Bernal Heights

Bernal Heights

San Francisco, CA

Bernal Heights

Many San Franciscans never travel to Bernal Heights, located as it is at the southern edge of the Mission valley, served by only a few city bus lines and perched atop a steep hill, to boot. Those who do wander up the incline may be surprised by this quaint urban village that seems forgotten by time. The main shopping strip of Cortland Avenue is populated by small markets, cafés, fruit stands and barber shops, and the residential streets are a cluster of diminutive bungalows and community gardens. However, Bernal Heights bears the influence of city sophistication, with trendy boutiques and innovative restaurants scattered among its homely storefronts.

The neighborhood is a bastion of artists and progressives, popular with the lesbian community and attractive to young families looking for a first home and quiet streets (the neighborhood is also affectionately referred to as "Maternal Heights"). It is also a mecca for dog owners, thanks to a high concentration of single-family houses with yards and the nearby haven of Bernal Park, a canine free-for-all of off-leash frolicking.

Originally, Bernal Heights was part of the Rancho de las Salinas y Potrero Nuevo, and owes its name to Jose Cornelio de Bernal, to whom the land was granted in 1839 by the Mexican government. In the 1860s the rancho was subdivided into small lots, and was first populated primarily by Irish immigrants who farmed the land and ran dairy ranches. According to legend, a mini gold rush was triggered in 1876 when con artists planted the hilltop with traces of gold.

The district survived the 1906 earthquake and fire, thanks to the hill's bedrock foundation, and some ramshackle houses still remain that were constructed out of timber salvaged from the wreckage. Several small cottages on Shotwell Street were originally built as "bonus plan" dwellings, provided to people who had lost their homes in the disaster but still had jobs. For these reasons, more people moved to Bernal Heights following the earthquake. World War II brought another influx, this time of people who came to work in the naval shipyards of nearby China Basin.

In the 1980s Bernal Heights had a reputation as a dangerous place to venture, notorious as a place to dodge crackheads or at least get your car radio stolen. Cortland started to be cleaned up in the early '90s, when the Good Life Grocery moved in, followed by restaurants like the Liberty Café, as well as other small businesses.

During the dot-com boom, the community feared that Bernal Heights would be "discovered" and its affordable, offbeat charm ruined by gentrification. However, while local real estate prices were undeniably affected during the late '90s, the area has nevertheless weathered yet another sweeping change relatively unscathed and retains its homey, bohemian atmosphere.

Getting There

Driving: Northbound: Take 101 to the Alemany Boulevard exit. Turn left onto Bayshore Boulevard. Go north one light. Turn left onto Cortland Avenue. Southbound: Take 101 to the Caesar Chavez Street exit, take the Bayshore Boulevard lane (second from left) on the four-lane off-ramp. Go south on Bayshore to Cortland Avenue, then turn right up the hill.

Muni/BART: The 24 Divisadero (see route map) and 67 Bernal Heights (see route map) both intersect Cortland Ave.


Free on side streets, $1 for 40 minutes with a one-hour limit at meters on Cortland.

Sights and Culture

Bernal Heights Park: The grassy dome that tops Bernal Hill -- lush and green in the winter, dry and faded in the summer -- brings to mind the windswept Scottish Highlands as you hike the brief but steep climb to the summit. The lofty view casts out over Noe Valley, the Mission, China Basin and the downtown skyline and extends to Marin and the Golden Gate Bridge. The park is a popular off-leash dog park, so much so that one solo walker was recently asked, in all seriousness, "Hey, where's your dog?"

Holly Park: Before 2004, most parents would have looked at you blankly if you asked them about Holly Park. Though it's one of the city's oldest green spaces, it had a reputation for being a bit rough and the playground was, well, lame. A dedicated community effort brought about a $2 million makeover, complete with colorful playhouses, slides, swings, cargo ropes and a lovely little picnic area off to one side. At the top of the hill, there are basketball and tennis courts, and spectacular views. (-SF Chronicle)

Chronicle article:

Precita Park: This handsome oval of green has shaken off its bad reputation, at least during the day, since neighbors cleaned it up and the city put in picnic tables at its southeast end. It also now boasts a deluxe playground area. At Precita Avenue, bounded by Folsom and Alabama streets.)

