5 SF Hot Spots for Hot Chocolate

5 SF Hot Spots for Hot Chocolate

Cold, howling winds, sheets of rain turning the streets into rivers…must be winter in San Francisco. With all this cold and wetness, my body craves warm drinks like hot chocolate. So where in San Francisco can you get a nice, rich cup of chocolaty goodness?

Based on research and some personal experience, I compiled the following list of 5 establishments known for their hot chocolate. My main qualification for a worthy cup requires that it not involve a powder mix, but a velvety blend of chocolate melted into a viscous gloop.

  • Christopher Elbow Artisanal Chocolates in Hayes Valley offers a customizable hot chocolate  like peppermint dark chocolate and Venezuelan spice.
  • CocoaBella has two locations, one on Union Street and the other in the Westfield Center, where they let you create your own cup starting with a base of white, milk, dark, or extra dark chocolates.
  • TCHO at Pier 17 serves a tasty dark chocolate melted from their chocolates made on-site. They also offer a mocha made with Blue Bottle coffee.
  • Emporio Rulli in Union Square boasts a thick European-style chocolate that you can stand a spoon in.
  • Tartine Bakery at Guerrero and 18th streets offers a French version made with a ganache base. They also offer a mouth-watering                                                                                                                 selection of pastries to dip in your hot chocolate.

These are just a few of many places that serve hot chocolate in this city. Where’s your favorite place for a cup?

Hayes Valley — From Under the Shadow

In the not too distant past, the intersection of Hayes and Octavia was darkened by the monstrosity that was the Central Freeway—a raised freeway that cut the Hayes Valley neighborhood in half, keeping its development at bay.  The section that extended past Fell, to Turk, was removed after the ’89 earthquake.  But the expanse up to Fell Street remained in use until 2001, when it was torn down and replaced by the much more attractive multi-way boulevard—Octavia.

Now, Hayes and Octavia is a bright, airy intersection in the heart of Hayes Valley.  Some friends and I took a stroll over to that neighborhood this past Saturday for lunch.  The original intent was to go to Suppenküche for wiener schnitzel and steins of beer, but they’re only open for brunch on Sundays.  Fortunate for us Hayes Street, the main artery of Hayes Valley, is now lined with many fine eateries, from crepes and fries at Frjtz to higher-end fare at Absinthe.  We ended up at Patxi’s.  Not a bad place to have to end up.

Patxi’s (pronounced pah-cheese) is a Chicago-style pizzeria near Hayes and Octavia.  They have a high-ceilinged dining room filled with the echoing voices of their patrons and the savory essence of pizza sauce and melting cheese.  I would recommend this place to anyone in the mood for a great Chicago-style deep dish pizza.  The crust was excellent—the perfect amount of flakiness and crispiness.  The toppings were perfectly balanced: not too much meat or too many veggies.  We ordered their classic which comes with sausage, mushrooms, green peppers, black olives—and had them add pepperoni.

Feeling sluggish from our full stomachs, we thought it would be a good idea to walk over to Blue Bottle Coffee kiosk on Linden Street, a little side street between Octavia and Gough streets, for a cup o’ java.

When we turned the corner, onto Octavia, I was immediately reminded of how amazing Hayes Valley is without the Central Freeway towering over it.  Groups of people played in the sunny park at the end of Octavia.  Bright patches of green grass.  Trees and flower beds lined the roadway.  A tall metal sculpture, Ecstasy, basked in the warm sun.  It is now such a treat to walk along Octavia Boulevard.

Hiking San Francisco

San Francisco is one of few U.S. cities that offers such a variety of hiking options within its city limits. With its myriad hills and valleys, sea cliffs and beaches, and city and state parks, all within roughly 49 square miles, you don’t have to go far from your front door to embark on an   urban hike.

But if hiking alone isn’t your thing, the folks over at HikingSanFrancisco.com are here to help. Their website provides an online venue for local hikers to organize group outings within San Francisco and throughout the greater Bay Area. The organizer of each group selects the route and meeting time and place, all you have to do is go online and sign up.

They have a few notable hikes coming up. A hike of Golden Gate Park is set for Dec. 18, and organizer, Alex Genadinik, is trying his hardest to get a local brewery, like Beach Chalet, to sponsor the event. On Sunday, Jan. 2, a hike into Land’s End is up for grabs. This hike is planned at the lowest to afford views of the various shipwrecks along the coast.

Amasia Hide’s Sushi Bar

I hope that every dining experience will be a delectable treat. That I will leave the restaurant and immediately text/Facebook message/Tweet all my friends to tell them where they absolutely must go for their next meal out. However, I can not say this of Amasia Hide’s Sushi Bar.

