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The Secrets of San Francisco

Andrea Gross | Jan 5, 2012, 10:33 a.m.

I lived in California for many years, but it wasn’t until last year that I began to learn the secrets of one of its greatest cities — San Francisco. Oh, I’d walked the Golden Gate, noodled around Chinatown and shopped in Union Square, but I’d never heard the gossip.

Then I took three neighborhood tours, each led by residents who showed me the hidden places and told me the scandalous stories. Finally, I feel like a native.

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You just might see Woody Allen in Café Trieste.

North Beach

The American Planning Association calls North Beach one of 10 “great neighborhoods in America,” and it’s easy to see why. It’s a community in every sense of the word — a place where people walk, talk and eat.

That’s exactly what my husband and I do during our award-winning Local Tastes of the City Tour. Tom Medin, owner and guide, begins by giving us the history of the area. It was, he says, settled by Italians, then became a hangout for members of the Beat Generation and a risqué nightclub district. But now it’s relaxed into an area of small shops, eateries, bakeries and delicatessens.

He leads us from one to another, feeding us fascinating facts to digest along with the food. By the end of the tour, when we go into Café Trieste, a coffeehouse frequented by the likes of Steve Allen, Woody Allen, Pavarotti and Bill Cosby, I’m feeling like I am an in-the-loop San Franciscan.

That night, to solidify our city-wise credentials, we go to Beach Blanket Babylon, a San Francisco staple since 1974. We sip wine and watch performers, who wear outrageous hats that are four or five feet tall as they spoof all things political and most things sacred. The man next to me laughs so hard that he spills his wine into my lap. I barely notice because I’m laughing equally hard.

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Chinese New Year activities are depicted in paint in an alley in San Francisco’s Chinatown.

Chinatown

We’re walking through San Francisco’s Chinatown, but the bustling crowds of Grant Avenue seem far away. On the back streets men are playing mah jong, women are folding disks of dough into fortune-cookie packets, and a man is weighing medicinal herbs for a customer who has a hacking cough.

“Nee haw, hello,” I say, trying out my one phrase of Chinese. Our leader — she doesn’t like to be called a “guide” — laughs. “No, no, no,” she says. “That’s Mandarin Chinese. Here in San Francisco, most of the Chinese speak Cantonese. It’s nay ho.”

That’s only the first of many things we learn as we follow Shirley Fong-Torres, aka the Wok-Wiz, through the part of Chinatown where, as she says, “real people live, work and play.”

She points to a mural on an alley wall and explains the custom it depicts. “That’s not just a pretty painting,” she says. “It’s a picture of one of our Chinese New Year activities.” Next we go into a store filled with imitation cell phones, television sets, food and clothing, all made out of paper. The Chinese, we learn, want to make sure their relatives have all the comforts of this world when they journey to the next one. Again, without Shirley, we’d have missed the real meaning of what we were seeing. We’d have thought the items were simply cute children’s toys.

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