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WEEKEND ESCAPE: SAN FRANCISCO

Dim Sum and Dancing

Friends break out of the routine in a duo of whirlwind specialized tours

November 15, 1998|DIANA MARCUM | Marcum is a Palm Springs-based freelance writer

SAN FRANCISCO — Among us we'd racked up romantic woes, career dilemmas and a plain old case of the doldrums. But we had a plan. My girlfriends and I would shake things up with a big-city weekend in San Francisco. We envisioned the sort of getaway that swirls with new experiences, requires the wearing of very cute shoes and deposits one back in everyday life feeling like a force to be reckoned with.

With the help of two tours, the aptly named "I Can't Believe I Ate My Way Through Chinatown" and "Three Babes and a Bus," which one guidebook described as "arguably the world's hippest tour," we did try new foods, meet new people and dance a night away.

Headquarters for our ventures, Hotel David, was a find. The $129 room rate at this B&B put us in the heart of Union Square, where neighboring hotels were mostly in the $200 to $300 range. One difference is that those hotels have fancy lobbies, whereas Hotel David is attached to a kosher deli. Instead of marble staircases and massive lobby floral arrangements, we entered our hotel past display cases of chocolate eclairs and loaves of Jewish rye. Hotel guests can order anything on the lengthy David's Deli breakfast menu (corned-beef croquettes, poached eggs, bagels and lox, etc.) for free before 11 a.m.--and the hotel gives guests a 15% discount on all other deli items.

Less endearingly funky was the one tiny elevator, which sometimes went up and sometimes went down but not in any way that corresponded to the button pushed. I couldn't decide if our tidy room with red bedspreads and a lone picture, hung off-center, was hip or just odd. There was no concierge or clucking doorman, but when we awoke to pouring rain Saturday morning, a kind desk clerk loaned us his umbrella to run to Walgreens and stand in line with all the other poor packers who were buying $7.50 umbrellas.

The rain didn't discourage anyone from the Chinatown tour. We joined a large family celebrating their mother's 75th birthday and two middle-age couples to wind though alleys and back lanes, eating all the way. Cookbook author and tour leader Shirley Fong-Torres grew up in Chinatown and told warm, funny stories in which she was "youngest daughter."

Our group's first stop, Sam Wo, was a little restaurant off a Washington Street alley and up a flight of stairs. Fong-Torres said Sam Wo once was famed for having the rudest waiter in all California. Of course, patrons stood in line for his tables. We were served the traditional Chinese breakfast, jook, which is rice cooked until it breaks down to the consistency of cream of wheat, "thousand-year-old eggs" (dried eggs, not really 1,000 years old) and crab.

Back outdoors, the sun began to filter through. We stood in pale sunshine outside the improbably named North Hollywood Dim Sum and Bakery on Pacific Avenue and ate an array of steaming dim sum, which Fong-Torres translated as "touch of the heart--eat a little of this and a little of that and your heart will be touched."

We visited outdoor groceries and shops that had roasted ducks--heads with gaping beaks still attached--hanging in the windows. A jovial New Yorker on the tour took great pleasure in pulling me up close to the window to look at octopus tendrils and pig intestines on display. Fun in that ooh-yuck-slime third-grader way.

The tour ended with lunch at Ryumon, an elegant Chinese restaurant on Washington Street that has been gaining recognition since converting from Korean-Japanese food three years ago.

My friend Leah then headed back to the hotel for a vacation-afternoon nap.

I decided to get lost--my favorite thing to do in an unfamiliar city, and something I'm quite good at since I have a lousy sense of direction. I wandered though Chinatown buying a laughing Buddha for 99 cents and trying on a $50 silk Chinese dress that looked like something Nicole Kidman wore to the Oscars.

When I finally traced my way back to the hotel, I went straight to the lunch counter, our lunch counter, for a half tuna sandwich. The thick, soft bread and dill pickle cinched my suspicions--a deli is a fine trade-off for a lobby.

My friend Janet, who lives in Berkeley, joined us for the Saturday night outing. Janet and I met in Madame Blume's French class when we were 16, so we decided French food would be appropriate. The restaurant City of Paris was the meeting place for the Babe tour and, as everything seemed to be, just a block from our Geary Street hotel.

We opted for appetizers in the pricey, pretty bistro's lounge, where a jazz trio was playing swing. A newlywed couple from Florida came in and asked if we were with the "Babes" tour. When we said yes they joined us, as did a fun couple from New Hampshire, a guy who had just moved to San Francisco after traveling the world and a lively pair from Sweden.

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