SAN FRANCISCO -- The trail hugged the steep coastal bluff, and a chilly, salt-scented breeze swept up the slope, bearing the plaintive bleat of a foghorn. Unruly nasturtium vines festooned the hillside with orange blossoms, and the jagged limbs of cypress trees framed a distant landmark, the Golden Gate Bridge.
It seemed unfathomable to behold this scene less than half a mile from a thriving, densely packed metropolis. But this is Lincoln Park, a pleasingly untamed reserve at San Francisco's western extremity.
The Coastal Trail is popular with locals out for leisurely strolls or vigorous workouts, but it's hardly on the standard checklist for the city's tourists.
This west end of the city -- the Richmond District,
The Richmond, in particular, has the feel of a neighborhood whose businesses function primarily for its residents, rather than fulfilling some tourist fantasy of what San Francisco should be. And the makeup of that local population is unimaginably diverse -- recently arrived immigrants from China, Vietnam, Korea, Burma and other corners of Asia, as well as longstanding communities of Russians and Eastern Europeans.
The cultural offerings on this side of town are rich, too, if you dip down into Golden Gate Park to visit the new de Young Museum, or traipse up to the
Wide-open spaces, meanwhile, can be found out on the coast, where historic establishments such as the Beach Chalet and the Cliff House serve up sweeping views of Ocean Beach and Seal Rocks with their libations.
To get a Richmond District immersion experience, take a walk along the eastern reaches of Clement Street, one of the neighborhood's main east-west thoroughfares. The architecture here is classic San Francisco Victorian, some of the buildings painted in soft pastel colors, but the business signs provide a world tour: sidewalk produce displays identified only by Chinese characters, Vietnamese cafes extolling the quality of their pho, hair salons, herb shops and clothing stores with bilingual sales pitches.
Many shops carry bargain import goods from Asia, and it's fun to browse. Elsewhere there are fine furnishings, antiques ... and books.
In an era when the independent bookstore has been endangered by Internet book trade, Green Apple Books (506 Clement) continues to thrive, stuffing its shelves to the ceiling with used books -- perhaps the best selection in the city. Customers shuffle along worn wooden floors that creak with their weight, seeking out that favorite out-of-print cookbook or an obscure novel. Also here are new books, music, movies and books-on-CD.
Clement's two eastern-most blocks, between Arguello Boulevard and Third Avenue, are a target-rich environment for the high-end shopper. There are wonderful mid-century storefronts here, too, with leafy shade trees set in sidewalk planters.
Marques (6 Clement) is chock-full of vintage French dishes, pressed glass and jewelry. Peche Mignon (147) has Provencal textiles, dishes, pottery, lavender sachets, soap and other products that transport your imagination to the farmland east of Avignon. Classic architectural salvage is the specialty of Fleurt (15 Clement), in case you're in the market for a zinc table, a copper-framed mirror or colorful glass fishing balls.
Thidwick's (11 Clement) is the place to stop if you've got a little one back home -- nostalgic toys, puzzles, cookie jars, piggy banks -- or if you're partial to whimsical stationery. The Art of Dining (7 Clement) presents antiques of a culinary theme -- tableware, glassware; basically anything you'd desire for a dining room. Leathergoods are the forte of April in Paris (47 Clement), from purses to belts to something as simple as a checkbook cover, all stylishly crafted.
When the appetite begins to rumble, the Richmond District won't disappoint. And a healthy spirit of adventure is essential in so ethnically varied a neighborhood.
Over a long weekend, our palates were delighted by Russian pelmeni at Katia's, Hakka dim sum at Ton Kiang, a hearty Vietnamese clay pot at La Vie, superb French cuisine at both Chapeau! and Clementine, and gourmet coffee with fresh apricot-studded scones at Javaholics. (For more details, see the accompanying sidebar on Richmond District dining.)
The Richmond's first wave of immigration occurred following Russia's Bolshevik Revolution (1917) and the end of World War I (1919), when White Russians and Eastern European Jews found their way here. Today, two of the most prominent architectural fixtures of the neighborhood are the Russian Orthodox Holy Virgin Cathedral, with its gold-topped onion spires, and Temple Emanu-El, with its broad dome.
