Monday, November 30, 2009

Thanksgiving in San Francisco

A True One of A Kind

San Francisco has always been both worldly yet somehow oblivious to the rest of the world. It ticks along to its own clock. It is incredibly dense (probably why public transit works so well there). It is wonderfully diverse, so it teases us with amazing food. Although its population is under a million, it boasts cultural amenities of a City three to four times its size.

While it is visibly suffering from the same real estate bubble as the rest of California, in many visible respects it seems healthier than ever. A few years ago, when it was booming, I was stunned at the amount of filth I saw in SF doorways. Back then there seemed to be an endless stream of litter in the streets and aggressive panhandling made any visit a lot less enjoyable than it could have been.

During this trip pubic transportation all ran on time (although it seemed like the elevator in every other Muni or Bart station was broken), all of the major streets were pretty much immaculate, and the restaurants were as wonderful as always. Even the bums, while still everywhere, were noticeably mellower almost all wishing a "Happy Thanksgiving" after we rebuffed their shaken cups.

The major museums and the Academy of Sciences have all been upgraded. The plays have always featured major stars and are "Broadway" quality. Lots of San Francisco hotels are posh. And the department stores and boutiques are lovely and very well turned out for the holidays. All in all it was a great place to spend a few days.

Here's a few of Roadboy's tips for visiting the City-By-The-Bay.

1. Don't even think about renting a car. Take Bart from SFO or Oakland Airport. From SFO it was $8.10 and just whisked right past all the choked freeways. It dropped us an easy two block walk from our hotel.

2. Once you are unpacked, buy a Muni Passport. They come in 1 day, 3 day, and 7 day versions. It is good for all buses, the Muni railway, and for the famed cable cars (which alone cost $5 each way!). The MUNI Passport is not good for Bart. Here's another little noticed benefit. If you show your muni passport, the admission price to some key attractions (including the new California Academy of Sciences - Stienhart Aquarium) is discounted $3!

SF's Ancient Cable Cars Still 
Own the Steepest Hills

The Cable Car View at SF's Crooked Old Lombard Street
(Telegraph Hill and Coit Tower is Beyond)

3. Select your hotel carefully. Check to make sure the location works for you. We chose a hotel in the booming South of Market (SOMA), Yerba Buena Gardens area. It was walking distance to both the Moscone Convention Center and the shops and restaurants of Union Square. Read reviews in and consider rolling the dice with Hotwire. We used Hotwire to secure a 4 Star "Union Square Hotel" (i.e. we didn't know what the hotel we were buying was until the transaction was complete). The payoff was the Westin Market Street! So we got a perfect location and "Heavenly" beds for $89 a night! The web rate for the Westin the same nights was $269/night. If you make sure your hotel is close to a Bart and Muni stop you can't lose.

4. Plan some events ahead and leave some time to just bum around. For this trip we planned ahead for a 3 hour segway tour (which was a lot of fun). I also reserved tickets for Beach Blanket Babylon (BBB). I bought the Segway tour via Goldstar Events ( Goldstar offers surplus tickets to major shows and events at 1/2 price. Everyone else on the segway tour paid $70 each. We paid $35. Goldstar does require you join it (which is free). For BBB we bought our tickets on line at their own website. BBB does show up on Goldstar once in awhile for midweek shows, but I have missed seeing the show on two previous trips by not buying in advance and wanted to see it this time for sure. It is a uniquely San Francisco evening of entertainment, both schlocky and a lot of fun.

Segways - A Perfect Way to Tour San Francisco

5. Leave time to explore its fine museums. This is a City where architecture and design are revered. It has examples of the work of renowned international architects, american masters, and its own superb homegrown talent. This is the home of such luminaries as Bernard Maybeck and his protoge Julia Morgan. It is where Timothy Pflueger perfected his brand of Deco. It is where Lawrence Halprin defined modern landscape architecture and Anshen and Allen worked their magic. It later gave us Joseph Esherick (Monterey Bay Aquarium), and William Wurster. Today's San Francisco based architects are still world class.

When I think of it's historic place in international design, I often wonder why San Francisco now seems too timid to support its own super stars and (like seemingly every insecure major metropolitan area) now routinely shops the world to hire whichever Euro-celebrity designer is in vogue. While that has netted the City some interesting, if not out of place, new buildings, such as the new SF MOMA, and the nice, if not stellar, California Academy of Sciences, it has also produced the somewhat less than wonderful renovation to the (formerly elegant) De Young Museum in Golden Gate Park. 

Not sure why, but the new De Young somehow reminds me of Mike Myer's old Saturday Night Live "Sprockets" routine.

