Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 6, 2021
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Streets of San Francisco

In the past century, the City by the Bay has reinvented itself as much as it's held onto tradition

As I sat comfortably ensconced in the opulent gold and marble lobby of the Fairmont San Francisco, it was hard not to reflect on the traditions and history of the same in this city since the venerable hotel opened its doors a century ago.

Inventiveness has always been a necessity in San Francisco, where the population swelled from just 500 people in 1847 to 25,000 two years later. In fact, the Fairmont Hotel couldn't have been built without San Francisco's first cable car, which hauled building materials up a hill too steep for horses to climb.

Loftily perched near a cluster of Nob Hill mansions built by railroad barons and silver kings, the recently renovated hotel, which celebrates its centennial this year, recalls the fin-de-siècle wealth that made the city the financial capital of California. It may have been the gold rush that first drew people here, but it was silver mines that built the city.

And yet the Fairmont (atop Nob Hill; tel: 415-673-5634, legacy was almost wiped out before it began. The hotel was set to open in 1906, right before the worst disaster in San Francisco's history. While the building withstood the earthquake, its interior was ravaged by the ensuing fires.

On April 18, 1907, one year after the city burned, the Fairmont reopened with a grand banquet while fireworks illuminated city hall and hundreds of ships clustered in the bay. The city was getting back on its feet.

Eighty years later, in 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake traumatized San Franciscans and made tourists think twice about visiting. But San Francisco seized the moment, demolishing the damaged double-decker Embarcadero Freeway and bringing back its Ferry Building (Torontonians take note: the freeway had blocked access to the waterfront and made the 1898 Ferry Building obsolete for over 30 years).

By 2003, a public/private collaboration had made the Ferry Building's soaring clock tower a beacon for foodies. Restaurants like Hog Island Oysters, food stores like the Cowgirl Creamery (selling the celestial Humboldt Fog goat cheese), Scharffen Berger chocolates, and the twice weekly Ferry Plaza Farmer's Market with its organic products and regional artisanal specialties are giving the building and the waterfront new life.

State of the Union
It's no exaggeration to say that San Francisco has become one of the great gastronomic capitals of the world. It's hard to top a microclimate that yields fresh fruit and vegetables throughout the year. At many grocery stores, the organic label isn't enough -- even the name of the farm is also mentioned. Olive oil, cheese and wine are also local.

Whether it's a quick lunch at the new Westfield Mall food court adjacent to Bloomingdale's, or a five-course dinner, San Francisco is about eating extraordinarily well. Exalted standards have become commonplace in this city that claims to have more restaurants per capita than any place else in the US.

And in food, as elsewhere in the city, tradition and rebirth mingle. John's Grill (63 Ellis Street; tel: 415-986-3274;, just below Union Square in downtown San Francisco, is a well-known steakhouse that opened back in 1908. One of the oldest restaurants in town, its historical resonance continues, as it's now the headquarters of the Dashiell Hammett Society of San Francisco. Hammett, who lived here in the 1920s, mentions the restaurant in his book, The Maltese Falcon. Today, politicians and writers from the nearby Chronicle newspaper frequent the wood-panelled restaurant, with its photos of film noir personalities like Lauren Bacall.

Throughout downtown, the flower stands and cable cars look as they have for decades. Surrounding the rebuilt Union Square are the city's largest department stores -- Macy's, Saks, Neiman Marcus. Look closely and you can find relics of stores past, from a time when they were family-owned and women wore gloves when they went downtown to shop.

Even the modern Neiman Marcus store has integrated a restored stained-glass dome to cap their Rotunda Restaurant. Reclaimed from the old City of Paris building and inspired by the Galeries Lafayette in Paris, the artwork was owned by one of the notable French families in the city.

The French tradition started with the Gold Rush, when families fleeing from the Paris uprising of 1848 took the long boat journey to the New World. Isidore Boudin started his famous (and still popular) sourdough bakery (619 Market Street, and other locations; in 1849; others opened laundries and banks.

Today the old French quarter on Bush Street is flourishing. There's Café de la Presse (352 Grant Avenue; tel: 415-398-2680;, the achingly authentic Le Central Bistro (453 Bush Street; tel: 415-391-2233;, the French consulate and Notre Dame des Victoires church.

Bastille Day is wildly celebrated, and French eateries all over town, from the lauded La Folie (2316 Polk Street; tel: 415-776-5577; to the prize-winning bakery, Tartine (600 Guerrero Street; tel: 415-487-2600;, continue to open to great success.