Amasia Hide’s Sushi Bar is nestled in a narrow corner space at Henry and Noe in the quaint Duboce Triangle. The interior is much larger than the facade suggests, with ample seating, including two-tops, four-tops, and seating on benches along the wall in the back of the dining area.

There is a quaint feel to the place, like you’re hanging out in someone’s dining room. Strings of paper cranes dangle from the walls. Stuffed animals and other knick-knacks fill the nooks and crannies of the restaurant. Square origami papers fill little boxes at each table, with a tiny instruction pamphlet for folding various creations. I tried the butterfly, but couldn’t get past Step 9.

The servers greeted us exuberantly and were attentive to our needs, eagerly answering questions, pointing out the specials on the board, including the half-off sake specials. There’s always some deal on the sake at Amasia Hide’s Sushi Bar. Some of the specials are a little quirky. If it’s raining, they offer large hot sake for $2 ($1 for a small). If you’re lucky and happen to be the ninth customer on say, the ninth of the month, you might just get half off your sake. Perhaps if the wind is blowing from the west, they offer half-off sake.

Once the food came out, I began to understand why Amasia Hide’s Sushi Bar needs all the gimmicks. I don’t pretend to be a connoisseur of sushi, or of any cuisine for that matter, but I’ve had enough elsewhere to know good cuts of nigiri and well-made maki rolls when I see them.

The aji, which was on the specials board, was over-powered by a big glob of wasabi, possibly a ruse to mask its poor quality. In the height of crab season, the spider roll–not something I typically order, but usually a safe bet at even the worst sushi bars–came out dry and stale. The highlight of the meal was the seaweed salad, clearly made fresh in-house and not served from a bag.

Maybe they were just having an off night. Every place does. Maybe my opinion is jaded from years of going to my regular sushi joint, where I know I’ll get good cuts of fish. Maybe I just didn’t have enough of their half-off sake. Whatever the case, I don’t think I’ll be back to figure it out.

But if you’d like to give it a try, here’s the contact information:

Location: 149 Noe St., San Francisco, CA
Hours: Mon through Sun, 5:30pm through 10:00pm
Phone: 415-861-7000

Vintage Paper Fair–San Francisco

The Vintage Paper Fair returns to San Francisco this weekend, and if you’ve never been, let me fill you in on what you can expect: boxes and boxes and boxes filled with vintage postcards, greeting cards, advertisements, posters, and photographs. It’s like a museum of pieces of nostalgia, glimpses of history, remnants of days long gone. The vendors are proud of their collections and will gladly share their knowledge with you.

The Vintage Paper Fair will be held in the Hall of Flowers in Golden Gate Park, just inside the 9th Avenue entrance at Lincoln Blvd. The fair runs Sat, Jan 8 from 10am to 6pm and Sun, Jan 9 from 10am to 4pm. Admission is free.

Golden Gate Park Dahlia Garden—In Full Bloom

Taking advantage of the warm weather we had in San Francisco this weekend, I went for a stroll through the Botanical Gardens and around Stow Lake out in Golden Gate Park. The slow and steady beats of reggae music from the Power to the Peaceful event—a truly San Francisco experience—echoed under the canopy of trees. In search of something more peaceful, I made my way, against the stream of revelers, to the Dahlia Garden, hoping the plants would still be in bloom.

The Dahlia Garden is a tear-drop shaped flower bed just east of the Conservatory of Flowers. Each year, a group of dedicated volunteers spend their precious free time pinching, snipping, and watering around 500 clumps of dahlia plants.

If you’ve never seen a dahlia, you’re possibly missing out on one of the natural wonders of the world. These blooms come in myriad sizes, from 1 inch across to as large as a foot across, and their colors span the spectrum, from bright pink and yellow to dark burgundy and purple. But it’s their shapes that are most amazing, clusters of complex petals; some explode from the stem like a starburst, others form tight geometric patterns like honeycombs. No matter their size, shape, or color, they all create a dramatic presence, demanding your attention.

The first time I visited the Dahlia Garden, the plants were nothing more than green clumps of weeds in a bed of dirt. Uninspiring to say the least. A few seasons later, I made it by the garden when a few plants were in bloom. Just enough to whet my appetite.

So as I approached the garden this time, I had no idea what to expect. I wasn’t even sure they’d still be in bloom. As I crossed the front of the Conservatory of Flowers, my pace quickened. I looked for signs of disappointment on the faces of people coming from the direction of the flower bed. And when I rounded the east end of the building, my heart skipped a couple beats. I had found the end of the rainbow; the dahlia garden my pot of gold. All 500 or so plants were in full bloom. I nearly tripped over my own feet to get closer. The hairs on my arms stood on end. I finally saw them in all their splendor.

