In San Francisco, the holiday season doesn’t bring snowfall or smoking chimneys, but we make our own traditions. Here are some of locals' favorite seasonal rituals.
Beach Blanket Babylon Holiday Performances (all month)
The nation’s longest-running musical revue celebrates the holiday season with its ongoing satire of the biggest names in pop culture and politics in these playful presentations of holiday song and dance. Club Fugazi, 678 Green St., 415.421.4222
The Golden Girls: The Christmas Episodes (Dec. 1-23)
Dorothy, Rose, Blanche and Sofia from the popular 1980s television show return to San Francisco's Victoria Theater this month, but this time they’re played by four comic drag performers. This annual tradition brings plenty of laughs and over-the-top costumes. Victoria Theatre, 2961 16th St.
Elfstravaganza: Making the North Pole Gay Again (Dec. 8-9)
This seasonal performance by the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus at the Nourse Theater and Castro Theatre features 250 elves in holiday drag, fabulous reindeer, Mr. and Mrs. Claus singing opera and more. 275 Hayes St. and 429 Castro St., 415.865.3650
San Francisco Symphony presents A Charlie Brown Christmas—Live (Dec. 21-24)
The symphony performs Vince Guaraldi’s timeless music as live actors portraying Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Linus, Lucy and the whole Peanuts gang take the stage. The concert begins with a family-friendly reception in the lobby that features festive decorations and activities, including a giant Christmas tree and special Peanuts decor. Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., 415.864.6000
A Christmas Carol (Dec. 1-24)
Now in its 41st year, this San Francisco holiday classic returns with legendary Bay Area actors James Carpenter as Ebenezer Scrooge and Ken Ruta as the Ghost of Jacob Marley. This version of the Dickens classic—originally adapted by Paul Walsh and Carey Perloff—features a cast of dozens, live music and elaborate costumes. Since it began 41 years ago, the American Conservatory Theater’s “A Christmas Carol” has been performed more than 1,200 times to a collective audience of well over a million. A.C.T.’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., 415.749.2228
New Year's With SFJazz (Dec. 28-31)
Hailed as the “king of the funky saxophone and one of the primary architects of modern R&B,” Maceo Parker and company take over SFJazz Center for this funky New Year’s week celebration. The altoist has contributed classic funk solos to James Brown hits, played alongside George Clinton in Parliament/Funkadelic and has toured with artists including Keith Richards, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Prince. Bay Area blues legend Sugar Pie DeSanto opens the show. 201 Franklin St., 866.920.5299
A New Year’s Event with Seth MacFarlane and the San Francisco Symphony (Dec. 31)
Seth MacFarlane is best known as a television producer, but he’s also an Academy and Grammy-Award nominated singer and songwriter. In the tradition of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, MacFarlane performs Broadway and jazz hits accompanied by the symphony. Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., 415.864.6000
Norm Lewis at Feinstein’s at the Nikko (Dec. 10)
Tony-Award nominee Norm Lewis sings his interpretation of holiday favorites as well as the songs that made him one of the leading men on Broadway.
In a college town like Berkeley, if you’ve seen one coffee shop, you’ve seen them all. One, however, on Channing Way, just a few blocks from campus, pours a unique twist: It’s operated entirely by refugees.
The shop, 1951 Coffee Company, is linked to a program to train political refugees with the skills they need for careers slinging coffee in the United States. Founders Doug Hewitt and Rachel Taber, both in their 30s, started the business and training program to provide a platform of self-assistance for these newcomers to the country.
“Through training, refugees become connected to a specific industry, which gives them a competitive edge that general job training classes don’t always offer,” says Taber.
Hewitt adds: “Working at the coffee shop puts people right in the middle of American culture where they can interact with other Americans every single day. It allows them to become a part of the fabric of our country, which is an important place for them to be after what they’ve been through to get here.”
Officially, 1951 Coffee began in 2016. A year earlier, Hewitt and Taber had met working for the International Rescue Committee in Oakland, and shared a dream of creating a business to help refugees assimilate into American society. Hewitt was roasting coffee on the side and knew the coffee industry would be a soft landing spot for some of the folks who he and Taber wanted to help. So the duo formed a nonprofit and formulated a plan of attack.
The first order of business was a name. Ultimately they chose 1951 Coffee after the year the United Nations first defined and set forth guidelines for the protection of refugees.
Next, they set up a 40-hour training program, held regularly at Regeneration Church in Oakland. Hewitt worked with independent coffee shop owners and other friends in the business to build a two-week curriculum that blends book study with on-the-job practice. Students learn about the differences between coffee drinks. They learn how to use point-of-sale technology such as Square. At the end of the second week, there’s also an open-house demo day during which baristas ply their craft in front of managers from local coffee shops looking to hire.
“The refugees aren’t people who have job experience here in the U.S.—they’ve never been here before so this is the first [employment-related activity] they’re doing,” says Hewitt. “The open sessions allow them to add something of substance to the whole interview process.”
So far, about 70 students have graduated the class, and nearly all have found jobs in the industry.
Of course the training program is only one half of the business at 1951 Coffee. Once Hewitt and Taber saw how many of their graduates were being hired elsewhere, it hit them: Why not create their own coffee shop where graduates can work to earn $13-$15 per hour (and even more with tips)?
The shop opened on the ground floor of First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley in January of this year, and now is open daily. To build out the space, Hewitt and Taber retained the services of local design and architecture firm Montaag, and the company became an investor in the business, too.
Montaag spent months working on the project, ultimately settling on a design that mimics the different-colored lines that crisscross across a public transportation’s system maps. Today, when you visit the coffee shop, the motif is omnipresent—starting on the sidewalk out front and leading patrons right up to the front counter.
There are other subtle (and not-so-subtle) touches designed to emphasize the refugee experience.
In a back corner of the seating area, a tiny map of the world has pins representing the countries from which employees hail: Bhutan, Burma, Afghanistan, Iran, Syria and Eritrea. There also is a giant signboard behind the main barista station that explains what the average refugee’s journey is like.
For Taber, the broad-sweeping effort is everything.
“The No. 1 thing for me is that we are striving to help people new to the country find dignity,” she says. “The reality is that the jobs they find most often are not always dignified. The way they are treated by most Americans is that they are feared or pitied, but they’re not treated as a human. And we want to combat that.”
Face of the Program
Perhaps nobody embodies the 1951 mission better than Meg Karki, a 28-year-old refugee from Nepal who came to the United States six years ago to escape political persecution.
Karki connected with Hewitt and Taber within months of his arrival and almost immediately signed up for classes in barista school. He describes his first few weeks of work as a barista as “bad,” but notes that eventually he learned. Today, Karki is manager of the café and now also runs the training program—two big jobs in the world of 1951.
“For me this isn’t just about the coffee shop; it’s about the fact that people can come to the United States and, with help from very generous people, do anything,” says Karki, who originally is from Bhutan. “For me, and for other [refugees] this is still a land of opportunity.”
1951 Coffee, 2410 Channing Way, Berkeley. 510.848.6252
There aren’t many Japantowns left in the United States, but San Francisco’s is one of the nation’s largest and oldest with over a century of cultural history built into its several square blocks. Home to shopping malls, Japanese-language bookstores, imported food markets and a respected Zen Buddhist center, Japantown is demarcated on the south by the five-tiered Peace Pagoda, a gift from San Francisco’s sister city of Osaka and designed by Japanese architect Yoshiro Taniguchi, who also designed New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
Where to Eat and Drink
Japantown has every meal and after-dinner treat covered, from casual lunch spots to high-end tasting menus. Hinodeya Ramen Bar serves satisfying, steaming noodles and soups for lunch and dinner, including vegan ramen. Jitlada Thai Cuisine is known for its curries: savory pumpkin, jungle (clear curry with vegetables) and evil princess (spicy red coconut). For a lighter bite, try the small bites at The Social Study, a charming beer and wine bar with plenty of sake on the menu as well. For an intimate night out, head to An Japanese Restaurant for the chef’s omakase. Reservations-only OzaOza showcases a unique, expansive culinary tradition with its kaiseki spread, featuring specialty sashimi and the chef’s choice of fresh seafood and Wagyu beef across nearly a dozen perfectly plated courses.
