18 July 2010

San Francisco, California

I can’t believe it’s July already. Time literally seems to have flown by since I started at Google in January. They say that happens when you’re having fun. And fun I am having. In March I visited our Zürich office. If you’ve never seen photos, you need to take a look. The BBC has a story and video from when it opened in 2008 too. A couple of weeks ago, I visited our Amsterdam office for a day and back in May I had the pleasure of visiting our headquarters in Mountain View. No matter how many photos I’d seen and stories I’d heard, nothing really prepared me for the scale of the place. Cycling between buildings to attend meetings and having to choose between a dozen or so different places for lunch takes some getting used to. Not that I’m complaining, of course!

Since the trip was also my first time in the United States, I decided to make the most of it and spend another week in San Francisco with Suzy. We stayed at the Hotel Triton, a boutique hotel themed around pop culture, where we had a corner room on the fifth floor overlooking the Dragon Gate entrance to Chinatown.

As seems to be the tradition for these types of blog posts, here’s a run down of what we got up to, which is more for the benefit of my memory than anything else… so feel free to skip the words and just look at the pictures.

Saturday 15th May 2010

After meeting Suzy at the airport and checking in at the hotel, we wandered around the local area looking for a place to eat, going full circle and ending up at Mikaku across the road from where we were staying. Their bento boxes were excellent and their choice of saki looked equally impressive.

Sunday 16th May 2010

We got up early and grabbed a quick breakfast at Starbucks before heading down to Howard Street so that we could join the Bay to Breakers crowds. I only found out about this crazy phenomenon a couple of days prior when a colleague warned me about it, suggesting that it was the type of event that tourists generally want to either avoid or embrace. After reading that it basically involves a 12km run, followed by pretty much the entire city in fancy dress, with music, drinking, dancing and nudity, we decided to go and take a look. If you’re ever in San Francisco at this time of year, I’d definitely recommend checking it out. This was the 99th year it’s taken place, so I suspect 2011 is going to be absolutely huge.

We walked about 5 miles of the route and saw a bit of Golden Gate Park before turning back to get some lunch. Then we went to Jacks Cannery Bar to rest our legs. I sampled a couple of local ales and Suzy had the best Bloody Mary I’ve ever tasted.

For dinner, we decided to try one of the many restaurants in Chinatown. With so many to choose from, we read tons of online reviews before settling for Chef Jia’s Restaurant (925 Kearny Street, San Francisco, CA 94133) as recommended by the SFGate Chinatown page:

Chef Jia’s: Every guidebook ever written on SF has probably mentioned the House of Nanking, but few seem to shower its neighbor, Chef Jia’s, with equal praise. We don’t see why. Huge lines form for Nanking, but Chef Jia’s food is just as good (if not better) and cheap – and the restaurant is less crowded. One warning: Order “hot” only if you really mean it.

They were right about the queues for the House of Nanking, that’s for sure. We’ve no idea what the food’s like in there, but Chef Jia cooks nice big portions of Chinese food that tastes great. Chef Jia’s place is a bit worn in places and was empty apart from one other couple when we got there, but its tables soon started to fill up with locals and people wanting to avoid the Queue of Nanking.

Monday 17th May 2010

We skipped breakfast and ventured out into the torrential rain to take a tour of Chinatown and its tacky tourist shops, elegant rooftop temples, and a back alley that was used in Karate Kid Part II.

We ended up in Little Italy and went to Caffe Delucchi for lunch and picked a couple of nice hearty dishes from their breakfast menu that were really tasty; Polenta with Pulled Pork for me, and Italian Frittata for Suzy, which she washed down with an Italian strawberry cream soda.

The weather didn’t improve much after lunch, so we got even more wet walking to Lombard Street, taking a trip hanging from the side of one of the famous cable cars up and down Russian Hill and Nob Hill, then strolling along The Tenderloin to the Civic Center before heading back to the hotel for a rest before dinner.

I’d been told that we had to try Lulu’s whilst we were in San Francisco, so I’d already booked a table via their website a couple of days earlier, and I’m pleased to say that the food lived up to the high expectations. They were mega busy, so the service was a little slower than you’d usually expect from a good restaurant, but we didn’t really mind as we were enjoying the atmosphere of the place and the food was delicious, so we were surprised when the waiter brought us two complimentary dessert wines after our main course as an apology for the poor service. They clearly have high standards and know how to treat their customers, which certainly makes a pleasant change!

Tuesday 18th May 2010

For breakfast, we made a quick stop at the Brioche Bakery (210 Columbus Ave, San Francisco, CA 94133) to pick up a croissant or two, walked up to see Coit Tower and then walked down to Pier 33 so that we could hop on the 09:30 ferry that we’d booked online with Alcatraz Cruises so that we could spend the morning on Alcatraz Island. says that Alcatraz is “only an abandoned prison, the weather can be unpleasant, it stinks during seagull nesting season, and it takes up almost half a day to go there and back.” To which I say, “So what!? It’s unique and has a fascinating story.”

