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High Dives

Down-to-Earth Dining on Nob Hill
  • nob hill

    View of Powell Street from Nob Hill

  • Hotel Rex

    Hotel Rex

  • Swan

    Swan Oyster Depot; main image courtesy of Aubrie Pick.

  • Hotel Vertigo

    Hotel Vertigo

  • Contraband

    Contraband Coffee

  • The Fairmont San Francisco

    The Fairmont San Francisco

  • The Huntington Hotel & Nob Hill Spa

    The Huntington Hotel & Nob Hill Spa

CHEAT SHEET
WHERE

Northern California, the city by the bay, a jumble of hoofable little ‘hoods and axle-busting hills, micro-climates and macro-views, eye-crowding cityscapes and vast green parks.

WHY GO

A casual, come-as-you-are attitude combined with big-city sophistication, inspired food at taco trucks and gastronomic temples alike, and a sublime conspiracy between city and nature to assault the eye with beauty at every turn.

HOW

SFO is one of several international airports in the area. Fly, drive, hitch a ride; just go west. It’s harder to leave than to come.

TABLET TIP

Fill your bag with sweaters and scarves if you’re planning to visit during the summer. Fog regularly rolls off the Pacific, creeping between the hills and pouring through the Golden Gate most days from June through August. Watching it swallow the city from the top of a hill is a dramatic sight to behold, but for a dose of sun, try points south and east — or make a day trip to wine country or the East Bay.

San Francisco, April, 2013

Nob Hill is home to some of the most opulent, old-fashioned hotels in San Francisco, but contrary to its reputation, there’s more to it than starchy white tablecloths (and patrons to match). Walk half a mile west of the Huntington or the Fairmont, glancing back at the skyline as you crest Jones street, and you’ll find a cluster of tiny neighborhood haunts without a speck of ostentation.

Within a block and a half of each other on Polk, California, and Larkin Streets, Swan Oyster Depot, Cordon Bleu and Contraband Coffee all give lie to the Nob Hill clichés. At Swan, the offerings (mountains of crabmeat on dispensable beds of iceberg lettuce, fresh-shucked oysters, uni on the half-shell) are as unfussy as the convivial, counter-seating atmosphere. It’s by no means a secret — the lines attest to that — but to chat up the fishmongers across the counter as they go about their work, with a cheap seafood feast and an icy Anchor Steam beer between your elbows, is to understand San Francisco’s dining culture in a way that all the city’s high-end tasting menus will never afford you.

Cordon Bleu, a no-frills Chinese/Vietnamese kitchen, makes Swan look downright florid. Every seat in the the two-table, nine-stool hole-in-the-wall has views of the proprietor working a flaming grill while meaty mapo bubbles away on the stove. The warm, fresh spring rolls served with homemade peanut sauce ladled straight out of the pot redeem what at other restaurants are often an afterthought; here, they’re perfect. An enormous dinner runs about ten dollars, less than the cost of your BYOB six-pack.

After a stupor-inducing meal at Cordon Bleu, Contraband Coffee is just around the corner. Part of the generation of outstanding coffeehouses that followed closely on the heels of the city’s groundbreaking Blue Bottle Coffee, Contraband works with the same obsessive attention to their coffee as some of their more famous competitors, only here the lines tend to be short and the crowd local.

Or for a truly low-brow, high-pleasure dessert, head to Bob’s, where the donuts are rarely more than a few minutes out of the fryer and the proper beverage pairing is a miniature cardboard carton of milk. It’s open twenty-four hours a day, three hundred and sixty-five days a year. The 3 a.m. crowd will put a decisive end to any debate on whether the neighborhood has a place for the hoi polloi.

Down a few blocks in Lower Nob Hill, Hotel Rex and Hotel Vertigo offer similarly down-to-earth alternatives to their grander, higher-altitude neighbors. Hotel Rex is a different sort of throwback from the Fairmont and Huntington, taking its cues from the hardboiled San Francisco of 1930s detective stories, while the baroque-modern Vertigo, full of homages to the Hitchcock film of the same name, is far more stylish than its price point might suggest.

Of course the Fairmont, the traditional grand dame of Nob Hill hotels, has a counter-argument of its own to anyone who says the neighborhood’s too stiff. Tucked beneath the grand ballrooms is the hotel’s über-kitschy, über-lovable Tonga Room, a tiki bar complete with mock thunderstorms and a bandstand floating in the pool. Staring down a pineapple full of booze, a gentle synthetic rain in the background, it’s as good a place as any to wrap one’s mind around the neighborhood’s contradictions.

Mike Parker

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CHEAT SHEET
WHERE

Northern California, the city by the bay, a jumble of hoofable little ‘hoods and axle-busting hills, micro-climates and macro-views, eye-crowding cityscapes and vast green parks.

WHY GO

A casual, come-as-you-are attitude combined with big-city sophistication, inspired food at taco trucks and gastronomic temples alike, and a sublime conspiracy between city and nature to assault the eye with beauty at every turn.

HOW

SFO is one of several international airports in the area. Fly, drive, hitch a ride; just go west. It’s harder to leave than to come.

TABLET TIP

Fill your bag with sweaters and scarves if you’re planning to visit during the summer. Fog regularly rolls off the Pacific, creeping between the hills and pouring through the Golden Gate most days from June through August. Watching it swallow the city from the top of a hill is a dramatic sight to behold, but for a dose of sun, try points south and east — or make a day trip to wine country or the East Bay.


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