Where to Find the Real Debauchery of the Barbary Coast in San Francisco

I once interviewed writer David Sedaris for a San Francisco weekly newspaper. My boss had one request: you have to ask him one or two San Francisco-related questions. So when I asked his thoughts on the City by the Bay, he said: “It’s one of the most volatile, tense cities I’ve ever been in.” This was a lot coming from someone who’s on a constant book tour and has probably visited every city in America dozens of times. “The last time I was in town,” Sedaris added, feeling compelled to give me an example, “my friend and I had just come out of movie and suddenly a guy was running at us swinging a chain over his head.”

It’s uncertain whether this chain-twirling lunatic was indirectly inspired by the legend of the Barbary Coast, but, as Daniel Bacon said in a previous post, the legendary neighborhood has imprinted its DNA onto the city. From the current strip clubs and peeps shows that line Broadway (which were once part of the Barbary Coast drag, Pacific St.) to the openness with which the city welcomes people of every stripe. But besides the obvious – like those strip clubs – where else, I wondered, could I find spiritual remnants of the old neighborhood. Specifically, where to find the real debauchery of the Barbary Coast in San Francisco?

There’s the Tenderloin. Specifically one block on Turk Street, which the San Francisco Chronicle recently reported was the most dangerous block in the city. Violent crime is 35 times higher on this block. Just 438 people live on the city block, yet in a six-month period there were 248 crimes reported. I wanted to go see it for myself, but I like my health and my wallet.

So instead I went to the Saloon, the oldest bar in San Francisco, and right on the medallion-guided Barbary Coast Trail. I started to think I was on to something when 28-year-old Sophie, sitting next to me at the bar, announced she was a heroin addict. “Oh look,” she said, studying a pea-sized black dot on her thumb, “how did some junk end up on my finger?” She picked off the tar-like substance and deposited the remnant into her pocket. Soon enough her dealer showed up and he whipped out a bag of heroin, stuck it in her face to smell and said, “This is for later.” But before that, a procession of characters were dispatched into the place that felt like central casting was having a busy day. There were trannies. There were guys with headbands and leather jackets playing Bob Dylan songs on a harmonica. There was Tommy, a flamboyant homeless guy who would blurt out random statements like “Let’s all wait until daddy’s butt gets flat” and “I’m not a hanging uterus.”

As I sat there taking it all in, sipping a vodka and tonic (and at $3, a bargain), I realized that this kind of debauchery has been going on in this space for the last 160 years. The real remnants of the Barbary Coast are not necessarily the physical remnants of the neighborhood, but instead living in certain people. It’s in Jonny Raglin at the Comstock Saloon and Daniel Bacon who started the Barbary Coast Trail. It’s in all these people in the Saloon who are screaming and laughing and slamming their empty drinks down while demanding another.

I emptied my glass, said farewell to Sophie and the rest of the Saloon regulars, and walked out into the fading San Francisco day, the weak sun splashing me in the face as I walked away from the Barbary Coast for the last time.

Support blogger David Farley’s documentary film

We’re blessed and proud to have David Farley on our team, a seasoned New York Times writer, contributor to AFAR Magazine, travel blogger, teacher and all around good guy. Among his myriad talents, one of David’s claims to fame his most recent book, An Irreverent Curiosity: In search of the Church’s Strangest Relic in Italy’s Oddest Town, a tale of searching through one of Italy‘s most scenic, vivacious towns in search for Christ’s holy foreskin. It’s a great book if you haven’t picked it up, and one that will surely inspire the traveler in anyone.

Perusing the internets last week I was surprised to learn that there’s a small indie effort collecting together in an effort to turn the book into a documentary film. Directed by Bram Mengelers and following the path of Mr. Farley himself, the project is just starting to build funding over at indiegogo, and if they can raise $8,000 by the middle of October the project will officially launch.

David never mentioned this to me, which I think is pretty great, so I think that the least that we can do is mention it at Gadling.

Take a look at the indiegogo fundraising page. If you’re compelled by the effort or story, take some time to donate. As a perk, you can get anything from postcards from Mr. Farley’s journey to an all expenses paid 5 day trip to Rome and Calcata. Either way, you’re supporting a great cause and a great writer.

