Inner SunsetMany San Franciscans name the Inner Sunset as their favorite neighborhood, despite the fact that it suffers some of the worst weather in the entire Bay Area. Located between Golden Gate Park to the north and Vicente Street to the south, from Stanyan Boulevard to the east and 19th Avenue to the west, the Inner Sunset is just three miles from the Pacific Ocean and smack in the middle of the fog zone. Year-round, most mornings and evenings are foggy, and some days the sun doesn't come out at all.
So why do locals love it so much? Because, despite gentrification, it retains the laid-back feeling of a small town -- one that just happens to have a funky edge, an intriguing ethnic mix and great restaurants.
Hang out long enough, and you'll notice that residents know each other. They chat over coffee at the Beanery, greet each other when they walk into Art's Cafe and stop on the street to say hello, often in a thick Irish brogue or the clipped English of a person who grew up speaking Cantonese.
The history of the Inner Sunset is reflected in these accents. Prior to 1887, the area was comprised entirely of sand dunes. That year, developer Aurelius E. Buckingham built a cluster of homes around what is now Lincoln Way and 5th Avenue and touted his suburb as the "Sunset District." It's doubtful that any of the buyers were fooled by Buckingham's misleading name -- most of them were Irish immigrants who had an intimate knowledge of fog and chill. Instead, it is much more likely that they were attracted by the price, which was very reasonable for San Francisco.
These first residents had to regularly clear drifts of sand from the sides of their houses and off the wooden walkways that provided the only access to their doorsteps. Then, in 1897, the University of California laid the cornerstone for their new medical campus on the slopes of Mount Sutro. The school brought more residents to the neighborhood -- students who were involved in the study of medicine, dentistry and pharmaceuticals.
Those students subsisted on the Inner Sunset's low rental prices, which stayed relatively low for the better part of a century and attracted new waves of immigrants, mostly from Asia. Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Japanese and Pacific Islander families bought homes, raised their families and opened businesses in the Inner Sunset, giving it more of a "global village" feel.
In the mid-1980s, about the same time that dining out became a chic pastime, Bay Area real estate prices went through the roof. Suddenly, those San Franciscans who wouldn't have previously chosen to buy a home in the Sunset -- or open a trendy new restaurant there -- did so. Chains like Starbucks and Noah's Bagels followed, and housing prices soared. Many longtime residents opposed the changes, while others welcomed the boom.
Today, the average resident of the Inner Sunset owns his or her own home, is married and is raising a family, and earns over $50,000 a year. The neighborhood contains several excellent primary and high schools, and young children are as omnipresent as UCSF grad students. The area has gentrified, but not at the rate or to the extent of other San Francisco neighborhoods. Thanks to the fog -- the one feature that hasn't changed -- there are still plenty of mom-and-pop diners, drug stores, shoe repair shops and grocery stores to keep the Inner Sunset real.
Weekend mornings are a great time to visit the Inner Sunset. The smell of hash browns permeates the air around 9th and Irving, and locals shuffle from their doorsteps to the area's numerous cafes and diners for their first slurps of coffee. By noon, the commercial strip buzzes with folks running errands, the sleepy residential streets come alive as residents peruse yard sales, surfers return from the beach and joggers and dog walkers stroll over to Golden Gate Park for a little fresh air.
Weekend evenings are equally pleasant, but considerably more crowded, as people come from all over the Bay Area to dine at Park Chow or House on 9th or San Tung. Consequently, parking is a problem. If you want to find a spot, come before prime dinner hours (prior to 7 p.m.) and take a stroll in the park before you dine. If you don't have a reservation, be aware that you are in for a wait at any of the good restaurants.
Panoramic views of San Francisco and its environs are the reward for those who make the trek up the two peaks of Golden Gate Heights -- Grand View Park and Sunset Heights Park. It is actually fairly easy to access Grand View Park on foot. Head up to Kirkham Street and find the hidden staircase between 14th and 15th avenues. Follow it up the hill, and continue on 14th to Noriega. To your right is another steep staircase that leads to the top of the park. The park itself is not much to look at for most of the year -- it's just a tangle of weeds until spring, when wildflowers cover the hillside -- but the view, on a clear day, is spectacular. You'll see downtown San Francisco and the Bay Bridge to the east, Golden Gate Park and the top of the Golden Gate Bridge to the north and the vast openness of the Pacific Ocean to the west.
