The Weekender: San Francisco

The Presidio and its environs offer a different way to enjoy the city by the bay

Icame to San Francisco from Chicago in the early 1980s during, if not the Great Recession, then certainly a mighty fine one. My girlfriend and I settled in a Richmond District studio apartment next to a tiny Russian Byzantine Catholic chapel. It was a few blocks from the Presidio, the historic army base where Infantry Row and its stately 1890s brick barracks seemed to have been conjured by a production designer for some wartime epic.

My girlfriend eventually became my fiancée and, soon thereafter, my ex-fiancée, but my love for this northwestern section of San Francisco has remained more lasting. It’s not the hip part of town, never has been. Instead this is a more natural San Francisco, where, between the Presidio, Golden Gate Park, and Lands End, virtually all of the hardscape city’s open space is found.

Since being decommissioned in the 1990s, the Presidio has become more integrated into San Francisco and added to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Within walking distance of the Golden Gate Bridge, 3,000 residents live in renovated army quarters. Miles of trails explore the forest, and cultural and environmental organizations operate out of historic buildings. The Presidio even has its first hotel now: The Inn at the Presidio ($220-$1,000) combines military history (vintage bugles hang on the lobby wall) with pillowtop beds and boutique hotel comforts that the Georgian revival building’s original army officer occupants could scarcely have imagined. It also lets you move freely between two very different San Franciscos.

If the inn feels isolated, San Francisco being San Francisco means that you’re not far from anything. The free PresidiGo Shuttle can whisk you to the Embarcadero and the food haven of the Ferry Building Marketplace in 25 minutes. Five minutes by car from the Presidio’s ravines, and you’ll be browsing the shops of Sacramento Street or dining on Clement Street. Though Clement has been dubbed the New Chinatown for going on 30 years now, the restaurants (including Burma Superstar, with its justly celebrated tea leaf salad and chili lamb) encompass a much broader swath of Asia.

What the inn does do is recalibrate your SF GPS. Compact as San Francisco is, when you stay downtown, Golden Gate Park can seem somehow like the other side of the world. From the Presidio, however, it’s a quick hop to the undulating living roof at the Renzo Piano-designed California Academy of Sciences. The roof gets the pics, but across the concourse, the copper-clad de Young Museum offers the city’s best deal: Without paying admission (actually worth it to see the New Guinea art), you can go to the ninth-floor observation deck atop the museum’s tower, an inverted ziggurat, for 360-degree panoramas. From the park it also becomes easy to prowl bordering neighborhoods that, while not untouched by San Francisco’s real estate gold rush, have managed to retain their character.

Outerlands restaurant in the Outer Sunset neighborhood
Outerlands restaurant in the Outer Sunset neighborhood

Embedded into the Outer Richmond, Balboa Avenue is an old-timey commercial street, with dumpling joints, the 1926-vintage Balboa Theatre, and newcomers like Marla Bakery, an airy Mission District import where you can get a crispy halibut sandwich and tasty green onion and dry-jack cheese scones. South of the park in the Outer Sunset, as close as San Francisco comes to a surf town, the newly expanded restaurant Outerlands lures people from tonier precincts for New American cuisine in a weathered space that appears constructed of lumber that washed up blocks away on Ocean Beach.

During the night at the inn, yipping coyotes harmonize with foghorns, and by dawn I awaken to honking geese and chattering parrots, soon followed by a whiff of eucalyptus drifting through the windows.

Nearby the city of Google buses and $8 artisan toast is waiting, although you don’t have to stray far from the Presidio or get in the car. Along Infantry Row the Walt Disney Family Museum traces the chronology and achievements of its namesake’s life, with everything from the earliest known Mickey Mouse drawings to an enormous Disneyland model, plus loops of both rare and classic cartoons. Disney’s tale is of course a Southern California story. But his daughter, the late Diane Disney Miller, lived in the Bay Area and, together with other family members, chose to put the museum here. So it goes. We got their water, and they got Walt.

The Inn at the Presidio's Funston House, a 19th-century officer's headquarters
The Inn at the Presidio’s Funston House, a 19th-century officer’s headquarters

Up Infantry Row in a onetime mess hall, The Commissary is Bay Area chef  Traci Des Jardins’s tribute to San Francisco’s Spanish roots. The true action is in the back, along the counter abutting the busy kitchen, while the main room’s salvaged-wood communal tables, where I eavesdropped on tech execs talking about recruiting genius Russian data specialists, have their own appeal.

Next to the inn a path leads through the forest and past Spire, an Andy Goldsworthy art installation made from fallen tree trunks, before connecting to coastal trails. Then it’s a few miles to the urban Big Sur of Lands End. Spiffed up with a new visitor center overlooking the seemingly ancient ruins of Sutro Baths, the indoor saltwater pool built in the 1890s, Lands End draws tourists with its landmark Cliff House restaurant. Locals, however, opt for bluffside Louis’ Restaurant, a no-frills diner that’s been family owned since 1937—the same year the Golden Gate Bridge opened. The only thing fancy about it are the grand ocean panoramas visible from every glittery Formica table.

I used to hike to Louis’ from that $390 apartment. The return was long, but that never mattered. Now that I’m back here, it’s pretty much as I remember, with stands of wind-sculpted Monterey cypress, fishing boats churning into the bay, and fog drifting over the Golden Gate’s broken cliffs.

This feature originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of Los Angeles magazine.