Spring blossoms in Union Square

What a joy to spend eight days in SF and NOT have a bad meal! First lunch off the plane was at friends Nick and Sabrina’s place in the Castro for homemade lentils and tortillas with all the trimmings – fresh avo, salsa, rice, chutney. It replenished our stomachs and our souls. Then Nick whipped up a Trader Joe’s brownie batch and even used vegan buttery sticks – moist and chocolatey.

Nick and the ingredients of his bodacious brownies

We stayed in the Tenderloin area very near Union Sq, the pulse of swanky downtown featuring the usual retail suspects – Saks, Macy’s, Neiman Marcus, LV, Gucci … and we were spoilt for choice of affordable eateries on the way from Hotel Diva to Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

Soup Freaks in Mission St is good for daily vege/vegan specials and fresh salads (except the potatoes were not boiled enough – points deducted). Across the road, The Grove is a cosy rustic hangout that reminded us of Leigh Sawmill Café – timber interior with mezzanine, open fires, trees with snake lights! We had a decent nachos and spicy Moroccan vegetables and couscous there.

The homely rhinestone cowboy interior of The Grove

The cooler-than-thou place for coffee would have been Blue Bottle Coffee in Mint Plaza. A bit like a Ponsonby joint with stark walls, minimal furniture and nonchalant staff. Only counter food when we arrived – expensive friands and cookies – a la Ponsonby! I had a New Orleans iced coffee, which was just coffee (albeit good strength), ice and milk in a tall glass.

The interior and exterior of Blue Bottle Coffee and a New Orleans ice coffee with overpriced cakes

While we’re in the area, right opposite the YBCA is SFMOMA and we were lucky to visit on their monthly free day. They had an excellent photographic exhibit from the 1860s to today and a show called How Wine Became Modern. For those who appreciate both a good drop and good design, here are some exceptional decanters on show:

From How Wine Became Modern at SFMOMA

Yerba Buena Gardens is a lovely bright spot for Samovar Tea Lounge, where we ate pricey but posh and beautifully presented Asian food, e.g. squash dumplings and Wasabi Caesar Salad with Wild Smoked Salmon. A pot of Green Ecstasy tea with “first flush sencha touched with superior grade matcha” and loaded with L-Theanine was only US$14!

Refined interior of Samovar Tea Lounge

Also worth mentioning is the green room at YBCA. They supplied us with a fantastic and healthy array of snacks and drinks, probably the best hospitality we've seen from a theatre. There were juices, crudites and hummus, crackers, pretzels, sun chips, granola bars, nuts, chocolate, cookies, fruit, herbal teas - everything to keep me happy.
The complimentary snacks in the YBCA green room

On Geary St right next to Hotel Diva we can recommend Chabaa Thai for quick take-out (US speak) and Colibri Mexican, for the bestest, freshest guacamole we’ve ever tasted, made at your table by an expert guacamolier. Primely ripe avocados and lime juice are the key, me thinks.

A guacamolier creates his art at our table; spread of cheese quesadillas and tamalitos (stuffed corn dough tamales)

Kuleto’s is an upmarket Italian eatery with a grand interior and booth seating. The entrée of squash-filled zucchini flowers was a standout. For a carbo snack, you can't go past Boudin Bakery, an institution with many locations in SF. At the ground floor of Macy's we got a fresh toasted bagel with cream cheese and beet salad with goat's cheese and walnuts to go. Excellent fuel for our Golden Gate Bridge bus tour.

Squash-filled zucchini flower fritters at Kuleto's

I made a special trip to Chinatown for custard tarts, and wasn’t disappointed at Eastern Bakery. The store was dank and dusty, the service cranky, but the tarts were wonderfully flaky, crispy, soft and sweet.

The author enjoys her favourite Chinese pastry - the custard tart; hipsters outside the bakery

T-shirt for sale in Chinatown

In nearby dodgy Taylor St is a hidden gem, Ryoko Japanese. Down the dark stairs, a bit like Tanuki Cave, you will find a lively local hangout set to a mellow house soundtrack. Sushi and salads were pretty good, however, the tempura ice cream was more cream than ice cream, despite the promising presentation.

Ryoko's seaweed salad, sushi, agedashi tofu and tempura ice cream (hidden under the goo)

A trip to SF wouldn’t be complete with a walk up Haight St to Golden Gate Park. Once the centre of hippydom where Janis, Jefferson and The Dead roamed, it’s still tinged with a boho/vintage feel. We tried the breakfast burrito with hashbrown and pancakes with maple syrup and cream at People’s Café, one of those equal-opportunity dives with marijuana art, dreamcatchers and skateboards on the walls.

American people's breakfast at People's Cafe - burrito with Heinz, pancakes with maple syrup; hippy/skater art

Further afield, we had genuine crepes Brittany-style at Ti Couz in Mission Dolores – my mushroom and caramelised onion combo was excellent and the Crepe Suzette the real thing. Also indulged in a refreshing Kir Breton – a Breton cider and crème de cassis (blackcurrant liqueur) – served in a traditional bowl.

Flaming Crepe Suzette and Kir Breton at Ti Couz

A couple of blocks away is the connoisseur ice cream parlour, Bi-Rite Creamery & Bakery, where we had our last epicurean event in the city at 10pm before our early departure the next morning. Choose from such delightful flavours as salted caramel, orange cardamom, earl grey, coffee toffee, vegan chocolate coconut, roasted banana and brown sugar with ginger caramel swirl. The Bi-Rite Market across the road sells organic and sustainable produce from the local community.

Mmmm ... ice cream! You always buy right at Bi-Rite!

But wait, there’s more – our most awesome gastronomic experience in SF was at the famed Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley. It was so special it deserves its own post, coming soon.

We left our hearts ... in San Francisco ...