Established in 1906, family-owned Benkyodo Company is known for handmade manju and mochi. These Japanese rice flour confections are made fresh each day, often with seasonally special ingredients. Miyako Old Fashioned Ice Cream serves up scoops from family-owned San Francisco institution Mitchell’s, featuring inventive varieties including green tea, ube (purple yam) and Filipino-style coconut flavors such as macapuno and buko.
Things to Do
Kabuki Springs & Spa mimics traditional Japanese-style communal bathhouses with public bathing pools and a full-service, wellness-focused spa. The newly rebranded AMC Dine-In Kabuki 8 movie theater shows an array of art house and general release films with high-end snacks and a full bar. On the second floor of the Kintetsu Mall, the Playland Japan arcade attracts all ages to its imported consoles including drum game Taiko no Tatsujin, Pachinko, a stress-busting table flipping gam, and an ultra kawaii claw machine filled with tiny pastel stuffed animals.
Along a pedestrians-only stretch of Buchanan Street, beautiful, serene Forest Books is a destination for used and rare book seekers, especially those interested in San Francisco history and Eastern religions. The enticing sidewalk sale rack is always stocked with classic works of modern fiction. For those who enjoy writing as much as reading, Paper Tree specializes in fine Asian-inspired stationery and origami supplies. Elegant Song Tea & Ceramics is owned and operated by Peter Luong, who worked in his family’s Chinatown tea business before hanging his own shingle. Pull up a seat at one of the inviting tasting tables made by a local woodworker and sample from the shop’s selection of loose-leaf teas. In addition to tealeaves sourced from suppliers around the world, Luong sells one-of-a-kind teapots made from Zisha, a clay from China’s Jiangsu province.
Olive trees, herbs and thick vegetable rows thrive in sun-drenched gardens outside the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) at Copia, a sizeable facility set along the winding Napa River. Patio seating for the venue’s Restaurant at CIA Copia, which opened in early 2017, overlooks those gardens. Inside, leather seats, weathered wood, warm earth tones and artsy, large-scale prints of kitchen utensils soften the dining room’s industrial bones.
The restaurant serves California cuisine with a global twist, incorporating ingredients grown just outside the door and pairing plates with Napa Valley wines, craft cocktails and local beers. On one side of the room, counter seats afford views of the culinary team at work—and sometimes, a chef might pause to chat about the day’s harvest or share a timesaving cooking technique with guests.
Since opening its doors in late 2016, the center has been rolling out an ambitious mix of private and group classes, cooking demonstrations, tastings, author events, culinary displays and family-friendly happenings.
The facility occupies the former Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts, a restaurant, museum and educational center open from 2001 to 2008. Wine legends Robert and Margrit Mondavi and chef Julia Child were instrumental in establishing the original facility; today, larger-than-life sculptures of the Mondavis look out at Napa from atop the building’s tower. The Culinary Institute of America acquired the property in 2015 and spent more than a year revitalizing the front gardens, removing interior walls, redoing the structure’s façade and creating a more welcoming point of entry.
“We wanted to open up the space and make it more friendly,” says Anne Girvin, assistant director of strategic marketing for the CIA. “We’d like to get local community members back into the building, and give visitors something new to do while they’re in town.”
In addition to revamping the venue’s sit-down restaurant, the CIA at Copia team turned a former box office window into a casual grab-and-go lunch counter that offers salads, sandwiches and soft-serve ice cream. Through the adjacent doors, in an airy, glass-walled atrium with soaring ceilings, six custom-built wooden bars accommodate guests participating in CIA at Copia’s daily Tasting Showcase. Wineries from Napa Valley and beyond pour their latest releases on a rotating basis, making it easy for visitors to sample blends by a variety of producers while talking with well-versed educators from each location.
The wine stations serve flights, glasses and full bottles that guests can drink at the tasting bar, in the facility’s outdoor gardens or at lounge seats located throughout the hall. They can also browse the CIA at Copia’s Wine Hall of Fame, a free exhibit that honors pioneering men and women of the American wine industry. Displayed at St. Helena’s CIA at Greystone campus from 2007 until a 2017 move to downtown Napa, the bronze bas relief plaques feature biographies that spotlight each inductee’s achievements.
The atrium overlooks the Jackson Family Wines Amphitheater, a terraced outdoor venue used for public dining events, private receptions and weddings. Just off the main hall, the Store at CIA Copia stocks culinary gifts and goods, garden tools, cookbooks, kitchen gadgets and seasonal items. In addition to CIA-branded apparel, culinary themed children’s items and vintage cooking supplies, the store also carries artisan foods from local producers plus cookware, stemware, pottery and baking essentials.
“The store includes a thoughtful selection of items, so you’ll find one or two of the best tools in a given category, rather than an endless number of options,” Girvin says. “We host book signings, author events, demonstrations and seasonal events in the store, as well.”
For day-trippers and vacationers interested in a deeper gastronomic dive, the CIA at Copia offers a robust menu of food and wine classes for beginning cooks, seasoned home chefs and families. Most daily events take place in the 72-seat Napa Valley Vintners Theater, which is outfitted with a demonstration kitchen. CIA instructors and guest lecturers teach a variety of seasonally themed options and everyday staples in workshops that last from one to three hours. Topics range from Thai food basics and classic Spanish cuisine to crafting fresh pasta, cooking with beer and making mac and cheese with children.
Registration prices vary for the classes, which require no prior experience and are open to the public.
“Our goal is to provide exceptional food and wine experiences to visitors and locals. Participants learn how to do things the CIA way, and they see what that might look like in the home kitchen,” says Girvin.
CIA at Copia will unveil additional components in 2018, starting with a spacious, second-floor teaching kitchen slated to open early in the year. By late spring, the new Chuck Williams Culinary Arts Museum will showcase items from the late Williams-Sonoma founder’s extensive collection of vintage kitchen items collected around the world.
The destination will continue adding new events and classes, as well, connecting guests to area chefs, vintners and culinary educators while encouraging a new level of engagement in the kitchen.
“Understanding a few simple techniques and recipes can make all the difference,” says chef Anne Cornell Krauss, who leads many of the CIA at Copia classes. “One of my favorite things is to demystify the cooking process for people.”
In a ground-floor demonstration kitchen at the CIA at Copia, chef Anne Cornell Krauss stands before a stainless steel pot and gently stirs a gallon of fresh, whole milk that’s been heated to about 182 degrees Fahrenheit. She has sprinkled a teaspoon and a half of citric acid into the liquid, and she invites students participating in her homemade fresh cheese class to move closer and watch as curds separate from the watery whey.
“You’re looking for those big, fluffy clouds of curds,” explains Cornell Krauss, as she uses a skimmer to transfer puffs of fresh ricotta to a cheesecloth-lined sieve.
Over the next hour, the chef shows students how to mix mascarpone, whip up crème fraiche and stretch mozzarella by hand. She discusses cheese making ingredients, pairs samples with tomatoes, figs and fresh-baked crostini, and answers questions about incorporating cheese into various menus. Like the CIA at Copia’s other chef-led classes, this interactive experience spotlights how fun and simple cooking can be.
