A few months back, the wife and I decided that we were going to take a vacation to San Francisco over the long labor day weekend. I had never been west of Vegas, so at the ripe age of 31, I would finally be in California, walk among Redwoods, and see the Pacific ocean.
Oh, and drink all the beer and eat all the food.
We went to a few bars and restaurants over six days. Ok, we went to A LOT of them. In an effort to try and be concise here, I’ll provide some info on all the worthwhile establishments we visited. In chronological order, they are:
1) Precita Park Cafe – Small corner cafe that carries superb local beers on tap, wine, coffee fare and had a pretty stellar food menu. I caught the halibut sandwich in my mouth which had avocado, chipotle mayo and some other stuff that I can’t remember because it was the first place we ate when the plane landed and I was malnourished, parched, delirious. Paired it with an Almanac Golden Gate Gose – bright, bubbly, and a touch of salt. A good way to start the trip. That Almanac portfolio is legit.
2) Old Bus Tavern – Later that night, we hit up a new brewpub in the Mission area (we stayed at a place near Bernal Heights) called the Old Bus Tavern. Apparently once a food truck or something in an old VW bus, some dudes got together and made this little badass brick & mortar spot. It’s only been open for a couple months, but you couldn’t tell as the service, food, and beer were all pretty good. They had plenty of guest taps along with 4 house brews – Lemon Basil Saison, Rye Pale Ale, Chipotle Porter, and Lemon Drop Session IPA. The Lemon Basil Saison was as advertised, basil nose and lemon flavor. It was a little clumsy in execution, but not terrible. I went with the Lemon Drop Session IPA, where at 6%…was not a session. Chicken Liver mousse and pickled quail eggs (on top of fried onions – a cute little nest for the puckery devils!) were highlights food-wise. I expect this place will be great for the area.
3) BEL – After Old Bus, we walked a bit south to a new Belgian bar, aptly titled BEL. This also seemed new, as the walls were somewhat bare and a bit lacking in character. But the bar was busy, and the Belgian beer-centric taps were ordered often. Being in SFO, I went with an Anchor Porter, which is admittedly an odd choice, especially given the heat wave they were in. Call it a dessert craving, I don’t know. Add some more Belgian breweriana, and this place is a winner.
4) Dynamo Donuts & Coffee – Early the next morning, it was our first donut shop stop. High end, delicious circle pastries make my heart flutter. Sit inside to watch the donut makers at work, sit outside to enjoy the sun. (This unseasonably warm weather hung around our entire stay. 70s & 80s every day – no fog, no rain, no nothing. It was strikingly beautiful every day – at some points 10 degrees over the avg high. I’ll take it). Espresso crunch donut with an iced coffee that I never really finish. Enjoy the Mission Murals as you make your way over to Dynamo.
5) Jack’s Cannery Bar – Fishermans Wharf! Quite possibly one of the biggest tourist traps I’ve ever seen. Colors! Lights! Shops full of plastic-y knick-knack stuff made in China! The wharf has it all. In that loud-noised & burst-graphics heaven, offset a block or two is Jack’s Cannery Bar. An odd everyman’s watering hole boasting 68 taps, dark wood interior, RedBull logoed umbrella outdoor patio, and a small food menu. The Anchor Meyer Lemon Lager was interesting, but I definitely enjoyed the Heretic Brewing Evil Cousin IIPA more. West coast hoppy beers are pretty prevalent here, umm, obviously. I’ll take another. Both bartenders were English, which was weird. An interesting spot, but probably the best available in that area if you’re around there.
6) Alioto’s – After a short hop up to the windy Lombard Street to complete our tourist trap Thursday, we ventured back down to the wharf because … well, clam chowder. I needed it. All of these waterfront places looked the same, so of course we chose the place that also has a Milwaukee bar by the same name. Someone on Twitter notified me that this spot actually does have ties to the brew city bar, but I don’t know what kind. Clam chowder in a bread bowl is fantastic. Crab sandwich not so much. It’s expensive down here obviously.
7) Pi – Fast forward a few more hours when my urge to shove more stuff in my gullet roars back. We walk to Pi Bar – pizza and beer is what they do here. I’m a sucker for pesto on pizza, so that was conquered, with portabella shrooms & Italian sausage thrown on for good measure. Thoroughly enjoyed a Moonlight Death & Taxes black lager, which tasted more like a malty, cocoa-infused porter. Was later told that this beer, among many others from their brewery and even other local breweries – are gluten free. Plenty of breweries don’t advertise that their stuff is gluten free, which I find odd. They don’t want the stigma. Little do they know that Wisconsinites would be rabid over that stuff.
