Visiting San Francisco

12 of San Francisco's Most Iconic Places

With Silicon Valley's tech boom spilling over into San Francisco, the city has undergone some major transition. Things are a lot more polished, stuffy and expensive.

Many businesses and people have been pushed out by rising rents and mysterious fires. Most of the trendy, overpriced shops and restaurants coming in seem to fold in under a year. Change is inevitable but is so much change at once a good idea?

Blondie's Pizza

A couple arrives at Blondie's Pizza near the Powell and Market Cable Car Turnaround to find it is permanently closed.

I find a real void in the increasing absence of weirdos, artists, and naked people, and have to wonder if any of the eccentric soul of the city built on the backs of characters like Emperor Norton and Anton LaVey remains somewhere beneath it all.

To comfort myself, I set out on a personal quest to visit some of the places that come to mind when I think of home. Here are 12 nostalgic places that are still standing in San Francisco.

House of Prime Rib

Valets outside House of Prime Rib.

House of Prime Rib

1906 Van Ness Avenue

House of Prime Rib, established in 1949, is an institution and an absolute deal considering what it cost to get a nice meal in San Francisco these days. The prime rib is carved to order and served to you from fancy silver carts just as it has been since day one. The air is thick with the aroma of meat, and I would imagine after 69-years, the walls and ceilings of the lovely dining room are saturated as well.

The vegetarian option consists of a decent wine list, and martinis and Manhattans served with a small shaker to replenish your drink at your leisure.

Dinner includes bread; mixed salad tossed tableside, Yorkshire pudding, creamed spinach and a baked potato as big as your head topped with butter, sour cream, bacon and cheddar cheese. There is also a dessert cart which is probably fantastic, but I’ve never made it that far.

Tip: Make a reservation at least 2-months in advance. 

Tommy's Joynt

Tommy's Joynt - delicious and easy to find.

Tommy’s Joynt

1101 Geary Boulevard

Tommy’s giant neon sign and colorfully painted exterior make it just about impossible to miss. Inside the walls are covered from floor to ceiling in all the flare that has found its way here over the past seven decades. As stated on the website, this is San Francisco’s original hofbräu, and though this is not the most popular restaurant trend anymore, Tommy’s will never go out of style.

Tommy's Joynt

Step right up hofbräu style.

When sold to new owners in 2015, they were smart enough not to change a thing. The restaurant is humming along doing business as usual just as it has for the past 70-years. Move through the line, customize your meal, then pay and find a table to rest your giant plate of food on while you visit the bar for your cocktail of choice or to sample some local beers available on tap. You can get a giant meal with a drink including tip and tax for around USD 20.

City Lights Books

City Lights Books for those who lover to read, think and speak freely.

City Lights Booksellers & Publishers

261 Columbus Avenue

Opening in 1953, as a place for creative minds to come together, City Lights played a significant role in San Francisco’s beat movement history. Poet and co-founder Lawrence Ferlinghetti was arrested in 1956 on charges of indecency for his publishing of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl & Other Poems. His trial broke new ground for free speech and was just the beginning of City Lights powerful influence on the city’s creative and sometimes eccentric culture.

Cafe Vesuvio

Vesuvio Café

Vesuvio Café
255 Columbus Avenue

Just next door to City Lights Books, Vesuvio Cafe became a popular haunt for beat generation writers and artists. The name of the small alley shared by the two was changed from Adler Alley to Jack Kerouac Alley in the 1980s. The best time to visit is Sunday through Wednesday when you may even be able to get a table by the window on the second floor.

The Condor Club

The Condor is not just for gentlemen

The Condor Gentlemen’s Club
560 Broadway

The Condor is most known for Carol Doda’s premiere as, America’s first topless entertainer in 1964. She is also known for the gradual enhancement of her breasts from 34” to 44” through a series of silicone injections, it is rumored patrons would return regularly to witness the transformation. The club went bottomless from 1969-1972 but when liquor laws changed to prohibit the sale of alcohol in all nude clubs the nickers had to go back on. Doda had a long career as a dancer at the club but eventually retired in 1986. The Condor is still open and thriving.

 Buddha Lounge

The Buddha Lounge in San Francisco's Chinatown

The Buddha Lounge

901 Grant Avenue

Head down Grant Avenue to Washington and look for the neon sign that reads “Buddha.” The bar is located in Chinatown, once a part of the notorious Barbary Coast red-light district. This area is rumored to have underground tunnels running below that were used to "Shanghai" unsuspecting men and force them into slave labor aboard ships bound for the Orient. The Buddha Lounge is most enjoyable when sitting at the bar so you can chat with the bartender. The Chinese Mai Tai is an excellent choice, and cold Lucky Buddha beer is always on hand. Try the Chinese whiskey at your own risk.

Good Vibrations

Good Vibrations Polk Street location

Good Vibrations

1620 Polk Street

Sex therapist Joani Blank founded Good Vibrations in 1977 as a positive place for women to embrace their sexuality. The Polk Street location in San Francisco is still home to the antique vibrator museum most of which were initially created to treat hysteria in women. Free Antique tours of the museum happen on the 3rd Sunday of every month for those who RSVP. Dildos, vibrators and more are for sale every day during normal business hours, or online.

That's It

Order your torta during happy hour and take it next door to Mission Bar the friendly dive bar next door marked only by a red neon sign that reads “BAR.”

That’s It

2699 Mission Street

This is the home of the “World’s Largest Torta Cubana” and they’re not kidding. The meats and other fillings, including a whole hot dog split in half lengthwise are topped with a fried egg and stacked high on a hearty roll. Do yourself a favor and ask them to quarter your torta. The last time I ordered one, it was USD 11 and it fed four of us.

Mitchell’s Ice Cream
 loved by one and all.

Mitchell’s Ice Cream

688 San Jose Avenue

Established in 1953, Mitchell’s has been treating San Francisco to their incredible ice cream for generations now. If there is a line, and there probably will be, don’t let it put you off. You’re going to need that time to choose between all the tempting options on the menu. Don’t forget to grab a number as you walk in.

Arinell's Pizza

Arinell's for pre-drinking and post-drinking

Arinell’s Pizza

509 Valencia Street

Many have come and gone, but Arinell’s is still the best place in the Mission district to get a quick basic slice. Conveniently located near several popular bars on the corner of 16th Street and Valencia Street and open late. Best of all you can still get a slice here for USD 3.

Taqueria Vallarta

Taqueria Vallarta
 one of many excellent taquerias in San Francisco

Taqueria Vallarta

3033 24th Street

Like a lot of people, I go to Taqueria Vallarta for their tacos and salsa bar, but the menu has much more to offer. Fresh traditional Mexican food is served from breakfast until late-night, and the mural-covered walls make this restaurant colorful and fun inside and out.

The Castro Theatre

The stunning Castro Theatre

The Castro Theatre

429 Castro St, San Francisco, CA 94114

The Castro Theatre movie palace opened in 1922 and is now one of the city’s most famous landmarks. Nearly 100-years later, the theater’s stunning "Mighty Wurlitzer" pipe organ is still played before films begin. It appears that no expense was spared on the lux interior that has been meticulously maintained and makes a visit here even more special. In recent years, Peaches Christ has begun making regular appearances at the theater. If you’re in town and can catch one of her drag performances you won’t be disappointed. Details for all shows and show times are available on the website.

San Francisco walking tours, many of which are still free, are an excellent way to learn more about the city's colorful history. It is customary to give guides a small gratuity as most work solely for tips.

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