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San Francisco is still the gayest city anywhere. There’s hardly a neighborhood in town where you won’t get that knowing stare from one of your own kind. Local lesbians and gay men celebrate autumn as their "summer of love" once the tourists and the fog retreat. If you’re in the mood for trouble, plan your trip around the Folsom Street Fair (always the last Sunday in September), which prides itself on an unself-conscious attitude of inclusion. This year the organizers are reaching out even more by creating a designated women’s area on Ninth Street between Folsom and Howard streets. "We respond to what the community says it wants," says Demetri Moshoyannis, executive director of Folsom Street Events. Now in its 23rd year, Folsom showcases San Francisco at its hedonistic peak, but when you’re bored with bondage and need to get in touch with your inner angel, soar into one of the city’s ever-changing neighborhoods. The best way to experience the City by the Bay is by going where the locals go.
The eight-block stretch of Valencia Street from 16th to 24th streets is a great late-morning stroll on the weekends, with dozens of restaurants, vintage and retro clothing and furniture stores, independent bookstores, and cafés. A sunny weekend day, which can be rare due to the fog, acts like a beacon call for El Rio (3158 Mission St., 415-282-3325), a funky bar further out in the Mission District that attracts "chiquitas, bananas, and mixed fruits." The bar has a spacious outdoor patio that draws a large following of lesbians on Saturday nights and a mixed gay and straight crowd for "Salsa Sundays." Go a little further down Mission Street and you’ll find Foreign Cinema (2534 Mission St., 415-648-7600), a French cuisine–inspired restaurant that screens foreign and indie films on a towering white wall in the covered outdoor patio. Sunday brunch is not to be missed.
The ugly freeway that served as the unofficial dividing line between the mid Market Street area and the Castro District has long been removed from Hayes Valley, and the city recently completed a new multimillion-dollar thoroughfare to take its place at Octavia Boulevard. Businesses are popping up to take advantage of the revitalization. Few tourists have discovered the funky fashions and designer shoe shops scattered among restaurants that appeal to patrons of the nearby Opera House and San Francisco Symphony. Bulo Shoes (437A Hayes St., 415-864-3244) draws a crowd for its imports from top outlets in the United Kingdom, Italy, and Spain. For dinner, your best bet is to stick with those who had faith in the area first. Destino restaurant (1815 Market St., 415-552-4451) has been dishing out inspired "Nuevo Latino" tapas and main courses for over six years. Don’t miss the ceviche sampler of sea bass, salmon, and ahi tuna, and be sure to order the famous Alfajores butter cookies filled with dulce de leche. They’re sold in take-out tins!
ON THE WATERFRONT
The hunky sailors who once prowled the piers that line the bay have thankfully been replaced by sweaty joggers and Rollerbladers who are taking advantage of the redeveloped waterfront and its boulevard-style sidewalks. The best time and place for boy and girl watching is Saturday morning at the Farmers Market at the beautifully restored Ferry Building. In addition to the cute farmer or two selling his or her wares, the market has become a magnet for the discerning gay culinary pro who doesn’t mind spending $2 for a nectarine.
Go see what boutique hotel specialists Chip Conley and his Joie de Vivre creative team have done with a blank canvas at their Hotel Vitale property at Embarcadero and Mission streets (8 Mission St., 415-278-3700). Conceived from the ground up, few details were missed in this sleek and thoroughly modern hotel. Be sure to book a treatment at the 8th-floor spa and include a “bathing ritual” soak in the rooftop bamboo garden.
Alcatraz is a necessary stop on any tourist’s itinerary, but for the truly spooky prison experience, sign up for the night tour. You’ll get the postcard-worthy view of the sun setting behind the Golden Gate Bridge on the boat ride over.
At Ghirardelli Square near Fisherman’s Wharf, you might be surprised to find a stunningly beautiful restaurant hidden in a corner of the complex amid all the overpriced seafood restaurants that rope in tourists. Ana Mandara (891 Beach St., 415-771-6800) specializes in modern Vietnamese cuisine and serves one of the best cocktails in the city: the Ana Mandara Martini, which resembles a vodka-based mojito with a hint of fresh lemongrass.
Slowly but surely, the warehouses in the industrial South of Market neighborhood have been replaced by gleaming new condominium complexes that were snatched up practically before they were even conceived by cash-rich dot-commers. The building boom continued even after the bubble burst. The PlumpJack Winery group, founded by gay-friendly San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom, continues to expand its winery and restaurant portfolio with Jack Falstaff restaurant (98 Second St., 415-836-9239). The restaurant, located within two blocks of AT&T Park, features a terrific outdoor patio that draws a nice crowd on game days. Jerry Cooper, owner of the Swirl on Castro wine shop, loves Jack Falstaff’s eclectic wine menu. "It’s a great place to people-watch and try some unique offerings by the glass—including a Gamay Noir, which no one pours by the glass."
No trip to San Francisco is complete without a shopping excursion through Union Square and the Financial District, and yet it can be a daunting task to find the true gems among the chain restaurants and run-of-the-mill cafés. If you’re in the mood for French, Jeanty at Jack’s (615 Sacramento St., 415-693-0941) is one of the best. French-born chef Philippe Jeanty made a name for himself with his charming Bistro Jeanty in Napa, Calif., and then took over the historic and elegantly restored Jack’s Restaurant in the Financial District in 2002. Many of the same delicious creations that Jeanty introduced to diners in Napa are also on the menu here, including the famed cream of tomato soup served in a white tureen with a golden puff pastry crust baked on top.
Slowly and not so quietly, Hang Art gallery (556 and 567 Sutter St., 415-434-4264) has developed a reputation as the place to build a collection of up-and-coming local artists while they’re still reasonably priced. The art is showcased in a spacious gallery near Union Square and leans toward contemporary and abstract paintings and sculptures. Over 70 Bay Area artists are featured.
Don’t have time to visit wine country? Sonoma-based winery Enoteca Viansa (334 Grant St.) recently opened a small shop in the Union Square area that feels like an oasis amid the hustle and bustle of this dense shopping district. It’s a great place to pick up wine country gift items.
If you want to see a play or musical and find yourself visiting on a weekday, be sure to visit the half-price ticket window in Union Square, which often has good reduced-price seats available. Look for the Broadway revival of A Chorus Line to be test-run in San Francisco beginning in September.
GOLDEN GATE PARK
The lines are mostly gone, the hype has died down, and the new copper-clad De Young Museum (50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Dr., 415-863-3330) in Golden Gate Park can now be enjoyed at the relaxed pace it was meant for. An art lover’s trip to the city wouldn’t be complete without checking out the museum’s expansive international collection of paintings, sculptures, and textiles. But the nine-story observation tower steals the show, offering one of the most sweeping views of the city.
Folsom Street isn’t the only place for a little naughty fun. When he needs to let loose after a long week of city meetings, San Francisco supervisor (and single man-about-town) Bevan Dufty hits the "Drunk-n-Horny" party at Underground SF (424 Haight St., 415-864-7386). The party started as a word-of-mouth sensation last year, drawing cute boys and long lines after 11 p.m. "If you’re in the mood, it’s 100% guaranteed that you will not leave Drunk-n-Horny without making out," Dufty says. "Everything about it is just wrong, which makes it just right."