“I just want to inspire people to get back into the kitchen, to make their own dish, to try that new recipe,” Cornell Krauss says. “It’s not so scary once you try.”
The CIA at Copia offers a busy lineup of kitchen demonstrations, cooking and baking classes and private lessons.
In the Neighborhood
Plan a full day of food and wine activities with stops at these attractions located within steps of the CIA at Copia.
Oxbow Public Market
Local farmers, producers and vendors staff stalls at this 40,000-square-foot culinary marketplace along the Napa River. Fieldwork Brewing Company, Three Twins Ice Cream, the Model Bakery and Hog Island Oyster Co. are among the market’s merchants, and the venue also features a fish market, artisan cheese shop, spice store, coffee shop and chocolate company.
Gustavo Brambila spent a year at Chateau Montelena before moving to Grgich Hills Cellars in 1977, where he made wine for 23 years. These days, Brambila’s own blends are available at this tasting room across the street from Oxbow.
Mark Herold Wines
Mark Herold earned a doctorate in ecology and worked as a research enologist for Joseph Phelps Vineyards before focusing on cabernet with his former Merus label. Today, his eponymous reds and whites are offered in an Oxbow-adjacent tasting room.
Napa Valley Wine Train
This three-hour Napa Valley train ride and tasting experience boards just a few blocks from Oxbow Public Market.
San Francisco is home to some notable Indian restaurants, but lately, the entire Indian food scene has stepped up its game, better reflecting the vibrant and varied cuisine of the world’s second most populous country. Menus now feature more local ingredients, dishes made using modern as well as traditional techniques and a greater emphasis on both the diverse styles of food and regions of India.
Deepa Thomas, a local entrepreneur and author of a new cookbook, “Deepa’s Secrets,” has noticed the change in Indian restaurants and a greater interest in Indian food. She sees it as part of a “borderless cuisine” trend. “We are all influenced by what’s going on all around us,” she says. She mentions influences such as technology, quality ingredients and an interest in the connection between food and health. Combine that with the Bay Area’s large concentration of Indian technology workers and adventurous local diners, and the result is more than the standard Indian buffet. Here are the local Indian restaurants leading the way.
Arguably, the top Indian restaurant in the Bay Area is Campton Place, which has two Michelin stars. But chef Srijith Gopinathan is never one to rest on his laurels. His exquisite tasting menus often show touches of whimsy in dishes like the Spice Pot, a vegetarian dish in a clay pot traditionally used for plants that’s served with a magical flourish so that a puff of fog appears.
“Spice Pot basically tells you how much San Francisco means to me and how much I love this little beautiful place,” Gopinathan says. “It’s a pretty emotional and a super personal dish to me.”
Equally delightful is a more recent creation, Picnic in Golden Gate Park. In a box with several compartments are a variety of bite-sized treats. “I live close to Golden Gate Park, and my family hangs out a lot there. Many times we sit down under a tree and enjoy nature with some homemade snacks,” Gopinathan says. “I thought why not give it a restaurant treatment and share it with our diners?”
August 1 Five
One new restaurant making a splash with great reviews is August 1 Five. Located just blocks from the premier symphony, ballet, opera and jazz venues, it has a sensual and luxurious feel, with velvet booths, a lattice entryway and bold peacock imagery and colors. Owner Hetal Shah looked to create the kind of restaurant she and her family would want to dine in, with a commitment to organic and sustainable ingredients and options for more communal dining. The menu is comprised mostly of small plates, and it’s all intended to be shared, although there is a chef’s special four-course course menu available. Chef Manish Tyagi has had an illustrious career in India, where he was awarded a prize for championing regional cuisine. His focus continues to be regional dishes inspired by street food, home cooking and more traditional restaurant fare, but updated with local ingredients and often a lighter California sensibility.
The lamb chops are a signature dish, and one he learned from his father. They’re tender and delicately spiced and coated in a thick dusting of California pistachios. Another favorite dish is gol gappa, crisp puri puffs filled with potato, cucumber, cilantro stems, red onion and a touch of jalapeno. They arrive at the table with carafes of mint cilantro punch and mango tamarind water. Pour the liquid into the puffs, and the result is a crunchy and juicy bite.
Rooh is pushing Indian food to new heights in SoMa. Like August 1 Five, it's the complete package, with an impressive wine and cocktail list, dramatic interior and modern cuisine from a star chef from India. Chef Sujan Sarkar uses modern techniques such as sous vide, liquid nitrogen and dehydrators to present traditional flavors in new ways. One of his signature dishes is the Jhalmuri Bar. It looks like a granola bar, but it’s savory rather than sweet. He tops the popped grain bar with avocado and potatoes, tamarind and mint and serves it with buttermilk sorbet. “If you close your eyes, it tastes 100 percent Indian,” Sarkar says.
Another menu staple is tuna bhel. Bhel puri is a well-known street food, and Sarkar explains that his version is done with tuna and grilled mango, black rice, tamarind and green apple. “It’s like tuna poke but a different kind of flavor profile.” It’s instantly recognizable as Indian and yet fresh and new thanks to the addition of tuna.
Not all modern Indian restaurants are fine dining. The cuisine of Preeti Mistry, the chef and owner of Navi Kitchen in Emeryville, defies categorization. “I’m not a huge fan of the word fusion. I’m not a fused person. I’m me,” she says. “I’m from London and went to culinary school there, visited India and Trinidad, grew up in Ohio and have been cooking in the Bay Area for over 10 years—it all influences my food.” She first struck out on her own with a pop-up that reflected the way she’d always cooked at home. Dishes at Navi include familiar favorites like macaroni and cheese and a breakfast sandwich offered on weekends, all with an Indian twist.
The runaway hit of the restaurant is its Indian pizzas. They come with toppings such as kheema—lamb and beef tomato sauce, Lacinato kale and red onion. The most popular pizza has proven to be Leelu Potato, topped with pistachio herb pesto, potato, sweet peppers and cherry tomatoes. Mistry is a pizza lover and wanted to make pies with Indian flavors but “not with just any old Indian curry on top.”
Back in San Francisco, Mumbai native Rupam Bhagat opened Dum Indian Soul Food on 24th Street in the Mission District. Having run a successful food truck and worked in hotels, Bhagat approaches dishes creatively, with a keen sense of what will work for both Indian and non-Indian guests. His brunch menu is a perfect example. Dishes like green eggs, pancake and eggs benedict all sound familiar but are inventive and modern Indian versions.
The green eggs features poached eggs blanketed in the pureed spinach that you would find in palak paneer and is garnished with mini croquettes made from vindaloo. The pancake is really a version of a traditional uttapam, savory not sweet, made from lentil and rice flours, with fresh tomato, onion and cilantro and served with coconut chutney and garlic hot sauce. It’s indeed soulful food with familiar Indian flavors showcased in new ways.
While traditionally much of the Indian food in the Bay Area was from the North of India, Dosa originally focused solely on the food of South India. Although the menu still offers Southern specialties like dosas and uttapams, most recently the restaurant has been featuring deeper dives into even more regions and has added a Bengali menu. Though there are still more than a dozen Indian chefs in his kitchens, the restaurant’s new chef, who is of Indian heritage and grew up in New York, is bringing a fresh eye to the menu, sourcing seasonal California ingredients and serving them with traditional Indian flavors.
One addition to the menu is smoked arctic char and peach curry. “The dish is based on a mango curry we’ve been offering for years, but the new chef swapped out the local peaches for mango,” owner Anjan Mitra explains. “The fish is smoked over apple wood. We use the open fire techniques used in India, but here we use local wood.”