Andy's: Lots of vegetarian choices make this a popular choice for dine-in or takeout Chinese food. Pot stickers, dumplings, hot and sour soup -- all meat dishes, traditionally -- are made to please herbivores. 1358 9th Ave. (between Judah and Irving streets), (415) 661-1803.
Art's Cafe: This is the type of neighborhood gem nobody wants to lose to gentrification. Locals wait in line to sit at the long counter, tuck into American breakfasts or Korean barbecue, and survey the postcards customers have sent from their travels around the world. 747 Irving St. (between 8th and 9th streets), (415) 665-7440.
L'Avenida Taqueria: This take-out Mexican restaurant has a fiercely loyal clientele who will gladly tell you why L'Avenida's burritos are better than Gordo's, the only other taqueria in the neighborhood. Whether or not you agree, L'Avenida does offer addictive wraps, as well as big plates of enchiladas, tacos and beans. 511 Irving St. (between 6th and 7th avenues), (415) 681-1246.
The Beanery: There are two locations in the neighborhood -- both are bite-sized and usually busy, but the 9th Avenue location is where the roasting's done. 1307 9th Ave. (between Judah and Irving streets), (415) 661-1090.
The Canvas: This vast cafe/bar/art gallery looks out onto Golden Gate Park and serves nice salads, sandwiches, coffee, wine and beer all day long. There are plenty of tables, nicely spread out, for studying and lap-topping. All of the art is for sale and exhibits change regularly. The only drawback is the music -- live or recorded, it's usually drippy roots rock. 1200 9th Ave. (at Lincoln Way), (415) 504-0060.
Chika: Decent sushi and Japanese appetizers draw those who are either tired of Ebisu or can't get in. Mounted televisions air Japanese food shows, so you can figure out how to make what you're eating. 841 Irving St. (between 9th and 10th avenues), (415) 681-5539.
The Crepevine: This Bay Area mini-chain is a reliable choice for crepes and salads. 624 Irving St. (between 8th and 9th streets), (415) 681-5858.
Daria's: Residents are giving this new spot for burgers and fries the thumbs up. Salads, sandwiches and omelets are also offered. 822 Irving St. (between 10th and 11th avenues), (415) 753-3245.
Ebisu: Considered by many to be one of the top sushi restaurants in the Bay Area. Unless you come on a sunny afternoon when everybody else is at the park, the atmosphere is guaranteed to be frenetic and the wait strenuous. Most patrons wax poetic about Ebisu's aquatic concoctions, but there are some detractors who say the place is overrated. 1283 9th Ave. (between Lincoln Way and Irving Street), (415) 566-1770.
Eldos Grill & Brewery: A little fancier than the average brew house, Eldos has yet to attract a crowd. The beer has received good reviews, but the menu (pub grub, Mexican dishes and Italian fare) has been accused of lacking focus. The ambiance -- candlelight, huge flower displays and beer-making machinery -- is equally schizophrenic. 1329 9th Ave. (between Judah and Irving streets), (415) 564-0425.
Goemon Japanese Restaurant: Most Inner Sunset habituées choose Goemon if they're not going to Ebisu. The atmosphere is pretty and serene, with big windows that look out onto a Japanese garden. The usual assortment of rolls is offered, in addition to sashimi dinners. 1524 Irving St. (between 16th and 17th avenues), (415) 664-2288.
Gordo Taqueria: Gordo's or L'Avenida? Residents can really argue about which of their two neighborhood taquerias is better. Those who choose L'Avenida are usually swayed by the fact that Gordo's is part of a Bay Area chain, but the fact remains that this outlet still offers fat, tasty burritos. 1223 9th Ave. (between Irving Street and Lincoln Way), (415) 566-6011.
