San Francisco — "Something wonderful and free is happening every day in this city," my friend Liz Polo said, carefully selecting a double-latte truffle from the silver tray.
It was Saturday afternoon, and we were at Neiman Marcus on Union Square. We'd just come from a Chinese cooking lesson and were headed to an elegant lunch at the Four Seasons.
"My philosophy is this," Liz added. "Have dessert first."
Her point of view appealed to me. I reached out for the hand-molded Belgian chocolate that the Joseph Schmidt representative was offering. This was going to be a sweet few days.
My weekends, which I always want to be a model of graceful living, too often are spent running errands in sweat pants. A trip to San Francisco could infuse some urbanity into my downtime, but this most cosmopolitan of cities is also one of the priciest.
Liz, who has sashayed in Prada heels over nearly every inch of the city since moving here five years ago, would be my guide to sophistication on a shoestring budget. Enjoying San Francisco like a local, she said, I could live in the lap of luxury inexpensively while -- and this is important -- never feeling cheap.
In mid-March, I dusted off my best outfits and flew to the Bay Area. I stayed two nights at a fashionable hotel near Union Square, ate only gourmet food and rode around on vintage wheels. I enjoyed a night at the ballet and another with live jazz. In the afternoons, I lingered under fine art, sampled the richest chocolates, learned to cook from a master chef and melted under an hourlong foot massage.
All for less than $600. Had I done it without Liz's guidance, I would have spent a ton more and experienced far fewer of the finer things. And I wouldn't have earned the right to feel so in-the-know smug.
I'd laid some budgetary groundwork for this carefree, luxurious weekend. Keeping my eye out for a sale, I'd snagged $39 each-way fares to Oakland on Southwest Airlines. I'd mapped my $5.15 route into San Francisco on the AirBART bus and BART train from McAfee Coliseum to the Powell Station at Market Street. There, at the San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau's Information Center, I bought a $15 MUNI pass to ride the cable cars and vintage streetcars for three days without digging into my wallet for exact change.
So as I rumbled up Powell Street aboard a cable car at noontime Friday -- an experience I never find less than thrilling -- my history-rich, cultural weekend got underway. I hopped off at Geary Street, then walked a few blocks to Hotel Diva, passing art galleries and theaters. The hotel staff was so friendly that I, traveling as a single woman, felt well watched over. My contemporary, high-ceiling room ($129 a night) was decorated in a relaxing palette of mocha and silver. I hung a "Do Not Disturb" sign outside that read "The Diva Is In" and planned the rest of my day.
Lunch at the chef school
I'd made reservations for lunch at the California Culinary Academy, where chefs-to-be practice their Moroccan quail and rabbit b'stilla on gastronomes willing to eat someone's schoolwork. The cooking school on Polk Street has a casual bistro with a light-fare menu, but I wanted to try the buffet ($16 to $22, depending on the day of week) in the massive, architecturally frilly Careme Room.
Students in chef coats and checkered pants were everywhere: rolling dough in the on-view pastry classroom, describing the cheeses and pates, carving thick slices of lamb in the kitchen, portioning out pretty desserts.
The dozens of hot entrees were impressive, but I was more captivated by the students who were spending $50,000 for 18 months of coursework and training. One beaming chef, who would graduate two weeks later, had landed a position at the French Laundry restaurant in Napa Valley. I ate two bites of everything and left stuffed.
(One suggestion: Don't wait until 1 p.m. to take a seat at one of the white-linen tables. As much as this looks like a never-ending buffet at a fine hotel, when it's 1:30 p.m., class is over and the students are eager to leave. Platters are whisked away, and the kitchen door closes.)
I wandered in and out of art galleries around Union Square. In the two-story Christopher-Clark Fine Art gallery on Geary, I lounged on leather sofas underneath paintings, etchings and lithographs by Toulouse-Lautrec, Renoir, Chagall and Picasso.
That night, I rode an orange 1928 tram (the city has a fleet of vintage streetcars; this one was from Milan, Italy) down Market Street to Zuni Cafe, where I enjoyed watching the street life through floor-to-ceiling windows. I found a rare empty table in the lively bar and ordered a watercress salad with Meiwa kumquats, pistachios and sweet mascarpone croutons dressed in a tangy Champagne vinaigrette and a glass of silky Chardonnay (total: $18.50).