The influences are a bit jumbled at other places of worship. The architecture of the Park Presidio United Methodist Church is Norman, but if you check the sign outside you'll see that it is also the Ohnnury Korean UMC. The Star of the Sea Catholic Church, meanwhile, has the classic bell towers of the California missions, but it also conducts Masses in Chinese.
Another, more secular ethnic ritual occurs weekly at the Plough & Stars, an Irish pub that stages jam sessions on Sunday nights for any musicians who wish to sit in. For our visit, that meant two fiddles, a guitar, a piccolo, two recorders and a flute. There was plenty of foot stomping for the rhythm track, and the authenticity was enhanced by the fact that this is one pub that knows how to pull a proper pint of Guinness.
The fine art on this side of the city is abundant, too, particularly at the de Young Museum, which recently moved into a striking new building after its 1919 original was irreparably damaged by the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake. Designed by the award-winning Herzog & de Meuron firm, it is a giant block covered in copper panels, and inside are magnificent exhibition spaces, with high-ceiling galleries, wood floors and indirect overhead light, as if from skylights.
The strength of this museum's collection is its American Impressionism and Realism from the early 20th century. In some exhibits, the works are thoughtfully grouped. An Ernest Ebberfield photo and an Edward Hopper etching are displayed side by side, for example, both using urban silhouette images that cast dramatic shadows. A Charles Sheeler gelatin silver photograph and a Grant Wood lithograph are of similar subject matter, such as a white barn. Or a self-portrait of an artist working on a particular painting might be displayed alongside that very painting.
But in other respects, the exhibits leave you wanting. An informational panel tells of how artists were reviled for painting everyday scenes in the early 20th century, notably of workers in menial tasks, but it's frustrating to find no such paintings to illustrate this point.
The de Young's most popular feature is its ninth-floor, glassed-in observation deck. The view of the city is sensational from here -- north across the Richmond to the verdant hillsides of the Presidio, two stubs of the Golden Gate Bridge towers visible beyond their crests; a swath of the Pacific at the mouth of the bay to the west; the park stretching out to the Sunset District in the south.
The de Young's sculpture garden, though no more imaginatively laid out than a suburban backyard, is every bit as popular as its indoor displays, anchored as it is by a giant, open safety pin standing on its head. That is "Corridor Pin, Blue," created by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen.
Another impressive museum on this side of town is the Palace of the Legion of Honor, which commands a hill in Lincoln Park -- yet again, a vantage point that affords nice views of the city.
The museum possesses more than 80 of Auguste Rodin's sculptures, and many are exhibited in a sunny central gallery, including "The Three Shades," designed to be atop "The Gates of Hell" for the doors of the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris. "The Thinker" ponders the riddles of life in a front courtyard. Also on display are "The Kiss," "The Burghers of Calais" and "The Prodigal Son."
We found our way to this museum on foot -- it's on a spur path off the Coastal Trail.
Upon returning to the trail, we took another detour, down to Land's End and Mile Rock Beach, where boulders placed in concentric circles are known as the Land's End Labyrinthe, and where there are rusted gun emplacements from the 1800s, when the mouth of San Francisco Bay was strategically important from a military standpoint.
Ruins of another sort can be found alongside the Cliff House restaurant and bar. Concrete ribs are all that remain of the Sutro Baths, built in the late 1800s as an elaborate complex of swimming pools in a steel-and-glass edifice.
Today's visitors prefer to enjoy their ocean views over a drink and a plate of food, and they may readily do so at the Cliff House, which has perched on the ocean's edge here in various incarnations since 1863. It was recently renovated and expanded, and remains a tourist magnet.
To mingle with a few more locals, head a little farther down the coast to the Beach Chalet, another historic establishment (1925). In its lobby are beautiful tile murals created as a make-work project during the Depression. Out back is the Park Chalet, a grass-fringed patio with Adirondack chairs and cafe seating. On the second floor are restaurant tables next to picture windows that overlook the broad expanse of Ocean Beach.