Hana Sushi: The same staff of genial ladies has been serving reliable rolls, miso soup, sukiyaki and green tea at Hana for a very long time. 408 Irving St. (between 5th and 6th), (415) 665-3952.
Hotei: Local press has praised Hotei for its noodle dishes, but most locals avoid it in lieu of the other Japanese restaurants in the area. 1290 9th Ave. (between Lincoln Way and Irving Street), (415) 753-6045.
Howard's Cafe: Shaded by a black-and-white striped awning, this classic diner is a favorite for eggs and bacon, pancakes and French toast. The lunch and dinner menus are comprised of more good ol' American standbys. 1309 9th Ave. (between Judah and Irving streets), (415) 564-4723.
Ichiban-Kan Cafe: A popular little place for cheap, all-you-can-eat sushi, gyoza, tempura and donburi. 1500 Irving St. (between 16th and 17th avenues), (415) 566-1696.
JJ Dessert House: This Hong Kong style dessert cafe uses only fresh, seasonal fruit in its dishes, which include a traditional steamed egg custard that might have papaya, mango or sesame paste nestled luxuriously in the center of the custard. Milk pudding is another warm option that co-owner Francis Wong recommends. 1525 Irving St. (at 16th Avenue), (415) 682-8810. Open 2 p.m.-12 a.m. Sunday-Monday and Wednesday-Thursday, 2 p.m.-1 a. m. Friday-Saturday.
Kaleo Cafe: If you ignore the bone-chilling fog outside, Kaleo Cafe might fool you into thinking you're on Maui or the Big Island. Hawaiian slack-key is piped through the sound system, a fake waterfall trickles away, videos show surfers and hula dancers and everybody's sipping Kona blends. 1340 Irving St. (between 14th and 15th avenues), (415) 753-2460.
Katana-Ya Ramen: Those who are sick of the yuppification of the Inner Sunset prefer to slurp their noodles at Katana-Ya. The ramen is greasy, yet satisfying in that comfort food sort of way. Oh, and cheap, too. 98 Judah St. (between 5th and 6th avenues), (415) 566-1665.
M's: Breakfast: M's gets the spillover crowds who can't get into Art's or Howard's, plus the students who want to save on super cheap American breakfasts. 1376 9th Ave. (between Judah and Irving streets), (415) 665-1821.
Mae-Thip Thai Cuisine: Every Thai place in the neighborhood suffers from the fact that Marnee Thai is just 15 blocks away, but Mae-Thip still manages to do a decent business for dine-in and take-out. 524 Irving St. (between 6th and 7th avenues), (415) 759-9644.
Marnee Thai: This popular Thai restaurant has two locations in the Sunset, where beautiful, intricate fabrics, woven hangings and pictures of royalty evoke visions of Thailand. So does the food. Spicy green papaya salad, noodle dishes and prawns stir-fried with garlic and pepper hit the mark. Save room for dessert -- perfect mango with sticky rice. If Marnee is in the restaurant, you may also get an impromptu fortune telling, or at least some guidance on what to eat. (-SF Chronicle) 1243 Ninth Ave., (415) 731-9999. Also at 2225 Irving St. (between 23rd and 24th avenues), (415) 665-9500.
Masala: Masala specializes in the one Asian cuisine that's underrepresented in the Sunset. Puffy naan, spicy curries and tangy tandoori make cold nights cozy. The atmosphere is equally warming. 1220 9th Ave. (between Lincoln Way and Irving Street), (415) 566-6976.
Milano Pizzeria: This is one of four pizzerias in a three-block radius, and, according to most locals, it's the best. Tough guys spin dough in the front window, the tables are covered in red-and-white checkered oil cloth and the pizza pie continually hits the spot. 1330 9th Ave. (between Judah and Irving streets), (415) 665-3773.
