There’s no doubting San Francisco is one of the most exciting and vibrant cities in the world, and its status as a culinary centre has spawned a new way to experience its charms.
Walking the streets of San Fran is a magical experience in itself, but wandering and eating your way through its suburbs is the best way to get to the heart and soul of the city.
The Local Tastes of the City Tours is a walking tour which combines a bit of sightseeing and food appreciation with a proud local guide who reveals the places where locals eat, drink and relax - and the effort that goes into preparing the products.
The tours cover five neighbourhoods - North Beach, Chinatown, Golden Gate Park, Haight and Fisherman’s Wharf and each features a unique view of how San Francisco’s culinary legacy was born, and what’s driving it forward today.
The North Beach tour is perhaps the pick of them - from Caffè Roma (526 Columbus) where the Azzollini family have blended and roasted their own coffee beans to produce the perfect cup for three generations, to XOX Truffles (754 Columbus) for the finest handmade chocolate by chef Jean-Marc Gorce in 27 unique flavours, to the Italian French Bakery (1501 Grant) with reputedly the best bread in San Francisco and baked in a century-old oven.
Of course, samples of all the delectable food and coffee is offered at each of the stops and it pays to start these tours with an empty stomach - it’s well worth skipping breakfast or lunch to leave room for some of the amazing cuisine on the tour.
The characters behind these businesses also make for an interesting day out in themselves - like Frank from the Palermo Delicatessen (1556 Stockton) whose meats and cheeses are legendary on the West Coast and are obviously inspired by his ancestral home in Sicily.
The Victoria Pastry shop (1362 Stockton), family owned since 1914, is also Italian-inspired with unique and mouth-watering creations thanks to its fantastic bakery, and Caffè Trieste (601 Vallejo) is a great coffee joint where writers, artists and poets hang out and listen to live music. It’s renowned as the place where Francis Ford Coppola wrote Godfather I and II. (He wrote Godfather III somewhere else which is why the great man reportedly said it flopped).
The famous Purple Onion Club (140 Columbus) is the final stop and the venue where artists such as Woody Allen, Phyllis Diller, Barbra Streisand and Richard Pryor cut their teeth.
In stark contrast to the North Beach food tour with its Italian emphasis, the Chinatown foray is naturally a fascinating look into San Francisco’s strong Chinese heritage. With one of the most famous “Chinatowns” in the world, it’s little wonder this tour is the most popular and again, it’s advisable to skip a meal before going on this one to leave room for the great food. The sights, sounds, smells and history of Chinatown are captured perfectly along with some of the area’s residents who’ve shaped the area into what it is today.
The Eastern Bakery & Restaurant (720 Grant) is the oldest Chinese bakery in San Francisco and they specialise in dim sum dishes - this kickstarted our tour and we were served a selection of moon cakes, steamed BBQ pork buns, steamed sesame balls, Chinese pancakes, shrimp dumplings, white cake and Chinese "tamale".
It’s all very authentic - local Chinese residents fill the shop and food is served with piping hot tea on formica tables and it has a busy yet relaxed and fun vibe.
The Wok Shop (718 Grant) doesn’t serve up food but it does give a good insight into the methods used to cook Chinese food - this place obviously specialises in Woks and they claim to know everything there is to know about Chinese cooking.
And if you’ve ever wondered how fortune cookies are made, down one of Chinatown’s back alleys is the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory (56 Ross Alley) where they make 1000 cookies per hour on one machine, and then the women on the assembly line have six seconds to fold them before the dough turns hard. The dough contains eggs, flour but they won’t reveal their other “secret” ingredients.
The Chinatown tour is not all about food, along the way some of the area’s major sights are explored along with its characters including Jun Yu's Barber Shop (32 Ross Alley), established in 1966. Jun Yu has catered to many famous people including Clint Eastwood, Michael Douglas and Matt Dillon, and even for his less famous customers he’ll not only cut hair, he’ll serenade them with a Chinese banjo or violin.
The final stop on the Chinatown tour is usually at the Vital Tea Leaf (1044 Grant), which its owner, Uncle Gee, points out is a tea bar, not a tea shop.
At first Uncle Gee may seem a bit bonkers, as he welcomes his customers manically into his tea bar but this is simply because he’s genuinely enthusiastic about the thousands of blends of tea he serves up - and he loves people.
“Sit down! Sit there! I’ll find something nice for you, you wait and see. My tea will make you strong. How old do you think I am? I’m 75 and it’s because I drink tea, and I feel like I’m 45.” Uncle Gee is talking, pouring tea and entertaining all at once.
He’s generous with his samples, which are actually really good and he says his mission is to educate the world on correct tea making. Uncle Gee’s tips for tea making is to first rinse the tea leaves in water to wake the leaves up, and it removes the caffeine, impurities and the tannin. He also says you should not put boiling water on tea leaves and it should not simmer for too long. Water should be hot but not boiling, and it should sit for just one to two minutes. Uncle Gee also says leaves should be recycled, and whatever you do - do not ask him for milk or sugar. (This is about the only thing that will get you barred from his tea bar).
Some of the varieties of teas which are his favourites include blue tea, which is actually a kind of green tea, which is supposed to be good for lowering anxiety and creating balance.
Golden throat tea a kind of ginseng oolong, which Uncle Gee says is good for hangovers, and he has a bitter tea for detoxing, and a lychee black tea which is great to drink after spicy food or as an iced tea. Jasmin pearl tea has the least caffeine and the most antioxidants and is a white tea, ginger tea is not made of ginger but pine needles, and this is the best one for sinuses and for being “romantic”, according to Uncle Gee.
In truth the tours really only scratch the surface of the culinary delights San Francisco has to offer, but it’s a great introduction to one of the world’s great food cities.