A Creative Approach to Giving Back
Ranjan Dey, chef and owner of New Delhi Restaurant, takes charitable giving to the next level with Compassionate Chefs, a non-profit organization. “In 2007, I met with my staff, and we all wanted to make a difference, across the street and across the ocean,” he says. His organization raises funds for the Tenderloin After School Program and programs affiliated with the Ghandi Ashram in India. The restaurant covers expenses and sponsors events, and several times a year he transforms the restaurant into the “Compassionate Chefs Cafe” and allows guests to pay what they like, with all money going to charity.
In a city that’s rich with new restaurants, several San Francisco dining groups have built a reputation for standout cuisine and one-of-a-kind experiences. Hi Neighbor Hospitality Group partner Ryan Cole, whose team operates four neighborhood dining destinations, believes that success starts with solid relationships. “This is a very interesting time in San Francisco because customers have so many new restaurant choices,” he explained. “It reminds people that the places they recognize as favorites—those ‘I always like to go there’ spots—they visit those favorites for a reason.”
Whether welcoming patrons at Hi Neighbor’s established mainstays or newer additions, Cole believes that genuine hospitality, great food and unique experiences turn first-time customers into repeat guests. To see how his restaurant group and other local dining dynasties are putting an innovative spin on dishes and drinks, grab a table at one of these area favorites.
Hi Neighbor Hospitality Group
You know them for: Cole and his partners draw on fine-dining backgrounds to bring quality food and friendly service to intimate neighborhood eateries. “We’re called Hi Neighbor because that’s what we do—we want to know our neighbors,” he said. A robust beer list and shareable small plates define Fat Angel, the group’s date-friendly Western Addition gathering spot, while Stones Throw serves California-American dishes in a charming Russian Hill locale on the Powell-Hyde cable car line. Bordering North Beach, Chinatown and Jackson Square, the two-time Michelin Bib Gourmand recipient Trestle offers a three-course prix fixe menu for just $35.
Now try: The group’s most recent addition, Corridor, launched weekday breakfast hours, Saturday brunch and a refreshed dinner menu this spring. Overlooking a busy stretch of Van Ness Avenue, the high-end comfort food eatery offers a relaxed option for a quick coffee meeting or a full meal. Corridor is equally convenient for employees in Mid-Market and Civic Center, travelers exploring central San Francisco and ticket holders looking for a bite before the opera or symphony.
Back of the House
You know them for: In under 10 years, Adriano Paganini’s Back of the House group has crafted a collection of approachable dining concepts spanning an array of cuisines—from two locations of Delarosa, a Roman-style pizza place, to the cozy California comfort food stop, Starbelly, to Flores, serving Mexican small plates and cocktails to the classic burger and shake chain, Super Duper Burgers.
Now try: Back of the House Group’s latest additions include The Bird, a casual, budget-friendly cafe for free-range fried chicken sandwiches and fresh apple slaw, and a Mano, a Cal-Italian destination in Hayes Valley. Here, housemade pastas, seasonal pizzas and on-tap Italian wines headline the menu that Paganini described as “uncomplicated but always delicious.” This winter, the group will open its 22nd restaurant, the Spanish tapas bar BarVale, over on Divisadero Street.
Big Night Restaurant Group
You know them for: The introduction of market-driven Marlowe—and its lauded burger, loaded with caramelized onions, horseradish aioli, cheddar and bacon—put restaurateurs Anna Weinberg and James Nicholas on the Bay Area dining map. Working with chef partner Jennifer Puccio and pastry chef Emily Luchetti, their Big Night Restaurant Group has since debuted Park Tavern, an upscale American dining spot in North Beach; The Cavalier, serving British brasserie-inspired eats and drinks just off Market Street; and Marianne’s, a swanky saloon tucked inside The Cavalier, plus other stylish San Francisco concepts.
Now try: The Big Night family opened Petit Marlowe in June 2017, creating a sophisticated, Paris-inspired wine and oyster bar on Townsend Street in SoMa. Raw oysters, deviled eggs and cote de boeuf top the list of popular bistro bites, while the thoughtful wine list features reds and whites available by the bottle or the glass. The group’s Financial District seafood and cocktail den, Leo’s Oyster Bar, was named Bon Appétit’s Best Designed Restaurant of the Year in 2016 and earned a James Beard Foundation nomination for design in 2017.
You know them for: James Beard Award-winner Daniel Patterson’s project menu includes the two Michelin-starred Coi and the San Francisco steakhouse Alfred’s; his team revamped the 1928 classic in 2016. He’s also behind the health-minded fast food brand LocoL, created in partnership with Roy Choi and Plum Bar, a sleek Oakland kitchen and cocktail lounge. Patterson’s San Francisco Alta locations spotlight market-driven California cuisine.
Now try: This spring, Patterson expanded his Alta empire by opening an all-day spinoff of the Market Street original at the Minnesota Street Project in the Dogpatch district. This fall, he’ll open Alta at The Grant, bringing signature bites like brown rice puffs with avocado dip and the Alta Burger to the YOTEL San Francisco. The ground-floor restaurant and rooftop bar in this new Mid-Market hotel will replace the current downtown Alta location. In spring 2018, Alta also goes east with a new outpost in Oakland’s Jack London Square.
The Absinthe Group
You know them for: Absinthe Brasserie & Bar landed in Hayes Valley about 20 years ago, introducing French brasserie fare to a neighborhood overshadowed by a double-decker freeway. Today, that freeway is gone and Hayes Valley is one of San Francisco’s hottest culinary districts. Restaurateur Bill Russell-Shapiro stayed local with the addition of charming Arlequin Cafe and Food-to-Go and the adjacent Arlequin Wine Merchant, and the Absinthe Group later restored what Russell-Shapiro called “the last of the old Barbary Coast saloons” to create Comstock Saloon in North Beach.
Now try: The Absinthe Group launched Barcino in the former Boxing Room space in summer 2017, bringing Catalan small bites and Spanish drinks to a bright Hayes Valley corner spot. It follows the much buzzed-about opening of Bellota, which offers Spanish paellas, croquetas and wood-fired hearth dishes in SoMa. The restaurant’s chic “Casablanca”-inspired interior is tucked in a former warehouse listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Wedged between two of San Francisco’s most alluring parks—the Presidio to the north, Golden Gate Park to the south—is the equally appealing Inner Richmond district. The quiet, sunny neighborhood boasts an array of local restaurants, wine bars and historic shops—including one of the city’s oldest and best bookstores.
Where to Shop
San Francisco has a strong reputation for supporting small stores selling locally made wares. In the Inner Richmond, you’d have to try to actively avoid the many independent, family-owned shops lining the streets.
Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, Green Apple Books remains one of this literary-minded city’s most beloved independent bookshops. The shop stocks everything from new hardcover and paperback releases to political and art-centric magazines to stylish notebooks and journals. Don’t be confused: the shop is split between two locations on the same block; the annex containing used fiction and a serious vinyl record selection is two doors down from the main, two-story storefront. And don’t miss the nook of ever-revolving displays in the annex, where discerning shoppers can be found eying colorful greeting cards and artwork from the Outer Sunset design duo behind 3 Fish Studios, in addition to screen-printed tees, tote bags and wall art from the full-service Tenderloin-based print shop, Studio Nico.
Curious children as well as kids at heart will discover fascinating toys, from soft stuffed animals to wooden nesting dolls, as well as animal-shaped nursery lamps and whimsical party supplies, at Tantrum.
At Foggy Notion, opened in 2011 by photographer and designer Alissa Anderson, California-inspired eclectic home goods, including handmade jewelry and organic skincare products, are the focus.
William the BeeKeeper sells locally produced honey, handmade soaps and charming ceramics, and offers crafty classes in candlemaking and macramé. For more made-in-SF books and T-shirts, pop into Park Life.
