Our first full day in San Francisco and there was much to look forward to, including brunch at the Cliff House and our fifth trip to Steve Silver’s Beach Blanket Babylon in the evening, he timing of both dictated by tradition and designed to orientate us quickly back into life in the city.
After a comfortable night’s sleep in our new apartment in the North of the Panhandle, we woke to gentle but steady March rain that left large pools at the bottom of the wooden steps leading down from the kitchen to the shared back garden. The forecast, however, was for it to clear later in the morning to leave a cloudy but dry afternoon and evening.
The Cliff House at Ocean Beach was just a straight ten to fifteen minute drive along Fulton Street to the Pacific Ocean. We passed a verdant Golden Gate Park on our left, whilst on our right, we caught tantalising glimpses of the towers of the glorious Golden Gate Bridge looming over the dense foliage of the Presidio.
We parked several hundred yards short of the Cliff House to enable us to take in the bracing appetite-inducing air for a few minutes before we entered the bistro. The ocean presented a turbulent picture with a swift succession of high rolling waves chasing away anyone brave or foolhardy enough to venture too close to it.
The scene was, however, still a busy one – joggers passing in either direction at varying speeds; people , like us, strolling contentedly in a wind ravaged state of dishevelment; but most of all, dogs everywhere bathing in the freedom and exhilaration of exploring the endless expanse of beach. We must have seen a dozen different species, from caped miniature poodles and chihuahuas and enigmatic huskies to slavering rottweilers. It is claimed that there are more dogs than babies in San Francisco, and on a morning like this, you would not doubt it.
We felt as if we were committing an act of animal cruelty by not having one of our own to exercise. Momentarily, I contemplated hiring one for the week because, after all, this is San Francisco and anything is possible. But pets are not allowed in the apartment – probably just as well.
We had a twenty minute wait for our table, allowing us the opportunity to check on upcoming events such as the Wednesday prix fixe dinner and jazz evenings, and look in the gift shop. As ever we both ordered Eggs San Francisco (two poached eggs and crab on toasted sourdough bread with roasted potatoes and fruit), accompanied by the establishment’s signature warm rolls – delicious.
Feeling replete we took another longer walk in the adolescent sunshine along the beach towards the south, inspecting the periodic bonfire pits on the beach. Crossing the Great Highway for the return to our car, we called in at the Beach Chalet to marvel at the fabulous Lucien Labaudt frescoes depicting everyday life in the thirties in the city. The brewery and restaurant on the first floor apparently have outstanding views of the ocean, a fact we need to verify before much longer.
We abandoned our planned food shopping trip as we needed time to get ready for the evening (and for me to finish my previous blog post). The mild, partly cloudy late afternoon weather encouraged us to take the long walk to Club Fugazi in North Beach for the early evening performance of Beach Blanket Babylon. The near hour and a half journey took in some of the less salubrious parts of the city (Fillmore and Civic Center) before turning off Market Street to snake through Grant in the heart of Chinatown.
Sadly and inevitably, there was no shortage of vagrants around the Civic Center vicinity, though we experienced no intimidating panhandling. I did purchase a copy of Street Sheet from a man who bore an uncanny resemblance to the queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs when she dresses as a witch and tempts Snow White with a poisoned apple. He even sported the hunch back and hood. But he was very friendly and appreciative of my $2 donation.
For the uninitiated, the Street Sheet is a magazine that has been published by the Coalition on Homelessness since 1989, and is designed to provide information and support programmes for homeless people in the city. The philosophy is not dissimilar to that of The Big Issue in the UK, in providing its vendors with the opportunity to earn money for food, shelter and other necessities.
We joined an already lengthy line outside Club Fugazi around fifty minutes before showtime. I collected our tickets from will call (box office) and joined Janet in the queue. We were surrounded by a dozen boisterous ladies of a certain age in varying states of drunkenness attending the show as part of a bachelorette party. Whilst we didn’t begrudge them their fun, we couldn’t help but hope that their seats were in a different part of the auditorium.
Our prayers were answered as they lurched off to the area close to the stage on the ground floor whilst we were escorted to our seats in the center balcony – our preferred area to watch the show. Arming ourselves with a bottle of Woodbridge White Zinfandel and a large packet of pretzels we were ready to support Snow White in her worldwide search for a prince. No sign of the queen this time – which is just as well as Snow White had a hard enough (or not as the case may be) time without her.
Once again, Beach Blanket Babylon delivered. Although we had only been twelve months before, there was still a lot of new content along with the familiar staples. The highlight for me was when San Francisco Giants baseball stars Buster Posey, Tim Lincecum and Brian Wilson (no, not the real ones) burst onto the stage holding the World Series trophy and singing We Are the Champions. Her Majesty the Queen’s appalled put down of the upcoming wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton was hilarious and a typical Beach Blanket Babylon satirical slant on a subject often treated too reverently, no more so than in the States.
We had decided that we would try the North Beach Restaurant for dinner for the first time, provided we could gain entry (we hadn’t booked). The restaurant looked very busy, but on presenting ourselves at the front desk, we were whisked to the only free table for two, adjacent to the kitchen. That may not sound the most appealing location, and it was rather cramped, but Janet found it fascinating, catching regular momentary glimpses of the frenzy behind the scenes action as the front of house staff crashed through the doors leading in and out of the kitchen.
But what of the food and service? This was traditional Italian fine dining at its best. My linguine with porcini mushrooms and scallops was outstanding, as was Janet’s seafood risotto – even surpassing the excellent meals we had enjoyed at the Riva Grill in South Lake Tahoe a few days before. And our waiter was suave, attentive and witty – well, Italian.
I had wanted to visit The Beat Museum on Broadway for some time, so as the night was still young (10pm), we called in. The museum itself had already closed for the day, but we spent some time perusing the bookshelves and other fascinating memorabilia, and I bought a couple of books I had not seen before, one the 700 page Hippie Dictionary – A Cultural Encyclopedia of the 1960s and 1970s by John Bassett McCleary and The Beats – A Graphic History.
After a canter past the fleshpots of Broadway, we sought refuge in Vesuvio’s bar on Jack Kerouac Boulevard – yes, another first night tradition. Once more we succeeded in claiming the only two seats available, at the bar. After a couple of drinks we walked down Montgomery through the Financial District before boarding a number 5 MUNI bus at Market to transport us back to the apartment.
It had been a long day but a satisfying one. We were truly “at home” again in our favourite city.