Heart of All the Golden West

San Francisco’s SoMa District forms the city’s new focus

My wife and I both fell in love with San Francisco early and hard. I fell—almost literally—when I was 10, visiting from Southern California with my parents. I climbed onto a cable car, nearly slid off, then steadied myself for the clanging, precipitous ride up Nob Hill. I was hooked. My wife, Nancy, was 12 when she visited from Stockton with her BFF Suzanne. She still recalls how they went to Fisherman’s Wharf and ate at Alioto’s: “We felt so incredibly glamorous.”  Love of San Francisco is, in fact, one of the passions that has united us over 20-plus years of marriage. 

But great cities, like great marriages, grow and change. Nowhere is that more apparent than in San Francisco and its South of Market neighborhood. Long a faded industrial district, SoMa—which stretches south from Market Street for 20 blocks—is the heart of 21st-century San Francisco. Mission Street vibrates with Manhattan-lite energy, as pirouetting cranes signal the rise of another tech-boom–funded office tower. Last May’s reopening of the doubled-in-size San Francisco Museum of Modern Art pinned it to the world map of must-see art destinations. So, Nancy and I set ourselves a challenge: an all-SoMa weekend. Would we love the new S.F. as much as we did the old? 

(Spoiler alert: We did.)

Art for Art’s Sake 

“It looks as if a big luxury cruise ship bumped into the old museum,” said Nancy, gazing up at the new San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). The familiar red-brick building with its giant circular window is now joined by the pleated white 10-story, $305 million 
addition designed by acclaimed Norwegian architectural firm Snøhetta. Once inside, we still felt as if we were on a cruise ship, dazzled, but unsure where to go first in 170,000 square feet of gallery space. Our advice: Take a docent-led tour. Warhol, Lichtenstein, Kahlo—the icons of contemporary art are all here to delight or mystify you. Bonus: an unusually good museum shop. 
1-415-357-4000; sfmoma.org.

Culture Club

SFMOMA isn’t the only cultural game in the neighborhood. Around the corner, the sleek, three-story Museum of the African Diaspora impressed us with its thought-provoking exhibits on black life in North America and beyond. 1-415-358-7200; moadsf.org. The California Historical Society occupies a sweetly dignified former hardware store and holds fine exhibits on the Golden State, plus a terrific bookstore. 1-415-357-1848; californiahistorical
society.org. A block away, the striking Contemporary Jewish Museum hosts art exhibits plus concerts and lectures. 1-415-655-7800; thecjm.org.

Eat Out 

SoMa has sprouted some of the city’s best restaurants, from high-end 
to deliciously inexpensive.

Our personal faves:

Deli Delight

“It’s a symphony of salty flavors,” Nancy said as she dug into her Wise Sons’ Reuben. For years, Angelenos and New Yorkers have dissed Bay Area delis. No more. Started as a pop-up, Wise Sons, which smokes its own pastrami and bakes its own rye bread, now has an outpost at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. 1-415-655-7887; wisesonsdeli.com.

Midday Dim Sum

Both Nancy and I think it’s a crime to visit San Francisco without enjoying dim sum, and venerable Yank Sing, in the same family for three generations, serves some of the best pot stickers and barbecue pork buns in the city. There are two locations, one in the Streamline Moderne Rincon Center, another a few blocks west. 101 Spear Street; 1-415-781-1111. 49 Stevenson Street; 1-415-541-4949; yanksing.com.

British Invasion

Restaurateurs Anna Weinberg and James Nicholas and chef Jennifer Puccio have opened the London-inspired brasserie The Cavalier and garnered raves for sublime fish-and-chips and shepherd’s pie, perfect for my Anglophile wife who can recite all the kings and queens of England in order, from Alfred the Great to Elizabeth II. For me, there was the superior 
Marlowe burger. 1-415-321-6000; 

Cocktail Hour 

San Francisco loves a good drink, and SoMa has embraced the craft cocktail trend. With offerings like the gin-and-ginger Floradora, cutting-edge Bar Agricole is as artisan as it gets, and the bar food is delicious. (415) 355-9400; baragricole
.com. For a classic, the Palace Hotel’s Pied Piper has an expert way with Manhattans and old-fashioneds, and Maxfield Parrish’s mural The Pied Piper still charms. 1-415-512-1111; sfpalace.com. A literary-themed bar with drinks like the Leopold Bloom and the Jay Gatsby? That’s Novela. We had to make an online reservation to snag a table, but it was worth it. 1-415-896-6500; novelasf.com. 

Sleep In

On SoMa’s north edge, the boutique Hotel Zelos occupies a handsomely ornate building that dates from 1907. Guest rooms are spacious; the hotel restaurant, Dirty Habit, is good; and you’re a three-block stroll from SFMOMA. Rates start at $280. 1-415-348-1111; hotelzelos.com..


Please drink responsibly and always use a designated driver.