Naan 'N' Curry: It seems chaotic, but regulars know to order at the counter, get their own drinks and tableware, then pay afterward. Tandoor lamb chops might light a fire you can temper with fresh naan or a mango lassi, but don't miss out on the curries. Chana masala with garbanzos and aloo ghobi made with potato and cauliflower are perfect for vegetarians. (-SF Chronicle) 642 Irving St. (near Eighth Avenue); (415) 664-7225. Lunch, dinner daily. Also at 478 O'Farrell St. and 533 Jackson St., and 2366 Telegraph Ave. and 2984 College Ave., Berkeley.
Nan King Road Bistro: Located in the midst of restaurant row, Nan King Road manages to please with its clean lines, trendy furnishings and rainbow-hued chopsticks, as well as with its reasonably priced Japanese- and Korean-influenced Chinese fare. 1360 9th Ave. (between Irving Street and Judah), (415) 753-2900.
New Eritrea: If this recently opened restaurant makes it, it will be a much-needed addition to the Sunset dining scene. High ceilings, dark wood and leafy plants attract, as do the complex spices of Eritrean cuisine. 907 Irving St. (between 10th and 11th avenues), (415) 681-1288.
Park Chow: Tony Gulisano offers eclectic food such as grilled chicken, pizza, spaghetti and meat balls, and Asian noodles. The gingerbread cake and pies, especially pecan, are winners. This location is much larger than the Church Street Chow, and also features a fireplace. (-SF Chronicle and SF Gate) 1240 9th Ave. (between Irving Street and Lincoln Way), (415) 655-9912.
Pasquale's Pizzeria: A vintage '50s sign and good pizza keep this place hopping. Those who complain about the grumpy service prefer to order takeout. 700 Irving St. (between 8th and 9th avenues), (415) 661-2140.
P.J.'s Oyster Bed: P.J.'s is one of the few New Orleans-style restaurants in the city, and consequently, it's always packed -- undeservedly so, according to half of the residents polled. Others, however, are happy to wait in line and fork over a nice chunk of change for blackened catfish, fried shrimp and gumbo. 737 Irving St. (between 8th and 9th avenues), (415) 566-7775.
Pomelo: A giant grapefruit dangles over the entrance of this teeny-tiny restaurant, the second of two locations (the first is in Noe Valley). Pomelo specializes in noodles from all over the world, but fans say the Asian dishes -- particularly the "Tokyo" (basically, a yakisoba) -- are the ones worth coming in for. 92 Judah St. (between 5th and 6th avenues). (415) 731-6175.
Pluto's: Prepare to be beamed up into a dining experience not quite like any other at this casual restaurant with a cheeky space theme. Diners carry their own tab to the various food stations, selecting from the salads, soups, starches and meats available, and then get rung out at the register. Dishes have fun, spacey names, like "Saturn's Garlic Potato Rings," "Orbital Soup" and "Crispy Chicken Asteroids." (--SF Chronicle) 627 Irving St. (at Eighth Avenue); (415) 753-8867. Lunch, dinner daily. Other SF location at 3258 Scott St.
Raintree Cafe: One of the many breakfast joints in the area, Raintree sounds like a hippie cafe but actually specializes in greasy eggs and bacon, French toast and other American diner staples. 654 Irving St. (between 7th and 8th avenues), (415) 665-3633.
San Tung: People come from all over the Bay Area to eat under the florescent lights of San Tung. Any amount of waiting -- and there is always a wait -- is worth it for steamy bowls of homemade noodles and addictive shrimp-leek dumplings. The decor is nonexistent; the ambiance is instead provided by the jumping staff and the loud, cheery crowd. 1031 Irving St. (between 11th and 12th avenues), (415) 242-0828.
Secret Garden Teahouse: A bright, country-flowery spot for tea, scones with Devon cream, tea sandwiches and other snacks. (721 Lincoln Way, (415) 566-8834.
South Sea Seafood Village: This Hong Kong-style seafood restaurant strives for glamour. Cheongsam-clad waitresses glide under sparkling chandeliers, serving ginger-encrusted crab and Peking duck at above-average prices. 1420 Irving St. (between 15th and 16th avenues), (415) 665-8210.
Sunset Star: Pot stickers, hot and sour soup and Kung Pao Chicken are ordered at Sunset Star, usually for takeout. 754 Kirkham St., (between 11th and 12th avenues), (415) 682-0826.