A New Globally Inspired Italian Cuisine? Not Just Yet.

I was sitting at the bar of one of Italy’s most bizarre restaurants in one of Italy’s most bizarre towns about to watch a confrontation between a diner and a chef. A well-dressed man in his mid-30s had just wrinkled his nose at the menu and shrugged, murmuring something about not being able to recognize anything on the menu “You know what’s wrong with this country?” asked Pancho Garrison, 59-year-old Texas-born chef, who has lived in Italy most his life. The man shrugged again. “Italy is a country of mama’s boys. You’ve got the best cuisine in the world,” added Garrison, “but it’s time that you move away from your mama and start trying new things.” Then, as he usually did, he told the diner that he would bring out a procession of menu items for him to try and would not stop until he ate something he liked. On the house.

Sadly, the Grotta dei Germogli, located in Calcata, a medieval hill town about 30 miles north of Rome, recently shut down (but hopefully that’s just temporary). But if you were lucky enough to eat there, you wouldn’t have been wrong to think that Garrison was on a mission, that diner by diner he’s trying to change the way Italians eat. Watching Garrison work (and seeing people’s reaction to his cooking) was a thought-provoking exercise into the mind of the Italian eater. Thanks to people like Garrison and others in Italy who are actively trying to make the cuisine more progressive things are slowly changing in Italy. Is this going to be part of a revolution of a globally inspired Italian fare? Until very recently Italy was a country where the definition of “fusion cuisine” hardly went beyond mixing basil from Genoa and tomatoes from the Neapolitan countryside; where staunch Roman eaters considered northern Italian cuisine “foreign”; or digging up a baseball-sized truffle was easier than finding a non-Italian restaurant, eating outside the canon of Italian cuisine was nearly unthinkable. And, like at the Grotta, serving Italian-inspired dishes that included ingredients like peanut sauce, coconut milk, and curry to Italians seemed down right radical. But let’s not jump to conclusions. There are a lot more people who are perfectly satisfied the cuisine is lodged where it is.

But this night I was at the bar watching Garrison argue with the diner just another night. It’s perfectly fitting, though, that the Grotta was in Calcata, a hill town known as the “paesi dei artisti” because of the respected artists who moved here after the village was nearly abandoned in the late ’60s (among them are famed architect Paolo Portoghesi, sculptor Costantino Morosin, and painters Giancarlo Croce and Romano Vitali).

Garrison, who’s also an accomplished mosaic artist (he did all the work in the restaurant), said his menu worked because Mediterranean cuisine is so flexible. “It’s versatile enough,” he said from Grotta’s open kitchen, “that you can tweak it in ways that will change it just enough, but still keep its form.” Like the taglietelle with a coconut-tomato-basil sauce. It looks like it could be a standard tomato sauce, but then you try it and it’s like nothing anyone’s mom ever made. Or the gnocchi with almond pesto. To top it off, he would pair his menu with top-shelf (but surprisingly affordable) bottles of Italian vino.

And that diner who wrinkled his nose at the “unusual” menu? He said “buonissimo,” with the first thing Garrison brought out, curried meatballs on a bed of organic whole-wheat rice. He loved it. There’s one more convert.

Q & A with Grantourismo round-the-world slow travel bloggers

With all the holiday travel madness just beginning, sometimes it’s nice to take a breath and think about taking travel more slowly. I recently had a chance to meet up with blogger Lara Dunston and her photographer-writer husband, Terence Carter, of the round-the-world travel project and blog, Grantourismo while they were traveling through Istanbul. Lara and Terence hosted me at their fabulous terraced apartment with glasses of Turkish wine, travel chat, and views of nearby Taksim Square and the nostalgic tram.

Grantourismo is a yearlong grand tour of the globe to explore more enriching and ‘authentic’ (and they get how those words have been debated and abused by travel bloggers!) ways of traveling, which began in Dubai this February and will wrap up in Scotland in January. In order to slow down and immerse themselves in each place, they are staying in vacation rentals (rather than hotels) in one place for two weeks at a time.

