Given that tourism is San Francisco’s number one industry, it’s expected that line-ups are rampant at all major attractions. On day three of our trip however, it was also a theme at most of our dining choices – not surprising given the city’s reputation of good food.
The day started off quite overcast, threatening rain. But nothing would stop us from completing our first mission that day: eating a hearty breakfast. Knowing there was no food service at Alcatraz, I thought it would be best to fill up before heading off to the island, and everything pointed to Mama’s on Washington Square.
The plan was to arrive right when the café opened at 8, but though we hoofed it, we found that a line of a half dozen hungry patrons had already formed outside the restaurant at 8:20am (darn those ‘Friscans and their early starts!).
The line-up when we left
The restaurant had an odd set-up that eliminated the need for waiters – it was efficient but cruel. Instead of ordering after being seated, Mama’s is set-up so that diners line up alongside their open kitchen, watching the line cooks at the flat top and the baker at his station. It was hard enough not to salivate, let alone quell hunger pangs.
The baker at work
After about a half hour, we made it to the head of the line, placed our order with the cashier, and were led to a cozy table. In no time, after two sips of the disastrously bad coffee (really, the only poor thing about Mama’s) our food was brought to us, piping hot.
Western Italian omelette
My Western Italian omelette ($10.50) was packed with roasted tomatoes, mushrooms, cheese and pancetta (which was unfortunately not crispy). The eggs were noticeably fluffy though, and the portion extremely generous. The potatoes were also well-prepared. Mack enjoyed his eggs benedict with roasted tomatoes ($10.50) – difficult not to when it is served with crackly bacon.
Service was warm (the servers made sure to wish those leaving with a “thank you”, even as they bustled to clean tables and seat other parties. Be sure to check it out if you’re looking for a good brunch in San Francisco!
Then we were off to Pier 33, to hop on a ferry to cruise to the cursed, storied prison. We had pre-purchased tickets on the website, but it turned out on that gloomy day that advanced planning wasn’t necessary.
Though only five minutes away from Fisherman’s Wharf, it seemed like a world away – instead of a carnival atmosphere, it felt muted and bleak (the miserable weather didn’t help much either). Waiting for our turn on the ferry also felt a bit like herding cats, between the barricades, divided line-ups and stern National Park staff.
After a quick but rocky fifteen minute cruise, we were there. Alcatraz is larger than life, immortalized on the silver screen, and with more myths than you can shake a stick at.
And yet, Alcatraz held its own during our visit. I think it mostly had to do with the audio tour – voices of former inmates, prison staff and families who lived on the island guiding us through the building, explaining the day-to-day grind, the isolation wards, the insurgent movements. The background noises as each scene was being described – the tinkering in the lunch room, the shouts in the cell blocks – coupled with the physicality of walking through the spaces, really made the history come alive.
A single cell
Mack behind bars
Kitchen (with shadows indicating where sharp objects should go so it was easy to know if something was missing)
The only tickets that had been sold out for weeks were for the night tours. After our day trip, I was glad we didn’t have the chance to visit after dark – I’m certain I wouldn’t have been able to handle the chills.
Burned out warden’s residence
Yes, it was that windy
Back on the mainland, Mack was already anticipating our first taste of In-N-Out Burger, the famed west coast fast food chain. There is much to admire about In-N-Out: they pay staff a living wage and they are committed to using only fresh ingredients (never frozen beef, potatoes they peel in-store).
Our order of two combos was speedily prepared (they had separate order and pick-up counters), and cost only moderately more than their quick-serve counterparts ($13). The meal looked appealing, and tasted okay, but I couldn’t see what the hype was about – the burger was on the greasy side, and though Mack liked the fact that you could salt the fries on your own accord, he still preferred McDonald’s fries.
Coit Tower was next on our agenda, another tourist destination within walking distance of Pier 39. Another fairly steep hill meant we almost immediately worked off the grease consumed at lunch, but I didn’t mind it – I loved any opportunity to explore the residential neighbourhoods, fascinated by the lack of space between houses, and the steep garage gradients.
