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.  

Pittsburgh’s Pub

Grab a cold one at Pittsburgh's
Grab a cold one at Pittsburgh's

There are days when you just want an icy cold beer, some TVs with sports on, along with a few pool tables, dart boards, pinball machines, and video games for good measure.  

Pittsburgh’s Pub will satisfy all these needs, and the jukebox isn’t too shabby either.

Named in honor of the owner’s hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (adulation which has finally paid off with the Steelers over the past few years), Pittsburgh’s is a good place to get a drink and sit at the bar peacefully solo or with pals.

When you’re sitting at the bar, you’ll generally have an interesting conversation or two with the area residents who frequent the establishment. The management’s also kind enough not to eject you from the premises if you and your friends happen to be wearing random hats when you call on Pittsburgh’s at midnight, a degree of openness which is always good to know about a place.

Sometimes, a brewski while shooting pool is all you need. Especially when wearing funny hats.  

Check Pittsburgh’s out for some day drinking or lates at 4207 Judah (at 47th Avenue).

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.

Beach Chalet/Park Chalet

Example of beautiful WPA project at the Chalet
Example of beautiful WPA project at the Chalet

After a day of walking through Golden Gate Park or hanging out on the beach, the Chalet is a great place to wet your whistle with the great beer made on site. (Of course, the cocktails and the wine aren’t bad either.) The Chalet encompasses 2 restaurants, each with its own vibe and menu.

When you first enter the building, you’ll notice the beautiful murals that cover the walls, a WPA project. (Back in the day, to help take the sting out of Depression-related unemployment, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his administration employed artists to beautify public buildings. The Chalet is one of the best examples of such art in San Francisco.)

On closer inspection of the murals, however, you will notice some interesting details, which seem to imply that, perhaps, not everything was as it should be with the local denizens. One creepy stand-out is the mural section as you head over to the bathrooms (on the right side of the passage to the bathrooms). Once you start looking for strange, symbolic things in the murals (think: sausages, fountains, and cylinder shapes at odd angles), you’ll find the oddities right in plain sight. (Much like San Francisco itself, but I digress.)

The Beach Chalet, upstairs, has a menu that’s more steakhouse-focused, and the steaks are great. There’s a lot of music (particularly jazz) played up there throughout the week, which makes it pretty enjoyable. The view of the ocean is tremendous for dinner when you can watch the sunset. For breakfast, while you sip a fine bloody mary, you can watch the surfers and other ambitious aqua-athletes (kiteboarders, skimboarders, and more) hit the frigid ocean in the morning.

The Park Chalet is downstairs in the back, and has a different food menu, though the same great libations. Pizzas are great. Burgers and other grilled stuff are also good, particularly when you eat them outdoors at the weekend BBQ on their lawn (only available during certain months). Studded with cheerful Adirondack chairs where you can get service, the lawn’s a perfect place to watch some great music outdoors in the summer. (The Mermen swing by from time to time.) You’re also welcome to throw a blanket down on the grass when the comfy chairs fill up, and you can even get service from your own blankie. Sunny Sundays are very popular here, and you’ll see a great cross-section of San Francisco folks massively enjoying the weather, tunes, and beer.    

If it’s too chilly for all that, as it often is in San Francisco, they’ll do the music indoors at the Park Chalet, which is just fine. The entire indoor area is glass, which opens and closes in different configurations to make you feel like you’re always outside.  There’s a stone fireplace that is nice to sit and sip next to on cooler nights, of which there are many in San Francisco, particularly in July.  

Check out their site for special nights, special deals, and music schedules before you go @ www.beachchalet.com Or, just get surprised and head over to the end of Golden Gate Park at 1000 Great Highway.  If you have only one day in San Francisco and the weather happens to be nice, this is a must-visit.

Some Awesome Thin Crust in the Outer Sunset

I’m not usually a thin crust pizza fan, but the Pizza Place on Noriega changed my mind. Great toppings, awesome sauce to cheese ratio, and a crispy yet not too cracker-like crust. (Full disclosure on sauce to cheese ratio comment: I prefer a fairly balanced sauce to cheese ratio, and dislike pizza that has too much cheese or too much sauce. Your preference for this ratio will drive your pizza preferences, whether you are a thin crust or a thick crust devotee.)

Good selection of beers on tap (including the ever refreshing PBR), and nice variety/quality, yet reasonable, wine list. Some great salads to start off with, particularly the wilted spinach with Zoe’s bacon. Amongst the pizza selections, the Dimitri’s pretty outstanding when you’re in a garlic/meat-tastic mood.

The folks who work here are super nice as well, even when it’s crowded, and it can be, because it’s really good. If you’re solo, the bar is a good place to get a beer and grab a slice.

Pizza Place on Noriega, online http://www.pizzaplacesf.com/ in person @ 3901 Noriega @ 46th Avenue.

Getting Crabby! The Best Crab in San Francisco

As a town that prides itself on the fine Dungeness crabs that once teemed in the local waters, it’s easy to find lots of restaurants that serve crab in San Francisco. However, such multiplicity makes it tough to find the best crab.

Until you wash up on Ocean Beach, that is.

The An family has been dishing up roasted crabs for decades at its flagship restaurant, Thanh Long. There are a variety of styles of roast crab on offer, but if you’re a garlic person, the roast garlic crab is perfection, along with a side of the secret recipe garlic noodles. (Adding to the special cache of Thanh Long is the secret kitchen, where only family members can enter!)  

It’s a great place to go share plates, and I’ve never taken anyone who has been disappointed. In addition to the infamous crab, other wonderful entrees, great appetizers, nice desserts, some interesting cocktails made with house infused spirits, and a wonderful wine list. But don’t over-indulge in any of that if it takes you away from the garlic roast crab and garlic noodles.

Thanh Long, online @ http://www.anfamily.com  Physically located at 4101 Judah @ 46th Avenue. (Valet parking)

Get into Some Trouble (Coffee) in the Sunset

Trouble Coffee, SF
One of the only house rules at Trouble

Way back when, before a topless mermaid took over your morning coffee fix, folks in coffee-centric towns like San Francisco used to go to local places for a good cuppa joe or espresso.  Over the years, it’s been a real shame to see the town’s coffee houses collapse to the sterile, manufactured ambiance of the franchise kings of Seattle.

One neighborhood fought back. The Outer Sunset. It may be one of the only places in town where the closest chain coffee store is 20 blocks away in any direction.

The perfect embodiment of a local coffee house collective, along with what may well be the best espresso in the city, is Trouble Coffee,  on Judah, at 46th Avenue, http://troublecoffee.com.  

A fine cast of local characters runs and frequents the place. The espresso will make hair sprout instantly on your chest, though lacks the bitterness that plagues some espressos elsewhere. If you’re around for breakfast (or hungover in the noonish time), order an espresso, coconut, and toast. All will be forgiven.