A Guide to the Outerlands

Ocean Beach Sunset, San Francisco, California
Sunset in the Outer Sunset

Having lived out in the Avenues for a decade, I always enjoyed it when the rest of SF came out to our neck of the woods for events like Outsidelands and the Bay to Breakers. There’s something amusing about drunk people asking how far away Haight-Ashbury or the Ferry Building is, when most of them have just walked from there.

But you shouldn’t wait for a special event to bring you out where the streets have numbers and alphabetically sequenced names. The Outer Sunset (also indicated on old maps as the Outerlands when it was a somewhat barren terrain of rolling sand dunes) is one of San Francisco’s most original, authentic neighborhoods– a groovy mix of surfers, artists, folks starting cool local businesses, and just plain ordinary people (if anyone residing in San Francisco can ever be described as merely ordinary).  Here’s a few things to do before or after a good walk in Golden Gate Park or on the beach, or anytime you’re lucky enough to find yourself out in OB (Ocean Beach).

Community Coffee Klatsch
If you head down in the morning to enjoy the beach, you may need some caffeine. For some of the best espresso in the city, head to Trouble Coffee, on Judah between 45th & 46th Avenues. You can also recharge with the excellent toast and the refreshing juice from freshly cracked coconuts.

At the end of Judah where the street car turns around is Java Beach, which offers coffee, some light fare, and beer when the time’s right. The outdoor patio and garden across the street are perfect places to sip a beverage and watch the neighborhood go by if it’s a sunny day. (Some nights, Java Beach also has music, and you can check out the calendar here: http://www.javabeachcafe.com/)

Picnic Items
The Outer Sunset is a zone of independence against the tyranny of encroaching chain stores. So much so that the neighborhood’s residents successfully got chain stores banned from the neighborhood when the mermaid-logo people from Seattle tried to muscle in.

The epicenter of this independent, up-with-people movement in the Outer Sunset is Other Avenues (http://www.otheravenues.coop/),  a worker-owned co-op offering natural and organic foods and merchandise since the 1970s. Other Avenues is located on Judah between 44th and 45th Avenues, and you should pick-up a kombucha drink, micro-brews, or organic vino along with cheeses, fresh breads, and great organic produce for a beach and park picnics here.

Surfer Gear
If you left your board at home and want to catch some sets at OB, swing by Mollusk Surf Shop at 45th and Irving (one block toward Golden Gate Park from Judah). The apparel’s also great here, particularly the brilliantly designed t-shirts with sea/surf motifs. Year-round, Mollusk hosts a lot of fun events, from yoga classes to art shows to movie screenings. You can find out more here: http://www.mollusksurfshop.com/

Eat Your Veggies (It’s a Treat)
For organic, contemporary fare, Outerlands, at 4401 Judah (on the corner of 45th), offers a menu that changes with the seasons, with a real focus on vegetables that will make you forget they’re not the main dish. (I had brussel sprouts here once that would have changed any sprout-haters mind!) The soups and fresh bread are super-stars on an already tremendous menu, and the wine list offers several interesting options, along with a beer menu that changes daily.  Take a look at what’s on offfer at Outerlands here: http://outerlandssf.com/

Currying Favor
Good, solid Indian food can be found at Golden Gate Indian & Pizza, in a little strip mall on Judah, right off 46th. The veggie samosas are some excellent fried goodness, and you can get your chicken tikka as spicy as you like, if you ask. The Indian pizza is also a novel combination of two awesome foods: pizza and tandoori chicken. Mmm. When worlds collide.

The Locals Local
If you’re out in the avenues for a special event or on a banner weather day, don’t try to fight the crowds and claw your way back downtown. There’s a place for you called Pittsburgh’s. One of the only places that’s open until 2 a.m. in the area, Pittsburgh’s attracts an eclectic crowd: surfers, sports fans watching a game or two, locals shooting pool, and professional drinkers who could give Bukowski a run for his money. The bartenders are always friendly, and never bat an eyelash if you walk in wearing cowboy hats or other costumes. As long as you’ve got the green to pay for your ice cold PBR, it’s all good.  Cruise over to 4207 Judah, at 47th Avenue for a solid, old-school American local.

Festivals that Find You in the Outer Sunset
If you’re an SF resident who’s skeptical of the Avenues, you’ll already know about these festivals. If you’re a tourist, here’s some things you should definitely take part in when you come to SF for a visit.