Yellow Submarine: This family-run hole-in-the-wall has become a neighborhood institution for its toasted subs (pastrami, pepper steak, turkey) and thick-cut fries. This is a perfect Saturday afternoon kind of place. 503 Irving St. (between 6th and 7th avenues), (415) 681-5652.
Yumma's: A tangy, slightly salty yogurt drink is a good accompaniment for flaky spinach-feta pie and chicken, beef or lamb kabobs. If you're particularly hungry order the Taste of Mediterranean plate, almost enough for two. It comes with choice of shawarma, crispy falafael, Greek salad and several meze é hummus, baba ghanoush and tabouli. An added plus: communing with nature while enjoying your meal on the outdoor patio. (-SF Chronicle) 721 Irving St. (between 8th and 9th avenues), (415) 682-0762.
Yummy Yummy: The name is not an overstatement. Succulent bowls of pho and delicious appetizers make this the only choice for Vietnamese cuisine in the neighborhood. The overly bright, bare room is packed shoulder-to-shoulder with clients of all ages, some talking into their cell phones, but the genial owner makes order out of potential chaos and everybody leaves happy. 1015 Irving St. (between 11th and 12th avenues), (415) 566-4722.
Amazing Fantasy: Buzzing comic book store with carefully kept and filed back issues. 650 Irving St. (between 7th and 8th avenues), (415) 681-4344.
Archangel Bookstore: Your one-stop shop for Orthodox Christian books, icons and religious CD's. 1352-A 9th Ave. (between Judah and Irving avenues), (415) 242-9698.
Arkadyan Books & Prints: Antiquarian and rare tomes sold at odd hours -- Monday through Saturday after 2 p.m. or by appointment only. 938 Irving St. (between 10th and 11th avenues), (415) 664-6212.
Bikram's Yoga College of India: Bikram Choudhury's hatha yoga -- a routine of 26 poses that are performed in a very warm room -- is taught and practiced here. There are classes for newbies, pregnant women and advanced practitioners. 455 Judah St. (between 9th and 10th Avenues), (415) 753-8694.
Black Oak Books: The people who run this mini-chain (there are three stores in the Bay Area) have great taste in literature. You'll find all of the books -- new, used and rare -- that you've been yearning to read, all lovingly displayed. 630 Irving St. (between 7th and 8th avenues), (415) 564-0877.
Catherine Jane: This boutique houses Jane's own label of smart, upscale clothing made of beautiful fabrics, plus some Italian designs. Custom work and alterations are also available. 1234 9th Ave. (between Irving Street and Lincoln Way), (415) 664-1855.
Cheese Boutique: One of two locations -- the other is in Glen Park -- this husband-and-wife business offers over 100 cheeses, from Roquefort to smoked Gouda. 1298 12th Ave. (at Irving St.), (415) 566-3155.
Chelsea Book Shop: It's easy to while away an hour or two among Chelsea's stacks of well-chosen used paperbacks and hardcovers. 637 Irving St. (between 7th and 8th avenues), (415) 566-0507.
First Chop: The women's clothing, shoes and accessories at this consignment shop lean towards the garish, but there are a few gems among the loud colors and bold prints. 954 Irving St. (between 10th and 11th avenues), (415) 564-7030.
Flower Shops: The Inner Sunset has four flower shops that pretty much offer the same blooms. Florabunda Florist (839 Irving St. between 9th and 10th avenues, (415) 661-9811); Iris Flowers & Gifts (507 Irving St. between 6th and 7th avenues, (415) 564-8344); Sakura Flowers (1371-A 9th Ave. between Judah and Irving Street, (415) 731-6060); and The Flower Girl, which offers more gifts than the others (1127 Irving St. between 12th and Funston avenues, (415) 731-0230).
Great Stuff: Cards, toys, jewelry, lotions, soaps, children's books and seasonal decorations are sold here. This is a great place to stop in for a last-minute gift. 1377 9th Ave. (between Judah and Irving streets), (415) 681-7696.
