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Transcript: San Francisco

Sharron Wood answered your questions on vacationing in San Francisco on March 16, 2004

By , Tuesday, Mar 16, 2004, 12:00 AM

San Francisco is the most visited city in the United States--and with good reason. Top-notch restaurants, a wide variety of museums and other cultural attractions, and quirky neighborhoods that reflect the styles of its even quirkier residents are packed into a tiny picture-perfect peninsula, easily traversed on public transportation and by foot (hills notwithstanding). Tiny seaside towns, mountain landscapes, and the elegant B&Bs of the Wine Country are also easily accessible by car once you've had your fill of the urban experience.

You can certainly find what you're looking for in San Francisco, but it helps to know your own mind, and to know where to look. While some visitors will want to prowl around the gritty Tenderloin, searching out the best budget Vietnamese restaurants, others would be much happier having pastries and espresso at a fabulous French bakery. So whether your idea of a night on the town involves dancing to DJs spinning or sipping cocktails at a skyline piano bar, I'll point you in the right direction. I'm also happy to answer any questions on hotels, sightseeing and transportation.

Sharron answered your questions Tuesday, March 16, at noon EST.

Since moving to San Francisco almost 15 years ago, Sharron Wood has contributed to more than a dozen travel guides to San Francisco and California. She is also the author of Chow! San Francisco Bay Area: 300 Affordable Places for Great Meals and Good Deals. Her most recent writing projects have focused on San Francisco restaurants, nightlife, and shopping, and the Wine Country just north of the city. When she's not working on travel guides, she's probably editing a cookbook, baking, or shaking cocktails for her friends. Despite her fondness of travel, especially to cold, windswept places and islands where she can scuba dive, her love of San Francisco means she is always happy to return home, where the attitudes are tolerant, the food is world-class, the weather is practically perfect, and she's constantly surprised by astounding views.

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Sharron Wood: Hi there. I'm happy to answer your questions about visiting San Francisco!

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Orlando, FL: What is your favorite Chinese restaurant--not dim sum?

Sharron Wood: In Chinatown I like R&G Lounge. The downstairs is more casual; upstairs is more elegant. They specialize in unusual Hong Kong-style specialties, including lots of extremely fresh seafood.

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Washington, DC: I'm going to San Francisco for a long weekend with my boyfriend. We are staying at Fishermen's Warf at the Marriott. I'd like to take him out one night for a romantic dinner. What would you recommend? It doesn't have to be at Fishermen's Wharf, but within a reasonable cab ride and a memorable and NICE place. I would like to make make it a surprise. I would appreciate any recommendations. We like Greek food, but any foods are fine. Thank you.

Sharron Wood: Very close to Fisherman's Wharf is a restaurant that is generally regarded one of the very restaurants in San Francisco--Gary Danko. Gary Danko, who was a chef at the Ritz Carlton before opening this restaurant, cooks beautifully decadent food in a sleek, sedate setting. Of course, you'll pay for the privilege of eating there. Another favorite is in Ghirardelli Square - but, oddly, does not get many tourists, probably because it doesn't really have a view of the water. Ana Mandara, in a dramatic, high-ceilinged warehouse, serves upscale Vietnamese food, like sea bass wrapped in banana leaves. The bar upstairs is elegant and sometimes has live music. It's my pick for a romantic dinner in that part of town. Kokkari Estiatorio, an upscale Greek restaurant, is widely considered the best Greek restaurant in town, and it is only a short cab ride from the Fisherman's Wharf area.

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Virginia Beach, VA: Sharron, My girlfriend and I can't hardly wait to arrive on Saturday. We will be staying a week. The only reservations we have are the rental car and the first two nights we will be at the Hyatt. Our plan is to leave to head North on Monday after rush hour. Two days in Napa and then we will be heading down to the Monterey/Carmel area. We are the type that like to be flexible, stopping along the way to explore. My question is this: Will I be able to find accommodations without a reservation in both Napa and in Monterey and/or Carmel? I would rather not stay in a chain hotel. I am not cheap but not trying to break the bank. Any ideas? Thank you for your consideration. Also is Muir Woods worth the trip?