Bernal Heights Hill-Wide Garage Sale: This annual neighborhood tag sale is a great way to pick up some cast-off treasures from an eclectic community that's full of artists and other creative types who collect cool stuff. Every August. (August 19 in 2006; Pick up a map of the 125 sites that morning at the Bernal Heights Neighborhood Center, 515 Cortland Ave. (415) 206-2140.)

Fiesta on the Hill: Bernal Heights' annual street fair offers a petting zoo, pony rides, a pumpkin patch, painting, art activities and two stages of live music and dance. Proceeds benefit the Bernal Heights Neighborhood Center. On Cortland Avenue.

Bernal Heights Outdoor Cinema: Showcases local filmmakers at free screenings in September and October. (415) 641-8417.

San Francisco Illegal Soapbox Derby: In this cult annual sports event, bike messengers, Web gurus and garage gearheads hurtle down Bernal Hill Road in homemade soapbox racers. Held every October and other dates.

When strolling down Cortland, slow down to absorb the colorful mural decorating the front of the Bernal Heights Public Library, a multicultural celebration of spirit, complete with a quote by Holly Near in both English and Spanish.


Alemany Flea Market: The standing advice about this Sunday-morning flea market is to go early -- all the best things disappear early. However, as long as you arrive by 11 am or so, it's still a good bet you'll discover an unexpected treasure. The number of booths depends on the weather and the time of year -- summer is the peak flea-market season -- and the nature of the wares varies wildly depending on the week. You might find vintage clothes and dishes, baseball cards, movie posters, butterflies under glass or children's toys from the '70s that you didn't know were collectible until now. Your success in bargaining will be influenced by how eager a given vender is to make a sale. Be brave and name your price, just in case. Sundays, 8 am-3 pm, 100 Alemany Blvd., at the intersection of Highway 101 and Interstate 280, (415) 647-2043.

Bernal Beast: The owners of this pet shop made a great business move when they opened their doors in this, the ultimate dog neighborhood. Since then, the store has expanded to twice its original size and is stocked with high-quality pet food and unusual toys and accessories. 509 Cortland Ave., (415) 643-7800.

Blumengarten: The flowers and plants at this airy florist shop tend toward the exotic and high quality -- no baby's-breath-and-carnation bouquets here. Blumengarten also carries some gift items such as handbags, bath-and-body products and brightly colored picture frames. 399 Cortland Ave., (415) 641-8382.

Four Star Video: Small but highbrow, the Four Star's video collection is organized according to a mystifying system that only a true film geek will understand. Nevertheless, it boasts a nice selection of hard-to-find documentaries, international titles and short films. Stop to admire the model-train display in the window, an echo of the small-town feeling of Bernal Heights itself. 402 Cortland Ave., (415) 641-5380.

Heartfelt: This gift shop is crowded with carefully selected trinkets and toys: "It's a museum of plastic!" the proprietor declares. The narrow space is a jumble of sparkle and color. You'll find jewelry, soaps, cards, children's toys, vintage linens and a highly eclectic selection of CDs. 436 Cortland Ave., (415) 648-1380.

Red Hill Books: This was originally Bernal Books, owned by lesbian author Rachel Pepper, who left to teach gender studies at Yale. It remains a neighborhood institution, now run by longtime resident Kate Rosenberger and renamed for the neighborhood's former socialist nickname. The mostly secondhand-books store hosts kids' karaoke, Friday night movies, book clubs, a writers' group and classes on topics such as biodynamic gardening and using vegetable oil to run a car. The site was a grocery store in 1900. 401 Cortland Ave., (415) 648-5331.


