Locals always know a place better than tourists, of course, and nowhere is this more evident than when you are standing in the middle of a place like Haight Street in San Francisco.
Locals can tell you the best places to eat, to shop, to duck in for an afternoon cocktail. I know plenty of people who’ve been to San Francisco and the few people who knew I was going were more than willing to share their opinions on where we had to stop. Given that I had never been to the city before, I was thankful for their input, but my favorite way of approaching a new city is to have an idea of what I’d like to see and then let the day take me wherever it takes me. Esmeralda was willing to take this loosely structured approach, as well, and when we were figuring out the loose plan we discovered that we both had places on or near Haight Street we wanted to see.
For Esmeralda (not her real name), this was Booksmith, and for me, this was The Alembic Bar. I’m in the beginning stages of a bourbon phase which has me trying Old Fashioneds wherever I go, and I’d heard good things about the Alembic. Their cocktail menu looked amazing, and they have food, too, but Esmeralda is vegan and I’ve found it’s just easier to go eat at vegan places rather than force vegans to eat at places that cater to omnivores. To be honest, though, once you eliminate everything from the vegan menu that I wouldn’t put in my mouth (I’m fine eating vegetables; I am not fine eating fake meat or tofu), there’s probably not much difference but at least I know I can always find something to eat and enjoy at a vegan place while vegans can’t always find something to eat and enjoy at full menu locations.
Fortune was in our favor as Herbivore was a few blocks off the other end of Haight, which meant we could make a nice, comfortable loop down Haight, down the hill to Herbivore, then back up the hill to check out the other side of Haight.
That sounds like a neat plan, but in truth, our lunch destination was decided somewhere on Haight when we realized instead of just walking around and hoping to run into either the Alembic or a vegan joint, we should probably take 30 seconds and figure out where we were going.
The Haight-Ashbury district is steeped in history and cultural capital, of course. Hippies, counterculture, the Summer of Love, drugs, the Grateful Dead … I would imagine that for some people a visit to Haight-Ashbury is like a visit to Mecca, but for me it’s just one of a hundred interesting neighborhoods spread across the country that I’d like to see one day. I wanted to experience Haight Street with as fresh eyes as possible, so I purposely didn’t fetishize the place anymore than I already had before seeing it in person.
I’m glad I didn’t. Haight Street hit me on a couple different levels. What’s instantly striking is that this is a place that feels both lived in and completely alive. We were there on the Friday before Labor Day and there was a noticeable mix of locals and tourists. Locals knew where they wanted to go, and tourists knew what they wanted to see, but Haight is a place where this combination creates a sense of the historical rubbing up against the mundane. Yes, there’s striking sights like the Red Victorian and the Piedmont Boutique that visitors come here specifically to see, but there’s also plenty of eateries and shops that are ordinary and functional and are no more memorable than ordinary, functional eateries and shops in Chicago or Boston.
If you’re like me and appreciate some good people watching, Haight Street is a place you’ll love. There are street musicians of varying skill levels everywhere. We saw a man with a cat on his shoulders walking quickly up the street. The animal look terrified and we were not surprised when we saw the cat scurrying back to us after escaping its horrified perch. There’s also plenty of tourists stopping in the middle of the sidewalk to take pictures of sights they had come here specifically to see. I resisted the urge to be one of the hordes taking a picture of the Haight-Ashbury street sign, but that was a pretty dumb thing of me to do. It was less about not wanting to look like a tourist as much as it was not wanting to pretend that this street sign meant nearly as much to me as it meant to other people. Let them stop and get their picture; I was hungry and wanted lunch.
Given the number of vegetarian and vegan friends I have, I’ve eaten at my share of vegan joints over the years and Herbivore is a totally acceptable place for non-vegans to eat. There’s plenty of fake meat on the menu, which I avoid because it tastes like nonsense (this is a problem of all fake meat – from what I saw on the other diners’ plates, Herbivore prepared it skillfully, so this isn’t a knock on them). If you’re cool with fake meat, though, the menu at Herbivore a large enough variety for you to eat there every day for a month with no repeats.
I went with a regular old large garden salad, which was an excellent choice. It was good, which is the most important thing, but it was also a smart choice to eat something light. We’d been going since 6 AM and but for the breakfast donut, I hadn’t eaten anything. It was hot and eating enough to feel overburdened in the gut would have been a very bad decision.
We took a winding walk back through another small park where it hit home just how friendly San Francisco is to dogs. While not quite everywhere, I saw dogs throughout Haight-Ashbury, and if fate transforms Darwin and I into residents of San Francisco at some point, I think he’ll enjoy himself quite a bit.