Old Merges Into New At
The Revamped California Academy Of Sciences / Steinhart Aquarium

Lights to Grow Coral in The Aquarium Below

Penguins Still Frolic

The Foucault Pendulum Still Proves the Laws of Gravity

The Displays Are More Glorious Than Ever
(The Big Sea Creatures - Whales, Dolphins, Otters Are Gone)

A New Rainforest Display is Filled With Birds and Butterflies
One of the Butterflies

A Green Roof Tops Off The LEED Platinum Building

Photovoltaic Solar Cells Provide An Elegant Arcade Over the Entry
(The Sadly Damaged DeYoung Seen Across the Way)

6. Go Exploring and Shop! This is a City where men and women take their clothes VERY seriously. Take time to look at its amazing stores and boutiques. Some of the stores are especially lovely at the holidays.

The Neiman Marcus Christmas Tree 
(Under the Old City of Paris Department Store Dome)

7. Explore public spaces in its historic hotels and office buildings. Two of my favorite public spaces are in the Palace Hotel. The bar has Maxfield Parrish's gloriously huge pied piper painting and who could concentrate on their food when eating in the sumptuous Garden Court Restaurant?

Serving Luminaries Since The Days of The Pony Express
The Palace Hotel's Garden Court

8. Visit San Francisco's gardens and parks, especially its treasure: Golden Gate Park. Taking the time to visit the former Presidio of San Francisco (now part of the Golden Gate National Park) will net rich rewards in views of the Golden Gate. Fisherman's Wharf, North Beach, and Chinatown all offer a feast to the senses. If you are a golfer schedule a round of golf in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge at a public course such as Lincoln or the Presidio.

The Yerba Buena Gardens
Over the Convention Center
SF MOMA is Beyond

9. Eat! Plan your restaurant strategy carefully. You don't want to waste a single calorie on a chain restaurant here. We ate at Sear's Fine Foods for breakfast, enjoyed dungeness crab cakes at the Tadich Grill (a SF favorite  since 1849 - go early - plan to stand in line), and stopped for pizza at the superb Golden Boy Pizza in North Beach (the clam pizza was unbelievable). Consider some dim sum, gelato, sushi, or maybe a Greek dinner at Kokkari.

Expect Lines Everyday at Tadich Grill

While San Francisco's free spirited nature might not be a perfect match for some. If you travel with an open mind and heart, this beautiful City will not fail to reward you with a truly wonderful holiday.

Roadboy's Travels © 2009

PS On a sad note, the Podesta Baldocchi shop on Grant Street (that my Grandma took me to every Christmas) was gone. In its place was a Lucky Clothes store (all thats left is its tell-tale black and white hex shaped floor tiles in the doorway).

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Los Hobos Invade San Francisco

Thanksgiving in the City by The Bay

Once or twice a year some fun seekers we know all try to get together and go somewhere special together. We jokingly refer to ourselves as the "Los Hobos".  This is never an easy event to arrange as all of the folks involved have active careers with demanding clients, kids in college, and "to do" lists from hell. 

But somehow it all works out.

Next week we are heading to San Francisco to spend a few days at Thanksgiving. We have some pretty good stuff planned. Segway tours, good food, the new academy of sciences (Steinhart Aquarium - feeding the penguins!), Thanksgiving dinner at McCormick and Kuleto's in Ghirardelli Square, tree lighting at Union Square, the Tadich Grill, rides on the Cable Cars, really good Chinese food, and of course, an evening at Beach Blanket Babylon at the Club Fugazi.

For me this will be kind of like a sweet visit to my past as my Grandmother always made sure we made the trip across the Bay Bridge to San Francisco every year just before the holidays. To us San Francisco was always simply referred to as "The City". And it was. Back then women in SF always wore white gloves and hats. People shopped at I Magnins and The Emporium. 

We would go see the department store windows, take a walk down Maiden Lane, and, of course, stop in to see the beautiful decorations and smell the Christmas trees at the Podesta Baldocchi florist shop on Grant Street (it is the florist where Kim Novak shopped in Hitchcock's Vertigo).

We'd finish each trip with a visit to The City of Paris department store (now absorbed oddly - blame the late Phillip Johnson - into a very peculiar Neiman Marcus store) to see the amazing four story Christmas tree they installed every year under the store's incredible stained glass dome.

This week we will fly into SFO and take BART, but somehow, I know "The City" will conjure up its magic for us!

