A prominent San Francisco property website’s guide to the best sixteen neighborhoods in San Francisco does not feature it.
Only the “Rough Guide” of all of the most popular tourist guide books makes reference to it.
Even the “San Francisco Visitors Planning Guide”, the “Official Guide to the City by the Bay”, fails to regard it as worthy of mention.
Cole Valley, tucked beneath Twin Peaks, close to the south eastern corner of Golden Gate Park and virtually holding hands with the Haight, remains a well-kept secret to visitors and many city dwellers alike.
And that is my excuse for having neglected it too during a dozen visits spanning two decades, aside from one lunch at “Cafe Cole” following a t-shirt safari along Haight Street around three years ago. It never occurred to me to venture just a couple of blocks further south to the bustling but relaxed intersection with Carl Street because, after all, nobody ever advised me I should do so.
Until last month.
Now, Cole Valley residents might quite like to leave it that way, but I wonder how long it will be before it gains wider recognition and joins the first division of neighborhoods for which San Francisco is noted. I doubt that this modest paeon will have tourists flocking to join the line outside “Zazie” or hike up to the prehistoric feeling Tank Hill, but Cole Valley is beginning to get noticed – and not only by me.
Indeed, within a fortnight of my visit, the “Sacramento Bee” published an article asking whether it might be the “friendliest neighborhood in San Francisco?”
I rest my case.
Despatched by a combination of the 24 and 7 Muni buses from our Bernal Heights rental cottage on a mild, breezy May morning, my wife and I arrived at the corner of Haight and Cole and set off in pursuit of breakfast.
We were struck immediately by the frequency and availability of public transportation in the area. We were accustomed to riding the buses that served Haight Street, but there seemed to be vehicles crisscrossing the intersection of Carl and Cole almost continually.
Not only did the N Judah light rail rattle past every few minutes, carrying passengers from ballpark to ocean via downtown, but the more prosaic 6, 33, 37 and 43 Muni lines were equally regular sights on the street.
We had planned to eat at “Zazie”, a famed French restaurant that attracted brunch devotees from all over the Bay Area, but the line, or rather the ragged scrum congregating outside, made it clear that we might have to wait until Tuesday week to bag a table.
So we opted for our second choice of “Crepes on Cole” which boasted tables free inside – at least when we arrived. We ordered eggs sunny side up with sausage and bacon respectively, accompanied by the customary fried potatoes and the obligatory nod to healthy eating in the form of a slice of fruit. The dish was good, though the eggs might have been warmer. Like (hot) tea, this seems to be a not uncommon issue in the States. We Brits do like our tea to be hot! I regretted not having plumped for my habitual order of Eggs Benedict as it looked especially enticing as plate after plate wafted past. The locals clearly knew something we didn’t!
The “Rough Guide” remarks that there is “little to see or do here other than eat” and the preponderance of cafes and dining places is exceptional for the size of the neighborhood. But I, for one, don’t regard that as a bad thing. The only problem is one of choice. In the space of a couple of blocks, the discerning foodie can eat Italian, Mexican, French and Japanese. And each of the many cafes appeared to offer its own speciality lines (though, sadly, as I write this, the attractive “La Boulange” branch may be about to be closed by its parent company, Starbucks). And the “Ice Cream Bar Soda Fountain” and “Say Cheese” are two of the most celebrated shops of their kind in the Bay Area.
A relaxed and civilised atmosphere, combined with lovely and diverse architecture and the aforementioned public transport and dining options make this a tempting proposition for us to stay in in the future.
The streets were relatively flat too!
With one notable exception.
That just happened to be the highlight of our inaugural visit.
That was the sight that befell us at the top of the steps that snaked upwards from the end of Belgrave Street, beneath Sutro Forest or, to give it its mundane official title, the Mount Sutro Open Space Preserve (whose lush vegetation and wildlife we intend to explore on our next visit). As an honorary Bernalite, I had argued for the past two years that the views from the top of its hill of downtown, the bay, the bridges and the surrounding area trumped even those of Twin Peaks, where it seems it is the lot of all first time visitors, including ourselves twenty years ago, to be hauled.
I know that there are advocates for several other peaks, including Buena Vista Park which we had hiked only seven days before. But the panorama that emerged as we climbed those last few steps up to Tank Hill, so named for the late nineteenth century water tank stationed there, was a worthy rival to any. All that remains of that tank is a concrete base adorned with eucalyptus planted to divert the Japanese bombers after Peal Harbor. Among the stunning vistas visible from every vantage point, the best for me was the appearance of a hazy downtown lurking behind the equally dramatic Corona Heights.
Although the space atop the hill is small enough to fit into a corner of Bernal Heights Hill’s undulating expanse, we were surprised and thrilled to find a vacant bench that virtually teetered over the precipice. In fact, our only companions during our half hour meditation were a couple of youthful Dutch amateur photographers, hopping from one stunning spot to another, and the ubiquitous procession of canines, though they will have been disappointed that the lack of room did not lend itself to off leash frolicking. For one moment, I swore that I witnessed a cherry-headed conure, one of the famed “Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill”, flit by noisily, but I suspect it was a consequence of the romantic reverie I had sunk into.
To the north, the view was dominated by St Ignatius Chatholic Church at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF), where many of the denizens of Cole Valley either studied or worked.
Cole Valley’s cosy but smart small town feel is reinforced by the presence of several family owned stores, some reflecting its proximity to Hippie Haight, such as the pharmacy focusing on alternative remedies and “The Sword and Rose” which specialises in oils, crystals and incense and gives tarot and astrology readings. “Cole Hardware” is one of the most popular and well stocked stores (it also boasts a fine backyard nursery) in the Bay Area.
We had arranged to call in on one of the friends we had made during our last visit, the manager of the “Land of the Sun” store on Haight Street and spend a fortune on her lovely “Summer of Love” merchandise. Reluctantly, therefore, we had to burst through the Cole Street bubble and re-emerge on its earthier, spikier neighbor’s patch.
The line for “Zazie” was, if anything, longer than it had been two hours previously. It occurred to me that we would probably have to find a place to live In Cole Valley if we ever wanted to have any chance of dining there before it closed in mid-afternoon!