Al's Cafe Good Food: The only gimmicks of this low-frills diner are its perplexingly ungrammatical name and its Hollywood decor. Celebrity photos and memorabilia share wall space with a black-and-white mural of classic movie stars. In all other ways, the place sticks to the basics, and is particularly good when you want an eggs-and-hash-browns breakfast without waiting in line at a trendy brunch spot. 3286 Mission St., (415) 641-8445.

Alemany Farmers Market: Head down to Alemany Boulevard on Saturday morning to this historic farmers market, which has operated in its current location since 1947. The selection of produce reflects the true cultural composition of San Francisco: Instead of the gourmand offerings of the Embarcadero farmers market, you'll find inexpensive produce like bok choy and plantains, in addition to the more conventional seasonal harvest of the region. Open Saturdays from dawn to dusk, rain or shine. 100 Alemany Blvd., at the junction of Highway 101 and Interstate 280, (415) 647-9423.

Blue Plate: This relaxed, quirky restaurant caters to a local hipster crowd that likes to dine on comfort food with a twist, along the lines of the offerings at Chow or Luna Park. The menu gets consistent praise for its adventurous combinations of fresh, seasonal ingredients. 3218 Mission St., (415) 282-6777.

Caffe Cozzolino: Perched above Precita Park, this comfortable Italian restaurant is a good place to go for a casual local dinner. The interior is candlelit, simple and adorned with hanging plants that give the decor a perhaps unintentional '70s fern-bar mood. 300 Precita Ave., (415) 285-6005.

El Zocalo: The best way to experience this Mexican-Salvadoran restaurant is with a big group, so you can share and sample as much as possible from the menu. El Zocalo is known for its seafood entrees (try the crab enchiladas) and pupusas, as well as traditional side dishes such as fried plantains with black beans and sour cream. 3230 Mission St., (415) 282-2572.

Emmy's Spaghetti Shack: The owners of this cooler-than-cool hangout opened it because they wanted to run a restaurant that served food later than 10 pm, a rarity in San Francisco. The ambience is moody and eclectic, and while the inexpensive menu does feature a big plate of spaghetti and meatballs, it also offers other dishes both comforting and ambitious, such as roast chicken or seafood linguine. The service is known to be on the slow side; don't go on a completely empty stomach. 3355 Mission St., (415) 206-2086.

Good Life Grocery: The stock at this small neighborhood grocery reflects a hybrid sensibility of living green and living it up. The environmentally conscious shopper will find recycled paper products and shade-grown coffee beans, but unlike the Mission's strictly vegetarian Rainbow Grocery, this market has a butcher counter, and a good one. The cheese, produce and wine sections will also please foodies. 448 Cortland Ave., (415) 648-3221.

Jasmine Tea House: Consistently high-quality Chinese dishes served in a lovely setting with warm and friendly service. (-SF Chronicle) 3253 Mission St. (at 29th Street), (415) 826-6288. (Liberty Café: Sometimes called the first "real" restaurant in Bernal Heights, the Liberty Café's menu emphasizes seasonality and fresh ingredients. Each dinner begins with a basket of house-baked bread, and among the specials of the evening the comforting duo of chicken potpie and vegetable potpie always remains a constant. Owner Cathie Guntli is also the pastry chef; some notable desserts in her repertoire include an apple-cranberry pie and the pot de créme. The dining room has a French-country feel, with hardwood floors and custard-colored walls. The restaurant does not take reservations, but there is a small wine bar (with a rotating wine list) where patrons may await their candlelit table. 410 Cortland Ave., (415) 695-8777.

Liberty Wine Cottage and Bakery: Follow the white-painted alley next to the Liberty Café to reach the bakery-café out back. Each day of the week, it offers a different house-baked bread; stop at the cottage for a fresh loaf, perhaps of pain de campagne or rosemary-raisin bread. The cottage also serves breakfast pastries, sandwiches and salads. The sunny patio has a few tables where you can sit and enjoy your snack. 410 Cortland Ave., (415) 695-8777.

