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.  

Coastside Weekend – Ano Nuevo & Half Moon Bay

Yellow Flowers in Pescadero
Yellow Wildflowers in Pescadero

In addition to the myriad delights of the city itself, one of the best things about San Francisco is the ability to get away from it all fairly quickly. In just over 25 minutes, you can find yourself in the Marin Headlands, in the middle of the Bay, or, if you head south down the coast, to the charming enclave of Half Moon Bay. On weekends when everyone in San Francisco seems to be heading up to Marin for a daytrip, cruising south is a great way to get out of town while fighting less traffic and crowds. The towns of Half Moon Bay and Pescadero help you instantly forget city stress, and get the cool, chill vibe of the coastside lands.

Day One – Elephant Seals & Pocket-Sized Pescadero
Starting out from San Francisco on a Saturday morning relatively early in the a.m., head south on the Great Highway and keep following signs for Highway One. The drive’s a beautiful one, particularly once you get to the open stretches of coastal road that dramatically hover above the coast past Pacifica. The coastline’s dramatic, the water’s blue, and there are scads of lovely little beaches if you want to get out for a leg stretch, or just to marvel at the great waters of the Pacific.  

Your destination this morning is Ano Nuevo, a California state natural reserve. Ano Nuevo is a beautiful landscape, representing coastal dune vegetation and the NoCal coast as it was before modernity began to forever change these habitats.

Though Ano Nuevo is a beautiful place for a nature hike anytime of year, the best times to visit coincide with the presence of the elephant seals. Ano Nuevo is an important spot for elephant seals, where they haul out to recreate, reproduce, and rest. And they do need some rest; Ano Nuevo is also a popular haunt of Great White sharks, who feed on the abundant elephant seals here. Marine scientists have deemed the sharks of Ano Nuevo a significant population for understanding the mysterious Great Whites’ behaviors overall. Before you go, be sure to check out any permit requirements. Because Ano Nuevo is so important for the elephant seal population, there are times of year when visitation of the beaches is restricted: http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=523

After 2 or 3 hours at Ano Nuevo, the sea air and the hiking should have amply whetted your appetite, preparing you

Duarte's Tavern, Pescadero
Yum. Duarte’s Tavern.

 for one of the best meals you’ll ever eat at Duarte’s Tavern in Pescadero. (Also affectionately known as “Doo-arts” by some SF locals.) To get to Duartes from Ano Nuevo,  just need to head north on Highway One, and after about 30 minutes, turn right when the sign for Pescadero appears. The restaurant’s one of the only things in the sweet, pocket-sized town of Pescadero, so you can’t miss it. Give your name at the front of Duarte’s for a table, and then, go wait in the wood-paneled, wonderfully old-school bar. Sample a local beer, Anchor Steam, or try one of their refreshing bloody marys.

Once you get your table, prepare to be delighted. This James Beard award-winning restaurant serves some of the freshest seafood around, along with the best of local ingredients in general. Start with a cup of “half and half” soup, a combo of their cream of artichoke (made from chokes growing down the road) and chile soups. For your main course, the cioppino (the Italian fisherman’s stew) never disappoints, nor does the abalone sandwich. Whatever you order, be sure to save room for pie; pies served at Duarte’s are nothing short of fantastic, particularly the ollalieberry. For more detailed directions or some other info, check Duarte’s out online at: http://www.duartestavern.com/

After lunch, you’ll need to walk off whatever you gorged on at Duarte’s. You should check out the shops on Pescadero’s main street, which showcase crafts made by local artists, and also, foods featuring local ingredients. Stop in Arcangeli Grocery/Norm’s Market (http://www.normsmarket.com/store/) to pick up some wonderful breads and foccacias, cheeses (especially the local, delicious, Harley Farms goat cheese), more pies, and local treats like pickled garlic, artichoke spreads, and more.  (Be sure to stock up on items that will keep until tomorrow to enjoy at a picnic.)

If you still feel like a little more nature as you leave Pescadero, on the way back out of Pescadero at Highway One, there’s a wetlands for bird watching and a beach with some tide pools. If you go to this beach, be careful: the surf is treachorous here, and the rocks very jagged. Make sure you know which way the tide’s running so you are more certain to keep sure footing. (Particularly if you’re one of the lucky passengers who got to have more than one Anchor at Duarte’s.)

Smoking bus at Camerons Pub
Double-decker bus at Camerons Pub

Once you’ve enjoyed all of Pescadero’s delights, you’re heading back to Half Moon Bay, and after the intersection with 92, you will see Camerons (http://www.cameronsinn.com/) on the left of Highway One. You should definitely stop for a pint, and, if you’re hungry even after Duarte’s, some decent pub grub. (Camerons also has a little shop with British goods, should you need a Cadbury Flake fix.) You won’t be able to miss it, as the pub is surrounded by double-decker buses from England. (You can even smoke in one of them, if you’re one who still indulges in tobacco products.)

After a quick pit stop at Camerons, continue north on Highway One, until you get to the Beach House on the north side of Half Moon Bay, where you’re staying for the night (http://www.beach-house.com/half-moon-bay-hotels.html) Rooms are spacious, and can sleep 4 if you’re trying to save a penny or two, as they have living areas with pull-out beds. Enjoying a bottle of wine on your patio while the sun sets from your perch right on the coast is a very nice way to end a busy day. You can also soak your troubles away in the hot tub or the small pool.

