SAN FRANCISCO – For years I’ve been getting nudges from the San Francisco tourism folks to check out the Mission district.
It had gone from something akin to derelict to a trendy, fun area and was well worth investigating, I was told. Even our former mayor, David Miller, mentioned it in passing one day when we chatted about his travels.
I finally got around it on a recent visit, and had a great time. Mind you, it was one of those postcard-perfect spring days in the city; about 18 or 19 Celsius with hardly a whisper of wind and the chill-inducing summer fog still (they hope) weeks or even months away.
After circling the area for 20 minutes to find a parking spot (hint to visitors; take one of the many public transit options, or even take a short cab ride from downtown; the parking scene is a nightmare), we finally pulled up in front of a small, storefront church called the Voice of Christ Full Gospel Church that had a white zone painted on the curb; meaning we could park as long as services weren’t going on. We took the chance and left the car on a nearby street, then walked back to Mission Dolores (formally Mission San Francisco de Asis, named after St. Francis of Assisi), the heart of old San Francisco.
The mission was founded June 29, 1776 (oddly, just five days prior to the birth of the United States) by Father Junipero Serra, the wandering priest who set up missions up and down the state and who is possibly the father of modern California and certainly of Spanish California. According to the website, it’s the oldest intact building in the city of San Francisco and the only intact Mission Chapel in the chain of 21 established under Serra’s direction.
It’s a basic, white adobe structure at the base but there are towering, glorious spires with ornate carvings and green-gold domes that look very much like a cathedral in the south of Spain.
For a couple bucks you can take a short tour of the grounds and the church, which is well worth the effort. The church has brilliantly coloured stained glass windows that feature missions up and down the state. You’ll see Santa Barbara with what looks like an angel or Santa Barbara herself floating above in a cloud and streams of golden light shining down on that city’s classic, hilltop mission; a highlight of any visit to Santa Barbara by the way.
Outside there’s a beautiful tile mural in a small, pretty courtyard that shows Spanish missionaries at work in what would become the Golden State. There’s a small exhibit of local native culture; displays of pyramid shaped homes built with leaves or strips of bark, arrowheads and other nods to the indigenous people the Spanish were trying to “save.”
Best for my money was the small cemetery on the south side of the building, where the first headstone I spotted was in memory of a certain Henry Valley of Lower Canada, who died in 1854. There are a ton of headstones for Irish immigrants, too, and it’s all set in a pretty, tree-covered yard with towering evergreens, impossibly pink-and-white roses and perky yellow daffodils, at least in mid-April.
As we walked down Dolores St. we passed Mission Dolores Park, which was filled with maybe 100 folks doing outdoor yoga in the sun and kids playing soccer and Frisbee and lovers resting on blankets below those famous pastel San Frandisco homes of sunny yellow and creamy Delft blue.
We were headed for lunch at a fabulous restaurant on Mission called Foreign Cinema that the tourism folks had recommended. We walked past colourful murals on the local community centre showing what looked like Adam and Eve (I think) on the shores of San Francisco Bay, as well as a block-long painting dedicated to the hometown baseball heroes; the San Francisco Giants. Below a likeness of 1960’s pitching star Juan Marichal (I saw him pitch a no-hitter at Candlestick Park when I was a kid) were the words “All of us are created equal, Some of us grow up to be Giants.”
Foreign Cinema sits on what still looks like a slightly dodgy but very much up-and-coming stretch of Mission St., with old theatres and tumble-down shops alongside trendy bars. They show old movies on a giant sheet in the evening in the covered courtyard, but during the day Foreign Cinema is a bright, cool spot with a sunny indoor seating area with light-wood and high, white ceilings and a beautiful wood floor. There’s an adjacent courtyard (where the movies are shown at night) that’s covered with opaque cloth that lets in plenty of California light. The outdoor seating area also is sprinkled with old, clunky metal speakers from a drive-in movie theatre; a fun touch.
There’s also a very cool art display space next door with plenty of great local art to gaze at.
The food, of course, is the main attraction. And it didn’t disappoint.
The cocktails are named after movies; a nice nod to the Foreign Cinema angle. There’s a Last Tango In Paris with Plymouth gin, Seville orange, St. Germain liqeur, lemon and egg white (no butter, sorry) and also one called the Motorcycle Diaries, featuring Diplomatico rum, pineapple, lime, Velvet Falernum and mint. There’s a good selection of beers, including locally produced Anchor Steam, and also lots of awesome wines, more French and Italian then California (again, in line with the foreign theme). I can attest to the taste of the St. Germain with sparkling wine, St. Germain liqeur and lemon and also the “A Very Long Engagement,” with sparkling wine, brandy, lemon and peychaud’s bitters (delicious).
Being brunch and all, we had to try the homemade pop tart; a large, flaky pastry dusted with sugar and filled with strawberry jam. Later we tired some outstanding halibut tartare tostadas: small corn tostadas stopped with fresh halibut and spiced with wasabi, radish, daikon and Serrano chilies. A definite kick but oh-so-tasty. I wasn’t overly fond of the fishy tasting brandade: whipped cod with potatoes, thai chilies and grilled bread. But the Robust Persian flat omelet was fabulous, featuring garlic, onions, sliced avocado, angel hair potatoes and outstanding tomato jam.
Even better was the calamari, done Oaxacan (Mexico) style in a small bowl with tomato, chick peas, peppers and hot peppers, served with homemade tortilla chips. Yum.