There was a weird moment near a large tree in the park where Esmeralda, myself, and a startled local swore we heard what sounded like a hawk just above our heads. Other than a fleeting glimpse of flapping, seemingly agitated wings while looking up through the thick branches, however, we didn’t see the bird.
Our destination on the return loop was the Alembic, but we were not in a hurry, and stopped in several shops along the way. Stepping into a store on Haight revealed another level to me – that things are not what they seem. While we only stopped in a few stores, I was struck by how different the interiors were from location to location. From the outside, most stores blend into the street’s ambience, but stepping past the threshold brought incredibly small store squares, stores with long, rectangular designs, and stores with a second level of goods to peddle.
What almost all of them had in common was how incredibly hot and stuffy they were. Finding air conditioning on Haight Street is like finding a Coke machine in the Arctic, and while I am certain locals make their peace with the inability of most shops to find a way to circulate, let alone cool, the air, it was misery for me. I feel bad for the workers and bad for the owners, because there were several shops I stepped in and almost immediately stepped back outside. Stores that had some space and high ceilings fared the best, and the two places we spent the most time in – Booksmith and the Alembic – had this configuration.
It was at Booksmith that I bought the two Moby-Dick for kids books pictured up top. They’re both wonderful books, but the Cozy Classic version is pure magic. It retells Herman Melville’s classic over a series of twelve double-page spreads. (The other book uses Moby-Dick as an opening to give kids “an ocean primer.”) A word appears on the left and on the right is a corresponding needle-felt image. It’s rather genius. There are currently seven “Cozy Classic” books available and I want all of them. The Moby-Dick offering was the obvious choice for me, given that I wrote my dissertation on 19th century American whaling narratives (yes, there are more of them than Moby-Dick), but the Les Miserables interpretation looked pretty epic, too. James and Holman Wang do a truly amazing job with these books; I like them so much I don’t even have to lament that I don’t have kids of my own to buy them for because I’m just going to buy them all for me, anyway.
When you visit a city for the first time, you are constantly making a list of places you want to come back to on a subsequent visit, and Booksmith is a shop I’ll frequent again. It’s a great bookstore and the staff was incredibly friendly. Plus, they had some oversized Adventures of Tintin books behind the counter that I flipped through for about ten seconds before I knew I wanted it, and another ten seconds before I realized this wasn’t going to be the trip where that happened. They were gorgeous, and their price reflected that gorgeousness.
I will come back to the Alembic, as well. It’s a gorgeous place and, more importantly, the cocktails are outstanding. I ordered an Old Fashioned, which was very well made. I am not, by any means, a bourbon expert, but I can tell when a drink is made well, and my Old Fashioned and Esmeralda’s Switchback were both assembled deliciously. (I’m taking her word on that; I didn’t try it.) The Alembic definitely has a minimalist approach to their Old Fashioned: a couple dashes of bitters, a bit of sugar, a lemon peel, and ice are the only co-residents of the glass with the Evan Williams bourbon that dominates the drink. In a cocktail that focuses so strongly on the bourbon (a move that I approve of), I would have preferred to see a higher quality selection, but I’m not a bourbon expert (yet), the Evan Williams hit the spot, and the Alembic’s Old Fashioned is an excellent way to spend your drinking time. At this stage in my Old Fashioned journey, I’m happy to sit and drink and appreciate, and I was able to do that at the Alembic, thanks to the quality of the drink and the staff.
The cocktail menu has a selection of eight classic and eight modern drinks, and as I remarked several times this week: If I was a local, I would make a point to drink all the drinks on the menu.
I’ve become a fan of the post-lunch cocktail. Eating at Herbivore and then making the long, slow walk back up Haight Street to the Alembic provided the perfect buffer between the meal and the alcohol. At lunch, Esmeralda and I were both tired and hungry and conversation was largely pleasant and forgettable, something to do to slow the consumption of the food. Over cocktails, however, we caught our second wind. The Alembic’s layout has a long bar in the front portion of the rectangular space, followed by a row of tables along each wall in the back. I can imagine the space gets tight at night, but in the early afternoon the tables were mostly open as the crowd congregated at the bar. Relaxed, happy, full of food, the new owners of books, we had an actual conversation instead of idle chatter, and the experience at the Alembic was one of the highlights of my trip.
I’ll be back, and next time I’ll be trying the Vasco da Gama.
After the glasses were emptied, we left the Alembic and Haight Street behind. We had two stops left on the semi-amorphous agenda, and I’ll cover Fisherman’s Wharf in the next installment.