All things must pass
All things must pass away
And so, little more than a week ago, we had to leave our temporary residence in Bernal Heights for “home” in the UK.
But I do not want to put that experience to one side just yet (and we will be returning next year), without paying one final tribute to the neighborhood.
So here, in this fifth and final article in the series, are this visiting Englishman’s ten reasons for loving Bernal Heights.
A cautionary note for residents before I start.
In a little under a fortnight we could neither cover every blade of grass, trip over every upturned pavement slab, nor eat at every café or restaurant, so this will be no more nor less than a personal account of those people and places we actually encountered.
Where I have written on a subject in one of the previous posts in this series, I have tried to keep it short.
For ease of reference they are listed in alphabetical order.
A few years ago, the thought of staying so far from Fisherman’s Wharf or Union Square would have been unthinkable. After all, many of the maps produced by the Convention and Visitors’ Bureau do not stretch as far as Bernal Heights. And few guide books even make passing reference to the neighborhood (the Alemany Farmer’s Market might just get a mention).
But once we had swapped hotel for apartment living, we have moved progressively further out. Hayes Valley begat the Western Addition begat Noe Valley begat Noe Valley again. The gentle hike up to Bernal Heights Hill from Precita Park last year, followed by lunch in Progressive Grounds, was enough to convince us that this is where we wanted to base ourselves next time.
Accessibility was not the problem it might have seemed. The 101 and 280 freeways were barely three minutes drive from our cottage, the 24 Divisadero Muni bus ran along the bottom of our street and there were several other lines operating through the adjacent Mission district. Having become attached to the J Church Muni Metro line during our stays in Noe Valley, we often walked over to 29th Street to catch a direct line downtown.
One of the things that most charmed us about Bernal was the sheer variety of housing. No long rows of Queen Annes, Bay Windowed Italianates or Sticks here, but a real diversity of property. Their relative smallness and, in many cases, quirkiness, made wandering around the area a fascinating and often surprising adventure.
The fact that Bernal Heights featured as low as nineteenth in a recent survey of the number of single millionaires living in each San Francisco neighborhood (Noe Valley next door came third, and even the Mission, evidence of its growing gentrification, was sixth), reinforced this impression of the relative modesty and affordability of the area.
Though it would still be out of our price bracket!
Having seduced us to stay in Bernal Heights in the first place, Progressive Grounds was first on our list of watering (and feeding) holes on our arrival.
And it was also the last!
Our final meal in the city – scrumptious grilled lavash wraps and coffee – was bought there and carried ceremoniously up to the hill where we consumed it whilst continuing the perennial debate about the identity of each downtown building – now you see Coit Tower and the Transamerica Pyramid, now you don’t.
We had encountered Martha’s, or Martha and Brothers to give it its official name, on both 24th Street and Church Street during our stays in Noe Valley, and were delighted to find that there was a branch on Cortland. Strong coffee, excellent pastries and outstanding service were on offer, and the tables outside were perfect spots for watching Bernal go about its business (and counting the number of 24 buses that passed by in each direction).
It would be a real shame if Starbuck’s was to take over the Badger Books site or any other vacant lot in the neighborhood in the future.
We ate good, wholesome breakfasts at both the Liberty Café and Moonlight Café (the interior of which is pictured above). Although the former enjoys a stronger, city-wide reputation, we were particularly impressed with the latter. Perhaps our expectations had been lower (you order at the counter rather than be served at your table), but we were pleasantly surprised.
And last, but by no means, least, we called in at the Precita Park Café for Mitchell’s ice cream during a Sunday afternoon walk around the northern slope. This is undoubtedly somewhere to explore further on our next visit – the food looked delicious.
The traditional equation of a single ethnic grouping with many of San Francisco’s neighborhoods has been diluted in recent times. I have already mentioned the influx of affluent white tech workers in the historically Hispanic and Latino dominated Mission. And the edges of the boundary between North Beach and Chinatown have become increasingly blurred.
