FINDING AN AUTHENTIC San Francisco neighborhood to hang out in can be a problem nowadays. First, you have to resolve all that sociological terminology on what neighborhood authenticity means anyway. For me, that means fewer chain stores and more cobblers. It also means the inevitable Starbucks has to be in a symbiotic, not parasitic, relationship with the pre-existing coffee shop. Boutique stores must be balanced by stores that sell socks and underwear. Most important, there must be a place to just hang out, whether a tavern, coffeehouse or juice joint, as well as a place for your dog therein or at least a hitching post nearby.
To be an authentic San Francisco neighborhood, there must also be the requisite hill one must surmount in order to get there. There might also be an Irish tavern, a fusion restaurant and an organic food store. Finally, there must be no easy parking sure, slots of parking real estate exist, but they only come up as frequently as, well, affordable housing in San Francisco.
Irving Street offers nearly all the above and more. Running parallel to Golden Gate Park, the Sunset District street manages to luxuriate in the tiny sliver of sun denied to its northern neighbor, the Richmond District. Not too far from UC-San Francisco, the street pairs international cuisine with a neighborhood market and a variety store. More important, if you’re a teetotaler or a social drinker, or you prefer the more solid comforts of dessert, there are plenty of places to hang out once you find parking.
Three square blocks a day: I once spent almost four hours waiting for a table at Ebisu on Ninth Avenue. Now, mind you, Ebisu has the best Japanese food in the city, but it’s not that good. I was with a large group, and by the time we realized we were famished, we were too stubborn to leave. That was especially inane considering the abundance of restaurants nearby, especially the House a few storefronts down, which is a spinoff of the North Beach original. Both are among the few restaurants that do Asian fusion well, and this second, bigger location carries on the mission with delectable and surprisingly light items such as sushi-quality salmon rolled up like an egg roll.
When our small army was finally seated at Ebisu we ordered a number of its many creative concoctions, including the avocado-green caterpillar roll, and the food, as usual, was delicious. Next time, we vowed, our friendship would be subdivided into tables of four.
One of my favorites used to be P.J.’s Oyster Bed on Irving Street, but a recent lunch had mixed results. While my friend Susan enjoyed a nice seafood pasta, I seemed more likely to find pearls than oysters in my oyster po-boy sandwich. The highlight was the fact that we found parking right in front of the restaurant. It’s still the place to get all-you-can-eat crayfish for dinner and the occasional alligator.
Take-out outtakes: Fabrique Delices Pats, otherwise known as the Cheese Boutique, slices up a fine frommage. Across the street, 828 Irving fulfills the market needs of nearby residents. Peasant pies has soups as well as savory and sweet baked goods.
Kick-backs: The familiar chain link of Pasta Pomodoro, Jamba Juice, Starbucks, Noah’s New York Bagels and Just Desserts joins the Irving Street offerings. Yancy Saloon and Blackthorn Tavern offer more traditional outlets for kicking back.
Artistic licenses: Foghorn Music allows music lovers to take note, while the written word reigns at Chelsea’s Books. Artistic abilities can get refined at the East Art Studio or go into mass production with Cocotan’s formidable selection of rubber stamps and paper.
Roaming around here also reminded me of another San Francisco neighborhood must-have: an establishment that qualifies as either funky or kitschy. Irving Street has a few, with secondhand store Present Past leaning toward the first. Tutti Frutti, the toy and card shop, specializes in nostalgic kitsch, while kitsch collides with Asian pop culture in Wishbone. Entering the latter, as the long line attested, meant abandoning all willpower when faced with the eclectic selection, ranging from glazed Japanese dishware, cards, clothing, Chinese paper lanterns, elaborate pens and other cool items.
While coming back to Ninth Avenue to return a video rental might not contribute to the most efficient viewing, Le Video still demands a look-see for the enormous diversity choices you probably won’t find at Blockbuster.
Getting There: From the Bay Bridge, take the Mission Street-Fell Street off-ramp and exit onto Fell Street. Right before Golden Gate Park, veer left onto Kezar Drive, which becomes Lincoln Way. Turn left onto Seventh Avenue, then right onto Irving Street. If you take BART: Muni’s N Judah runs seven days a week from the underground BART system to Judah Street, one block south of Irving Street.
Vera Chan is a reporter at the Times. You can call her at 925-977-8428 or e-mail her at vchan@cc