Bay City Rollin’

April 2008, Gafencu Men Magazine, China
Times may be tighter, but the Bay City is still rolling in it

Of all San Francisco’s incarnations, the one most loved in Asia is its face from the 1990s – a thrilling time when the dot-com boom made a millionaire a minute and the city’s more bohemian, beatnik impulses were buried deep.  “There were parties every single night and they were always totally over the top” remembers Charlotte Milan, who runs a luxury travel and wine public relations firm there, C.Milan Communications.  “People were bringing in dance troupes from Israel, doing shot after shot of caviar and it was like: how much can we have? How much, how much?”

Ten years later and the brashness has gone. The Bay Area remains one of the most expensive places to be in The States with real estate prices scandalously high, a third of its households on six figure salaries and at least forty of America’s 400 richest people calling it home, according to Forbes. But: “9/11 hit San Francisco hard,” admits Milan, who grew up in the city and watches the current market dip with a nervous eye.
Now the wealthy lay low. Stretch limos have been replaced by town cars and parties are toned well down. Whether this is contrite humility or old-money smugness it’s hard to tell, but one thing is for sure: taking a fortune to San Francisco doesn’t mean you’ll know where to spend it well.

However, it’s hard to go completely wrong with word class attractions on your itinerary. You’ve got your Golden Gate Bridge – perhaps by helicopter – and a box at the Giants’ game. There are private dinners to be had at Alcatraz and a few satisfyingly expensive restaurants bordering Union Square or down at Fisherman’s Wharf, where the blues buskers growl and the sea lions honk. Hotels have also returned to the city after a ten year hiatus, and the Intercontinental broke out its 550 rooms last month (the largest in town). “San Francisco is having a great year with citywide conventions, as the city has over 900,000 rooms booked for the year. We are opening at a perfect time,” says Gail Gerber, its director of sales and marketing. The St Regis, brought new luxury highs to town a few years ago, and has expanded to include serviced apartments.

But though most local luxury lies behind the ornate front doors of the Presidio and Pacific Heights, there is one way you can still catch the elite in the act of excess.  “I think you see wealth in the way people spend here; the wines that they buy, the frequency that they dine out,” muses Milan. “Most people I know eat out five nights a week – and we’re not talking not curry or burritos.”

There is no denying that San Francisco has become a haven for foodies. The rigorous Michelin Red Guide hit Northern California in 06 (its only other US guide is for New York), and the latest edition features 34 starred restaurants. Much of the fresh, creative spontaneity of Californian cuisine comes from innovators in the Bay Area, which has amorously embraced the Slow Food movement; a return to regional traditions and home cooking from local, sustainably grown ingredients. And though some of the better established restaurants like The Dining Room and Michael Mina might be in your guide book, think ‘when in Rome’ and get the insiders’ edge at Chowhound or This is a city that knows many of its chefs by name and tracks their moves, alliances and departures through local food columns that read better than an episode of the West Wing.

One to watch right now is Spruce. Tucked into Presidio Heights and serving modern American cuisine, it does a good line in organic produce and naturally raised meats as well as running an in-house charcuterie program. Getting a table here involves serious forethought and a fat wallet. Entrepreneur Bruce Lange, former treasurer at Oracle, takes his clients to Acquerello, which serves top grade Italian cuisine in ornate surroundings. “There was a time period where restaurants were designing main rooms in order to be loud, probably because they thought a loud restaurant gave out a happening vibe,” he says. “Acquarello is as good as it gets in terms of quiet places to take clients, or a date, since requirements for both can overlap! It’s more intimate and the food there is excellent.”

