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The ‘Golden Great’: With pandemic restrictions eased, it’s time to visit San Francisco again

There’s just something so soothing about gazing at the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island from Fisherman’s Wharf. During a brief visit to San Francisco during the summer of 2020, that was about all my sons Eddie, 19, and Milo, 16, and I could muster during the pre-vaccine era of the pandemic. During a picture perfect summer afternoon, walking along a desolate wharf, which is normally bustling, was akin to being part of a Stephen King novel.

We couldn’t wait to return to the City by the Bay when relative normalcy returned. The three of us trekked back in August and September and enjoyed a destination that is without parallel and regaining its form after being devastated by the first year of the pandemic. There is always so much to do in San Francisco, but our focus starts with flights and where to stay since room rates in the Northern California city can be as steep as the hills the cable cars scale.

We found a nonstop, round-trip flight for $139 from Spokane to San Francisco courtesy of Alaska Airlines (alaskaair.com). And then there are the accommodations. If you would like to splurge for a night or two, consider staying at the Lodge at the Presidio (presidiolodging.com) The Presidio provides the closest lodging to the Golden Gate Bridge, which is what we stared at during our delightful breakfast on the terrace. The grounds of the historic Presidio are enough to get lost in for days.

The Presidio, where we stayed for one night, features 24 pristine acres of hiking trails and 25 acres of biking trails, which leads to the idyllic Baker Beach, which is on the glorious Pacific Ocean. There’s also an 18-hole golf course, a Walt Disney Family museum and a trampoline park. We enjoyed just hanging out in front of the lodge, like many other families, who were tossing footballs and Frisbees.

The Presidio, which housed the U.S. Army dating back to 1895, is an oasis inside a bustling city. It’s historic and relaxing, especially during the wine-and-cheese happy hour. It starts at $320 a night. We dined at the Presidio Social Club Exchange (presidiosocialclub.com), which impressed with the meatballs with arrabbatia sauce and the delicious kale pesto pasta with roasted mushrooms.

For those on a low budget, you can’t beat the Grant Plaza (grantplaza.com) in the heart of Chinatown. We scored a standard double room for nearly the cost of an Uber from the Mission to Fisherman’s Wharf, which was $62. We passed on the ridiculous cost for transport but jumped at a room at the Grant for $77 a night. It’s small, basic and no-frills with two beds, but it’s a bargain.

The bedroom and bathroom are clean, and there’s a television. What more do you need while staying in one of the most vibrant cities in the world? Plus, the location is excellent, just a block from the cable-car line and the Financial District and inside the Gateway to Chinatown. After settling in, we raced to the Mission for my favorite Mexican at La Taqueria (facebook.com/lataqsf/menu). The chorizo burritos are beyond addictive. Eddie agreed. The burritos, each bursting with flavor, are served sans rice so there is room for more Mexican sausage and guacamole.

There is considerable hype surrounding One Market Restaurant (onemarket.com), which has thrived in the Financial District for nearly 30 years. One Market flourishes in a spacious and comfortable environment in which fine food and comfort fare coexist. The 12-hour smoked brisket is sublime. The beef is terrific, and part of it has to do with the restaurant’s meat locker and inventive chef Mark Dommen. The chickpea fries with harissa aioli are delicious.

The roasted pear salad highlighted by pancetta is a solid healthy choice. The flat iron steak was grilled to perfection. One Market’s Famous Butterscotch Pudding tastes just like the candy treat and is light and airy. The apple hand pie is a great way to cap a meal, as well. It isn’t easy to keep a restaurant going for three decades in a competitive city like San Francisco, but it’s not difficult to see why One Market stays alive.

Another Bay area staple is Cioppino’s (cioppinosf.com), which has been on the wharf for decades. After examining the extensive menu, I ordered what else but the restaurant’s namesake. The cioppino, a delectable fish stew with Dungeness crab legs, clams, mussels, snapper, shrimp and calamari in a savory tomato broth with garlic bread, did not disappoint. We started with the creamy New England clam chowder in a bread bowl and fried calamari and finished with the tiramisu, which is the best I’ve had in quite some time.

We decided to explore San Francisco’s Chinatown, arguably the finest in North America, courtesy of a tour, which commenced just a block from the Grant. Our three-hour walking tour of Chinatown with Local Tastes of the City Tour (sffoodtour.com) was well worth it, not just for the food but also for the details about the iconic neighborhood. I had no idea that one of the oldest Catholic cathedrals in San Francisco is in Chinatown.

We walked through back alleys we never would have tread if it weren’t for the jaunt and saw lovely murals. The highlight of the tour was the decadent moon cake, a sweet Chinese delicacy consumed at Eastern Bakery (easternbakery.com), the oldest Chinese bakery in San Francisco. We stopped at a variety of Chinese restaurants to sample Peking duck, BBQ pork buns, sui mai, rice cakes, shrimp dumplings and steamed sesame balls.

Ever wonder how fortunes are placed inside Chinese cookies? Well, we learned how since we watched how the popular dessert is made. Vital Tea Leaf (vitaltealeaf.net), a tranquil tea store with an array of tea from jasmine tea to lychee black, had the biggest impact thanks to charismatic proprietor Uncle Gee, who is 91 but could pass for 68. Perhaps there really is something to the soothing Chinese tea.

There is so much to do in San Francisco. We revisited an old haunt, the Exploratorium (exploratorium.edu), which is a fascinating museum of science, technology and arts. Milo and Eddie couldn’t help but be drawn to the bubble tray where they made giant bubbles, just like they did a decade ago at the Exploratorium. There is much to experience and learn about at the Exploratorium.

We discovered how to make bread and learned about bird calls and the science of surfing. The only noticeable drag is that the tactile room, which we enjoyed during the pre-COVID-19 days, is still closed due to the pandemic. It’s a shame since there is nothing like walking, climbing and crawling through a room that is totally dark.

The last time Milo and I biked the Golden Gate Bridge, he was just along from the ride in a bike trailer. That was back in the day when he called the storied suspension bridge the “Golden Great” Bridge. We made the trek again after renting bikes at Bike and View (bikeandview.com). What might be the most photographed bridge in the world is indeed great, and my final indulgence was a trip to the wine country via Green, which traversed the Golden Gate.

What’s wonderful about San Francisco is that cars are unnecessary, and there have been so many smash and grabs in the city that the manager of the Grant Plaza warned us to not leave an attractive nuisance in the car. No problem. We opted for other transit. The BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) and the bus system are very good. Green Dream Tours (greendreamtours.com) picked us up at our hotel, and we were on our way for a relaxed journey to Sonoma. The first stop was the cleverly named vineyard Peter Cellars (petercellars.com). The boutique winery produces fine wines. Cellars’ smooth 2016 Pinot Noir is a winner.

Homewood Winery’s (homewoodwinery.com) is basically a one-man show courtesy of David Homewood. I brought back a couple of Lydia’s, a white wine with fresh pear and light citrus notes, which has been a nice accompaniment to pasta dishes. Green Dream’s shuttle bus is the way to go since such an excursion is about imbibing, and it provides a most relaxing experience.

There’s so much to check out in San Francisco that a solid week is needed, for starters, but the city known for its fog, cool summers and steep hills is well-worth visiting – over and over again – for a long weekend that you’ll never forget.

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