Editorial Director David Lytle and guidebook author Matt Poole discuss some of their favorite new places to stay, savor a meal and enjoy nightlife in San Francisco, a perennial favorite among world travelers. Find out about brand new and recently re-opened hotels, get the scoop on a great locavore restaurant, have a classic San Francisco moment at an oyster bar or benefit from the work of professional mixologists at one of the best bars on the nightlife scene.
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- New Hotels: Hotel Tomo, Joie de Vivre Hotels, Orchard Garden Hotel.
- New Nightlife: Bourbon and Branch, Rico's, Rye.
- Dining Choices: The Fairlawn, A-16, SPQR, Fish and Farm.
- Where to Go: The Mission District, the Fillmore District, the Tenderloin District.
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.Announcer: Welcome to the Frommers.com travel podcast. For more information on planning your trip to any one of a thousand destinations, please visit www.frommers.com.
David: Hi, this is David Lytle. I'm the editorial director for Frommers.com. Today we're talking with Matthew Poole. He is the author of our San Francisco guide and our LA guide and contributes to our California guide. Hi Matthew, how is it going today?
Matthew: Doing great. Thanks David.
David: Good. We actually had lunch earlier this week so it's nice to talk to you again. How long have you been writing for Frommers?
Matthew: I've been writing for Frommers for nearly seventeen years. My first assignment was actually Frommers San Francisco back when I was 23 or 24 I think. It's been a long time.
David: Wow! That's great. So you're an old hand?
Matthew: [laughter] Yeah, old is the word for it.
David: [laughter] Today I wanted to talk about specifically San Francisco. As a travel writer--especially as a travel guide writer--you know the hassles that guidebook authors have trying to fit everything into X number of pages. There's only so much page count that you can get into a book and still have it fit into somebody's back pocket or not have it weigh fifteen pounds and they don't want to take it with them because there's that rule of portability.
So things get cut or things open up that are new after an annual edition is published. So today I want to talk about some of those things that missed the publication deadline but are going to be in the next edition and are around now so that people can know about them. And maybe talk about those things that you sort of wish were in the guidebook but you just haven't found a way to get them in there yet.
David: Cool. So first off let's talk about some hotels--changes in hotels that might have happened since the guidebook came out.
David: Do you want to start with that?
Matthew: Yeah, there's a new hotel that opened up in Japantown called the Hotel Tomo. What's interesting about this place is that the entire hotel, the graphics, are done in sort of Japanese 'J-Pop' anime style so entire walls are covered with this amazing cartoon wall graphics. It's really an interesting look to it. It's a different aspect of designing a hotel.
Then some of the rooms also have state-of-the-art gaming systems with six-foot wide projector screens. I mean the kids would love this sort of hotel. It might not be that much for other people who are not into Japanese anime but if you really want a different lodging experience in San Francisco, I highly recommend the Hotel Tomo.
David: Yeah, I was thinking, kids? Why kids? I'd want to go, too.
Matthew: I would too, actually.
David: Absolutely. It looks like Ikea meets a video game.
David: And this is a Joie de Vivre hotel and I think just while we're on the Tomo we should talk a little about Joie de Vivre and explain to people what they are to San Francisco.
Matthew: Oh, Joie de Vivre--it's funny. They started out almost 15 years ago, I guess. One hotel is run by Chip Connelly, a really smart hotelier guy. They started with one hotel. It's grown now, and I think they have more than 20 properties.
What they're doing is they're taking a type of style of hotel and they're selling it at a price point that's in an affordable range. I'd say they're half the price of some of the more expensive hotels, but they have a lot of this in amenities. I don't know who is doing the designing of the hotels, but they're beautiful hotels inside and out.
David: Yeah, they do a great job of taking existing buildings, existing properties and either renovating them or converting them. They're not necessarily always hotels. They become hotels, and they are San Francisco specific. I don't think they have any properties that are outside of the city, do they?
Matthew: They manage a hotel down in Los Angeles, Angelinos--the old Holiday Inn down there as well. They're branching out, but they're mostly based in San Francisco.