Coit Tower stands 210 feet tall. The price of the elevator ride to the top was $5, operated by a young man who joked that he took the vertical route 1264 times a day. Though not the highest structure in the city, it did provide a panoramic view, and perhaps more interestingly, a peek of some of the rooftop luxuries afforded in a city with a mild climate – pools, gardens, patios and the like.
Piers and the Bay Bridge
We also discovered just how small the world is – we ran into another Edmonton couple at the top, who were vacationing in SF as a part of their honeymoon.
Thanks to Allison for taking this photo!
At the base of the Tower are beautiful murals, depicting various scenes of life. I liked this one:
On our way to the Embarcadero, we stumbled across the Filbert Steps. It was one of my favourite discoveries, and to me, more of a must-see than Lombard Street.
More green than your eye can see
It was gorgeous – lush, bursting with flora and fauna, it felt like we were taking a tour of someone’s private garden. Similar to Lombard though, residential houses lined the tiered levels – it still strikes me as peculiar to have a tourist attraction on your doorstep.
People live here!
We made our way down the stairs, and to the Ferry Building. We knew we would be back to this hub of produce, food and drink again, but I had wanted to see it on a sans-farmers’ market day.
Most of the shops were near closing, so we didn’t have much time to browse. After picking up a pound of coffee from Blue Bottle, we swung by Cowgirl Creamery and picked up a $20 tourist pack of cheese. It included three varieties and a cheese knife, which we thought would be perfect to take along with us for lunch during our winery tour the next day.
Just before they closed their gates, we ducked into Boccolone for their infamous “meat in a cup” salumi cone ($3.50).
Salumi cone from Boccolone
For dinner, we had decided upon The Slanted Door, a friend’s recommendation – it is a restaurant known for its modern take on Vietnamese food, and sourcing of local products and ecologically-farmed meat. We didn’t have reservations, but given it was a Tuesday, we didn’t think we’d have any problem getting in. We were wrong.
The dining room was full for the evening, and the lounge was packed. Though seats were available in the lounge, we were told only an abbreviated menu would be available to us there – in order to access the full menu, we’d have to snag a seat at the coveted bar (something that was a bit comical to us, since the bar was literally two steps away). The lounge servers were great though – they took pity on us and offered us tips on how to get seats at the bar – and thankfully, after some hovering, we were successful.
Service was excellent – our bartender/server was friendly and easygoing, and was a touchstone of calm in the frenzied restaurant (over the course of the evening, the lounge became standing room only, with a group of patrons immediately behind us trying to have a conversation over the din).
Slanted Door served me the best milk tea I’ve ever had
Our friend had recommended the daikon rice cakes ($12), something I probably wouldn’t have ordered on my own. I’m glad we did – the texture was fantastic, browned and crispy on the outside, with an almost fluffy interior. And I’m not usually a fan of daikon, so props to the chef!
Daikon rice cakes with shiitake mushrooms and shallots
The cellophane noodles with green onion and Dungeness crab meat ($18) was portioned well. The noodles were diner friendly, cut short for easy consumption, and the dish as a whole was perfectly seasoned.
Cellophane noodles with crab and green onion
I had read much online about the shaking beef ($32), a Vietnamese dish made from marinated filet mignon seared at very high heat. The meat, served with watercress, red onions and lime sauce, had a firm crust, but was nice and tender inside. Though we weren’t sure it was the showstopper it was meant to be, we did enjoy it.
It’s worth noting that the receipt had a handy tip breakdown, listing amounts for 15% and 18% gratuities, based on our cheque total.
While Slanted Door was definitely a made-in-San Francisco experience, I’d recommend a reservation for a more leisurely dining experience.
Goodnight, San Francisco!
After dinner, we retired to our hotel, gearing up for a full day of wine.