In the past three hundred years, Bernal Heights has been inhabited by Native Americans (the Ohlone), Latin Americans, Irish, Italians, Scandinavians, African Americans, Filipinos and other Asian nationalities, so it is hardly surprising that there is a refreshing ethnic mix in the community, one that hasn’t been quite so evident to us anywhere else in the city.
And this diversity was not only about ethnicity. Young families, the elderly and lesbian and gay couples were all in evidence.
The visible contrast in the demographic between Bernal and neighboring Noe (“Stroller”) Valley, was especially dramatic.
I wrote about the apparent “dogs rule” phenomenon on Bernal Heights Park in my article last year, and we were able to enjoy it at close hand on this trip. The top of the hill must sometimes seem like the canine community center for all of San Francisco.
But it was the excitement of those tied up outside the Good Life Grocery every time I called in that provided the most entertainment and could not pass without stroking them. I can report that I still have all my fingers.
The absence of a doggie companion was the only thing that prevented us from feeling truly at home during our stay. In fact, at one point I feared we might be contravening some by-law by not owning one of our own, at least, walking half a dozen of somebody else’s.
I referred to the warm greeting we received everywhere we went in one of my earlier articles, and I’m pleased to report that we continued to be treated well throughout the remainder of our stay. The only establishment that we didn’t feel entirely welcome was the Wild Side West, though we liked the quirky back garden.
I should add that we had been a little apprehensive about staying in the neighborhood before arriving in the light of the shooting of Alex Nieto only a few days before we left the UK. However, we detected none of the tension (perhaps we were too far away), and felt completely safe at all times, including late at night when we often walked back from Mission Street.
We could while away hours on the hill, picking out landmarks in all directions, having a picnic and watching the dogs at play. For us, it is a far superior viewing point than Twin Peaks, which most of our compatriots, and many residents for that matter, will only have visited.
Our only regret is that we omitted, as we had planned, to go up onto the hill at night – another reason for returning as soon as possible!
Again, I have already recounted the story of my visit to the library to print some documents. This is somewhere else I would want to spend more time in the future.
We only ate out twice in the evening in the neighborhood, but both were outstanding experiences.
On the recommendation of Emperor Norton himself, who lives in the neighborhood, we dined at Piqueo’s Peruvian restaurant on Cortland on our second night. It was fortunate we had made a reservation as it was packed, even though it was Wednesday. Granted that it is small and intimate (and just, perhaps, a little too dark), but we were, nonetheless, impressed by its popularity.
And rightly so.
Service was attentive and professional and our food was excellent. It took a lot of convincing to persuade my wife that we shouldn’t return there rather than try somewhere else.
But we did eat somewhere else.
Acting on another local resident’s recommendation, we had our last meal at Vega, a family-run Italian, again on Cortland. We had made a reservation for 8pm. On arrival, we were told that we might have to wait a few minutes while previous diners finished off. We were offered the small table by the front desk (and the open front door!) which we politely declined, preferring to wait for a table in the main dining room.
For that we received a free glass of wine each!
After we had finished our starters, we were asked by the waiter if we would mind moving to another table for two for the remainder of the meal in order to accommodate a larger party that would necessitate putting tables together. We were happy to do so.
Our reward this time – a free glass of sparkling wine each!
Sadly, we weren’t inconvenienced any further and so had to pay for the bottle of wine – and food – we had actually ordered.
The meal was excellent, though the short walk back up the hill to the cottage was somewhat less enjoyable in the circumstances.
Again, I have already written about these in a previous post. Suffice to say that this was another charming feature of the neighborhood, offering stunning views and keeping us fit (if I keep saying/writing that I might just believe it).
The only thing we don’t miss?
Climbing up from Mission Street via the Eugenia Stairway late at night to get back to the cottage.
No, I lied.
We do miss it!
Au revoir, Bernal.