about sandwiches). But if you want a real burger—the kind a shirtless Putin might tear into after riding through the Siberian outback—Kronnerburger is ready for you with its swarthy patty melt and bone marrow sides (served in a real bone). And to be fair, these guys make a mean veggie burger.
B Dama in Swan's Market
Hit this izakaya in Oakland's happening food hall at peak hours, and you'll have to elbow through the crowd to order. Do like we do and just pretend you're in Tokyo: Patiently wait your turn to slurp up sturdy udon noodles and plump, gently fried agedashi tomatoes at the tiny eight-seat bar.
Mama's Royal Cafe
Every city has one: The diner that's stood the test of time, filled with battle-scarred bar stools and seen-it-all waitresses, devoted locals, and its own particular breed of Americana. In Oakland, that place is Mama's and its strain of Americana harks back to the California locavore movement of 1974, when it was born. What that means for you: Straightforward breakfast and lunch made seven days a week from local ingredients (toast for the bacon-stuffed Dagwood sandwich is sliced from Acme bread and eggs for the hearty omelets are plucked from Petaluma chickens). If there's a lull in the weekend rush, ask waitress Sherry about her 1,000-strong apron collection.
Tacos Mi Rancho
Oakland is flush with food carts that too often traffic in hype and gimmickry, but taco trucks are the most reliable fixtures of the city's mobile food culture. Tacos Mi Rancho, the one most likely brought to mind by the phrase "the taco truck," is located just east of Lake Merritt on a one-way strip of 1st Avenue. It's open just as curiously late as the late-night neon psychic services next door. In the wee hours past last call, it's a bit of mob scene. Fixie warriors and scraper cars alike descend on the humble truck, which bears an endearingly disproportionate rural landscape painting on the side. Cheap burritos and tacos come wrapped in foil with a paper bag of off-brand Doritos, and in golden moments, a great eclectic throng of regulars settles curbside to feast.
Oakland's Chinatown, situated just east of downtown artery Broadway, is crowded, loud, and vigorous, but the energy is more quotidian and practical than its better-known San Francisco counterpart. Inside Cam Huong it's much the same. A narrow chute of a restaurant, diners shout orders and foist bills across the counter, then take their food to go or elbow their way into one of the few cafeteria-style tables in back (there's a more spacious outpost in East Oakland). The banh mi—that colonial coupling of toasted French rolls and Vietnamese sandwich ingredients such aspâté—is crucial in meat and vegetarian configurations, especially when curried tofu is involved. And Cam Huong—which accepts cash and cash only—offers even better value than Oakland's very affordable taco trucks. Patrons can leave with a sandwich and rice noodles or pad thai for a mere $5.
Dessert first: Baklava at this squirrelled away Lebanese and Greek diner is peerless in terms of taste and texture. Dusted with chopped nuts, the triangular pastry's featherweight layers of filo emit blissful syrup with each bite. And for those who dine in, a small brick of the stuff is included in the cost of an entrée. To enter Wally's, patrons walk past a couple garbage bins and through a gate—or else through a connected, boisterous bar called the Bank Club—then mount a wooden swivel stool at the U-shaped counter and consult the menu. It offers burgers and wings alongside the (preferable) Mediterranean fare. What precedes each entrée—a bowl of garlicky lentil soup, delivered by Wally or a family member—is almost as good as the baklava.
If you can navigate your way around all the artisanal donut shops and taxidermy boutiques, you can probably still find an amazing burrito in the Mission. East Bay heads know, though, the consummate Bay Area Mexican food experience is at the trucks east of the lake. Best Taco Truck in Oakland is a contentious issue, and it's far from unanimous decision, but Sinaloa tends to be the consensus favorite, mostly because it's extremely fucking delicious. The parking lot at the corner of International and East 22nd features two trucks, typically both with healthy lines. Be adventurous, and hit the one of the far side, opposite International, for the fish tacos, because you're cultured and different. You're reading this so you can impress people, remember?
Fourteenth Street between Broadway and Franklin in downtown Oakland includes a three-level hip-hop complex known as Vinyl, but you're more likely to hear wax spun a couple doors down at the sandwich shop Analog. Employees at the small, late-night eatery play VHS on mute while punk and rap records blare and patrons flip a menu from the A-side (meat) to the B-side (vegan). The sandwiches, about a dozen in all, have names like the Young and the Breastless and Like a Vegan. They're all excellent. Acme focaccia cradles generous portions of meat or seared seitan slathered in bold spices and citrusy sauces, all of which pairs with the selection of craft and swill beer. Anyway, there's an 8-bit Nintendo too.