Even though we got the first boat of the morning, there were still things we hadn’t seen on the island four hours later. The main reason we left was that there are no places to eat or drink on the island unless you take your own picnic, which we’d recommend doing so that there’s no need to rush back to the mainland.

After successfully breaking free from Alcatraz, we made our way to Pier 39 for some lunch. We’d been wondering what San Fransisco’s local speciality dish was before we arrived since there was nothing that really came to mind. Once you’re there, it’s quite obvious that clam chowder served in a bowl made out of sour-dough is a favourite though. Prices and quality seem to vary a bit but we opted to eat ours at Chowders which was fine.

Pier 39 appeared to be the most touristy part of San Francisco. For a city that must attract so much tourism, San Francisco has mostly managed to keep its identity, but Pier 39 makes up for this a bit.

We spent the remainder of the afternoon watching the seals at Pier 39 and exploring the rest of Fisherman’s Wharf, including a visit to the Musee Mecanique where they’ve got an impressive collection of antique arcade machines and video games, mostly for 25¢ per play, and quick potter around Ghirardelli Square.

Being down near the water, we figured we’d try to hunt down some good seafood for tea. Having read reviews online, it seemed SFGate had hit the nail on the head when it said, “Look in any San Francisco guidebook and you won’t see much on dining at Fisherman’s Wharf. No one takes the time to really check things out. Instead, writers dismiss it with a casual wave of the pen, saying there’s nothing good.” Regardless, we opted for Nick’s Lighthouse (5 Fisherman’s Wharf) since they seemed to have some decent crabs and other seafood available from the takeaway counter outside and SFGate didn’t say anything too bad about them. Despite being overpriced because of the location, the crab would probably have been the most sensible thing to order. Our seafood platter was disappointing, the wine was expensive and the service wasn’t great. It was the only place during our trip where we felt we didn’t want to leave the 18% tip that’s expected at most restaurants in San Francisco.

Wednesday 19th May 2010

Following a quick breakfast from Boudin Bakery & Sidewalk Cafe, we hit Macy’s, Bloomingdales and the Westfield San Francisco Centre for a touch of window shopping to work up an appetite. Ever since arriving in San Francisco, I’d been determined to enjoy a stereotypical American meal, consisting of huge portions of buffalo chicken wings and ribs or a massive burger. Although San Francisco’s numerous and varied restaurants are fantastic, unless we were just looking in the wrong places, this is one cuisine that it seems to be lacking.

Thankfully, The Cheesecake Factory on the top floor of Macy’s seemed to have the menu I’d been looking for. Their starter of buffalo wings the size of chicken drumsticks was plenty for two to share and was really enough for a lunchtime meal, but I’d already ordered a portion of beef ribs for my main course and Suzy had chosen a burger. But for a moment, we thought we might never get to taste them.

Whilst waiting for our main courses, our waitress told us that there was a bomb scare in Union Square – right outside Macy’s – and that she was going to leave, along with about half of the staff. Although there was no official evacuation plan, she gave us the option to leave too. I had no idea whether this was a regular occurrence or something more serious but the waitress seemed pretty panicked and the rest of the staff clearly didn’t know what to do. Suzy joked that we should just stay put and enjoy our “last” meal together. Fortunately, one of the waiters announced they’d been given the all-clear about five minutes later, just as our main courses arrived. Perfect timing!

Despite the bomb scare, we both thoroughly enjoyed our meals. I’m not sure I’ve ever had beef ribs before but these were melt-in-the-mouth-good with so much meat on them that I had to leave two to take home for a snack later, along with a generous slice of Key Lime Cheesecake to share.

After wandering around Union Square and Downtown a bit more, we went back to the hotel and got the ribs and cheesecake chilling in the minibar fridge before nipping out for a quick drink with a mate who had just moved to San Francisco. It wasn’t until we got back to the hotel that we found out — thanks to Twitter users — that the whole of Union Square had been evacuated and they’d even sent in a bomb disposal robot while we were waiting for my ribs!

Thursday 20th May 2010

We grabbed another quick breakfast from Starbucks on our way to the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market where we found several really good specialist food and cookware shops in The Ferry Building Marketplace.

We bought two massive wrap sandwiches from Golden Gate Meat Company (caution: terrible website jingle) to eat later and then hired two bikes from Blazing Saddles so that we could cycle across the Golden Gate Bridge and see it up close. Once we’d reached the other side, we enjoyed an ice-cream in the tiny Mediterranean-like city of Sausalito before catching the ferry back.

For our last evening in San Francisco, we grabbed a couple of huge and delicious slices of pizza from Escape from New York Pizza down the street from our hotel and then jumped on a streetcar to join a fellow Googler for drinks down The Castro.

Friday 21st May 2010

On our last day in San Francisco we’d planned to sample some burritos but decided not to bother dragging our suitcases around for a few hours and just had a lazy morning in the hotel, getting our money’s worth by staying right until check-out time, and then made our way to the airport thoroughly exhausted and ready for another holiday…

Not quite as stereotypically American as I was expecting it to be, I thoroughly enjoyed San Francisco and I can’t wait to visit again!

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