The sheer physical beauty of San Francisco remains constant, from the grandeur of the Golden Gate Bridge and the bay to the steep hills veiled by the region's cool, distinctive fogs. But these days, the spirit of the city is in an exciting state of flux. Briefly chastened by the dot-com boom and bust of the last decade, San Francisco has regained its self-confidence, thanks to a newly recharged tech industry and the younger, hipper members of its workforce who are changing the city's borders, tastes, and self-definition.
For this new generation of San Franciscans, Harvey Milk is a character almost as distant as Martin Luther King, and gay civil rights are a matter of course. Gone is any lingering sense of inferiority to Los Angeles (though the two cities will always enjoy a fierce sibling rivalry). Silicon Valley now squarely competes with Hollywood for creative energy and cultural relevance—after all, the city that saw the founding of Twitter and Instagram can rightfully take its place on the global stage. Building cranes punctuate the skyline, as a surge in high-rise housing attracts thousands of new residents. World-class restaurants are legion. "Whether in architecture, art, food, or fashion," says interior designer Jay Jeffers, "San Francisco feels like a city awakening from a long slumber."
Artist Leo Villareal's installation of 25,000 LED's on the Bay Bridge.
It may not be surprising that so much creative change is happening away from the city center. The traditionally Latino Mission District, with its colorful buildings and markets, is still a great place for a burrito. But it's becoming equally well known for such punchy restaurants as Mission Chinese Food, where chef Danny Bowien serves his amped-up take on classic Chinese dishes behind a nondescript facade (the awning still bears the name of the former occupant, a takeout joint). Boutiques like Mira Mira, which specializes in pixie-chic fashions by international designers, and inventive bakery-cafes like Craftsman & Wolves, with its minimalist, industrial decor and anti-cupcake aesthetic, can make this neighborhood feel a little bit like Brooklyn's Williamsburg these days.
The NWBLK gallery and shop.
The neighborhoods in the southern part of the city are exploding for a very practical reason—their proximity to the freeways that lead to Silicon Valley. The trendiest at the moment is Dogpatch, a residential area a stone's throw from AT&T ballpark. At first sight, this enclave near the shipyards looks sleepy and relatively plain. But the imposing American Industrial Center buildings—formerly a can factory—house nearly 300 small businesses, from Olivier, a fine French butcher, to Dodocase, makers of chic containers for various electronic devices, as well as the Museum of Craft and Design, which recently reopened in Dogpatch three years after losing its lease downtown. "The creative energy around here was palpable," says the museum's executive director, JoAnn Edwards. "Behind each roll-up door there was something wonderful happening."
Closer to the heart of the city, the struggling Western Addition neighborhood is the unlikely home of San Francisco's most talked-about culinary experience. The husband-and-wife chef team of Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski have won plaudits—including last year's James Beard Award for best new restaurant—for their State Bird Provisions and its surprising dishes and dim sum–style service. Customers begin lining up on the sidewalk hours before the doors open for gently fried quail (the state bird of the restaurant's name) and such creations as a sourdough, sauerkraut, and pecorino pancake. Despite all of the hoopla, the vibe is warm and unpretentious. "We're on a mission to have the most hospitable kitchen in the country," Brioza says.
A room in the Hotel Des Arts.
More familiar neighborhoods are undergoing face-lifts, thanks in part to forward-thinking architectural projects. The SoMa, or South of Market Street, area will soon be transformed by the newly expanded San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which has hired of-the-moment Norwegian firm Snøhetta to triple the gallery space of Mario Botta's original design. The result, set to open in 2016, will resemble a dazzling, 10-story white iceberg in the heart of the city.
But it's the less sky-high ventures that truly capture the city's creative mojo. Local interior designer and events planner Ken Fulk, known for his quirky update of Victorian style, has recently outfitted the Battery, a social club housed in a brick warehouse in the Financial District, with a library tricked out in maritime-themed decor, a card room, and a wine cellar. (Though the club is members-only, guests at its 14-room hotel are granted access to private rooms during their stay.) The new Fulk-designed restaurant, the Cavalier, resembles a British pub, with taxidermy and a "rail car" room complete with brass luggage racks over the banquettes.
Proxy SF, a collection of shipping containers transformed for food and fashion retailers.
In Hayes Valley, local architectural firm Envelope A+D has proved that the most intriguing architecture isn't necessarily the most permanent. Their Proxy SF project is a two-block-long arrangement of shipping containers retrofitted to shelter food and retail vendors, with art installations and an outdoor movie theater planned for the future. In the Mission, designer Steven Miller has launched the NWBLK (pronounced "the new black"), a gallery and shop housed in a cavernous warehouse that showcases everything from leather jackets to bicycles to handmade furniture.
The best of these offbeat endeavours feel right at home in a city once known for its Beat poets, its hippies, and its gay pride. San Francisco's new vibrancy isn't necessarily a sloughing off of past selves—rather, it shows a willingness to reshape its identity for a new generation.
The Museum of Craft and Design
See the lights. To celebrate the Bay Bridge's 75th anniversary, artist Leo Villareal has festooned its cables with 25,000 LED lights. From dusk until 2 a.m. nightly, the bridge becomes a dazzling light show, with never-repeating patterns dancing across its western span ().
Stroll along the bay. Take in views of the Golden Gate Bridge at Crissy Field, a public park hugging San Francisco Bay. It's currently home to eight sculptures by Mark di Suvero, on loan from SFMOMA while the museum is under renovation ().