Chez Panisse and Tosca Café are Lange’s two other choices for a memorable meal; the former, run by Alice Waters is about 30 minutes out of town in Berkley.  Waters was one of the few who spearheaded the Californian food revolution and her menus are legendary. Tosca is an unpretentious spot in town where you’re most likely to rub shoulders with an off-duty George Lucas or Nicholas Cage, if you make it into their back room. ‘It’s understated but very San Francisco,” Lange notes. “A great place to have an Irish coffee.”
Riding the crest of the foodie wave, opened literally weeks ago, Le Club comes courtesy of Todd Traina, a film-producing member of a key San Francisco socialite family. This is actually the closest you’ll get to a members’ club here; a town disdainful of waiting lists and pricey memberships. It looks like an elegant penthouse and feels like a ticket straight into a Traina home. It’s that cliquey, intimate angle that makes those that live in San Francisco love it, and those that visit, frustrated.

The Franciscan’s passion for dining out is matched only by its zeal for dining in and the Ferry Building Farmers Market is a waterside whirl of activity four days a week, when it brings Northern California’s best organic food growers to the city. Hit up the award winning Cowgirls Creamery for cheese, sample heirloom tomatoes, batches of fresh pressed Olive oil, crates of wine, and cured meats, and while you’re chomping, find out about how the food is grown and why it tastes so darn good.

Weekend nights out can be quiet here, and there’s a marked difference to the perma-neon of New York. The best bars and clubs the city has to offer – many in the Castro, the town’s gay district – close no later than two, with its revelers planning to be up with the sun and out biking, hiking or road tripping for as long as the weekend will stretch. Post-work week nights and Sunday brunches tend to be more local and lively.

The best of both San Francisco’s shopping and its arts scene is in its small, grass roots offerings. To many an Asian shopper’s horror, there are few malls. “All the streets have their own personalities,” says Susan Lange, COO of Hexagon Financial.  “Westfield Mall is okay if you’re looking for the Armanis and Hermes, but Filmore Street is more unique, with its San Francisco-based companies. Sacramento Street has a lot of unique designer shops and clothing shops.”  Likewise there are few large museums. Though the de Young and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art are top notch, a better feel for the city can be had in small venues like Varnish, an art gallery and cocktail bar downtown, or at the scruffy Make Out Room in the Mission district which hosts Writers with Drinks, a monthly, often raucous display of literary prowess.

But perhaps the best thing about this town is the ease with which you can leave it and arrive somewhere equally fabulous within hours, whether the spa at the Half Moon Bay Ritz Carlton, or the Redwood-fringed hiking paths in Muir Wood. Unlike much of Asia, where the farther out of town you travel, the more humble the dining options get, it takes skill to get far from San Francisco without bumping into two or three nationally renowned eateries, with quail on the menu and a cellar full of top vintages.

Hitting wine country increases your chances of this mightily. The French Laundry in Napa Valley is the only restaurant to win three Michelin stars in the region, but 23 others in its stratosphere have earned their right to sparkle.

For wine country bed-rest the Cliff Lede Vineyards’ Poetry Inn in Napa or Le Mars Hotel in Sonoma are ultra-decadent, though many wineries offer rooms along with courses in wine blending, cooking or mushroom foraging – plus all the wine you can spit. Head there in the fall, when the landscape turns rust red and guests get messily involved in the harvesting.  If pitching in isn’t your thing however, Owl Ridge Wineries has launched Sonoma Grapemasters, a custom-crush program that allows enthusiasts to crush, blend and bottle in private, under the guidance of the facility’s winemaker, for about $8,000 a barrel (24 cases). San Francisco’s first urban winery, Foggy Bridge, will open in the Presidio this summer.

And finally, if you’re really looking to lighten that wallet, there’s always golf.  “If you play golf and you’re looking to spend serious dosh, Casa Palmero at Pebble Beach is one of the premier locations in the world, with spectacular scenery,” says Bruce Lange, whose peers in the finance industry entertain many of the world’s wealthiest men there. “But you have to book a room to play”. And if anything is a metaphor for living it up in San Francisco, there you have it. In this town you’re either 100% in, or you’re out. Spare the effort and you’ll find your nose pressed up against the window, searching desperately for anyone without a digicam and a fanny pack.  Throw yourself in there and you’ll never want to leave.