The Best Restaurants in Inner Richmond
Take friends to Kitchen Istanbul, where owner-chef Emrah Kilicoglu crafts delicious Turkish-style mezze plates meant for sharing and main course dishes that are as enjoyable as the convivial, cozy dining room. Start with the chef’s creamy hummus before moving on to savory moussaka—lamb or vegetarian—or lamb kebabs, and save room for perfectly semisweet homemade baklava for dessert.
For hearty Burmese cuisine, Burma Superstar has become a destination in the neighborhood with a waitlist almost as legendary as its tealeaf salad. It can take two hours to get a table. Plan to put your name on the list and pop into some charming nearby shops while you wait.
For take-home treats, head to Schubert's Bakery. A San Francisco institution since 1911 known for its mousse cakes and fruit tarts, including the ever-popular marzipan-wrapped Swedish Princess Cake.
Where to Drink
For 35 years, the Toy Boat Dessert Café has been serving up sweet treats with a side of playful delights, including a fully functional mechanical horse for the kids. Bring cash to this cute corner café that specializes in coffee and espresso drinks and serves the Bay Area’s own Double Rainbow ice cream, including some lactose-free options.
Pull up a stool at High Treason to sample wines by the flight while enjoying mellow tunes from the turntable. Neighborhood newcomer Scarlet Lounge also hits all the right tasting notes: cool cocktails, lovely decor and a chill, welcoming vibe.
Much more than a museum, the interactive Exploratorium on San Francisco’s waterfront Embarcadero “beckons involvement,” says the New York Times. Fostering science, art and human perception, the completely hands-on space boasts more than 650 ever-changing exhibits and a learning-by-doing ethos. And it’s not just for curious kids. Here are the top seven reasons to visit:
This one is the most obvious, but you can’t beat the unique and eccentric experiences here. The museum is divided into six galleries which include experiments with thoughts, feelings, and social behavior; light, vision, sound and hearing; and local history, geography, and ecology. Outdoor exhibits explore winds, tides, and natural phenomena including the popular Fog Bridge, where San Francisco’s famous Karl the Fog is recreated several times a day, swirling amongst visitors. Other favorite exhibits include the Distorted Room, the Kaleidoscope Booth, and the Tactile Dome. Visitors can actually watch the engineers build the exhibits in their exhibit-building workshop, available for public observation with an “open-kitchen” concept. Fun fact: 80 percent of the world’s museums use exhibits, programs or ideas designed by the Exploratorium.
The Exploratorium Is Kid-Friendly
The Exploratorium encourages everyone to think with their hands and experience science in an interactive way. Late physicist and founder Frank Oppenheimer—younger brother of J. Robert Oppenheimer (father of the atomic bomb)—saw the need to teach science differently, embracing concepts of invention and play. Kids can run around in 330,000 square feet of indoor/outdoor space—the length of three football fields—and explore hundreds upon hundreds of eclectic exhibits in a giant playground of science and perception. There’s even an entire gallery devoted to “tinkering” where visitors can help make things like an oversized clock or a lariat chain to develop ideas and understanding.
The Exploratorium Is Adult-Friendly
Peruse the museum with a cocktail in hand—and no kids!—every Thursday night during After Dark from 6-10 pm. This 18+ evening features adults-only programming with unique guest speakers, music, cutting-edge films and activities. Programming changes from week to week and has included diverse topics ranging from cannabis to Virtual Reality to a look into the periodic table with Everything Matters. Participatory playfulness is always encouraged, especially for adults.
Museum offerings are as diverse and eclectic as they come and they’re always changing. Programming features scientists, artists, lecturers, musicians, poets and chefs. There is always something new to discover and varied ways to consume new information and learn.
Location, Location, Location
The Exploratorium sits on the San Francisco Bay at Pier 15 with breathtaking views of the Bay Bridge, in addition to the downtown skyline and the city’s waterfront. It’s also conveniently located; it's a short walk from Fisherman’s Wharf, Pier 39, downtown and AT&T Park and close to multiple forms of public transportation including BART, cable car lines and ferries.
Only in food-centric San Francisco would restaurants be a draw at a science museum, but the Exploratorium features two. SeaGlass is a waterside spot with stunning views. Chef Loretta Keller creates family-friendly, multicultural, locally sourced menus that showcase small producers. Sit indoors or outdoors at the Seismic Joint Café, a casual take-out spot featuring a coffee bar, baked goods, natural sodas, and more.
Come for the science, stay for the shopping. The Exploratorium’s two stores boast quite possibly the most unique, eclectic and exciting procuring experiences in San Francisco. Stores carry gadgets, games, kits, activities and books for both kids and adults that focus on science, art and technology. There’s no better place to pick up a local souvenir or gift. Both the main store on the Embarcadero and the other in the middle of the museum were inspired by the museum’s onsite workshop where all exhibits are designed and built. The main store—open to the public—even features a large, interactive Triple Vortex exhibit; a store fixture that converts into an interactive sound exhibit; and a cherry-red Art-O-Mat vending machine that dispenses original artworks.
San Francisco offers so many delights, it’s hard to imagine wanting to escape. But savvy seafarers know some of the Bay Area’s most interesting destinations are just off the mainland, only reachable by crossing the estuary. While not every one of the 40-some San Francisco Bay islands is only accessible by ship, many of the smaller, uninhabited islets remain largely untouched despite the shores teeming with humans nearby. Here, a look at several popular islands worth a visit—some just a short drive from the city, no boating required.
The most iconic island in the San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz Island was first dubbed “Isla de los Alcatraces,” or “Island of the Pelicans,” by Spanish explorer Lt. Juan Manuel de Ayala in 1775. President Millard Fillmore, who advocated for California statehood, declared Alcatraz a military reservation in 1850, two years after gold was discovered along the American River near the city of Coloma and forever altered a state known for its wild beauty and erratic population growth.
The federal penitentiary part? That lasted just under three decades, from 1934 until the last cell door swung open in 1963. Today, that short history features most prominently in tours of the island, alongside the history of several Native American occupations on the island in 1964 and a nearly two-year occupation that began in 1969, both protesting the federal government’s treatment of American Indians. In 1986, Alcatraz was designated a National Historic Landmark.
Today’s visitors—more than a million annually—can learn about the island’s many histories through informative signage and audio tours and view historic structures such as the guardhouse and water tower. In recent years, the island has even become a site for artistic exploration. In 2014, Chinese dissident artist-activist Ai Weiwei used old outbuildings and even jailhouse cells to install “@ Large,” his acclaimed exhibition on themes of imprisonment and freedom.
A California State Park even larger than neighboring Alcatraz Island, Angel Island is another former “site for activities undesirable in the middle of the city,” according to the book by the Center for Land Use Interpretation, “Around The Bay: Man-Made Sites of Interest in the San Francisco Bay Region.” The island hosted generations of gun batteries and a Nike missile site and was the so-called “Ellis Island of the West,” serving as the region’s primary immigration processing and detention center, in addition to a prisoner of war camp in World Wars I and II.
The lush island has since been reclaimed for most enjoyable activities and become a popular day trip in the bay, offering beautiful panoramas of the city skyline and vistas from which to admire 360-degree views of the area. Island-goers can rent bicycles and cruise the perimeter loop trail, hike the squat hills or take a tram around the six-mile circumference of the island. Cantinas serving soft drinks and savory snacks are open seasonally.
