Dennis McNally

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February 7, 2017

How I See San Francisco: Historian Dennis McNally

Dennis McNally, the former publicist for the Grateful Dead and curator for the California Historical Society's Summer of Love 50th Anniversary photo show, knows a thing or two about San Francisco, the city he's lucky to call home. Here's how he sees San Francisco.

Describe Your Perfect Day in San Francisco.
Typically, I would do brunch at Mission Rock Resort on Terry Francois Boulevard, near all the UCSF stuff on the east side of San Francisco. If it’s nice, you can sit outside and look down on the Bay and a ship repair facility – endlessly fascinating. If I’m feeling indulgent, it's lunch at Koh Samui and the Monkey, a wonderful Thai restaurant down by the ballpark at Third and Brannan. In the afternoon, I would make a visit to the Main Library just on general principles and then stroll across the street to the Asian Art Museum, one of the city’s true treasures. Bring it all together with a walk over to the corner of Page and Laguna, the home of the San Francisco Zen Center, for the 5:40 pm evening meditation session.  Top it all off by strolling back past Koh Samui for a Giants game at AT&T Park, the most beautiful place to watch baseball in America.

What should every visitor to San Francisco do at least once?
Almost too many of those to list. In no particular order: Go to City Lights Bookstore and spend some serious browsing time. Walk from the Palace of Fine Arts to the Cliff House, get a cup or glass of something good and then walk back. It’s the most beautiful urban walk I’ve ever seen. Walk the length of Grant Avenue heading north, so you start with the high-end shopping around Union Square, then Chinatown, then North Beach and Telegraph Hill (go see the Depression-era murals at the base of Coit Tower, and get a dynamite view from the top). Look at the murals on Balmy Alley in the Mission. View the city from the top at Twin Peaks, a truly stunning panorama.

What’s your favorite place to take a photo or read a book?
My wife, Susana, is a brilliant photographer, so I generally avoid taking pictures. When I do, it’s usually as a substitute for note taking – at a museum or something.  On the other hand, there is no bad place to read a book. I generally feel content about delays and such as long as I have a book in my vicinity.  I like reading at the Civic Center. The whole world is going by. 

What’s the one place in San Francisco that still tickles the back of your neck when you think of the Summer of Love?
One obvious answer is 710 Ashbury St., the home of the Grateful Dead at the time.  But I’d like to add that one part of my affection for the place is that the residents—who get visitors every day of the year—don’t mind the traffic. They cherish the history of the neighborhood.  A second answer is the Polo Field in Golden Gate Park, where the Be-In took place on Jan. 14, 1967.  It’s probably the largest open space in the city and Park, and in some ways our “town common.”  It was where 300,000 gathered to say goodbye to promoter Bill Graham and his love, Melissa Gold, and pilot, Steve Kahn, after their tragic deaths in 1991.

Where do you indulge your artistic side in San Francisco?
Since I am without any artistic (visual or musical) talent, I indulge that side by being an enthusiastic patron.  After the Asian Art Museum, my two favorite art sites in San Francisco are the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park, and the Legion of Honor at Lands End. I love them both.  The de Young comes with the Tea Garden, which is wonderful, and the Legion has the most amazing view of any museum anywhere. 

What’s your favorite event that happens in San Francisco?
If I were a little more enthusiastic about standing in enormous crowds, I’d talk about the incredible (free!) annual three-day orgy of music in Golden Gate Park called Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. But my knees no longer love standing quite so long which is why my favorite event in San Francisco is the annual, and more frequent, visit of Hot Tuna, the blues spinoff from Jefferson Airplane, to their birthplace in San Francisco. Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady (and various friends) have been playing together for more than 51 years, and they’re kinda getting it down. Four hands, one mind. Wonderful music.

Where and what would you choose for your last meal in San Francisco?
In 1976, Tony Hiss wrote in the New Yorker that Henry’s Hunan (then a tiny hole in the wall a block or two below Broadway on Kearny, I think) was the best Chinese restaurant in America.  There are still Henry branches in San Francisco, but for this meal I’d go to the place I regard as Henry’s heir, Brandy Ho’s, which is at 217 Columbus, only a few doors away from where Henry started out.  The order would be the chicken salad--shredded chicken over cucumber slices and noodles (they usually have glass rice noodles, but I prefer wheat noodles)--covered with a peanut sauce.  And onion pancakes. Not the most dietetic of meals, but luscious.

Which restaurant is still on your list to dine at in San Francisco?
My favorite foodie and reliable restaurant guide is my lovely wife, Susana. So #1 on the current list of To Be Visited is Bellota, 888 Brannan St. I trust her.

Who do you follow to keep up with San Francisco news?
Being old-school, I still read my (real newsprint) daily newspaper, the Chronicle. Leah Garchik still covers the ground, and I enjoy Carl Nolte’s old San Francisco columns.  I love Willie Brown’s Sunday column, too (the man knows whereof he speaks!).

Any last final advice for travelers in San Francisco?
Ask a San Franciscan for food and drinking advice. We all have opinions and aren’t afraid to share them.  Being slightly food obsessed (Acme Bread, Philz Coffee, Tartine, the list is endless) has its benefits.

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