Local writer Ruth Carlson knows all about the secrets of San Francisco...

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August 2, 2019

How I See San Francisco: Ruth Carlson

Ruth Wertzberger Carlson grew up in a town with Victorian homes and a cable car—but it wasn't San Francisco. This native of Dubuqe, Iowa moved to the Bay Area at age 17 and, to hear her tell it, she's never leaving. Certainly not after she uncovered the stories that even San Francisco natives might not know for her book, "Secret San Francisco: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure." We asked Ruth to lend us some of her expert knowledge and share the things she believes all visitors to the City by the Bay must experience for themselves.

What is a typical day in San Francisco like for you?

There’s no such thing as a typical day in this city, which is why I love it so much. I never know what will happen, but here’s what I usually plan to do.

I watch the sun come up over the Golden Gate Bridge and marvel that I’m lucky enough to live on Russian Hill. After conducting some phone interviews and drafting some travel articles, my brain needs a refresh, so I get some exercise. One of my favorite walks is following the water along Fisherman’s Wharf to Fort Mason, where I pop into Reader’s bookstore, followed by a cappuccino at the Interval Café, a former 1930s marine shop converted into a Steampunk library.

There are too many options for lunch! I have to choose between Greens, one of the first vegetarian restaurants in the country, Radhaus, a brewery with a nautical motif, or hike up the steps to Café Franco, an inexpensive cafe with a great view.

On the way home, I stop by the South End Rowing Club to edit my articles and marvel at the members who swim in the bay without a wetsuit. If I’m lucky, there’s a seat on the cable car climbing up the steep Hyde St. hill.

Running errands is usually next on my list and Polk St. has everything I need and many luxury items I don’t—like at Cris, where the society women sell their designer castoffs, and Sweet Antiques, which has furnished half my apartment. By this time, it’s happy hour and the red jewel box called Amelie has an unbeatable wine and cheese flight.

Evenings are usually spent attending media events for new restaurants, plays, and art exhibitions. If there’s nothing on the agenda, you might find me at a neighborhood haunt like Union Larder, Abrazo, or Frascati.

Which neighborhood, other than your own, do you like to explore?

North Beach. It’s impossible not to be happy in Little Italy. I try to visit Liguria before they run out of focaccia, then window shop at Goorin Brothers hat shop and Al’s Attire, the only head-to-toe couture shop in the city.

During the week, I sidle up to the counter at Tony’s Pizza when Robvell is working. He knows everyone and inevitably I end up chatting with native San Franciscans. On Saturdays, I shop at the farmers market, followed by a glass of sangria at the outside bar where I can watch wedding parties gathering at St. Peter and Paul Church.

When friends visit, I make sure they see the Beatnik hangouts: City Lights bookstore, Specs, and Vesuvio Cafe. China Live is a great spot for lunch (be sure to order the Dutch Crunch), and if it’s Sunday, we end up at the Saloon with a live performance by Blues Power.

How did you get the inspiration for your book, “Secret San Francisco: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure”?

My friends say San Francisco is my boyfriend because I’m constantly gushing about how beautiful it is; but even a great boyfriend can get boring, so I’m always trying to find new neighborhoods and experiences.

Just being observant while walking the city led me to an octagon house in the Marina and the seaman’s chapel in Fisherman’s Wharf. I talk to locals. Everyone identifies with their neighborhood and is proud to show it off. When I put the word out on social media about my book, every contact led me to more people and another unique story.

What are some of the most shocking things you learned while putting this book together?

I don’t know about shocking—the book has "weird" in the title, but it’s G-rated—but many things surprised me. Golden Gate Park is larger than New York's Central Park and it has something for everyone: the oldest lawn bowling club in the nation, the smallest yacht club, windmills and fairy doors.

Many things that New York takes credit for actually started here: the first skyscraper, Santa Con, cat cafés, and a peephole cinema showing non-stop silent movies that has now been replicated in Brooklyn.

I was amazed that the underground tours of the sewer system are so popular. Every month, the Public Utilities Commission announces free outings to the wastewater treatment plants and the list fills up fast.

What tips would you give to visitors who want to discover their own secrets of San Francisco?

Talk to locals. You’ll find them doing the same thing as tourists: riding cable cars, visiting museums, and drinking Irish coffee at the Buena Vista. Pick up a free copy of Where Traveler magazine, sign up for newsletters from 7x7 magazine, and read sftravel.com, of course.

Where do you indulge your artistic side in town?

There are so many choices for culture in this city. I try to experience as much as I can. In addition to the traditional forms—ballet, opera, and theater—there are amazing events like Flower Piano, Litquake, and the San Francisco Movement Arts Festival at Grace Cathedral.

What’s your favorite annual event that happens in San Francisco?

By far, it's the Italian American Heritage Day parade that occurs in October during Fleet Week. It is the most fun you can have in a weekend. The streets of North Beach are closed down and restaurants place tables on the sidewalk so you can interact with the performers while watching the Blue Angels fly over Coit Tower.

Where and what would you choose for your last meal in San Francisco?

It would have to be Dungeness crab, and Scoma's is the only restaurant in San Francisco with a fish receiving station, so you know it’s fresh. Sourdough bread, a chilled Chardonnay, and cracked crab is a true San Francisco meal.

Which restaurant is still on your list to dine at in San Francisco?

I’ve been lucky enough to experience many of the greats—The Slanted Door, Tadich Grill, Sam’s, Le Central, Gary Danko, State Bird Provisions, Plouf and Lazy Bear—but I haven’t been to Seven Hills or tasted the famous chicken pot pie at The Big 4 on Nob Hill.

Where do you like to view the sunrise and sunset?

My apartment, the South End Rowing club, or the Russian Hill dog park on a Friday night when locals bring wine.

What should every visitor to San Francisco do at least once?

After the cable cars (I recommend the California St. line; always the least crowded), there are so many: the Legion of Honor, the Farmer’s Market at the Ferry Building, food truck festivals at Fort Mason or the Presidio, and a sunset cocktail at the Cliff House. Most importantly, get out on the water! Take a ferry to Tiburon or Sausalito, ride an America’s Cup yacht with ACSailingSF, or hop on the water taxi.

What’s one aspect of San Francisco that you wish visitors knew more about?

All the free things people can experience. The best way to see America’s most European city is walking. Find the secret stairways, the POPOs (privately owned public open spaces), or take a City Guides tour.

Any final advice for visitors coming to San Francisco?

Dress in layers, wear good walking shoes, and buy a Clipper card. It works for all forms of transportation: the ferry, buses, BART, trolleys and cable cars.

Ruth Wertzberger Carlson is an international travel writer, who recently published "Secret San Francisco: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful and Obscure." Her guidebook to the city has the scoop on underground sewer tours, funeral processions with marching brass bands in Chinatown, and an introduction to the city’s royalty, Emperor Norton. Find out more here.

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