The native Ohlone tribes of Northern California settled this former peninsula off the western coast of Oakland thousands of years ago. The Spanish arrived in the late 1700s, about 150 years before Alameda became a leisure destination. Neptune Beach, an early 20th century shoreline amusement park, featured carnival rides like a wooden roller coaster, and competitions in the park’s Olympic-size swimming pools featuring Bay Area legends such as Jack LaLanne, the so-called “Godfather of Fitness.” The bayfront park endured for over two glorious decades until the Bay Bridge directed traffic away from Alameda, and the town (mostly) ceased to be a destination for thrill-seeking tourists.
Mark Twain once called Alameda “the garden of California,” and the description holds. Today, Alameda is often considered the Mayberry of the Bay Area, accessible by car as well as ferry across the bay from San Francisco. The bedroom community boasts quiet, residential streets, easily accessible coastal parks and charming downtown stretches featuring affordable vintage shops and restaurants serving Old-World German and Lithuanian cuisine. In a quieter way, Alameda is also still a good-time destination with three retro arcades and gaming spots for all-ages fun including the Pacific Pinball Museum, where you can play over 90 pinball machines all day for a flat fee.
Below the iconic Cliff House and jutting out of the northern end of Ocean Beach, you’ll find these towering rocks, barely reachable in low tide and a handy stopover for hundreds of brown pelicans and cormorants searching the coastline for food.
Known for its namesake oysters, this small, sandy mound in Tomales Bay north of San Francisco is also a roosting ground for cormorants and a stopover for the occasional bald eagle. Rent a kayak from local outfit Blue Waters to explore the bay, and you’ll likely spot orange bat sea stars and harbor seals keeping a respectful distance behind your boat.
New trails on this otherwise undeveloped 3,000-acre salt marsh restoration in progress make it a delightful spot along the Pacific Flyway to observe massive flocks of seabirds. Look for great and snowy egrets, as well as curlews—the long-billed wading bird also known as the candlestick bird—and the namesake of the San Francisco state park, as well as the baseball stadium formerly on the same waterfront stretch.
There was much to celebrate when Treasure Island was constructed for the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition. The federal government-commissioned construction on the man-made 400-acre parcel adjacent to Yerba Buena Island soon after construction was completed on two other major Bay Area landmarks: the Golden Gate Bridge, opened in 1937, and the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, completed in 1936 and with the eastern span replaced in 2013. The popular 49-Mile Scenic Drive was also created to lure visitors to San Francisco and the 1939 World’s Fair and initially terminated on Treasure Island.
Shortly after the World’s Fair, the U.S. Navy took over the island as a training base for half a century, officially closing in 1997. Thousands of civilians now call the island home, and many of the art deco terminal buildings are used in film and television production, in addition to housing art and antiques for dealers and collectors.
In the last decade, as Treasure Island has become known for its eponymous annual music festival, seven urban wineries have also planted metaphorical roots on the island, including Treasure Island Wines, a collective of artisan wineries. Treasure Island also offers some of the best views of the San Francisco skyline. Even amateur shutterbugs will enjoy the sweeping views of the city across the glittering waters of the bay—provided the fog hasn’t rolled in.
“Twenty-eight miles from the end of the continent, you come upon the most forbidding piece of real estate to be found within the borders of any major city in the world: the Farallon Islands,” wrote San Francisco journalist Gary Kamiya in his bestselling love letter to his hometown, “Cool Gray City of Love.” “The Farallones are only barren and desolate from a human perspective,” he added. “For the myriad other living things that swarm all over and around them, they’re like Times Square on New Year’s Eve.”
Indeed, nature-lovers populate the all-day excursions ferrying visitors to the jagged so-called Devil’s Teeth several hours beyond the Golden Gate Bridge. The islands are a mecca for some dozen-plus species of birds, including several species of storm-petrel and the tufted puffin. The Farallones are also a haul-out site for several species of seal and sea lion, including hulking northern elephant seals. Gray, blue and humpback whales feed in the surrounding waters, as do great white sharks, which show up seasonally to feast at this marine mammal breeding ground. Designated a national wildlife refuge, only scientists are allowed on a single slab of rock, Southeast Farallon Island. All other visitors must stay aboard the vessel that brought them.
“Until recently, the Farallones were not islands at all,” Kamiya noted in his history of the rocky outcroppings. “During the last glacial period, which ended 12,500 years ago, sea levels were much lower than they are today... The first San Franciscans, who arrived some 13,000 years ago, could have walked out there.” Today’s visitors will have to settle for a sail to sea instead.
Major museums and Union Square galleries are only two of many exciting ways to experience art in San Francisco. In the past year, several major new spaces have completed renovations or opened for the first time, offering ever more opportunities to explore the Bay Area’s rich history through the arts in both visual multimedia exhibits and music. From ambitious city galleries to rehabbed barracks on the bluffs in Marin, there are new San Francisco spaces and centers to suit just about any art-lover’s tastes.
Head to the Headlands
Part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area since its founding in 1982, the Headlands Center for the Arts has been an inspiring destination in the windswept coastal wilderness across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco for 35 years.
In August, the new artist-led renovation project was unveiled at the historic nine-building campus, which supports multidisciplinary arts programming and offers a popular in-residence program to artists of all stripes, from writers to photographers. A dozen alumni from the program have received MacArthur “Genius” Fellowships, and many more have accepted some of the highest honors in their various disciplines. Check the calendar for artist talks, panel discussions and hands-on opportunities to make art with some of the area’s masters.
For Students and For All
Fort Mason continues to evolve as an arts destination with the opening of the new $50 million San Francisco Art Institute—SFAI—campus.
Housed on a 67,000-square-foot renovated pier, the massive studio and exhibition space juts into the San Francisco Bay, offering panoramic views of the water from what was once a World War II Pacific theater embarkation point. With this exciting expansion, SFAI has created 160 art studios for students, and for the public, several new free exhibition spaces.
One eye-catching attraction: the Mural Wall, which will feature rotating artist commissions. The inaugural mural by alumna and SFAI faculty member Alicia McCarthy will be displayed through 2019.
With an emphasis on free, dynamic programming in recent years, the Fort Mason Center for Arts and Culture has drawn art aficionados to the north side of the city with its major artist retrospectives and small galleries dotted all over the 13-acre former U.S. Army post. One exciting new exhibition, "Sanctuary," opens Oct. 7 and presents prayer rugs made by 36 artists from more than 20 countries, all riffing on the physical and psychological notions of sanctuary—and located, appropriately, in the Fort Mason Chapel.
When heading to Fort Mason, make sure to check the schedules at the exciting arts venues in the area, including the Magic Theatre playhouse, a Bay Area institution celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. And every Friday night through Oct. 20, check out the nation’s largest food truck extravaganza at Off the Grid, where piping hot fusion cuisine and cold brews on tap pair perfectly with the city’s late summer fog and free music performances offered most Friday evenings.
The Poster Child for a New Art Center
At the new two-story, 12,000-square-foot Haight Street Art Center, poster art production, history and education are the full-color focus. A giant bronze rabbit marks the entrance to this Lower Haight neighborhood gallery, which functions as a sort of living history center, complete with scanners and printers in a print shop that can be accessed by anyone, famous artist or curious visitor off the street.
Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love, the center’s inaugural exhibition, "The Art of Consciousness," features nearly 100 psychedelic posters from the late 1960s creativity explosion that rocked San Francisco. The permanent collection continues to offer plenty of eye candy. Before visiting, be sure to check out the center’s class calendar which offers opportunities for visitors to test their own far out silk screen-printing techniques.
Since opening its doors last year, the range of galleries in the three warehouses that comprise the Minnesota Street Project have attracted excited guests and drawn rave reviews. With the recent announcement that Chronicle Books executive and SFMOMA trustee Nion McEvoy will display his personal collection of photographs and other artworks in one of the galleries, there is ever more reason to make a detour to the Dogpatch.