Stock your larder. Located on the Embarcadero, the Ferry Building is a spacious Beaux Arts hall where vendors peddle local olive oils, cheeses, chocolates, and fresh produce ().
California Academy of Sciences,55 Music Concourse Dr.; 415-379-8000; : This natural history museum's stunning reconstruction by Renzo Piano includes a roof made of local plantings that blends in with surrounding Golden Gate Park.
De Young Museum,50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Dr.; 415-750-3600; : Housed in a striking Herzog & de Meuron building, this museum has extensive collections of American painting and decorative arts.
Museum of Craft and Design,2569 Third St.; 415-773-0303; : The neighborhood of Dogpatch is the new home of this decade-old gallery. Its roster of rotating exhibitions pays tribute to iconic artists, sculptors, and industrial designers, and showcases the best of new West Coast design.
Proxy SF,432 Octavia Blvd.; : A two-block conglomeration of repurposed shipping containers that shelter an ice cream stand, a juice bar, retail boutiques, and a biergarten.
D. Zelen, a design shop housed in a 1910 building.
The Battery,717 Battery St.; : This Ken Fulk–designed members-only club is a fun house of color and whimsy. Staying in one of its 14 hotel suites gives you access to many of the private spaces.
Cavallo Point Lodge,601 Murray Cir., Sausalito; 415-339-4700; : A former army base at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge has been turned into a luxurious hotel, with spacious suites in new and historic buildings.
Hotel Des Arts,447 Bush St.; 415-956-3232; : Each of the 51 rooms in this funky downtown hotel was painted by a local artist—you might find yourself sleeping under a Rousseau-like landscape or a pair of Mexican wrestlers.
Hotel Vitale,8 Mission St.; 415-278-3700; : This hotel's minimalist aesthetic and soothing, spa-like atmosphere counterbalance the rush of nearby Market Street.
Hotel Zetta,55 Fifth St.; 415-543-8555; : A newcomer to the chic SoMa area, with 116 ultra-contemporary rooms offering high-tech amenities.
The Cavalier, a restaurant designed by Ken Fulk.
Bar Jules,609 Hayes St.; 415-621-5482; : The menu at Jessica Boncutter's cozy Hayes Valley restaurant changes daily, but count on fresh American standards.
The Cavalier,55 Fifth St.; 415-321-6000; : Ken Fulk designed this restaurant at the Hotel Zetta that wittily cribs from English pub style.
Coqueta,The Embarcadero, Pier 5; 415-704-8866; : Michael Chiarello's Spanish tapas restaurant has a paella so tasty, it may distract you from the view of the bay.
Cotogna, 490 Pacific Ave.; 415-775-8508; : Michael Tusk won a James Beard award for his menu of superlative Italian dishes, served in a romantic Jackson Square space.
Craftsman and Wolves,746 Valencia St.; 415-913-7713; : Don't look for cupcakes at this postmodern patisserie. Instead, try the Rebel Within: a sausage-and-cheese muffin wrapped around a soft-cooked egg.
Foreign Cinema,2534 Mission St.; 415-648-7600; : This Mediterranean-themed restaurant serves a stellar selection of oysters. Independent and foreign films are screened each night in the courtyard.
Mission Chinese Food,2234 Mission St.; 415-863-2800; : Chef Danny Bowien serves such whacked-out versions of Chinese as stir-fried pork jowl and radishes, and salt-cod fried rice.
Rich Table,199 Gough St.; 415-355-9085; : Locally sourced, inventive cuisine (peach-leaf cured halibut, garganelli pasta with squab) from the husband-and-wife team of Evan and Sarah Rich.
The Slanted Door,Ferry Building; 415-861-8032; : Charles Phan's flagship restaurant is the place to go for original, highly addictive Vietnamese fusion dishes.
State Bird Provisions,1529 Fillmore St.; 415-795-1272; : The menu at Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski's sensational restaurant is a cross between dim sum and tapas—look for creations like smoked trout, egg, and potato porridge.
Sweet Woodruff,798 Sutter St.; 415-292-9090; : A charming all-day restaurant, with a long lunch counter overlooking the kitchen. Salads, sandwiches, and American classics prepared simply.
Jay Jeffer's home furnishings store, Cavalier.
Carrots,843 Montgomery St.; 415-834-9040; : High-style clothing, jewelry, and homewares.
Casa Acanto,1101 Clay St.; 415-567-6632; : Andrew Fisher and Jeffry Weisman's adventurous shop was inspired by the renovation of their Mexican home.
Cavalier,1035 Post St.; 415-440-7300; : Designer Jay Jeffers thoughtfully mixes his own furniture designs with vintage pieces and one-of-a-kind artwork.
Coup D'Etat,111 Rhode Island St.; 415-241-9300; : Antiques dealer Darin Geise's shop stocks an always-surprising assortment of furniture, lighting, and curiosities.
D. Zelen,1228 Sutter St.; 415-583-0461; : Specializing in garden ornaments and containers, Dan Zelen's design shop is housed in a striking 1910 Moorish-style building.
Little Nibs,807 22nd St.; 415-489-2882; : Artisanal confections by Michael Recchiuti, in a petite Dogpatch shop.
Mira Mira,3292 22nd St.; 415-648-6513; : A standout among the Mission District's boutiques, with hip fashions and jewelry.
The NWBLK,1999 Bryant St.; 415-621-2344; : Innovative designs, from furniture to bicycles.
Reliquary,537 Octavia St.; 415-431-4000; : Intriguing fashions, jewelry, and global folk art in Hayes Valley.
Victorian rowhouses in the Castro district.