Sharron Wood: It's not hard to find a place to stay without a reservation this time of year in Napa; it's the off season, and things are pretty slow (in a nice way) up there now. There are lots of options up there that aren't chains; some of the better bargains are in the towns that are on the far end of the valley, further away from San Francisco, like Calistoga. Brannan Cottage Inn is one reasonably priced Victorian-style spot in Calistoga. Muir Woods is very pretty, but the paved paths and crowds mean that it's not exactly a dramatic nature experience. If you're an outdoorsy sort and like hiking (as opposed to strolling through the trees), I'd suggest going for a hike on adjacent Mt. Tamalpais instead.

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San Antonio, TX: There are so many Italian restaurants in and around the North Beach area and I know several of them serve really good food, but how can one find the best bang for the buck?

Sharron Wood: I think the best deal in North Beach is the teeny little Osteria del Forno, where they serve simply prepared but delicious Italian food like pizzas and radicchio salad. It's not fancy, but it has a friendly neighborhood feel and extremely reasonable prices. It's on Columbus Avenue, the main drag through North Beach. They don't take reservations, so be prepared to wait or go for an early dinner (before 6 or 6.30).

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Los Angeles, CA: Hi Sharron, I love Italian food. Please tell me where I can enjoy the best risotto and tiramisu the next time I am in town. Thank you!

Sharron Wood: There's so much good Italian food, it's hard to know where to start. For reasonable prices and a friendly, boisterous neighborhood vibe, I like Jackson Fillmore, in Pacific Heights. But my all-time favorite Italian restaurant in the city is Delfina, in the Mission District. Call *well* in advance for a reservation; it's a very hot restaurant. In North Beach, San Francisco's Little Italy, a lot of the Italian restaurants are mediocre, but Rose Pistola is good. And if you just want to grab some tiramisu for dessert without eating Italian for dinner, stop by Caffe Greco, one of the city's oldest and most atmospheric Italian cafes in North Beach; tiramisu is a specialty there.

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Lima, OH: I will be traveling to San Francisco in July. I hear alot about the different attractions in San Francisco, but one thing I hear very little about is beaches. Are there any many beaches in the area and how far are they away from the city?

Sharron Wood: The reason you don't hear about our beaches is that they are coooooooold. There are beaches within the city limits - Baker Beach and Ocean Beach are the biggest and most visited - but they're mostly good for strolling, flying kites, and enjoying the views. If you're very lucky you'll be able to sunbathe, but the water is both too cold and, in most cases, too dangerous for swimming. For slightly warmer weather and water, head south about an hour and half to the beach town of Santa Cruz, but you'll still be disappointed if you're expecting southern California conditions.

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Calgary, Canada: I am returning to San Francisco with a group of friends for a visit in late May. We will be staying at the Carlton on Sutter. My last trip was a month after 9/11. I recall an Italian restaurant on the north side of Sutter a few blocks from the hotel, but simply can't recall its name. Could you offer a few possibilities? I would know it if I heard it once again. My closest recollection is Vitorrio's, but I may be completely off. Any clues would be most appreciated!

Sharron Wood: Could it be L'Ottavo Ristorante, on Sutter near Taylor? I hope so!

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Saskatoon, Saskatchewan: Sharron: Whenever we visit San Francisco (which is at least once or twice a year), my wife and I always pay a visit to either North Beach Pizza or Uncle Vito's (or both), as those are our two favorite spots for great pizza. Can you suggest other pizzerias which serve similarly styled pizzas? Many thanks.

Sharron Wood: My other favorite pizzerias aren't in North Beach. I love the very low key, neighborhood-style Goat Hill Pizza in residential Potrero Hill, where chewy sourdough crust and some unusual topping combos (I love the Greek pizza) mean it has some of the best pies in the city. I also like Pauline's Pizza in the Mission, though the style of pizza is a bit different - cornmeal crust, lots of swanky California ingredients like pesto and goat cheese.

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Seattle, WA: I'm looking for the best deal in San Francisco on a small, European-style hotel that hasn't been discovered yet!

Sharron Wood: The best hotels in San Francisco aren't usually undiscovered, I fear. My favorite European-style hotel is the San Remo, near Fisherman's Wharf, where rooms are small but cute and bathrooms are down the hall. Also very Euro-style is the Golden Gate Hotel downtown. About half of the rooms have private bath and the whole place has an international vibe.