David: And the SoMa area, the south of Market area over where the Federal Building is, they bought up what used to be a series of--for lack of a better word-styles, like a motel. They bought all of these up and they're in the process of converting them and cleaning them up, adding even more hotel rooms to the much needed pool of rooms in the city, especially affordable hotel rooms. Some of the Joie de Vivre can be pricey, but you can find affordable rooms, like $149 a night.
Matthew: Yeah, and what's also important about JDV hotels is each one has its own theme. If you just click on the JDV properties--I believe it's jdv.com or jdvhospitality.com, I'll check in a second, you can actually choose a hotel by what theme you're interested in participating in in San Francisco. They have a theater-type theme at one place. They'll have modern. So that's another interesting aspect of the JDV hotels because they try to make it fun to stay there as well as play in San Francisco.
David: Yeah, absolutely. One of my favorite properties is the Hotel Vitale. That's on the Embarcadero, catty corner from the Ferry Building. It's got this great bar up top and down below. If you go up top, you overlook the Bay and the Bay Bridge. It's a great place for a drink after work with friends.
Matthew: Yeah. I did find the website. It's jdvhotels.com.
David: Great. Then you can look there to find all their properties. Also let's talk about what's going on with the Sir Francis Drake?
Matthew: Oh they put a lot of money into the redoing of that one. Yeah. It's a nice hotel. They put about $20 million into an upgrade of that hotel. It's still not one of the nicest hotels in the area. But it has an excellent location and it has a lot of history to it as well. So if you're looking to stay some place that has classic San Francisco character, that's a good place to start looking.
David: Yeah, too bad they couldn't take $20 million and make it THE best hotel, but it is a stunning property to visit. One of the nice things about San Francisco hotels--especially the old school ones--is just visiting the lobbies and the bars or the restaurants.
Matthew: Yeah, they are some definite ones. The Sir Francis Drake, the St. Francis, the Fairmont at the top of Nob Hill, any of those hotels at the top of Nob Hill.
David: At the Fairmont, the Tiki Room.
Matthew: Yeah and the important thing is you don't have to be staying at the hotel to spend some time in the lobby. At least go in and have a cocktail and just pretend you can afford a room at some of these places. It really is a special experience.
David: Right. You can stay at a budget hotel or budget motel out on Lombard Street and go over to the lobbies around Union Square or up on Nob Hill.
Matthew: Who's going to know?
David: Right. Exactly. Also we've got the Westin on San Francisco's Market Street which used to be the Argent Hotel.
Matthew: Yes, they opened that recently as well. That's a brand new property that's coming up. It's more on the pricey side. I think it's probably going to up to $300 or $400 a room. I don't know a whole lot about that place yet. I haven't had a chance to stay there so it's on my list to see. It just opened up.
David: Well part of the hurdles as a travel guide writer is that you constantly have to be moving to find the next thing that's opened or that's been renovated and find the time to evaluate it and then decide if it's worthy of inclusion or not.
Matthew: Yeah, it never is. It's a very strange thing to stay in a hotel in your own home city because when you check in you don't really even have any baggage. And they're like 'can we help you?' and you say 'no, actually I'm fine, thank you.' It's sort of an odd feeling.
David: Raises some suspicion.
Matthew: Yeah exactly. It does. But the hotel scene changes constantly so trying to stay on top of it is a full time job, that's for sure.
David: What new restaurants have you gone to that peaked your interest in the city?
Matthew: Some exciting things going on... Actually, the Fairlawn restaurant, which has been around for a long time, has a new oyster bar. It's beautiful. The Fairlawn restaurant by itself is one of those places that are worth just poking your head into just to see it because the decor is mind-bogglingly amazing.
They added a new oyster bar up in the front, which is a great way to experience Fairlawn, also, without having to sit down for a full dinner. They have the largest selection of seafood and shellfish in San Francisco. In fact, they import more than 600 oysters a week, flown in directly from Chesapeake Bay.
David: Oh, wow.
Matthew: If you like shellfish, it's very much worth putting on your itinerary: "stop at the Fairlawn" at that bar, and sit down with a pile of oysters. It's a great San Francisco experience.
David: It's one that I haven't done yet. I like to go to the oyster bar at the Ferry Building with friends. It's a great way to introduce them to the city because you're sitting on the water. You can have some oysters, a glass of champagne, maybe a beer, and then be on your way. I'm now adding this one to my list.
