Sunday, December 27, 2015

Welcome to Mr. Bing's

I had no idea so many people flew on Christmas day. San Francisco, here I come.

My favorite food critic recently named Portland the best food city in the country, with San Francisco second. I did Portland this past summer, reveling in it just as he'd done a few weeks later. San Fran is number two and here  I am.

Welcome meal: sushi from "boats" floating around an endless water carousel at the sushi bar in Chinatown, reminding me of those restaurants that have a conveyor belt with dishes you pluck from the non-stop parade. There's a sign in front of my chair that reads, "Be aware of your purse." I assume this applies despite the late hour and fact that it's Christmas Day.

Our server is surly and we're the only people in the place until just before we leave. Still, it's a fitting and tasty welcome to the city by the bay.

First order of the first day after breakfast (and the sticker shock of an $18 omelet): the Coit Tower, an homage to concrete and a local female firefighter who left the city $117,000. WPA murals, steep walking paths and a docent with thick black hair growing out of his ears (distracting) make for a colorful experience.

I worship at the altar of the Beats, wandering down Jack Kerouac Alley where he was unceremoniously tossed after an epic binge nearby.

Walking Lombard Street, I am amazed at the log jam of cars waiting to drive its many switchbacks instead of actually experiencing them on foot. The Cliffside, garden-lined Filbert Street steps are worth the major aerobic workout they provide. I am a passionate walker in a walking town.

I can't very well come here and not go to the Fishermen's wharf, no matter how touristy, now can I? Salty's Famous Fishwich delivers massive fish and shrimp salad sandwiches with cilantro slaw, enjoyed at a sunny table with a view of Alcatraz.

But the serious fun is at the Musee Mechanique, a cavernous repository of vintage amusements and games. For a quarter, I watch the history of the San Francisco earthquake on a series of sepia-toned stereo photographs, squeeze a lever to determine my sex appeal (mild) and watch another stereograph series depicting what saloon dancers do on their day off (try on lingerie and pose fetchingly).

Before we leave, we squeeze into a vintage photo booth to mug for the camera to document this trip with four strips of photos as sepia-toned as those showing the earthquake and dancing girls. Best souvenir ever.

Walking back through North Beach's Italian section, we stop for wine at an old school Italian place where our server winks at us and touches us far more than you might expect him to.

The type thing you see here that you'd never see in Richmond: a handwritten sign in a restaurant window that reads, "Today's lunch special - half rabbit and fries," unfortunately spotted after we'd had lunch.

Dinner is at the kind of completely traditional Italian place - North Beach Restaurant - where the waiters (all men, natch) wear suits, the busboys wear black chef coats and the ancient Italian host has only half his teeth but great patter.

Our server reminds me of Crazy Nate back in Richmond, except in a suit and without the rickety bike.

An antipasto platter for two eats like a meal on four plates: housemade prosciutto, salame and cheese, veal shanks, beans and onions, and sautéed calamari. And that's just the appetizer.

Columbia Tower intrigues me because it was built by a shady mob boss, then purchased by the Kingston Trio in the '60s. The Dead recorded there. Since the '70s it's been owned by Francis Ford Coppola and operates as a wine bar with scads of old photographs from his movies and film shoots.

In the basement of the triangular building, I spot a Coppola family tree next to a photograph of Francis on a pedestal surrounded by nubile young women who look vaguely Pan-Asian. He looks as content as I feel sipping a glass of his Sofia Blanc de Blanc.

It may be my first day in San Francisco, but my legs tell me I've already earned it.

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