Abura-ya is a permanent pop-up, meaning four nights a week it transforms a quaint salad spot into a source for a style of Japanese fried chicken known as karaage. The logo is a spinoff of the iconic Ramones graphic. Instead of an eagle, there's a rooster clutching a knife in its talon. A scroll in the mouth reads "Domo arigato." Fittingly then, it's a freewheeling place. The improvised kitchen is composed of deep fryers, griddles, and buckets of sauce. But people come to Abura-ya (which means oil shop in Japanese) for the karaage. Preparing the dish involves marinating boneless, skinless chicken in sake and shio koji (mold-inoculated rice) overnight, then battering and frying. (These guys also prepare tofu and soy protein the same way). Finally, customers select from an array of flavors. Patrons order at the counter and tend to linger, drinking.
Family-owned since 1926, Genova Delicatessen is one of the last remnants of Temescal's early-to-mid 20th century Italian character. And like the nearby Colombo Club, Genova waves a proud, bold flag for its heritage. The restaurant and market, which also operates a production facility nearby, peddles imported truffle goods, vats of olive oil, and wheels of cheese in addition to cold meat by the pound and bulk gnocchi and tortellini. But it's the brisk lunch business—expedited by a number system and a team of about 25 svelte men and women behind the counter—that distinguishes Genova as a destination. The sandwiches, in particular, are moist, plump, and preternaturally flavorful; well wrapped in butcher paper and clasped with the Genova seal, they're like branded gold bricks.
Eli's Mile High Club
Hanging in the back of Eli's is a framed 1979 newspaper article telling the story of the murder of its founder, Eli Thorton. Back in the 70s, Eli's was a premier Oakland blues joint before its namesake was gunned down (in the bar) by a jealous side piece. A few decades later, Eli's evolved into a divey, dimly lit hub for all things punky and loud. Whiskey and beer are cheap, there's a big ass back patio with pool tables, and shows featuring local punk and metal scene fixtures pretty routinely hit for five or ten bucks. Plus, Eli's still celebrates its blues and R&B heritage: The walls are plastered with classic concert posters and ephemera, and if you ask nicely, somebody might even show you the toilet James Brown puked in.
Dan Sung Sa (Porno Bar)
The sign outside reads "Dan Sung Sa," but anybody who frequents this hidden gem knows it by a different name. Once upon a time, the location housed an adult book store, and these days, it still retains some skeezy mystique. The outside facade is decorated with erotic Korean vintage ads, and though the contemporary posters and magazine cutouts that line the walls are a little more tame, crowdsourced dick and boob drawings abound.
It's also open till 2 AM, the food is delicious, and soju arrives in gigantic, group-friendly pitchers. The five or ten blocks in both directions down Telegraph are as close a thing as Oakland has to a true Koreatown, and Porno is one of a handful of places in the neighborhood to grab tasty Korean eats and a plastic bottle of Hite the size of a toddler. The food is spicy and greasy, and the soundtrack leans radio rap heavy. Highly recommended for folks who feel good about scarfing down squid noodles with some Ferg in the background.
Lois the Pie Queen
If you're in town long enough to dedicate a full day to sleeping off breakfast, Lois the Pie Queen is probably a good investment of your time. Frills are minimal, but the whole place has a warm, fuzzy family vibe, centered on the mythology of its namesake, Lois Brown, who founded the restaurant half a century ago. The wall behind the counter is decorated with portraits of local heroes, and the fried chicken will fuck your life up. Oh, and obviously get pie. Don't not get pie.
Parties, Shops, and Other Miscellany
Park Blvd. Records
The great vinyl resurgence of the last decade has had the unexpected effect of making record collecting kinda suck. Pretentious, hyper-curated shops are snobbier and more expensive than ever. And if you happen to like rap music, the boutique record store climate has always been a little hostile, since it tends to cater pretty heavily to crusty rock dad sensibilities and, like, guitar stuff. For those reasons, it's cool that Oakland once again has a rap-centric hub for records and tapes. Park Blvd. Records (read VICE's feature interview about the shop here) is stocked lovingly by a pair of dudes with impressive rap internet credentials: writer and Cocaine Blunts founder Andrew Nosnitsky and Bay rap archivist 12 Man Rambo. Though the shop carries all kinds of music, it's geared to true rap nerds, which means it can get granular (i.e. subsections for Hyphy, Ringtone Rap, and Miami Bass) without being boring or unapproachable. The shop makes a point of stocking bootlegs and local mixtapes, and you can probably scoop just about anything from the $hort Dog catalog on cassette for like ten bucks.
Deep down, we all know the house party is mightier than the shitty dumb bar, and West Oakland's Regulars Only is an institution built on that understanding. A few years ago, the guys who own the house converted their backyard into a fully functional venue, complete with a stage, a fire pit, and a grill station. Functions are sporadic and BYOB, and DJ sets from scene regulars like Erk Tha Jerk and Daghe run the gamut from hyphy classics to old school funk and R&B. Tell a friend, bring booze, vibe out. Just try not to blow up the spot.