Matthew: Any excuse to go to the Ferry Building Plaza. That's a must-stop now in San Francisco. It has been for the last couple of years.
David: Yeah, absolutely. You were saying?
Matthew: Are you familiar with the restaurant A-16?
David: I know the name. I haven't been there yet. It's in the marina, right?
Matthew: It's in the marina, yeah, but they've opened up a new restaurant called SPQR, which I actually had to look up. It's the abbreviated motto for the city of Rome. It's in the Fillmore district, on Fillmore street. This place has a lot of people talking because A-16, some people think, is the best Italian restaurant in San Francisco.
When they opened this SPQR, it had a lot of people talking. Especially things like their Roman egg-drop soup and their beef short ribs. It's small. It's hard to get in. There's usually a wait for a table. It's also an excuse to go to Fillmore street. There's one of the great streets in San Francisco for walking along and shopping. I'm a big fan of the Fillmore district.
David: Yeah, absolutely. I like the Fillmore too. Especially when, I forget the cross street now, but when you get to the top, where you get that sweeping view of almost the entire bay area.
Matthew: Yeah, it's California Street, I think.
David: I think it is. You can see the Golden Gate. You can see Alcatraz, Tiburon, all the way over to Oakland. It's sort of stunning, and then all the sailboats out there dotting the water. It's nice.
Matthew: There's also an interesting restaurant that opened up in Union Square. It's called Fish and Farm. It's actually an eco-friendly restaurant where they specialize in serving cuisine that's affordably priced, but it's sourced only from small farms within a 100 mile radius of the restaurant. I think the purpose here is it doesn't take a lot of energy to move the food from the farm to the restaurant, as opposed to getting your bananas from South America or where ever.
Yeah, exactly. They have a rooftop garden. The kitchen - they take their cooking oil, and they donate it to a biodiesel plant. The floors are made from reclaimed bamboo. I've eaten there a couple times and the food is excellent. It's really interesting what the chef is doing with a lot of these products that are literally from northern California.
David: Wow, that's great. This is actually close to my office so I can walk over there and try this. This is following a trend called 'locavore', and the idea is... It's a challenge, in some ways. It's a growing community of eaters. It's like a slow food movement and attached to them, and it is the idea that you should try, for 30 days, to eat nothing but food that is raised within 100 miles of your home. You would be surprised what you have to cut out.
Matthew: You are. Like bananas, for instance.
David: Right, or who makes sugar near your home? You have to find a different way to... Instead of using sugar, you find a way to use honey. The idea is to reduce even the carbon footprint of the food that you eat and cut down on the cost of shipping, although there are some people who say, economically, it's not a sustainable model, but at least somebody is trying.
Matthew: The hotel industry is getting into it as well. For example, the Orchard Garden Hotel just opened up in San Francisco where even the rooms, the cleaning products they use to clean the room, they're biodegradable. They're citrus based as opposed to chemical based. The bedding and things are made from recycled products. Even if this doesn't sustain itself, this carbon-neutral wave that's going on, it's excellent PR for the restaurants and hotels because it gives the media something to talk about - something different, as opposed to just another hotel opening.
David: Right, it's an angle.
Matthew: It's an angle, yeah.
David: We actually put my partner's mother and aunt up in Orchard Garden back in March, I think, when they came to visit. For me, it was an excuse to check out the hotel from the inside. They have a lovely little bar and restaurant on the first floor. They have a garden on top that you can go and hang out. The rooms are clean and nice, but there's nothing really exciting in the way of dcor in there.
Matthew: No, there isn't. I think they're looking for a very clean simple sort of modern look.
David: Yeah, exactly. Let's talk about nightlife. What's new in bars?
Matthew: Well, there's a great new place opened up called Bourbon and Branch. I love this place. It's built to resemble a 1920's speakeasy, and it really does. When you walk in, you really feel like you've been transported back in time.
The thing is, you can't just walk into the front door. They make you make a reservation on their website for a time slot for a table, and then once you make the reservation, they give you a password. When you get to the front door, you knock on it, the door opens up a creak, and a woman asks for your password. You give it to her, she checks on the list, she lets you in. I'm assuming this is exactly how it was like back in the Prohibition era, when you had to have a password to get into these secret bars.