Roadboy's Travels © 2009

Saturday, November 14, 2009

A Walk in Battery Park

A Short Walk On A Cool Fall Day

Last week I had a project that brought me to New York City. While my work kept me busy most of the time, I was able to get about a two hour walk in Friday morning near my hotel before heading to the airport. 

It was the day after a huge storm hit Long Island. There was still a lot of wind, and to a Phoenician it felt pretty chilly. It sputtered a bit of rain and the clouds were grey. But it still felt like a fine time to walk and a chance to glimpse the very last of fall's golden leaves on the trees. 

The Face of Fall

As always in New York City there was something cool to see every where I turned. As I walked I could see the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island out in the Harbor.  But there was also the beautiful NYPD officers memorial which, sadly, has too many names on it.

The NYPD Memorial

The NYPD Wall of Honor

I also found myself pretty choked up at the sight of the beat up sculpture from the plaza of the World Trade Center.

WTC Sculpture

It wasn't all somber and introspective. I also found this playful Jim Dine sculpture of a romantic interlude between a cat in a skirt and an ape dancing in the park.

Waltzing in the Park

At the foot of the Battery is the beautiful US Customs House. It is precisely set where immigrants were brought after passing through Ellis Island. Now it is the Museum of the American Indian. Seems strangely ironic. The juxtoposition between our main portal of immigration and a tribute to the original Americans. 

The Larger Than Life Sculptures at the US Customs House

The Merchant Marine Memorial is dramatic as well as it depicts hands outstretched to save a comrade.

Hands Reaching To Safety

As I rounded the foot of Broadway on my way back there was the wonderful Bull looking for Wall Street.

The Bull

All in all two great hours of architectural  battery charging.

Roadboy's Travels © 2009

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Obscure Los Angeles

Roadboy's Mini LA Tour

In any city I visit I like to take in more than just your typical tourist traps. Not to say that I don't love some big old tourist traps too, but hitting some obscure places along the way suits me just fine.

Last week my daughter and I spent four great days in southern California.  We enjoyed some  excellent food and spent some time in "behind the scenes" LA.

We made our first stop Indio California. We stopped there to eat. Not just eat anything. No we stopped to eat tamales. And not just any tamales, but the sweet corn tamales found at Indio's Pueblo Viejo Grill. Oh they are wonderful! Word of warning their full meals are huge. For every two people we order one combo and a bit of A la Carte. Another must stop in Indio is for a medjool date shake at Shield's Date Garden (Shield's has been a pesticide-free date growing institution in Indio since 1924).

The Place to Stop For Tamale's in Indio

I had a business appointment which resulted in an overnight stay in Fontana. This provided an excuse to eat lunch at Walter's in Claremont. Claremont is lovely and Walter's has that "only in California" feel to it. Great food, beautiful indoor or outdoor seating, and creative salads and entree's. I had a very tasty lamb pita. Two days, two great meals. 

Lamb Pita at Walter's Claremont

We then traveled on into LA with a much anticipated stop at the Galco Market in Eagle Rock. This little Mom and Pop grocery store features lots and lots and lots of soda pop. They sell soft drinks I have not seen since I was a kid (Nesbitts!) as well as flavors from around the US and around the world. Soft drinks and beer from South America, Europe, and Asia all represented in little old Galco. We stocked up on six packs of real Dr. Pepper in bottles from the plant in Dublin Texas (Texan's out there know what that means). Update 2012: Dr. Pepper's corporate owners have officially closed the Dublin Dr. Pepper plant, so the last plant making the soda so many of us cherished is now history. Shame on you Dr. Pepper!  We also got our Cheerwine from N.C. We got Shandy from Scotland, mint julep soda from KY, and birch beer from Maryland. Frankly, you could sample something everyday for a couple of months from Galco and not duplicate any two favors. They also have all the old time candy. Yep, I bought a big old sugar daddy. It was 45 minutes of pure bliss on a stick. I remembered my childhood and years of dental work squirmed.  

Galco's Market Eagle Rock
(Click to Enlarge)

Day three was spent visiting friends and taking the Sony Pictures backlot tour. While everybody knows about the "get in the tram" tour of Universal's backlot, not many know that NBC, Sony, Paramount, and Warner Brothers also offer intimate, small group walking tours by reservation only. They vary from $8 for NBC to $45 depending on the studio.

Sony Picture's 46 Acre Studio in Culver City
(Click to Enlarge)

For this trip we chose the Sony tour in Culver City. Yes kids many of "Hollywood's" biggest movies were not made in Hollywood. They were made in Culver City! 