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Indianapolis, IN: Sharron, My wife and I will be going to San Francisco for the first time this April. We will be staying in the Union Square area at the Grand Hyatt. Can you recommend some good places to eat within walking distance that aren't going to put a hurt in the pocket book? We usually like to spend around $20 total for lunch and $40 or so for dinner. We like Italian, Mexican, and American. Sometimes Chinese. We aren't into the Planet Hollywood type places. Thanks for your help.

Sharron Wood: Restaurants right around Union Square tend not to be cheapest in the city. There are several little authentic French cafés on the border between Union Square and the Financial District. I like Café Claude, where you can get baguette sandwiches, charcuterie plates, and a nice glass of wine for a reasonable price. King of Thai Noodle House has a branch near Union Square that has good, inexpensive Thai food. Taqueria El Balazo has a branch on Mint Street where you can get some of the best burritos in the city. Note that to save money at lunch it's a good idea to walk the few blocks toward the Financial District. Many restaurants new Union Square cater to tourists and are pretty pricey. In the Financial District lunch restaurants cater to locals, and the quality and prices tend to be better.

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Raleigh, NC: Was wondering if you could suggest some websites to visit to find out what kind of local activities are going on, like weekly concerts, sporting events and so on.

Sharron Wood: The web site affiliated with the San Francisco Chronicle, our daily newspaper is good. sfgate.com. Click on Entertainment. Also check out www.digitalcity.com/sanfrancisco.

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USA Hello, Could you tell me of any good martini bars in San Francisco?

Sharron Wood: One of the best martini bars is Martunis, on the corner of Market and Valencia, where a mixed gay and straight crowd drinks all sorts of wacky specialty martinis (as well as the original sort). There's a piano in the back room, and people like to stage impromptu singing performances when there's a piano player. Club Deluxe, on Haight Street, is popular with a hip young crowd who likes to dress up and drink swanky cocktails.

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Atlanta, GA: Having not eaten in San Francisco's Chinatown, I was wondering if there was a restaurant you could recommend whose dim sum would be equal to, if not possibly surpassing, that of Jade Villa in Oakland's Chinatown. Thank you.

Sharron Wood: I think the best two dim sum restaurants are, oddly enough, not in Chinatown. Yank Sing has phenomenal (if somewhat pricey) dim sum in the Financial District, and Yank Sing, in the Richmond, is also very good. In Chinatown I like New Asia on Pacific Asia, though I think it's debatable if it's better than Jade Villa, which has excellent dim sum.

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Boston, MA: Sharron, In your opinion, what is the best restaurant for seafood? Best restaurant all-around? We're planning to stay at the Orchard Hotel. How does their restaurant rate?

Sharron Wood: I always have a hard time answering questions about the "best" restaurants--it depends on what you're looking for, the sort of ambience you like, how much money you're willing to spend, and what kind of mood you're in. That said, for seafood the very pricey Aqua is generally considered the best seafood restaurant in the city, and one of the best restaurants in San Francisco period. For a cheaper (and quirkier) seafood experience, consider Swan Oyster Depot, open lunch only, where you perch on these rickety stools to eat superfresh seafood simply prepared. For best restaurant period I'd probably go to Gary Danko for a sublime foodie experience (foie gras, lobster bisque, extravagant desserts and cheeses), or to Boulevard for out-of-this world American food in a beautiful, romantic interior. I haven't eaten at the Orchard Hotel's restaurant, Solea, yet.

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Sooma, CA: What do you think is the most romantic restaurant in San Francisco?

Sharron Wood: I like the very swanky Boulevard, which has a beautiful Belle Epoque feel and exceptional food. But for more reasonably priced romance, try the vaguely industrial but very dimly lit Slow Club, a hip place for hearty American food, or the French-influenced Bistro Aix in the Marina District, where there's a covered patio out back that's made for romance.

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Manasquan, NJ: We will be in San Fran in June for 2-3 days. Where is an inexpensive place to stay near the trolley line and close to the Wharf? We are renting a car on the third day to see wine country. We have 2 weeks. I want to see Carmel, anywhere nice there to stay on a budget?