Little Nepal: The menu at this small but smart restaurant borrows from Indian and Chinese cultures, with familiar curries, stir-fries and sizzling tandoor platters dominating the menu. What sets the food apart is the subtle spicing and the intricate weaving together of flavors. Try the Himalayan momo (steamed pork dumplings), mismass pakauda (spinach and onion fritters), creamy curries or the mixed tandoori plate. The naan and rice are top-notch, but the lentils and vegetables (offered for $2 extra with most entrees) are skippable. (--SF Chronicle) 925 Cortland St. (near Folsom), (415) 643-3881.

Maggie Mudd: An independent ice cream parlor with a friendly neighborhood vibe. People travel long distances for their dairy-free ice cream, and they also serve the regular full-fat dairy stuff. Sundaes and custom-order ice cream cakes, too. 903 Cortland Ave., (415) 641-5291.

Martha & Brothers: It may be a chain, but at least it's local, and this branch of Martha & Brothers is the brightest, airiest café on Cortland Street. The benches out front are a convenient place for dog owners to sit and sip their coffee in the company of their pets. 745 Cortland Ave., (415) 642-7585.

Moonlight Cafe: This simple counter-service restaurant has an unexpected variety of quick dishes. The breakfast menu offers eggs, pancakes and bagels, while other meals consist of inexpensive standards such as crepes, falafel, soups and a selection of vegetarian dishes. 634 Cortland Ave., (415) 647-6448.

The Old Clam House: Steamed clams, crisp calamari are tops at this old San Francisco restaurant. Entrees can miss. Good drinks, fun atmosphere. (-SF Chronicle) 299 Bayshore Blvd. (at Oakdale), (415) 826-4880.

Progressive Grounds: The nicest thing about this café is its sunny, multilevel patio, which smells of jasmine in the summer. The slope-ceilinged, yellow-painted back room is pretty appealing as well, with toys and games for entertainment and a fireplace that's perfect for when the fog rolls in. The menu features sandwiches, hot dishes, coffee drinks, smoothies and ice cream. 400 Cortland Ave., (415) 282-6233.

Valentina Ristorante: The menu at this value-priced Italian restaurant offers some unusual antipasti, savory tarts, pillowy housemade gnocchi and creamy panna cotta. 419 Cortland (near Wool Street), (415) 285-6000.

Zante's Indian Cuisine and Pizza: Zante's has earned a bit of a local cult following, as much from those who like to startle their friends by ordering out for Indian pizza, made of naan bread crust with a spicy spinach sauce, as from people who sincerely favor tandoori-chicken and cauliflower toppings. The restaurant also serves a variety of classic vegetarian, meat and seafood Indian dishes. 3489 Mission St., (415) 821-3949.


El Rio: The slogan on the sign out front -- "Your Dive" -- says it all. The ceilings are low and the decor is late-'70s rec room, but for some reason pretty much everyone feels comfortable at this bar. The wide back patio is a great place to savor San Francisco's infrequent warm evenings, and there's salsa dancing or live music many nights. 3158 Mission St., (415) 282-3325.

Skip's Tavern: This no-frills neighborhood joint has all the classic barroom amusements -- pinball, a pool table, darts and a jukebox -- and books live blues and rock acts on most nights. 453 Cortland Ave., (415) 282-3456.

Wild Side West: When it comes to amenities, the Wild Side is a bar for all seasons. Inside is a cozy, slightly sultry decor, with a clutter of old paintings and chandeliers, a pool table and a fireplace for chilly winter evenings. The patio and the edenic garden, on the other hand, were made for mild weather. The backyard space rambles on longer than you'd expect and has lots of secluded nooks decorated with oddball sculptures and adornments. The bar has a history as a lesbian hangout, yet draws a wide mixture of patrons. 424 Cortland Ave., (415) 647-3099.
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