If you feel a bit more peppy in the evening hours, walk on the coastal path a short distance to Sam’s Chowder House, conveniently located just next door. Sam’s has good seafood staples, and really nice ambiance outdoors, where you can sit on a deck above the sea next to communal fire bowls and enjoy a cocktail or several. Sam’s also has music on weekends, and you can see the schedule here: http://www.samschowderhouse.com/ 

NB: Though there are many fine places to go in Half Moon Bay for drinks and/or dining, particularly in the charming downtown that’s inland from the coast, Sam’s is the best evening pit stop when staying at the Beach House, as you can walk back to your bed rather than driving after imbibing. If you actually have a designated driver with you, your evening options are a bit more open, though Sam’s is a very worthy place to spend an evening regardless of its proximity to the Beach house.   

Day 2 – Beach Walk & Bocce
In the morning, be sure to make the most of your coastal location, and have a great walk on the shore and/or coastal path from the Beach House, after enjoying the complimentary continental breakfast. Have a soak in the hot tub, and enjoy yourself until check-out.

Before you leave your hotel, pack up your picnic lunch that you assembled yesterday. You’ll head south a bit on Highway One to 92, and turn left, going to La Nebbia Winery.  (The entire trip will take you about 15 minutes.) On 92, you’ll pass by a lot of the garden/farm supply places that Half Moon Bay is known for, and see a lot of pumpkins if you’re here in the autumn before Halloween. (Half Moon Bay is the pumpkin capital of NoCal, and has a festival to prove it.)

La Nebbia gets surplus juice from a lot of different wineries in Sonoma/Napa/Santa Cruz and bottles it, meaning you get some wines that normally cost $40 for more like $10 when you buy them at La Nebbia. The folks who work here are always really informative about what’s being poured and very fun and friendly. The property has picnic tables and a great bocce court, so have your picnic, raise a glass or two, and enjoy some bocce for the afternoon. La Nebbia also has many events, so see what’s on before you go: http://www.lanebbiawinery.com/

Depending on the weather (fog or lots o’ fog in the summer), after La Nebbia, cruise home on Skyline or take Highway One back. For either route, signs of city life will appear quicker than you think, shaking you out of the cool, laidback coastside ambiance. You’ll be so restored you won’t believe you’ve been gone from the city for only 24 hours.

The Sonoma Hotel

 There are two superb things about the location of the Sonoma Hotel: it’s right on the Plaza and it’s in the same charming 19th century building that houses the tremendous restaurant, The Girl and the Fig.

Another exceptional thing about the Sonoma Hotel: The hotel offers a B&B experience without the intrusiveness that can occasionally ruin an experience at a B&B. The staff are friendly and helpful, while also comfortably leaving you to your own devices.

The hotel’s furnishings evoke the history of the building, with numerous French country antiques that highlight the structure’s history without feeling overly precious. At the lovely stone fireplace in the lobby, you can enjoy a complimentary glass of wine before dining at one of the many great restaurants in Sonoma. Continental breakfast is also included.

Rates are also reasonable, making that another wonderfully exceptional thing about the Sonoma Hotel.  

For info, visit: http://www.sonomahotel.com/

El Dorado

Located right on Sonoma Plaza, the El Dorado is in a historic building with mod-Mission interiors that will make the most devout style-loving city slicker feel right at home.

In addition to its great location, the hotel’s rooms are spacious, and are blessedly free of the antiques and frou-frou decor that can occasionally make people get that “grandma’s bedroom panic” feeling when staying at hotels or B&Bs in the Wine Country.

Whether you’re staying in the hotel or not, the lounge area with the nifty crystal fire feature is a good place to meet up with friends for a pre-dinner drink.

The El Dorado Kitchen also serves very good food, which can be enjoyed in the restaurant. The restaurant draws an impressive local crowd, which is a good sign in food and wine-focused Sonoma. The sunny patio’s also a fine place to enjoy the El Dorado Kitchen’s contemporary classic cuisine.  

Info on the hotel and the El Dorado Kitchen lives here: http://www.eldoradosonoma.com/

El Pueblo

It’s frequently tough to find relatively affordable places to hang your hat in the Wine Country. Tougher anywhere to find a place with a lovely pool and hot tub that are open 24 hours a day.

El Pueblo is a place that’s both. You can still walk to Sonoma Plaza from here, yet it’s also conveniently located on the route out to the gorgeous Valley of the Moon. (And, should you desire to visit the other county that shall remain nameless, it’s just a short hop over there.)

El Pueblo has been very nicely redone (it may have been a motor lodge in a past incarnation), and the garden areas are very lovely. Even the roses in the parking lot are quite amazing, showcasing how well-tended the property is.

There’s a free continental breakfast included, but it’s always worth it to stroll down to Artisan Bakers’ outpost in Sonoma, which is just a door or two down as well. (Particularly useful if you decide to rent a bike and/or want to pack a picnic.)

El Pueblo is located at 896 W. Napa Street, and you can book online at http://www.elpuebloinn.com/