SoMa So Good
More than anywhere else in the city, the once shabby South of Market (SoMa) district is a testament to San Francisco's renaissance mentality. The Convention Centre, the Museum of Modern Art (151 Third Street; tel: 415 357-4000, and the adjacent Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (701 Mission Street; tel: 415-978-2700; have transformed the area into a thriving destination for tourists and locals alike. It took only a few years for the striped rooftop disk of San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art, built in 1995, to become a signature part of the city's skyline.

The museum broke US records for donations, and took in more money than it asked for. Among the rich of San Francisco, philanthropy has long been considered a kind of glamorous duty. The SFMOMA's impressive Matisse collection was donated by Elise Haas, whose family bought the works in the 1950s from Sarah Stein, sister-in-law to Gertrude. This is also the place to see the works of some of the greatest California artists of the 20th century: Richard Diebenkorn, Wayne Thiebaud, Nathan Oliveira and Elmer Bischoff.

Fortunately, since a few hours of creative exploration will often whet the appetite, the revamped SoMa district is also a good place to indulge in some local culinary trends. After experimenting with fusion gone mad, serious chefs have come back to earth -- now they're applying their techniques to the freshest, most pristine produce.

At Jack Falstaff (598 Second Street; tel: 415-836-9239;, a SoMa restaurant with suede walls, a spacious series of rooms and urban outdoor patio, the ingredient-driven menus are organic and the produce is local. To highlight the bounty of the Bay Area, "growers' dinners" are offered regularly. And the restaurant, which also owns a winery and wine stores, has a fine wine list and an extensive by-the-glass section.

Lobby Lounge
There's a long tradition in the city of hanging out at hotels, whether it's tea at the Fairmont, a drink at the quiet, club-like Campton Place (340 Stockton Street; tel: 415-781-5555; or the Clift Hotel's dazzling Redwood Room (495 Geary Street; tel: 415-929-2372; wood_room.asp). The latter's classic lounge has been completely updated with Philippe Starck-designed furniture and digital artworks, while keeping the original redwood panelling.

And despite the trend towards casual dining, people are flocking to four-star restaurants, asking for tasting menus and spending the requisite hours enjoying them. The Ritz Carlton Dining Room (600 Stockton Street; tel: 415-773-6168; www.ritzcarlton is one of the most acclaimed restaurants in town. One of a handful of restaurants awarded four stars by the San Francisco Chronicle, it earned a Michelin star in 2006, the first year they were awarded in the US.

The formal, red-toned dining space is the backdrop for chef Ron Siegel's accomplished cuisine, which cites a Japanese influence on the very French menu. The sashimi of prawns comes with squares of tomato gelée, while waiters carry two small iron pots of salt and a pitcher of lemon juice, both mixed for dipping -- here no ingredient lacks attention. Another server brings the deep-fried shrimp heads, crisp and irresistible.

West Meets East
The Japanese influence is often ignored by tourists, but Japantown (Nihonmachi) -- one of the three left in the US -- is well worth a visit. Located on Post between Laguna and Fillmore streets, it is a complex of shops, sushi bars, hotels and theatres, crowned by a five-tiered pagoda.

Inside the Japan Center Mall, Asakichi (1730 Geary Boulevard; tel: 415-921-2147; is a cramped looking store that carries exquisite antiques and pottery. Soko Hardware, on the corner of Post and Buchanan streets, is a dream of a hardware store, with all manner of Japanese cooking pots and utensils. Easier to carry home than a rice steamer are the striking straw place mats and coasters.

Down the street, the Japanese-inspired French restaurant Bushi-tei (1638 Post Street; tel: 415-440-4959; is something totally different from the sushi bars and noodle houses that dot the area. Owner Takumi Matsuba worked with a Japanese architect to create a contrast between rough wooden panels (originally part of an 1863 Japanese house) and white, sculptural shaped walls. The serene, two-storey restaurant won a Michelin Star for dishes like its foie gras over a pot de crème of kabocha, a Japanese pumpkin.

But Japanese influences can be found throughout the city. Across town, in Golden Gate Park, the Japanese Tea Garden (72 Tea Garden Drive, Golden Gate Park; tel: 415-752-4227) still offers a beautiful retreat of paths and ponds, pagodas and waterfalls. It's a microcosm of harmony that has been a part of Golden Gate Park since 1894, years before the earthquake divided the city's history into before 1906 and after.


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