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Thursday, December 12, 2013


Grant Avenue and Bush Street, Cafe de la Presse coffee bar area.  French cuisine dining room beyond Xmas tree

CARPE DIEM TRAVEL--Much of my career was spent as a travel writer with the bulk of my junkets and assignments spent solo in places ranging from Singapore, Beirut, Rome, Victoria, Mexico City, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Panama, Tahiti to Las Hadas, London, Quebec, Paris, Belize, La Paz, Amsterdam, Taiwan, Switzerland, Montreal, Guatemala, New Caledonia, etc.  As a result, my domestic travel destinations list isn’t long given the job.  Now, nearing an allegorical 39 years of age and eminent retirement ahead, my wife and I are playing a game of carpe diem travel—together.

Make it a game.
We wait until we find an airline deal too good to pass.   Even if we have to wait six months to cash in that gives us plenty of time to land great hotel rates for our stay.  The game is to land the most affordable prices at a US city we haven’t been to ever or recently.

Because I still have early week client consulting gigs, our impulsive travel goes from Wednesday to Saturday and we only “do” one place at a time.

To seasoned travelers “during the week travel” isn’t new, but if you haven’t tried it lately—the spirit of mid-week adventure can put another big smile on a marriage. 

Neiman-Marcus tree in old City of Paris atrium, Union Square
Hello, Yule San Francisco.
We realized we hadn’t visited San Francisco since 2011, but then it was on business.  This time we landed two great roundtrips on Virgin America and found a great rate at the Sir Francis Drake Hotel.

Because Thanksgiving was later in 2013 (Nov. 28) our Dec. 4 flight to San Francisco International from San Diego carried 30 passengers on a comfortable A-320 jetliner.  We caught a window between the two major holidays.  How nice it was not to be shoulder to shoulder—even for an hour plus flight.  Virgin America had a pre-screening service that whisked us through TSA quickly and I didn’t have to take off my shoes, belt or sartorial dignity.

Virgin America takes off from San Diego’s Terminal 2 (Southwest flies out of Terminal 1).  Arriving early to SF International before 10 am, we noticed our BART train (from SFO to Powell Street station) was 25% filled.  Once in San Francisco, we found few lines, even the cable cars were half full, but at $6 per ride the price tag may have had more to do with the ridership.  We did run into a 45 minute wait for lunch at Neiman-Marcus’s upstairs dining room and on Saturday morning we waited 15 minutes to have breakfast at the venerable Sears Restaurant on Powell Street.

Crocker Galleria on Post rings in the holidays
The 1928 Art Deco Sir Francis Drake is a Kimpton Hotel and popular with the 30 somethings, especially for a terrific free wine happy hour M-F at 5 pm.  Mornings offer free coffee in the lobby.  And, if you really need a Starbucks, there’s one on the corner of Powell and Sutter.  The 21-floor Starlite Room cocktail lounge is jammed all the time, but the view is worth the price of urban drinks (not just the Sir Francis Drake). We found the hotel fireplace on the mezzanine ideal to enjoy free wine and hot cider.  Just remind the bell hops to add logs on the fire.  Back to cab le cars: It’s a better deal to purchase a bus/trolley/cable car ticket for the day.  You can use your transit pass on the Embarcadero and Market Street trolleys as well.  Market Street is shining like a new dime beyond Van Ness and fun to explore, especially the hot SOMO, Castro and Mission Districts.

$6 per seat Trolley zips by the 1928 Sir Francis Drake Hotel
We played tourist to the max.  The city was dressed for Christmas.  We decided to see as much as we could and to do so we purchased the Big Bus doubledecker(on and off) Tour for $50 each total for the two days.  The ticket salesman (with proper ID and company vest) was flexible on pricing.  Competition made him cave $10 off each tour bus tix.  It’s best not to buy tour bus tix in advance because you really need to make the call once you arrive and check out the weather.  No fun sitting on a double decker in the rain...or frigid winds off the Marin headlands.  

Also, we didn’t plan our dining excursions.  But, before visiting San Francisco, you might check in with the writings of two excellent dining writers: Paolo Lucchesi’s “Inside Scoop” and the Chronicle’s main dining noise Michael Bauer‎.

As for restaurants, we found ourselves trying places just because we wanted to be impulsive.

All our meals were first rate and according to an Australian family from Sydney “prices were surprisingly very low.”  Hmmm.  Maybe we lost something in translation?

Our dining choices on this trip were:
--Lunch, Kan’s in Chinatown for dim sum.  To maximize enjoyment study ahead about dim sum dining.  Knowledge leads to welcome surprises.
--Dinner:  Vicoletto’s on Green Street on Jasper Alley.  Wow! Total impulse after reading one of Paolo Lucchesi’s blog’s:

North Beach's hot new Vicoletto Restaurant & Wine Bar
--Lunch:  Chased out of Neiman-Marcus because of no reservations but happily ended up at the food court Fountain Café in the Crocker Galleria on Post Street.  The Galleria is an older more organized version of Eataly in Manhattan.
--Dinner:  Sear’s on Powell.  Classic old San Francisco dining hall since 1938.

Spinnaker Restaurant, Richardson Bay, Sausalito, CA
--Lunch: Hopped off our tour bus in Sausalito and had a two-hour lunch at the Spinnaker Restaurant on Richardson Bay.  Best waiter of the trip impressed us with efficiency.  Hopped back on the bus.  Tour driver took us across the Golden Gate Bridge twice on the return trip.  He put it up for a vote because there were so few of us on board.  So for the day we ended up taking six trips across the Golden Gate.  We saw something we didn’t see before with each crossing.
--Dinner: Café de la Presse at Grant and Bush (south end of Chinatown).  People think this is just an espresso bar with magazines and newspapers.  In the back is a wonderful French restaurant.

Sears Restaurant on Powell, Circa 1960s
--Breakfast:  Went back to Sears. Skip the dollar size pancake special, they’re just Denny’s pancakes made smaller.  If they were more crepe then it would be worth ordering.  Stick to the rest of the menu.  Bacon on the side was wonderful.  So, too omelettes and they outdid themselves on oatmeal of all things.  Upstairs is cool, but so is the basement.  Waiters are a work of art.   With such big weekend crowds  it is a treat to see a waiter professional at work.  No wasted movement, yet they are efficient and remain friendly.  That’s the difference between SF and Manhattan waiters.  Being busy isn’t a license to be rude no matter where you sit. 

Grant Avenue and Commercial Alley, Chinatown, San Francisco, Fall 2013

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