Sharron Wood: There are a few different cable car lines that crisscross the city, but I'm assuming you mean you're looking for a hotel near the Hyde Street cable car turnaround, which is close to Fisherman's Wharf. Unfortunately, a lot of the hotels in that area are big corporate chains, neither particularly cheap nor charming, but there are a few reasonably priced places to stay that have a bit more character. My favorite in the area is the San Remo Hotel, a European-style hotel (read: rooms share a bathroom down the hall). Rooms are small but charming. Reserve well in advance, though, because it's quite popular.
Visiting the Wine Country is a great idea. For a slightly more relaxed experience, I'd suggest focusing on Sonoma County rather than Napa. The crowds are slightly smaller, and towns like Glen Ellen and Kenwood and rustic and charming.
Carmel is notorious for lacking any budget options, unless you're willing to stay in a neighboring area like Pacific Grove, where the Andril Fireplace Cottages (www.andrilcottages.com) has some good options. But if you really only have two or three days in the San Francisco area I'd probably skip Carmel. You'r' going to have your hands full visiting SF and the Wine Country.

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West Chester, PA: We will be spending the first weekend in May in San Francisco (celebrating our 30th wedding anniversary) and would like to know some nice ethnic (Chinese and Italian) restaurants, moderately priced and not "touristy".

Sharron Wood: One of my favorite Chinese restaurants is Dragon Well, though it's a sleek, modern place, not a very traditional Chinese restaurant. In the Mission District I like the hip, dimly lit Firecracker for Chinese. For my favorite Italian favorites, consider Jackson Fillmore, Rose Pistola, and, especially, Delfina, all mentioned above. If you want to stay away from the tourists, avoid the restaurants along Columbus Avenue, the main drag in North Beach.

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St. John's, Newfoundland: Can you suggest restaurants near the Fort Mason Center that serve excellent food but aren't too pricey, ethnic included? Can you suggest affordable, dependable hotels in that area, as well as nearby scenic areas (we may rent a car)? Thank you, Sharron!

Sharron Wood: The closest neighborhood to the Fort Mason Center is the Marina District. It's a pretty yuppified neighborhood, but there's definitely some good, reasonably priced food there. One of my favorites is Dragon Well, the stylish Chinese restaurant that I wrote about in this month's issue of Budget Travel magazine. Yukol Place, on busy Lombard Street, is not trendy or even super-well-known by most San Franciscans, but I think the food ranks in the top three or four Thai restaurants in the city (and that's saying something). For a romantic splurge that's not too pricey, consider Bistro Aix, where there's a great covered patio out back and they serve good French food.
There are a string of hotels along busy Lombard Street, not far from Fort Mason. Most of them are pretty characterless, but I'd recommend looking into the Hotel del Sol, a colorfully decorated retro-style motel. Less stylish but cheaper is Marina Inn; ask for an interior room if you're super-sensitive to noise.
As for scenic area--everything around Fort Mason is scenic! It's on the bay, looking toward Alcatraz, near the Golden Gate Bridge, and with easy access to all of Marin County. If you rent the car I'd suggest driving to the Marin Headlands. Just over the Golden Gate Bridge are beautiful bluffs where you can enjoy the views of SF and the bridge, picnic, hike, visit historic military sites, and birdwatch.

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Fremont, CA: Where is the Vietnamese restaurant area in San Francisco?

Sharron Wood: The highest concentration of Vietnamese restaurants is the Tenderloin, and fairly seedy neighborhood that has a lot of great little hole-in-the-walls. One of my favorite is Saigon Sandwiches, where for a couple of bucks you can great sandwich with thin-sliced meats and tangy veggies (take out only).

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Miami, FL: My wife and I are visiting San Francisco in two weeks for our 25th anniversary. We're getting alot of advice about where to go and what to see. What are your top 5 "must see" sites?

Sharron Wood:

1. Alcatraz Island. Be sure to spring for the audio tour, which is very interesting and informative, and don't forget to reserve in advance.
2. The Golden Gate Bridge. Don't just drive across it, but walk. Preferably, drive up into the Marin Headlands just to the north and appreciate it from there.
3. A stroll along the Embarcadero, enjoying the views and stopping in at the great food shops and restaurants at the Ferry Building along the way.
4. Either the Palace of Legion of Honor, the fine arts museum, or the Museum of Modern Art, depending on your preference.
5. Weather permitting, a romp in Golden Gate Park, where there are specialty gardens to visit and people to watch.
But whatever you do, don't fo'get to pick a few neighborhoods that appeal and just wander through them slowly!

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Sharron Wood: Thanks for the questions, everyone!

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