The monthly local festival attracts thousands from across the bay. Telegraph Ave is shut down, and the vendors and food trucks roll out. The street is lined with art galleries, live music performances, crafts and clothes for sale, and bars every two blocks. Best of all, it's all organized and staffed by Oakland locals, who knew better than to live in SF.
Mosswood is a historic streetball landmark, the one-time home court for folks like Gary Payton, Jason Kidd, and Dame Lillard. On-court shit-talking aside, it's also just generally a super pleasant place to spend a day. Like all good parks, it's full of lush greenery and open space to stretch out, picnic, and smoke weed publicly.
Betti Ono is the premier space in Oakland's downtown gallery scene for preserving and celebrating the black/POC female voice in the arts. Whether or not you're a critical theory scholar, though, it's a beautiful space full of gorgeously curated, meaningful work that isn't made by a bunch of shaggy trust fund kids, which is always cool. Like everything else good in Oakland, though, it's under siege from gentrification and in need of some serious support before its space becomes HQ for an app that turns children's tears into enterprise-scale cybersecurity solutions. Stop in, check it out, and tell a friend.
Mountain View Cemetery
If you spend a little too much time in New Oakland's hippest, trend-waviest neighborhoods, you might find yourself thinking you'd rather hang out with a bunch of dead people. Mountain View is a good place to embrace your morbid side, but it's also scenic and gorgeous and good for long walks. Spread over 200-plus acres are thousands of graves, including elaborate crypts and mausoleums housing old California industrialists and politicians. Mac Dre's also buried there, so leave a Heem offering if you feel so inclined.
Good Mother is one of those obnoxious cool kid hangouts that's even more obnoxious because it's actually cool. Founded by three art school dudes in their 20s, the gallery leveraged an artist network into packed out shows full of work from who's who Bay Area art scene folks. Colorful, eye-popping stuff from folks like Justin Hager and Michelle Guintu lines the walls, punk bands pop up for noisy shows, and a small army of kids on skateboards with PBR tall cans invariably spills out into the street. Read: good times.
One of the most excitedly anticipated recurring parties in Oakland, Feels is a public service provided by the homegrown art and culture blog Wine & Bowties. The events, which have occurred roughly every four months since 2013, take place in warehouse spaces and unite disparate camps of the city's visual art and music communities in a way that, like the parent publication itself, feels thoughtful and deliberate, yet no less bacchanalian as the evening wears on. They're the parties where IamSu flits about on a hoverboard, then performs a secret set; where kaleidoscopic visuals project onto aluminum siding; where what feels like a backyard affair features internationally celebrated headliners; and where worklamps illuminate cavernous interiors and taco trucks post up out front. And the hip-hop programming is especially informed and even prescient, featuring emerging local rappers such as Tia Nomore and Queens D. Light alongside out-of-towners such as Teklife artists DJ Earl and Taso, who test regional styles from elsewhere on audiences reared on hyphy.
But back across the Bay...
MUSIC AND NIGHTLIFE
San Francisco is great during the day when you have clear views down the steep hills, can take in the fog, and enjoy the natural wonder of the city. But the freaks come out at night, as they say, and in SF that's no different.
If you want to return to your middle school's theater room with art on the walls and warm light and bubbly staff, this your spot. It's a collective, nonprofit community radio station set up in an old storefront, in the middle of the nowhere (i.e. the Mission, where people still live). Hosts broadcast live music, poetry, open mics, comedy, and theater.
This is a beautiful event space inside the historic Redstone Building, birth of the first American union. It hosts radical and experimental art shows—from punk mosh pits to 24mm film showings to kinetic sound and video laboratories. Mission School Murals cover the hallways and there's weird sand soap from the 80s in the bathrooms that makes washing your hands another trippy experience.
The Beauty Bar
If you want some fresh old and new school hip-hop, this is your spot. Plus, you can get your nails done at the salon. Obviously there's a photo booth. No ego bullshit on the dancefloor, but there is an old beauty chair. Go with friends and plan to get drunk fast. Check your bag and dance free. Friends 4Ever hold it down Monday nights.
This underground rock spot is the place to listen to all the local indie bands making their way through the city. The jukebox is free, and there's a smoking room where the neighborhood tamale lady will sell you the best tamales of your life. The spot offers great people watching, as a eclectic cast of Polk Street characters pass by while you watch from the island bar. Those same characters may yell at you outside for leaning on their car, but maybe buy a huge bag of peanuts they sell inside for a dollar as a peace offering.
The Elbo Room opened in 1935 during Prohibition, and that wild spirit lives on, hard. Perfect if you're broke, it has the longest happy hour in the city and serves $2 pints from 5 to 9 PM. It's also home to crazy good dance parties like Saturday Night Soul Party and Sunday Night Dub Mission, the kind you sweat out last night's booze as fog filters in under the door.