On view through Oct. 28, the group exhibition "Soil Erosion" offers visitors an array of works by more than 20 contemporary artists exploring themes of erosion in land, liberty, culture and loss of desire. With the recent opening of famed Bay Area chef Daniel Patterson’s latest Alta location in the Minnesota Street Project, the spacious galleries and adjacent local businesses have become a destination for a night out or a leisurely weekend afternoon adventure.
The Walt Disney Family Museum: "Awaking Beauty: The Art of Eyvind Earle" is this gorgeous Presidio museum’s 18th original exhibition, highlighting the artist who worked on "Sleeping Beauty," "Lady and the Tramp" and "Peter Pan." Through Jan. 8, 2018.
SFMOMA: The only U.S. presentation of a major retrospective of the work of photographer Walker Evans traces his signature documentary style over five decades, including more than 300 prints, many from the artist’s personal archive. Sept. 30-Feb. 4, 2018.
Contemporary Jewish Museum: "Jewish Folktales Retold: Artist As Maggid" collects the work of 16 contemporary artists who act as modern-day maggids—wise storytellers—to reimagine tales from Jewish folklore. Sept. 28-Jan. 28, 2018.
Asian Art Museum: The nation’s first exhibition presenting Philippine art from the pre-colonial period to the present, "Philippine Art: Collecting Art, Collecting Memories" also commemorates this museum’s recent acquisition of 25 compelling works for its permanent collection. Through March 11, 2018.
SFO Museum: Depending on your departure gate, check out the latest exhibits from the world-class SFO Museum. Current displays showcase the history of United Airlines, shoes of world cultures and the evolution of the typewriter.
The art of winemaking, along with olive oil production, was once thought best left to the Old World. That was until a few Californians took a gamble and started planting vineyards and olive groves with exceptional results that astonished both authoritative palates and the growers themselves.
For wine, the tide started to turn after the Paris Wine Tasting of 1976, when California wines bested French wines in each category—in a blind competition with French judges, no less.
For olive oil, it wasn’t until the 1990s that a few pioneering landowners started importing large numbers of olive trees, along with equipment and experts, from Italy. The fruits of their labor rivaled Europe’s top labels in taste and quality, and now California’s artisan olive oil industry has taken off even faster than its wine industry did.
The demand for quality, traceable extra virgin olive oil is increasing as more Americans integrate it into their diets. Sales of U.S.-made olive oil, 99 percent of which is produced in California, has risen from less than one percent of the domestic marketplace up to six percent in the past five years alone.
Back in 1990, Nan McEvoy, a San Francisco philanthropist and heiress from the de Young family—founders of the San Francisco Chronicle and the de Young Museum—, bought a 550-acre ranch in the rolling hills of Petaluma as a retreat for her grandchildren. When she was forced to retire shortly after the purchase, she turned her energy to the ranch. Never one to follow norms, she decided to plant olive trees instead of vineyards. Since she regularly traveled to Italy and adored Tuscan olive oil, she proceeded to research the best Italian olive varieties for her location and import seedlings from Tuscany, along with Italy’s agricultural specialist Dr. Maurizio Castelli.
Today, McEvoy is credited with pioneering the state’s olive oil industry. McEvoy Ranch is by far its largest producer of organic estate extra virgin olive oil, cultivating 18,000 trees over 80 acres and milling, blending and bottling on-site.
The ranch takes reservations for olive oil tastings—complemented by bites from its garden—that can be relished inside the tasting room in view of the mill, outside at shaded picnic tables or on a walk around the sprawling property. The latter option explores olive groves, vineyards, lavender fields, ponds, palm trees, a lush flower and vegetable garden and chic entertaining areas where McEvoy hosted friends such as Julia Child and Jacques Pepin.
Long before McEvoy imported her trees, Frank Figone’s great-grandfather Egildo Franceschi packed an olive tree sapling when he emigrated from Lucca, Italy, to California. Later when Franceschi’s granddaughter inherited his asparagus farm, she planted a grove of Mission and Manzanillo trees in his memory and started selling the extra olives.
But it wasn’t until Figone, who spent his summers growing up in Lucca working at the family olive mill, purchased a hydraulic press and started making olive oil in his great-grandfather’s shed in 1991 that the family’s extra virgin olive oil business took off. Since then, Figone’s of California Olive Oil Company has grown thousands of trees, developed innovative practices such as diversified farming and opened a busy custom crush facility in Sonoma where local growers drop off fruit. The company runs a tasting room and shop right on Sonoma Square and Figone himself leads tours of his olive mill by appointment.
Up north in Napa Valley, the MacDonnell family bought what would become Round Pond Estate to make wine in the early 1980s and started making olive oil as a hobby about a decade later from olive trees that were over 100 years old. By 1998, olive oil evolved into a full-fledged business as the family imported Mediterranean olive trees and eventually set up their own state-of-the-art mill right next to the olive groves, where they use both a traditional, two-ton granite mill and a modern hammer mill to press olives within hours of harvest. The oil is blended in exceptionally small lots and bottled on demand.
Round Pond Estate plays host to daily olive oil tastings at its pristine boutique crushing facility in Rutherford. The mill is located up an olive tree-lined driveway that’s located directly across the road from the palm-tree-flanked winery and tasting room. The 90-minute experience starts by the olive orchard with an introduction to olive farming and proceeds to the mill for an explanation of the production process and culminates with a seated tasting of the award-winning Italian and Spanish-style organic olive oils, in addition to the estate’s red wine vinegars, paired with bites delicately assembled by the estate chef.
Now visitors have more opportunities than ever to taste Northern California Wine Country’s second harvest, which follows the grape harvest from October to early December.
“The most exciting and tastiest time to visit is harvest season,” said Lisa Pollack of the California Olive Oil Council. “You can see the full production process and often even walk from the harvest site to the press to the tasting and try the oil right away. The fresher it is, the better.”
As with wine, many people prefer to sip and enjoy olive oil casually, but there is a preferred technique to appreciating olive oil’s tasting notes. It’s generally advised to cover the glass with one hand while simultaneously swirling it with the other for a moment before sniffing and slurping the oil. Experts recommend allowing the oil to coat your mouth and exhaling through your nose before swallowing and enjoying the subsequent—not unpleasant—burning sensation in your throat. Common descriptors include fruity, nutty, buttery, herbaceous, peppery and grassy.
“There’s more to olive oil than people realize. You’ll find a huge range of styles and flavor profiles,” Pollack said. “Tastings are an opportunity to tangibly appreciate the flavor nuances that come about with different production methods and olive varieties.”
It was 1850 when the first commercial grapes were planted in Napa Valley and only a few short years later Samuel Brannan—San Francisco’s first millionaire—built a rail line to bring his wealthy friends to his resort spa in Calistoga in 1864.
Posh and luxurious was the ride from San Francisco via Vallejo to Calistoga. Through the decades, motorcars became the chosen form of transportation and the rail line became obsolete. Thanks to the loving care of “The Society for the Preservation of the Napa County Railroad,” Lou Schuyler—a retired Southern Pacific engineer—and Vincent DeDomenico—inventor of Rice-A-Roni—the Napa Valley Wine Train was born.
Their mission was to restore the quintessential beauty and decadence of traveling by private rail car with white glove service, passion for excellence and exceptional cuisine. Of course—being in Napa—fine wines would be the celebrated icons on the Napa Valley Wine Train.
Wouldn’t it be lovely to travel back to that time in the late 1800’s when opulence and service were paramount? Thanks to the loving care of Napa Valley Wine Train, it's now possible.