  • Bay to Breakers – Third Sunday in May traditionally. People walking, running, and drinking from the SF Bay to, you guessed it, the “Breakers” of Ocean Beach. Wear a costume. Mexican wrestling masks count as a costime. The Beach/Park Chalet is a hot spot on the finish line. I’d give you the link, but every year, they annoyingly/intelligently change the URL to include a corporate sponsor’s name. Google will show you the way if you’re game.
  • Outsidelands – Mid to late August, this music festival combines top name acts with the best up-and-coming artists. For the festival’s first year, I saw Radiohead play at night when the fog rolled in, and I’ll never forget it. I’ll also never forget the deep-fried fancy macaroni and cheese sticks with a side of spicy tomato sauce. It’s like all the other festivals…without the crappy camping! Get details on the upcoming hoo-ha at: http://www.sfoutsidelands.com/
  • Hardly Strictly Bluegrass – Mid to late September/Early October, the park plays host to multiple FREE venues where you can hear acts like Joan Baez sing “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall.” It’s free because a very nice man made a lot of money in Silicon Valley/investment banking and decided to put on a music party for his favorite kind of folk/bluegrass tunes. I have never heard of a better expenditure of cash, which probably makes Warren Hellman (the funder of said festival) the smartest money human on the planet. Bravo, Mr. Hellman. Bravo.  

A Fungus Among Us

You have to buy a gift. You want it be as unique, special, and delightful as the person you’re buying it for. A chain store’s gift certificate will not suffice.

If you happen to be passing through San Francisco, the Ferry Building has many exciting offerings, but none that will grow on you as much as the items available at Far West Fungi. For just around $25, you can purchase a log pre-seeded with chanterelles or shitaki mushrooms that will yield multiple harvests.

Even if the recipient is not a foodie, getting to grow fresh (typically, expensive) mushrooms within a very short period of time at home is pretty amazing…and fun!

Taste the difference for yourself at Far West Fungi, 1 Ferry Building, Shop 34. You can check them out online at www.farwestfungi.com as well.

The Last Straw – Unique Jewelry & Gifts

If your grandmas were like mine, they had jewelry boxes that looked like treasure chests with multiple drawers stuffed with costume jewels and a few real ones. If you were like me as a kid, whenever you got the chance, you dug into these drawers, festooning yourself with as many beads, pins, rings, bangles, and earrings as your body could support. (Or, until you got yelled at for playing with the good jewels.)

Flash forward to your adulthood. You can now purchase things you admire, but shopping isn’t half as fun as when you pilfered your grandma’s jewel boxes. You go to a place that’s white or beige. Select from some over-hyped, carefully packaged items. Stand in line, as everyone’s items are duly scanned by a computer. Exit through a white or beige doorway.  

If that kind of shopping experience annoys you, visit The Last Straw, in San Francisco’s Outer Sunset. Tucked inside a cozy, adorable cottage is a great shop full of interesting, beautiful jewelry and one-of-a-kind gifts. You get to search through well-organized jewelry boxes and drawers to peruse the well-edited collection of necklaces, earrings, and bangles. Just like my grandmas’ jewel boxes, but with much funkier, contemporary jewelry.  

Gift selections are beautifully displayed throughout the store, making you feel like you’re actually in the home of a great collector. (In a way, you are, as there seems to be a residence behind the cute cottage.) The glass and pottery, in particular, is always beautiful and interesting to look at.   

You can get a necklace at a chain store. You can buy a gift for your friend from another chain store. Or, you can visit a one-of-a-kind shop and select something lovely that has a story behind it, at a place that makes the experience of the search fun again.

Check out The Last Straw at 4540 Irving Street, past 46th Avenue. Open Tuesday – Sunday 12 p.m. to 6 p.m.

fiona’s sweetshoppe

In case you haven’t noticed, candy for grown-ups is officially beyond trend. It is a fact of the grown-up landscape. 

Maybe it’s the punch of the face of the recession. Maybe it’s the mortgage you can’t pay for. Maybe it’s the realization that you may be sitting in a beige cube for the next 30 years (or longer, given what has happened to your 401K).

Whatever grim grown-up news you face, candy takes you away from that. Particularly a little nook like fiona’s sweetshoppe with old-fashioned, glass apothecary jars showcasing their sweet contents: chocolate-covered nuts, gummies, sour candies, licorice, and more delights from all over the world. The special focus is on candy from Britain, home of one of the world’s best candy bars, most notably the Cadbury Flake. (Findable at fiona’s.)

For some reason, the Brits are way ahead of us on mass market candy bars. Perhaps it’s their wise decision to provide flavorful chocolate instead of loading a bar with wax for shipping purposes. (This is readily apparent in all mainstream chocolate candies, but very very obvious if you have a malt ball taste-off between Whoppers & Malteasers. Malteasers win every time. Less or no wax taste. Also findable at fiona’s.)

If you happen to be downtown and in need of cheer, although I typically recommend visiting a bar to remedy your troubles, candy is a nice change of pace. (And, there’s no hangover!) Or, if you need to bring a hostess gift and want to forego the candle or soap you have tucked away in your closet, fiona’s is also a good stop, as every offering is beautifully wrapped.

 Swing by at 214 Sutter (right next to the entrance of Claude Lane), or check it all out online @ www.fionassweetshoppe.com