There's no name on the door. There's nothing on the wall at all. They give you the address, otherwise you'd never find this place. When you go in, it's much more expansive. The real interesting part is in the back corner of the bar, there's a huge wall of books. What you can't see is there's a secret door, and if you push on it, it opens up into a separate bar they call the Library as well.
David: Oh wow.
Matthew: They take their drinks very seriously here. It's sort of a new trend in San Francisco where the mixologist - they don't call themselves bartenders anymore - these guys take their drinks very seriously. They use only the best products. It's really interesting to sit with these guys and watch them at their art, actually is what it is.
David: Absolutely. When Bourbon and Branch first opened, I went with a couple of friends. We consider ourselves to be big fans of whiskey, like rye and bourbon. I was able to get in, and we got a booth. I forget what our password was that day. It's really a cool space when you walk in.
Suddenly, you walk in through this tiny heavy door that you have to speak through an intercom to be able to get in, and then sort of a sweeping ceiling that opens up with a tiny balcony off to the back. We did find another way to get in. Not for us - we are probably going to get in trouble or be banned from the bar now, but there's a door off to the side where people step outside to smoke a cigarette, and we stepped outside.
Some women had walked by and they are like, "What is this place? What are you doing?" We explained how Bourbon and Branch worked to them and they said, "Oh, we want to see!" so we just brought them back inside with us, through the side door. They called a friend and the friend showed up half an hour later and she came in as well. They couldn't sit at the table with us because your waitress knows who's been let in on this reservation, but there is sort of a holding area at the bar or up on the little balcony, so... If you want to try and sneak in...
Matthew: There's actually a third secret way to get in. If they ask for the password and you say "books", they will escort you through the bar area and into the secret library. That's top secret.
David: Oh, good to know!
Matthew: Yeah, it is good to know. Another bar that has reopened, much to my joy, is Rico's. Classic bar, it's been around for decades in San Francisco. It closed down for a while and nobody knew why. Finally it just reopened. It's in North Beach. Its on Broadway near Columbus, and the one reason I love this place is they make the best mojito in town.
If you're a true mojito lover, this is the place to go. Plus they have great sidewalk seating, live jazz at night, some good food as well. I just want to bring that up, Rico's is reopened and it will go in the next edition of the book. I had to take it out.
David: Yeah, well that's good to know.
David: And then, we talked about another one too, another place that I've actually been to as well, a bar called Rye.
Matthew: Yeah, Rye, again, there's an interesting thing going on in the Tenderloin District. It has that reputation of being 'kind of seedy' and in some places it is. But SoMa is no longer the new place for night life opening up. It's happening in the Tenderloin where again, these mixologists are opening up these bars that are a tribute to cocktails and good whiskey. Rye is one of the new ones that just came up as well.
In fact, they have a monthly mixing competition on the first Monday of every month which is a lot of fun to go to. But it's a great place to hang out. They actually have a smoking area as well which is pretty rare for a bar and free pool. Actually, it's one of my new favorite places to hang out and to have a cocktail and just relax.
David: I like it as well because it has a modern design to it. It has poured concrete that's been laminated, not laminated, but has been sealed so it's got this high gloss to it. They have extended a wood slat ceiling so while you feel like you're in an industrial space the natural element of the wood absorbs the sound, so it's never this 'rockesy' place. It's sort of quiet and intimate, and the lighting is really nice.
Matthew: Absolutely. Actually, the Tenderloin District is the new place to go bar hopping in San Francisco; it really is.
David: Although we should always say, don't leave anything in your car.
Matthew: Try not to look like tourists, walk in groups, things like that. I've been in the city 20 years. I have never been hassled a single time walking through the Tenderloin at, God knows, what hours.
David: Well look, I was on the radio yesterday talking about safety in New Orleans. This interviewer in New Orleans asked about that. He goes, "What do you think about the crime issue in New Orleans?" I said that I've lived in New York; I live in San Francisco. The most dangerous place that I've ever been is a neighborhood in Indianapolis.
It just matters what part of what city you're in, where the danger is. If you keep your wits about you and use common sense you'll be safe.
I did want to say something about Bourbon and Branch.
Matthew: What's that?
David: They now offer free courses that you can take. You can sign up on line. They don't hold them all the time. It could be something that I think could be fun to get a local experience for a traveler coming in.