8) Craftsman & Wolves – a yuppie, expensive, ridiculous breakfast joint that was completely over the top yet pretty delicious. If you go, get the Rebel Within. It’s basically a muffin with a soft-boiled egg shoved inside with onions and crumbled sausage throughout. Warmed up for your enjoyment. It’s a stupid savory snack. C&W is your bakers favorite bakery. Or something.
9) Faction Brewing – Drive through enough stop signs, hairpin turns, one-ways, over railroad tracks and next to what looks like government housing and you’ll find Faction. You will need a GPS (phone) and a co-pilot to talk you through directions as if you’re driving a rally course. Faction (and St. George Spirits, no less!) is not easy to get to, but once you’re there it’s most certainly worth it. In what was once a military instalation, Faction (and other distileries nearby) are nestled in old hangars. Serving only their own brews, Faction proved to be a diamond in the Alameda/Oakland rough, literally. Had a 5-brew sampler which included a true-to-style Porter, an interesting South African hopped IPA, a nitrogenated white chocolate stout, a decent pils, and a perfect IPA consisting of sticky, floral resinous equinox and mosaic hops. The patio was full on the mid Friday afternoon that we went. What an interesting view of the San Francisco bay from here – dry & desolate in the forefront, aquatic and … bridge-y in the background. Definitely a worthwhile stop. Very impressed with the beers here.
10) Oakland Coliseum – aka O.Co Coliseum. Boy I’m struggling to find some nice words to say about Oakland Coliseum here. Yeah I’m still coming up empty. We attended an A’s-Mariners matchup Friday night, and lo and behold there was an ‘Oktoberfest’ celebration in the club level beforehand. Goose Island (huh?), Sierra Nevada, Lagunitas, Strike Brewing, Drake’s, Firestone Walker, were in attendance. Easily the best part was the ceramic commemorative steins that each attendee was given. But all beers were poured into 6oz plastic cups instead, so that was dumb. Even your chicken tenders sucked, Oakland. Better beer available than Miller Park though, I will say.
11) Mikkeler Bar – Mikkeler bar is every beer geek’s wet dream. Quite possibly the most audacious, fun beer list I’ve ever seen – with prices to go with it. Mikkeler is not cheap – nor should it be, when you have stuff from overseas that I can’t even pronounce. Now a hard-to-vocalize name doesn’t mean the beer is good obviously, but when there’s Cascade sours next to Jolly Pumpkin rarities next to Hill Farmstead collaborations on draught from a specific cooler temperature on a holy grail of a pouring system – it’s hard not to get a little excited. Add a downstairs room with even more sour bottles to choose from, and there’s really no reason why anyone should ever want to leave here. Unless of course you run out of cash flow. Shoutout to bar manager Kirby, who was extremely kind all around and showed us a great time. Regretfully didn’t have any food, but from what I saw it looked phenomenal. Mikkeler bar is that bucket list beer bar that one must experience to believe. Honestly. I want to live in it.
12) El Farolito – In the same day as a rich man’s bakery visit in the morning, an expedition to a small Oakland brewery, followed by that spot where the ‘professional’ athletes play (Brett Lawrie can go straight to hell), then back to downtown to see young kids drink crazy beer…one gets hungry. El Farolito (24th & Mission) was highly recommended, and now I know why. This is, without a doubt, some of the best drunk food I’ve ever had. Al Pastor super burrito at midnight? Don’t mind if I do. The clientele was hammered and obnoxious, much like the self-serve sauces. Packed to the gills and cash only, this place was easily one of the highlights of the trip. Quick service was the guinda del pastel. That means ‘icing on the cake’ in spanish, according to google search I just did.
13) Wise Sons Jewish Deli – A jewish deli smack-dab in the middle of a predominantly Latino neighborhood. I love you San Fransisco. You get the idea here – bagels, lox, pastrami, eggs. You know, breakfast stuff. L’chaim.
14) Mitchell’s Ice Cream – It’s a busy ice cream shop. Everything was busy this weekend. Never before seen flavors like Ube (purple yam ice cream?), Thai Tea (a blaze orange colored dessert), and a ton of other tropical flavors with names I’d never heard of. I ordered a peanut butter indulgence and was given pistachio. That’s not even close, but I’m a pistachio fan too so I win. Are you still with me?
15) Public House @ AT&T Park – How a restaurant within a baseball stadium plaza should be done. Beers, and lots of them, available on tap and in bottle. They even allowed you to carry it into the stadium in a plastic cup. Allagash (which I still can’t believe is distributed in Cali but not WI), Cellarmaker, Anchor, Almanac, and a few other local breweries rounded out their good tap list. Very busy on game days and event settings, much of it standing room only. Get there early.