The tour was great. It is a walking tour and takes about two hours. It starts with a film highlighting the history of this amazing movie factory. This lot was formerly MGM and is where Louie B. Mayer once boasted he had "more stars than there are in the heavens". One of the gate's still has MGM's trademark lions. The lot was also home to David O. Selznick (Gone With The Wind). It was where The Wizard of Oz was filmed, and in the 50's it ushered in television by housing I Love Lucy's DesiLu Studios. Later the studio became Lorimar and almost lost its soul. It is now officially Sony Entertainment and home to Columbia Pictures. 

Maybe 5 minutes into our tour Will Smith stepped up from behind us and grinned said a big "Hello" and disappeared into the Thalberg Building. He is taller than I had thought and before I could swing my camera up, he was gone.

The studio is immaculate, very safety conscious, and very, very, busy. The current depressed value of the dollar is clearly making it viable to shoot pictures in LA. This lot is 46 acres, so wear comfortable shoes.

For lunch a friend took us to Addi's Tandoor on Torrance Avenue in Redondo Beach. Don't let the strip mall location fool you. I have eaten Indian food in some wonderful restaurants before, but this was a simply exceptional lunch. We started with very hot and very perfect onion kulcha and garlic naan. From there on lunch just kept getting better and better. I had halibut masala and Ms. M had scallops malabar. The portions were way big and again we could have easily shared.

We had dinner at Izaka-ya sushi near Beverly Center on West 3rd St. in LA. This is the hole-in-the-wall casual second cousin to the pricey Katsu-Ya restaurant chain. While not cheap, it is not stratospheric like Katsu-Ya. Service is fast. It is noisy and crowded. But the creamy rock shrimp on spicy salmon roll was just eye-rolling good. Go early!

The next day was spent visiting a college friend of Miss M's at Kazu Kibuishi's Bolt City Studio in Alhambra. Bolt City is the dream factory where the Flight, Daisy Kutter, Copper, and Amulet graphic novels are created. The talent in Kazu's studio is awe inspiring. Bolt City is not open to tours. But you can go to their website to see what they are all about. 

Visiting Bolt City had a nice by-product for us; Alhambra. Alhambra is becoming a very cool city. You can eat just about anything on Main Street or visit Gallery Nucleus ( Hint: a great place for some off-beat web based Christmas shopping. At the far end of West Main Street is another treasure Fosselman's Ice Cream. One taste and you can see why they have all those "Best of LA" awards on the wall.

Our last day this trip was spent doing arguably our one big touristy thing; Universal Studios. On a weekday, in the off season, Universal is such a nice theme park. Meticulously clean, uncrowded, filled with friendly staff, decent food, and then there is also CityWalk Universal's shopping and entertainment district just outside its gates.

Sky Diving in CityWalk
(click to Enlarge)

Next Trip Roadboy is Doing This!

Set from King Kong - Ship Sailing into Skull Island
(Actually a Miniature - Click to Enlarge)

The Life Sized Set From War of The Worlds
(Yep That Is A Real 747)

A Miniature From The Stop Motion Feature Coraline
(Incredibly Detailed Tiny Models - Click to Enlarge)

That evening after Universal closed we were off to Pasadena for a taping of NPR's Wait Wait Don't Tell Me! radio show at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium. They taped two shows. One on Thursday that was the "live" show broadcast on Saturday. The Friday night show we saw was what they call an "Evergreen". It uses a timeless theme and is meant to be broadcast sometime in the future (when the cast is taking a holiday). They taped for well over two hours straight. The guest was George Takai from the original Star Trek and it was a lot of fun to participate in the taping. If you are a resident of (or plan a visit to) Chicago, consider catching a taping of the show in their native habitat.

After all that fun we slept like puppies. Next morning we drive home with a stop at the Premium Outlet Malls in Palm Springs.

There were about four other restaurants I had planned to try, but they, along with a trip to Hollywood's Magic Castle, and the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, will just have to wait for future trips to Obscure LA.

Roadboy's Travels © 2009

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Next Week LA

Team Roadboy is off to LA

Next week we hit the highway for a quickie trip to LA. 

While I go to LA a lot, usually we do the typical tourist stuff; Disneyland, the beach etc. This time, however, we are going to try some new stuff.

Meredith and I are reserved for the MGM (now Sony Pictures) "by appointment only" backlot walking tour in Culver City. 

We are going to try some new restaurants and go back to a couple of old favorites. 

Meredith will visit the studio where a friend from college works and we are all going to Galco sodas where you can get just about any soda pop made in the world! 

Friday night we have tickets to the west coast taping of NPR's Wait Wait Don't Tell Me in Pasadena.

An architect with his two favorite artists on the road, never boring!

Roadboy's Travels © 2009