Here, you can get a bite to eat and sample one of the house microbrews -- perhaps Riptide Red or Beach Blanket Blonde.
The city might seem far away as you drink in the sweeping vistas and savor the delicious serenity of San Francisco's west end.
IF YOU GO
GETTING THERE: The Richmond District is due west of San Francisco's heart, with the Presidio on the north, Golden Gate Park on the south and the Pacific Ocean on the west. Its main east-west thoroughfares are Geary Boulevard and Clement Street.
PARKING: There are an awful lot of people living above ground level in the Richmond. They have visiting friends and family. And the businesses draw patrons from other parts of the city. Result: Finding parking, especially on weekend nights, is a major-league challenge. One tip to cost you a few dollars but save you a lot of aggravation: There is a paid lot on Sixth Avenue, just south of Clement Street.
LODGING: There isn't much to choose from in the way of hotels in the Richmond District, but the Laurel Inn, in nearby Presidio Heights, is a pretty good bet. Part of the mini-chain of affordable boutique hotels operated by Joie de Vivre Hospitality, it is a 49-room property with rates from $139 per night. The Laurel is in a fairly quiet residential neighborhood, and has updated furnishings and art photography on the walls. The staff is friendly, continental breakfast is included with the rate, and the inn has something indispensable for this part of the city: its own parking garage ($15 per night). Best of all, the emerging retail enclave of Sacramento Street is a short walk around the corner. The sole drawback: This building went up in 1963, and it doesn't have the best bones. You can hear just about everything while in your room: footfalls on the creaky floor above, toilet flushes, ice being scooped from a cooler down the hall, conversations beyond your walls. 444 Presidio Ave., (800)552-8735, (415) 567-8467, www.thelaurelinn.com.
MUSEUMS: The Web site for Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco -- www.thinker.org -- lists information for both the de Young and the Legion of Honor. The de Young, in Golden Gate Park, is open from 9:30 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, 9:30 a.m. to 8:45 p.m. Friday. Admission is $10 for adults. The Legion of Honor, in Lincoln Park, is open from 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Admission is $10 for adults.
SIPS: Plough & Stars, 116 Clement St., (415) 751-1122, www.ploughandthestars; Beach Chalet, 1000 Great Highway, (415) 386-8439, www.beachchalet.com.
COASTAL TRAIL: The section described in the story begins at the northeast corner of Lincoln Park (32nd Avenue at El Camino Del Mar) and wends 1.7 miles down to Sutro Baths/Cliff House. There are spurs off this route to both Land's End and the Palace of the Legion of Honor. It's steep in places, but wooden stair steps have been installed to make the passage easier.
INFORMATION: A good guidebook for an exploration of the Richmond District is "Access: San Francisco" (Access Press; $21.95) -- a handy series for any urban tourism, since it breaks down a city by neighborhood. For shopping, try Suzy Gershman's "Born to Shop San Francisco" (Frommer's; $15.99). Another good one is "Art/Shop/Eat San Francisco" (Blue Guides; $13.95). The San Francisco Chronicle's Web site has breakdowns on the city's neighborhoods. It's not a particularly easy site to navigate, and the paper's rundown on shopping in the Inner Richmond is in need of an update, but there is helpful historical and dining information here. Visit www. sfgate.com/traveler/guide/sf/neighborhoods; there are links for both Inner and Outer Richmond.THE DIVERSE FLAVORS OF THE RICHMOND DISTRICT
SAN FRANCISCO -- Visitors can readily do a little culinary globe-trotting in San Francisco's Richmond District, where the dining options are as varied as the neighborhood is ethnically diverse.
From casual lunch spots to elegant dining rooms, the fare is of high quality. This district is far from the traditional tourist paths, so these establishments must curry the favor of local residents -- and work a little harder to secure it.
That's reflected in the menu prices, too, even onto the wine lists.
