Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Dining in North Beach

North Beach is the old Italian section of San Francisco. Although the community is diverse today, North Beach is still home to many Italian restaurants and cafes. Strolling along Grant and Columbus Avenues is a fun way to spend a couple of hours. Lunching outside on a sunny day is a great San Francisco experience.

Many of my guests ask what are the best Italian restaurants in North Beach. I usually respond by saying that most of the restaurants in North Beach feature the traditional red sauce and pasta cuisine; that San Francisco's best Italian restaurants are not in North Beach. Of Zagat's top five rated Italian restaurants, none are in North Beach. None of the San Francisco Chronicle's top 20 rated Italian restaurants are in North Beach.

Nevertheless, visitors should spend some time in North Beach. For lunch, I usually take guests to Caffe Delucchi, at the corner of Columbus, Grant, and Green. Their paninis and salads are quite good. While I haven't had the pizzas and pastas, my guests have enjoyed them. Add some red wine and, if the sun is out, sit at one of the outside tables and watch the locals and tourists go by on Columbus Avenue.

Last weekend I dined at a relatively new restaurant in North Beach, Vicoletto. The staff was among the friendliest I've ever encountered. We were sold when we saw Burata on the appetizer menu. Both my wife and I are big fans of this very fresh, gooey cheese. We shared the cheese and a delicious eggplant and ground beef appetizer with friends. All of us enjoyed our main courses of pork rolled in parsley, braised short ribs, and pasta. Our tiramisu and pear tart were also quite yummy. The wine list includes many reasonably priced Italian wines. Our waiter, who previously sold wine, knew the list well. The only drawback, and this is a frequent complaint of mine, was the noise level. Vicoletto is at 550 Green Street. Reservations may be made by phoning 433-5800.

I also enjoy Trattoria Contadina, at the corner of Mason and Union Streets, for traditional red sauce and pasta fare. The restaurant is old school but what they do, they do well.

I would be remiss if I did not mention Albona, a restaurant on the border of North Beach and Fisherman's Wharf that features food from Istria. This peninsula was part of Italy prior to World War I and is now part of Croatia. While the food is heavily influenced by Italian cooking, it also has influences from Slovenia and Croatia. The cuisine is probably unlike any you have eaten, but is delicious. If you are an adventurous eater, I highly recommend Albona.

If you would like to take a private San Francisco tour that includes a visit to North Beach, contact Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel at (415) 337-1874 (toll free) or by clicking here.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Spring in West Marin

The first day of Spring is Saturday, which means it's time to visit West Marin. The western part of Marin County is completely different from the more populated eastern side. West Marin is home to beautiful beaches, rugged coastline, dairy farms, and numerous hiking trails. Spring is a great time to visit as you are likely to avoid the winter rains and summer fog. Summer days in West Marin are often as cold as Winter days.

Spring marks the annual migration of the California gray whales from their winter home off Baja California to their summer feeding grounds in Alaska. The whales' migration is the longest of any mammal. On the northward journey, the whales travel with their babies closer to shore to avoid sharks. Their are many spots along the coast to look for sharks, but Point Reyes is among the best. If you visit on a weekend day or a holiday before mid-April, you will need to take a shuttle bus to the point. You can watch for whales from the deck above the Pt. Reyes Lighthouse or walk down the 300 steps to the lighthouse. The lighthouse is open from 10:00 a.m. - 4:30 p.m. daily, except on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Keep in mind that whale watching requires patience. I've been many times and failed to see whales more times than I have seen them. First, look for the whale's spout. Then, if the animal is close enough to shore, you might be able to see it.

Chimney Rock is at the southern end of the point and is another spot to watch for whales. This is also a great area to see wildflowers. Take a walk on the bluffs overlooking Drake's Bay and the Pacific and you are likely to be see California poppies, Indian paintbrush, Douglas' iris, mission bells, and other beautiful blowers.

South of Point Reyes, near the Bolinas Lagoon is the Audubon Canyon Ranch. At its Bolinas Lagoon Preserve, you can see nesting Great Blue Heron and Great White and Snowy Egrets. The reserve is open from 10:00 a.m. - 4:00 p.m. on weekends and holidays through the second weekend in July. You can also make an appointment to visit on Tuesday through Friday.

West Marin is a great part of the Bay Area to visit during any season, but Spring is special. If you would like to take a private tour of West Marin that includes Point Reyes and/or the Audubon Canyon Ranch, call Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel at (866) 327-4237 or e-mail Blue Heron by clicking here.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Cantor Arts Center

I've always enjoyed the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University. This small museum has art from around the world and various periods of time. This weekend I was drawn to see two new exhibits: Rodin! The Complete Collection and Timbuktu to Cape Town.

Last month, the museum reopened its remodeled Rodin galleries and is now displaying its entire collection of sculptures in bronze, plaster, ceramic, tile, and wax - about 200 works. The outdoor sculpture garden is home to an additional 20 works, plus the Burghers of Calais are on the Main Quad. The Cantor Arts Center has the largest collection outside of Paris of works in bronze by Rodin. Most of the pieces were given to the museum by Iris and Gerald Cantor, who were great collectors of Rodin and commissioned castings of some of Rodin's works. For me, this exhibition alone makes a visit to the Cantor Arts Center worthwhile. Rodin! The Complete Collection is ongoing, with no planned end date.

To commemorate the tenth anniversary of the museum's reopening after repairing the damage done by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, the Cantor Center is highlighting works acquired since 1999. Timbuktu to Cape Town collects the African art obtained during the past decade. While the small exhibit has some interesting works, it is not worth visiting the Cantor solely to see these works. However, combined with the Cantor's regular gallery of African art, you can see a pretty good small collection. Timbuktu to Cape Town runs through March 22.

The Cantor Center is also home to a nice place for lunch: Cool Cafe. You can get tasty sandwiches and salads and dine inside or on the outdoor terrace. Prices are a little high but, since the the museum is free, it's worth paying a little extra for lunch.

The Cantor Arts Center is open Wednesday and Friday through Sunday from 11:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. On Thursday, the museum is open from 11:00 a.m. until 8:00 p.m. Cool Cafe has the same hours.

If you would like to take a private tour that includes a visit to the Cantor Arts Center and the Stanford campus, please contact Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or by clicking here.