If you go to bourbonandbranch.com you can sign up for one of four classes that they teach. One is like on making the perfect Manhattan. One is like how to tell the difference between, I think rye and bourbon and you know sour mash whiskey, so it's a way to sort of hang out with a group of 20 locals and talk to a local bartender and get a flavorr for the city.
Matthew: That's great. Hey, I'd like to do that!
David: Yeah, Absolutely, maybe we could do it together.
Matthew That sounds good.
David: Before we wrap this up because we never want these to go too long, I did want to give a plug for what has become my favorite neighborhood in the city, which is the Mission District.
David: The Mission District is historically the Latino neighborhood in the city, anchored on the west by Mission Dolores, the church, and then it stretches over Guerrero, Valencia, Mission Street, there's some seedy areas and there's some really fantastic areas.
There's a place that reminds me most of Brooklyn back in New York where I lived, because it's that mix of people who have been running their Mom and Pop shops for a very long time. You have a lot of corner bodegas and vegetable stands, old, rundown seedy bars that have the regular characters in there.
Now in the past few years they have seen a lot of growth in people moving in because it's affordable, per se, that's relative I think. If you're outside of San Francisco it still may not seem affordable.
Matthew: No, it's a mortgage payment if you still live outside of San Francisco. [laughs]
David: Yeah, exactly.
David: But it's got all of these restaurants that are opening up. There's Bart 13 that opened recently and that's attached to this really fantastic bakery. There's my favorite block; there's a grocery store called Bi-Rite that's in the middle. So this is 18th Street between Dolores and Guerrero. You have Dolores Park Cafe which is OK, it's not awesome. You have the Bi-Rite grocery store, which is where I like to go for deli and there's a great butcher shop in there. Then, there's a great restaurant that you've reviewed called Delfina and Pizzeria Delfina, so it's a great place for lunch.
Matthew: Love Delfina, absolutely.
David: Yeah, absolutely.
David: And next place to that there's a breakfast and lunch place. It's a bakery called Tartine that is out of this world.
David: People line up out the door and down the block. It's usually 20 to 30 people in line, and they're going to get croissants or their lemon curd pastries. They have these really awesome, what they call, morning buns. It's sort of this explosion of sweet dough and cinnamon. It's a great place to go to get a little carry-out, you can walk over to Mission Dolores Park then and climb up the hill and watch all the people hang out.
Matthew: Yeah, I think it's important to point out the places you're talking about, this isn't tourists going there, this is all locals standing in line and going shopping or whatever.
David: And that's exactly right and these are the places that I'd like people to venture a little farther a field and check out.
It's easy to get to. You can take a J train and get off at 18th Street at Church and you walk over a block, past the people playing tennis at Mission Dolores Park. You can check out the Mission and grab something to have a picnic.
The newest thing that's on that block which is awesome and I have to stay away from it, is the Bi-Rite Creamery. The grocery store across the street opened an ice cream shop, and it's about the size of a closet. Again it's another place, people love their sweets, that they line up outside, 10 to 15 deep and you just wait your turn. Every day they have different flavors; they make really unique sundaes. You may have ginger ice cream with creme fraiche on it and they make fruit compotes to put on top of it and you like crumble ginger snaps and they're... it's just really to die for.
David: So, it's a local block that I really would encourage people when they come to San Francisco to check out.
Matthew: And we're going to look into actually adding a new walking tour to the new San Francisco guide book that covers all of that... If we can get the page count!
David: Exactly, if we get the page count. We do want to get people coming to San Francisco, obviously but, check out Fisherman's Wharf, get it out of your system and then go some place else in the city that is not necessarily touristy but is a great place to check out a local scene.
Matthew: Yeah and when I write this guide book to San Francisco I will cover the major tourist areas but a lot of the guide book has to do with the places that I like to go and hang out and do as most of the locals do, the special places. So it's a different kind of guidebook in that kind of way.
David: Yeah, Absolutely.
Well, Matthew I want to say thanks for talking today, really enjoyed this.
Matthew: David, it was a pleasure.
David: Yeah and hopefully we'll do it in the future and we'll talk about Los Angeles.
Matthew: That we will.
David: OK, OK great. Talk to you soon.
Matthew: All right Have a good day.
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