A sampling of the Richmond's best:
Chapeau!: This storefront restaurant on Clement Street looks pretty unassuming from the outside. Maybe that's why a heavy velvet curtain is hung just inside the door. Step through its folds and you feel as if you've entered another world -- a little hideaway in Paris' Marais, perhaps.
You can order a la carte, if you wish, but the create-your-own menus are terrific values: choice of appetizer, entree and dessert for $38, for example (with slight surcharges for higher-ticket items such as filet mignon). We enjoyed pan-seared monkfish with butternut-squash risotto, and a bouillabaisse with three types of fish plus mussels and clams, cooked in a fish fumet.
A mesclun salad with creme Dijonnaise was a nice starter, accompanied as it was by a wedge of fried Camembert and hearty walnut bread. For dessert, a sorbet trio featured lime, blackberry-cabernet and passion fruit -- the latter delivering an explosion of flavor.
Chef-owner Philippe Gardelle devised a wine list that is refreshingly user-friendly. There is a page of by-the-glass wines, a page of half-bottles and two pages of value-priced selections, from California and France, priced in the $30 range. We left it to the hostess to select a suitable French white for our seafood and she chose a nice Sancerre for $35. Service, in fact, is friendly, flawless and deferential here.
1408 Clement St., (415) 750-9787.
Clementine: Another enjoyable French place (it takes its name from the street outside) sparked a craving for steak frites -- and the dish didn't disappoint, a rib-eye in green peppercorn sauce, bargain-priced at $19.50. But the best offering of the night was a starter of crab salad and grapefruit wedges.
This is yet another spot that doesn't murder you with markups on the wine, whether you're ordering by the glass or the bottle. 126 Clement St., (415) 387-0408.
Ton Kiang: When author Amy Tan was asked about her favorite dim sum places in San Francisco, this one made the short list. Word is obviously out on it, because there was a mob out on the sidewalk at midday on a Sunday. The wait list seems to move quickly, though.
It's always a good idea to pace yourself with dim sum, and certainly here. We arrived with ravenous appetites and said yes to the first five or six servers who passed our table (the trays are constantly circulating). It was all divine -- crabmeat in rice noodle, beef pastries, egg roll, snow-pea shoots in garlic, shrimp dumplings -- but by the time we got a first look at some other delights (fried oysters, crab claws, calamari) we were already stuffed.
The ingredients are clearly of high quality here and the creations are inventive. Be sure to save room for jin doy (sesame rolls stuffed with slightly sweetened bean paste) for dessert. 5821 Geary Blvd., (415) 387-8273.
La Vie: Clay pot dishes are a specialty at La Vie, one of the better Vietnamese restaurants in the Richmond. At lunchtime, we enjoyed a pot brimming with stir-fried chicken, prawns, Chinese sausage, mushrooms and ginger, accompanied by jasmine rice.
Another keeper was coconut curry, prepared with either prawns or chicken and a mix of fresh vegetables.
The appetizer menu is extensive. We can vouch for the shrimp-and-pork rolls (an interesting contrast of flavors and textures), with a wrapping of thin rice paper around the meat, bean sprouts, mint leaves and rice noodles. 5830 Geary Blvd., (415) 668-8080.
Katia's: This Russian tea room can delight the palate at dinner with its pelmeni (beef-filled dumplings in broth, served with sour cream; similar to pot-stickers) and its blini (thin, light pancakes served with smoked salmon and sour cream). If you have a crowd, pick some items from the zakuski selection -- eggplant caviar, smoked salmon, cucumber-and-tomato salad, etc. -- for some family-style sharing.
One major drawback here is the slow service -- one overwhelmed waiter works a room of about a dozen tables. But there's an accordion player on Saturday nights; sit back, enjoy the music, and pop another pelmeni into your mouth. 600 Fifth Ave., (415) 668-9292.
Javaholics: There are some great neighborhood coffee places in the Richmond, but this was our favorite. The coffee is first rate, and a cardboard box on the counter holds freshly baked scones bursting with raspberries, blueberries or apricots. 449 Balboa St., (415) 668-3434.