Havana Garden Cigars: Stogie fans unite at one of the few places in San Francisco where you don't have to apologize for enjoying a smoke. The owners roll their own, too. 1433 Irving St. (between 14th and 15th avenues), (415) 753-5161.
Le Video: Absolutely the most extensive collection of films in San Francisco. They have 87,000 films, including rare and foreign videos found nowhere else. 1231 9th Ave. (between Irving Street and Lincoln Way), (415) 566-3606.
Luba: Cheap, off-the-rack reproductions of the latest women's fashions are sold at Luba. This is the kind of place where one needs to look carefully before buying. 751 Irving St. (between 8th and 9th avenues), (415) 665-6112.
Misdirections Magic Shop: What a great place! Aspiring magicians and professionals alike can amaze their friends with card tricks, mouth coils that allow them to pull yards of multi-colored paper out of their mouths and a neat kit called "Smoke 2000," which helps the magician release a "large puff of smoke from his own bare hands." 1236 9th Ave. (between Irving Street and Lincoln Way), (415) 566-2180.
On the Run: When your running shoes wear thin, this is the place to shop. They sell Average Joe street shoes, too. 1310 9th Ave. (between Judah and Irving streets), (415) 665-5311.
Oriental Art Gallery: A dark, musty shop that sells calligraphy brushes and rice paper -- as well as hundreds of hat pins. 1340 9th Ave. (between Judah and Irving streets), (415) 681-6448.
Roaring Mouse Cycles: This highly recommended bicycle shop sells road and mountain bikes, plus all of the accessories you'll need to look like a human fly. 1352 Irving St. (between 14th and 15th avenues), (415) 753-6272.
Stamp San Francisco: Are you the craftsy type who likes to make your own decorative stamps? If yes, this is your paradise. 1248 9th Ave. (between Irving Street and Lincoln Way), (415) 566-1018.
Suma: Step into Suma and you'll feel like you're in Bangkok or Ubud. The owners import lovely Southeast Asian furniture, statuary, candles and silk pillows. 1224 9th Ave. (between Irving Street and Lincoln Way), (415) 759-7862.
Sunny & Company: This tiny shop says it sells "everything under the sun," but what you'll really find are nice gifts and trinkets from all over Asia -- Taiwanese coin purses, Japanese sushi plates and hand-stitched handbags. 1342 9th Ave. (between Judah and Irving streets), (415) 731-7323.
Sunset Academy of Dance: Learn how to hip-hop, salsa or tap. 1337 Irving St. (between 14th and 15th avenues), (415) 731-9921.
Tutti-Frutti: A toy and tchotcke shop that can keep you giggling for hours. Children's books, too. 718 Irving St. (between 8th and 9th avenues), (415) 661-8504.
Wishbone: A colorful gift shop with theme T-shirts, notebooks and gadgets. 601 Irving St. (between 7th and 8th avenues), (415) 242-5540.
Yun Yun Wong: This recently opened boutique offers Chinese silk vests and pants, plus pretty Thai sarongs. The Western styles miss the mark. 1000 Irving St. (between 11th and 12th avenues), (415) 682-5588.
Zonal Home Interiors: This is the outlet of the small Bay Area chain (four locations) that stocks modern furnishings and accessories. 210 9th Ave. (between Irving Street and Lincoln Way), (415) 731-1150.
The Little Shamrock: The second-oldest bar in the city doesn't look like the second oldest, but, unfortunately, it smells like it. 807 Lincoln Way (at 9th Street), (415) 661-0060.
Mucky Duck: A popular neighborhood sports bar. If there's a game on, it's on here. 1315 9th Ave. (between Irving Avenue and Judah), (415) 661-4340.
Wishing Well: A former neighborhood dive that's attempting to attract the younger set. 603 Irving St. (between 8th and 9th avenues), (415) 731-6433.
Yancy's Saloon: A true dive where you can get a decent margarita, and if you have too many, you'll never have to worry about embarrassing yourself. No one here will remember you in the morning. 734 Irving St. (between 8th and 9th avenues), (415) 665-6551.