Today, a walk around San Francisco’s Hayes Valley is bound to lead to a sidewalk café, a hidden coffee shop, or a buzzing new pop-up restaurant. The neighborhood is beloved by discerning city dwellers who come here to shop and sup, while visitors who make it to Hayes often look like they’ve just stumbled in on a secret.
In the phoenix that is Hayes Valley, atmospheric hangouts and hip boutiques rose from the ashes of the destructive 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. The quake damaged a 40-foot-tall section of the Central Freeway above Hayes Valley, which, at the time, skewed far more seedy than trendy. After the bridge languished amid a city-planning tug-of-war, it was torn down in 2003, freeing up space for redevelopment and paving the way for one of SF’s most beguiling neighborhoods, a centrally located stretch north of the Mission District and west of SoMa that just keeps getting better. Visitors can’t walk a block without encountering a “Now Open” sign beckoning them into a new space.
“Hayes has a small-town feel in the middle of the city,” says Charles Bililies, the restaurateur behind Souvla, a chic, Hayes Valley Greek space with a cult following. “When I was planning Souvla, I looked at many neighborhoods [before choosing Hayes]; I even moved here nine months before Souvla opened in 2014.”
Here’s where to start your exploration of Hayes Valley:
Where to Eat and Drink
For about a six-block stretch, Hayes Valley is a bastion of global culinary ambition, where restaurants (much like residents) live in historic homes and new condo developments clustered on or around Hayes Street, the neighborhood’s main thoroughfare. Dining out is a globe-spinning exercise: Go Greek at Souvla, get your schnitzel fix at the Bavarian Suppenküche, dive into Italian comfort food at recently opened a Mano, dabble with French fare at slick Monsieur Benjamin, or stay local with elevated California prix fixe at Nightbird.
A couple of blocks east at Cala, a modern restaurant in a former sound studio with skylights, a fiddle-leaf fig tree, and a wall of kangaroo vines, chef Gabriela Cámara brings the flavors that helped her grow a following in Mexico City to a vast seafood-focused menu. After dinner, trip it to the tropics with a stop at Smuggler’s Cove, a tiki bar tucked behind a nondescript door, where bartenders whip up rum-centric concoctions such as the Millionaire Cocktail (No. 1) – rum, sloe gin, lime, house-made grenadine, and apricot liqueur. If umbrella drinks aren’t your thing, there’s Biergarten, where picnic tables let locals flirt with collective alfresco-drinking fantasies, but the staff doling out blankets acknowledges the reality of San Francisco’s frequent fog and chill.
Where To Shop
Fiercely protective of its village vibe, Hayes Valley has developed a shopping district that’s practically free of chain stores. Instead, a welcoming array of shops bring a strong eye for style and appealing offerings to the neighborhood. While the selection is wide ranging – from sake boutique True Sake to the Mexican folk-art talismans of Polanco – clothing, home decor, shoes, and sweets are the mainstays here.
Begin your spree at vintage-focused Ver Unica, one of the original Hayes Valley stores, where you’ll likely run into owner Cindy Spade, a muse with Joni Mitchell cheekbones and effortlessly inspiring personal style. Impossibly hip Acrimony stocks cool-girl and -guy pieces, while Welcome Stranger is solely dedicated to the sharp-dressed man. The contemporary design collective Minimal and artisan-focused Maker & Moss are like candy stores for designophiles, but when it’s time to satisfy a literal sweet tooth, head to Miette for cupcakes, cookies, and tarts; and Chantal Guillon for macarons.
See & Do
San Francisco possesses plenty of landmarks (hello, Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz), but mostly due to its size, Hayes trades monuments for cozy public spaces. At Patricia’s Green park, created after the freeway was torn down, locals commandeer tables for meetups and chess matches, dogs carouse on the lovely lawn, and street fairs and public art make frequent appearances. Adjacent is Proxy, an ever-evolving open-air space that throws alfresco movie nights and block parties, and hosts coffee, ice cream, and beer pop-ups. Just around the corner is the sophisticated SFJazz Center, where, at sleek new restaurant B-Side, charred chive blossoms, hominy posole, and piquant cocktails play like crowd-pleasing openers to the night’s jazz-heavyweight headliner.
For larger-scale sightseeing, head to the neighboring Civic Center, home to the War Memorial Opera House (where the city’s opera and ballet companies split stage time), the San Francisco Symphony, and Herbst Theatre. A 15-minute stroll west leads to Alamo Square Park, bordered on the east by the Painted Ladies (aka Postcard Row), seven pastel-hued sister houses made famous by the opening credits of Full House, now one of the city’s most photographed scenes. Instagram-op scored, return to Hayes Valley to soak in the village scene – a glass of rosé in hand.
Where To Sleep
Ever since it survived the city’s 1906 earthquake, the Fairmont San Francisco on Nob Hill has been a classic SF institution, with its marble-wrapped lobby and 592 sumptuous guest rooms. Don’t miss a visit to the Tonga Room – the 72-year-old holdover from the tropical-tinged days of Hawaii-mania is one of the country’s original tiki bars, complete with dangerous drinks, pupu platters, and waiters in festive shirts.
The Palace Hotel, a Luxury Collection Hotel houses one of the city’s most breathtaking spaces, The Garden Court dining room and atrium, where Saturday afternoon tea is a San Francisco rite of passage. Beyond the restaurant, 556 revamped rooms feature 11-foot ceilings and marble baths, and swimmers can log laps beneath a glass dome in the indoor pool.
Downtown’s Four Seasons Hotel San Francisco, a quick walk from Union Square, feels more like an urban residence than a big-city hotel, with 277 modern rooms, coastal fare at MKT Restaurant – Bar, and complimentary guest access to the adjacent Equinox Sports Club.
BY KELLY LACK
PHOTOGRAPHY BY ANGELA DECENZO
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