What to Expect During Your Ride
On one of the many journeys you get a rarified glimpse into the intimate and decadent lifestyle of the cultured affluent from a century ago. The train has superbly united the lavish old-world style of traveling by first-class trains with the personal touch of private VIP winery tours and intimate opportunities to meet the elusive wine makers who have crafted the exceptional elixirs that are served on board. Of course, every train adventure is accompanied by world-class gourmet meals prepared on the train.
Tours and Winery Access
Every day, the Napa Valley Wine Train leaves the station on a grand tour, each different and very unique. The most popular tours are the six-hour "Quattro Vino" tours with three distinct winery itineraries to choose from. While lounging like royalty in elegantly appointed cars with names like “Champagne Vista Dome” and “Le Petite Gourmet Dining Car” guests enjoy breathtaking views of Napa Valley vineyards while savoring a delicious, four-course meal.
The train stops at prestigious wineries where guests are given exclusive back stage access to areas of the wineries that are not open to the public. The wineries all have unique stories that are shared by the wine makers during the private tours. Each tour ends with a premium wine tasting created especially for the honored Napa Valley Wine Train guests.
Special Events on the Train
Murder Mystery Dinner Theater
For those who enjoy a bit of drama, the Napa Valley Wine Train hosts a monthly, Agatha Christie-influenced Murder Mystery Dinner Theater where guests are encouraged to come in costume. The fun starts at the station where guests are given clues to what will happen on board the train that night. This entertaining and interactive theater ride is a three-hour journey aboard the "Vintage Train" and includes a multi-course gourmet dinner where guests get lost in the intrigue of the evening.
Rock the Rails concerts
To celebrate harvest season, the Napa Valley Wine Train is hosting special events throughout the autumn months. The most anticipated are the "Rock the Rails" concert series showcasing Sheila E. in September and David Pack’s Legends in October. These concerts are a rare opportunity to hear world-class music while experiencing the joys of the Napa Valley Wine Train.
Meet the Maker
Keeping with its intimate and opulent lifestyle, the Wine Train features "Meet the Maker" events where winemakers from local wineries ride with guests on a four-hour wine pairing adventure in the "Private Reserve Train." The wine makers bring on board premium vintages that are not available to the public. While the train rolls through the lush vineyards of Napa, the wine makers take the guest on fascinating wine tastings voyages filled with stories of each wine’s creation and unique essence.
Twilight Dinner Series
During the next few months, the Wine Train and Raymond vineyards have partnered to host the "Twilight Dinner Series." This incredibly decadent evening includes appetizers and wine pairings on the train traveling northbound to Rutherford Station, followed by a private tour of Raymond Vineyard and then a two-course Epicurean feast that is set in one of the magnificent rooms at Raymond. Jean-Charles Boisset, the legendary wine czar and owner of Raymond enchants guests with his ebullience and enthusiasm for wine and food during this exclusive evening. The escapade ends with dessert served on the train heading back to the station.
In November and December, Santa comes to town with daily visits on the Napa Valley Wine Train. Children and adults alike are entertained at the station with delightful characters that lead them onto the train where Santa is waiting to give each child a stuffed teddy bear. The train is transformed into an enchanted winter wonderland and a light meal and hot chocolate are served on the hour and a half escapade. Guests are encouraged to bring an unwrapped new toy that will be lovingly donated to Napa county foster children through Ticket to Dream Foundation. The Santa Train has become a celebrated tradition loved by all ages.
Just about an hour north of San Francisco by car, the under-the-radar town of Sebastopol in western Sonoma County makes a compelling day trip. The community-minded town has great food, wine and art, all three of which can be enjoyed in a former apple processing plant turned giant maker hub in the middle of town.
The Best Restaurants in Sebastopol
Founded by Sebastopol native Lowell Sheldon, Handline is a locavore’s paradise, with a menu that include sustainably-sourced beer battered fish tacos stuffed inside freshly milled corn tortillas, and locally harvested mushrooms in green garlic butter, fresh corn and summer squash blossom salad.
Local farmers and ranchers are also on display at Ramen Gaijin, where house-pulled noodles in a brothy soup serve as a great starter. But the black sesame ice cream is what really makes it worth the visit. To keep it more casual, Hole in the Wall serves California comfort food, including a villager’s style soup with slices of golden and red beets, cabbage and potatoes topped with Angus short rib and sour cream, along with a selection of savory and sweet crepes.
The Best Places to Drink
With a bespoke line of organic ciders sources from apple orchards around the area, Horse & Plow offers a sweet alternative to wine. Served up in a polished tasting room outfitted with two glass bottle chandeliers and a wood-burl bar, cider (and wine) flights freely flow on tap. For more traditional Pinots that are characteristic of the region, Freeman Winery offers balanced, elegant cool climate wines, by one of the few female Japanese winemakers, Akiko Freeman.
Where to Shop
Vintage picks curated for hipsters, theme parties and festivals are abound at Aubergine Vintage Emporium, where the inventory runs the gamut. This is the place for anything from tribal jewelry to second-hand designer jeans to homemade quilts. For gift ideas to take back home, it doesn’t get sweeter than Beekind, a honey store owned by a beekeeping husband-and-wife team that sells food treats, candles, body care and medicinal products of all kinds.
The Best Things to Do in Sebastopol
The Barlow, where a collection of creative eateries, breweries, wineries and artisans coexist, is partially responsible for securing Sebastopol’s position as the arts and culture hub of western Sonoma County. Every third Thursday, the 12-acre outdoor market district comes to life for an evening of music and local performances.
You can hang with a treat from Sub Zero Ice Cream, keep up your juice cleanse at The Nectary or shop for adorable trinkets at Littlefour. While vineyards have replaced many of Sebastopol’s vast orchards, the Gravenstein Apple Fair continues to celebrate the city’s founding produce. No worries if you miss the festival, Gravenstein Apples are available throughout the summer and fall at the Sunday Sebastopol Farmers’ Market.
Independent boutiques, open-air coffee vendors and yummy eats await you in this trendy neighborhood that stretches along Hayes Street. At the heart of this community you’ll find Patricia’s Green, a small park that buzzes with people and features rotating public art installations. Some of the city’s most beloved performing arts groups, including the San Francisco Opera and San Francisco Ballet, also call Hayes Valley home.
Where to Shop
Pick up unique home decor items, gifts and clothing made by local artists at Gather, then head over to Timbuk2 for custom messenger bags, totes or backpacks crafted at its factory in the Mission District. Nearby, Marine Layer is known for its soft, locally designed casual wear—this location also has a mystery T-shirt vending machine offering shirts at a discount. Shoppers looking for high-end threads will find dapper menswear by French designer Emile Lafaurie at SEAN, fine European lingerie at Alla Prima and stylish, eco-conscious staples at Amour Vert.
The Best Places to Drink in Hayes Valley
Right off of Patricia’s Green Park, Ritual serves up locally roasted and meticulously sourced espressos, pour-overs and lattes from inside a re-purposed shipping container. This square is also home to Biergarten, a Bavarian-style outdoor beer garden where you can people watch and try a rotating menu of draft brews from around the world. California reds and whites are poured alongside vermouth and small bites at Fig & Thistle, an intimate, dimly lit space with a rustic-chic ambiance.
Carnival-inspired comfort food is the main attraction at Straw. Menu highlights include a donut burger that has been featured on the Food Network, mini corn dogs with raspberry dijon and a cotton candy of the day. Try to get a seat in the Tilt-A-Whirl booth.
The romantic, French-influenced Jardinière offers European twists on Californian cuisine for those with finer palates, as does Plaj, where you can find innovative Scandinavian dishes made from seasonal and local ingredients. Sweet tooths should pop into Miette Patisserie, a charming bakery crafting gourmet confections, cakes and some of the city’s best macarons; an added bonus: the macarons do not contain any artificial ingredients or food coloring.