If you haven’t already, you really should set aside some time in the next few weeks to swing by the Dahlia Garden. I don’t know how much longer the blooms will last, but I certainly plan to make it by at least once more. So maybe I’ll see you there.

5 Hot Spots to Soak Up the Sun

Spring has finally sprung. The sun is out and it’s going be a hot one!  This heat wave got me thinking about places to sit outside and soak up some sun.  So if you can, play hooky, grab a blanket and a good book (in whatever form you read them), and head outside while it lasts.  Here are just a few ideas of some places to go:

Washington Square Park

In the heart of North Beach, Washington Square Park is a great spot to catch some sun.  There’s plenty of people watching — hot Italian guys kicking around  soccer balls, eccentric locals chatting on the benches. So, grab a sandwich and a beer from one of the nearby Italian delis and stake your claim on a blanket in this sunny spot.

Rooftop Gardens

For those of you who can’t phone it into the office, there are several Rooftop Gardens downtown: 343 Sansome offers incredible views from its 15th floor rooftop terrace; 100 First Street is a great sunny spot in SoMa with tiered planters and cafe-style tables and chairs; and the Crocker Galleria Rooftop Terrace offers comfortable wood benches to stretch out on.

S.F. Botanical Garden

Though the Parks Department started charging for tourists, the Botanical Garden is still free for San Francisco residents, with proof of address.  A large open meadow stretches through the center of the Botanical Gardens, with a network of trails weaving through a tour of the world’s flora.

Yerba Buena Gardens

Another great spot South of Market, Yerba Buena Gardens catches the sun nearly all day long.  From a spot on the lawn, you have a great view of the ever-changing SoMa skyline, including SFMOMA. You can grab a bite to go from the food court inside the Metreon and cob a squat on the lawn.

Corona Heights

Not only does Corona Heights get sun most of the day on warm days like these, but this peak in the center of the city affords visitors with incredible views of the eastern half of San Francisco and across the Bay to Oakland and Berkeley.

SF Independent Film Festival Feb 3-17

The San Francisco Independent Film Festival opens tomorrow night at the Roxie Theater, the host theater for all shows. Opening night films include KABOOM, directed by Gregg Araki who will be in attendance, described as a Clueless on acid. The ticket price includes admission to the after party at CellSpace, where live bands perform as the kick-off to the San Francisco Winter Music Fest that runs in conjunction with the film festival.

The festival runs for two weeks with highlights like the 8th Annual Big Lebowski Party, Sat., Feb. 5, and six more nights of musical entertainment. The film festival closes with an action-packed romp into “nunsploitation” with Nude Nuns with Big Guns, directed by Joseph Guzman.

Coffee Bar San Francisco

“The Atrani is great if you’re in the mood for something classic,” the Coffee Bar barista said when I asked for her sandwich recommendation.

The last time I stopped by this cafe it was under a different name, hell, it was a different place altogether. The old café occupied a tiny space in a corner of a run-down warehouse at Mariposa and Florida Streets. A row of seats along a coffee bar provided scant indoor seating, but there was an outdoor seating area enclosed by a tall red fence.

So fast forward a few years, and needing to kill some time, I dropped into Coffee Bar for a quick bite. It was a sunny afternoon, so their outdoor seating called to me. Upon entering the front courtyard, I hadn’t noticed anything different. Still the same red fence. Still the same crowded picnic tables. The same rundown warehouse. As soon as I walked through the front door, however, a completely different café opened before me.

The new owner had expanded this Mission café onto a raised concrete platform. A series of three large black and white photos, framed like church windows, hung behind the front counter, depicting the nearby Muni garage—an homage to the industrial history of the neighborhood. After ordering, I climbed the steps to the second level where rows of Macs blended in with the concrete walls. Tell-tale white headphone cords snaked from nearly every patron’s ears. Ambient music pumped from the sound system. I immediately felt out of place, too old-fashioned for that joint, and even more so when I sat at a table and pulled out a pad of paper…to write on. I’m sure it was just my imagination, but I felt a hundred eyes fall on me in abhorrence.

I quietly sipped my smooth and creamy latte made with their Clover machine, trying not to feel self-conscious. When my sandwich arrived, I hurriedly took a bite. It was served cold with a thin layer of salty prosciutto, savory basil, and tart balsamic in a crusty baguette. As simple as it was, it was one of the best sandwiches I’ve had.  And as it turned out, in the midst of this hip and modern San Francisco café, I was in the mood for something classic.