16) Russian River – When your buddy who lives in the area offers to drive you to both Russian River and Lagunitas in the same day, you take him up on that. The wonderfully gracious Nick (check out some of his fantastic artwork here) was kind enough to escort the wife and I up north on a sunny Sunday. In my mind I pictured a wood-accented picturesque brewery with gleaming stainless steel tanks..sitting outside on a table which overlooked the Russian River, among large indigenous coniferous trees. This was not to be, as the only thing outdoorsy about Russian River is their logo. The place is in a strip mall. For real! A line had already formed by the time we got there around 10:15am (it opens at 11), and by the time we got in line around 10:30am, we were about 20 people back. At opening, the line had grown to about 50. But ultimately it doesn’t matter where RR actually is – their beer is amazing. And not just the favorite Pliny (Blind Pig is better, btw, and I’ll fight you over that), or all their “-tion” beers – ALL of their stuff was downright amazing. An English style Pale ale? Perfect. A robust porter? Done. A nitro stout? Forget about it. Every beer I had was wonderful. Watching the (3? 4?) bartenders continuously fill growlers for people’s labor day parties, or pour 2oz tasters for the many tasting trays (one of which was for us) that went out was quite a sight. Not only is their beer delicious, but I found their food (we had a bbq chicken pizza) to be great too. Yet another brewery that you just have to visit. It almost angered me how great their beers were. You get a gold star, Russian River.
17) Lagunitas – Writing this now, after the Heineken buyout, and my feelings don’t change one iota. Although typically a little one-dimensional (Hey, do you like hops?), I am a fan of Lagunitas beers. I am still a fan of Lagunitas, and their brews. On their BUSIEST day of the year (no joke – there were people in every nook, cranny, and crevice of this place the Sunday afternoon we visited), I found the Lagunitas operation to be…oddly well-run. Efficient, little worker bees scurrying around carrying their iconic mason jars filled with beers, plates of cheese boards, salads, and burgers. This hive was buzzing – from the gift shop, to the open grassy space on the hill, to the taproom which was 3-4 people deep the whole day. Truly impressive to see everything going on all at once. People were happy. I was happy. The food we had was good – bahn mi & a hummus plate. The taproom only cherry hotside sour was an interesting mix of approachable sourness and grassy hoppiness. Their hospitality was unmatchable. My feelings on the company acquisition will be for another post (no, it wont), but I can tell you that this place will be just fine. Good people (thanks Johnny) & good vibes.
18) Trick Dog – I don’t typically take naps, but after sending my stomach and brain into a California tornado of tastebud stimuli, I needed one. Groggy, but ready to ‘make the most out of our vacation!!!’, we headed to Trick Dog. Winner of many a cocktail award, Trick Dog was a nice change of pace from our beer-heavy week. A cocktail program that changes with the seasons, ordering is a fun game in itself. Here’s a dog calendar, order a drink by dog breed/month and page through the cute canines. We opted to sit in their tiny, 10-table dining room upstairs. It was approximately 90 degrees. Better than 50 I guess. My bourbon-focused and gin-focused cocktails were good, but for $13 a pop I was waiting for free refills, or something. San Fran you’re great but expensive. Trick Dog’s “Trick Dog” is not just a clever name – it’s a hamburger disguised as a hot dog in a hot dog bun. I don’t know how you don’t get that if you’re dining in.
19) The Mill – What is it with people and toast here? I’ve never seen a line out the door of an establishment for toast. Just toast!? Seriously, toast. A thick-cut $4 slice of charred bread with toppings. I don’t get it, but I guess I’m part of the problem. I opted for the dark rye with cream cheese and salt & pepper. Companion ordered the lemon poppy with almond butter and honey. They were good, but again, it’s toast. TOAST. The toaster assembly line had 2 people feverishly taking tickets out of the printer and popping bread in the slots. Something I never thought I’d see…a toaster assembly line in a coffee shop.
20) Toronado – With our trip winding down, I really had one more spot that I just had to visit. The no-nonsense, decades-old (I think?), cash-only Toronado. A small, yet awkwardly charming bar with a deep Cali brew draught list among some high end Euros. Dusty Duvel magnums lined the one wall, while the other was plastered with stickers from years ago (Milwaukee institutions well-represented!). I’m grouping the Rosamunde Sausage shop from next door into this entry, as you’re able to take the gourmet grilled sausages into Toronado to devour. Let me tell you that imbibing the Almanac Citra Sour while binging on a hot Italian with sweet peppers & grilled onions is a near cathartic experience. “Is this heaven?”, I ask myself. Close.
Even with all the places we visited, here’s a small list of the ones we didn’t: Anchor (closed all weekend), Cellarmaker (next time!), Almanac, Rare Barrel, cocktail destinations Elixir, Comstock, and Rickhouse, Magnolia Brewery, Speakeasy Tap room, Church Key…and I’m sure there’s more. Clearly there’s not a lack of places to go out in this hilly bayside haven. A great vacation destination. I have no ragrets with my decisions, except writing this much content.