SAN FRANCISCO’s BEST ●Attractions●Neighborhoods/Shopping+Restaurants
UNION STREET/COW HOLLOW’s BEST
Betw. Gough St. & Divisadero St., Pacific Heights.
Getting here by public transportation: Take the #45 bus from Kearney/Geary streets, off Market Street.
Many of the upscale shops and restaurants that fill this trendy area are inside vintage Victorian and Edwardian buildings. Of particular interest are the 1874 Cudworth Mansion farmhouse at #2040 and the Twin Wedding Houses at #1980, both now occupied by shops and restaurants. Flower stands add a seasonal burst of color on the four blocks running between Fillmore and Octavia streets--where the heaviest concentration of shops occurs--but boutiques continue on in both directions and down side streets. This area is referred to as Cow Hollow, in reference to the fact that it was once the city’s dairy community. In the 1800s, the Cow Hollow section consisted of 30 dairies.
For the annual Union Street Arts Festival in June, the street is closed off from Gough to Steiner. It begins with a Saturday morning Waiter Race in which competing servers must open a bottle of wine, pour two glasses, and carry them intact on their tray to the top of Green Street and back again. Music, food, and crafts booths round out the fun.
Octagon House and Allyne Park 2645 Gough St./Union St.
Capannina 1809 Union St./Laguna St., (415) 409-8001. Specializing in the food of Capri, this cozy Italian restaurant’s name means “little hut on the beach.” It is a small venue with personable servers and excellent service. Meals begin with excellent sourdough bread and a tasty pesto sauce dip. Among the dishes that get raved about are black-ink risotto with scallops, calamari stuffed with crab and cheese, crab cakes, scampi with linguine (served with heads on), braised short ribs, buffalo mozzarella and prosciutto ravioli, and pappardelle with a rich and chewy mushrooms and wild boar ragu (my favorite). Pastas are all housemade, and portions are generous. An early bird prix fixe three-course dinner is available between 5 and 6 p.m. and a very good deal. This spot is known for its tiramisu, but all of the desserts are noteworthy—most especially the espresso cannoli, chocolate cake with hazelnut ice cream, and (my personal fave) custard-filled profiteroles with a scrumptious caramel sauce. The wines are mostly Italian and easy to drink.
Mel’s Kitchen 2165 Lombard St./Fillmore St. Long ago when Mel’s was a real drive-in, carhops brought trays out to clamp on windows for in-car dining. Now the eating goes on inside the restaurant. Seating is at a long counter, in booths, or at tables with chairs, and an oldie but goodie can be played for two bits on a computerized table-top mini-jukebox. (An interesting aside: Jukeboxes were invented in San Francisco in 1888.) Dress is just-off-the-jogging-trail casual. Menu items include the Famous Melburger with all the trimmings, a variety of veggie burgers, fries with the skins still on, and, of course, BIG onion rings. All this plus salads, soups, and sandwiches galore. For more substantial appetites, the menu offers a chicken pot pie, meat loaf served with lumpy mashed potatoes and gravy, and the day’s blue-plate special. Among the drinks are flavored cokes and thick, old-fashioned milkshakes served in the mixer tin. Desserts include chocolate fudge cake, banana cream pie, and a banana split. Kids love that their meals are served in boxes that look like cars, and teens call this place “cool.” The menu has trendified.
A branch at 3355 Geary Boulevard, the exact location of one of the three original Mel’s. More branches are at 801 Mission St. and at 1050 Van Ness Ave.
Palm House 2032 Union St./Webster St.
Perry’s 1944 Union St./Laguna St. Consistency is a strong point at this popular watering hole. Drinks are strong and tasty, and the cafe food is always just as remembered. A good hamburger comes on a Kaiser roll with a side of thin, greaseless fried potato rounds, and the corned beef hash is neatly chopped and topped with two poached eggs. Chops, steaks, and fresh fish flesh out the menu. For dessert, try the housemade apple brown Betty. Seating areas include sidewalk tables, the boisterous bar area, a dark but quiet back room, and a sunny back porch.
Roam Artisan Burgers 1785 Union St./Octavia St. The young and the restless Union Street singles have definitely roamed on over to this eco-conscious (grass-fed beef, organic free-range eggs, etc.) burger emporium. And they can be LOUD. Still, it is fun to part of the happy scene, whether sitting inside at the communal table, on a high stool at the bar, or outside at a petite table sidewalk-side. Ordering is simple. Pick your filling—beef, turkey, bison, veggie—and style—perhaps the classic, with butter lettuce, tomato, onions, housemade pickles, and housemade sauce; or maybe the sunny side, with an egg, white cheddar, caramelized onions, and sweet chili sauce. Fries are a choice of regular, sweet potato, or a thin and crispy zucchini-onion haystack, and come with optional custom seasonings—lemon-chive is fresh and tangy, while chipotle-maple is sweet and a little hot. Among the drinks are sodas (including housemade versions), limited beers and wines, fermented kombucha tea, and Straus Family Creamery shakes (think Blue Bottle coffee, Tahitian vanilla bean). Prices are low because you order at the counter.
Rose's Cafe 2298 Union St./Steiner St. Known for its house-baked goods, Rose’s is especially choice at breakfast when delicious French toast, scrambled eggs with spinach, and smoked salmon pizza are available. Lunch offers a soup of the day—perhaps a creamy asparagus—and sandwiches (the turkey breast with avocado, provolone, and whole grain mustard on a brioche is a mouth full in more ways than one) and sometimes a polenta dish. Drinks include lavender lemonade, a host of Italian sodas, teas, and espressos. The menu changes daily. Located within a 1909 Edwardian building, the small interior is cozy, with large windows to the sidewalk and some banquettes. In good weather, outdoor seating is available on the sidewalk in front. I’ve been told Rose’s is a favorite of writer Danielle Steel’s.