Read on for more about their slow travel philosophy, tips about renting a holiday apartment, and how they found Austin’s best tacos.

What’s the essence of Grantourismo?
We’re attempting to get beneath the skin of the places we’re visiting and to inspire other travelers to do the same. We’re doing very little sightseeing and if we’re taking tours, we’re doing small group tours with expert local guides ran by sustainable companies, such as Context. Mostly we’re experiencing places through their food, markets, music, culture, fashion, street art, sport, etc, and doing things that locals do in their own towns rather than things tourists travel to their towns to do. We’re trying and buying local produce and products, and seeking out artisanal practices we can promote. We’re also highlighting ways in which travellers can give something back to the places they’re visiting, from planting trees in Costa Rica to kicking a football with kids in a favela in Rio. And we’re blogging about this every day at Grantourismo!

How did you make it a reality?
Our initial idea was 12 places around the world in 12 months, learning things like the original grand tourists did. Terence, who is a great musician and a terrific cook, wanted to work in a restaurant kitchen and learn a musical instrument while I was going to enroll in language classes and learn something different in each place. But we couldn’t figure out how to fund such a project. We were lucky in that I saw an ad from HomeAway Holiday-Rentals (the UK arm of HomeAway) looking for a travel journalist-photographer team to stay in their vacation rentals and blog about their experiences for a year. I presented Grantourismo to them, they loved it, and here we are! We’re in the 10th month of our yearlong trip, we’ve stayed in 27 properties in 18 countries, and we have a ski town and five cities to go! We’ve written 369 stories on our website – and only 27 of those have been about the properties, the rest have been about everything from winetasting to walking – and we’ve done loads of interviews with locals we’ve met, from musicians and chefs to fashion designers and bookbinders.

What’s the biggest difference about staying in an apartment vs. a hotel?
The biggest difference and best thing is that when you’re staying in a vacation rental you’re generally living in an everyday neighbourhood rather than a tourist area, which means you can meet people other than hotel cleaners and waiters. You can pop downstairs or down the road to a local café or pub that’s full of locals rather than other tourists. You can shop in local markets or supermarkets that are significantly cheaper. Sure if you’re staying in a hotel you can go and look at the markets, but your hotel mini-bar probably won’t hold much, whereas we go with a shopping list or we simply watch what the locals are buying, and we go home and cook.

You can generally get off the beaten track far easier than you can when you stay in a hotel. If you’re relying on the concierge for tips, you’re going to see other hotel guests eating at the restaurant he recommended. Then there’s the beauty of having lots of space, your own kitchen so you don’t have to eat out every meal, and a refrigerator you can fill that doesn’t have sensors going off when you open it. There might be shelves filled with books or a DVD library – in Cape Town we even had a piano, which Terence played every day! The privacy – we got tired of housekeeping ignoring DND signs, people coming to check the outrageously-priced mini-bar, and the phone always ringing with staff asking, when were we checking out, did we want a wake-up call, could they send a porter up. It became so tedious, especially as we were spending around 300 days a year in hotels on average. There are downsides to holiday rentals too of course. If something goes wrong the property owner/manager isn’t always around to fix it, whereas in a hotel, you phone the front desk to let them know the Internet isn’t working and they’ll send someone up.

What should travelers consider when renting a holiday apartment?
Location first. What kind of neighbourhood do you want to live in, how off the beaten track do you want to get, do you want to walk into the centre or are you happy to catch public transport or drive, what kind of facilities are in the area if you’re not hiring a car, and is there a supermarket, shops, restaurants, café, bars in walking distance? After that, the quality of accommodation – in the same way that people decide whether to opt for a budget hotel if they just want somewhere to lay their head, or a five-star if they want creature comforts, they need to think about how much time they intend spending at the property and the level of comfort they want. We stayed in a budget apartment in Manhattan, which was fine as we were out a lot. In Ceret, France and Sardinia, Italy we had big charming houses with terrific kitchens, which was perfect as we stayed in and cooked a lot. If it’s a family reunion or group of friends going away together and they want to enjoy meals in, then it’s important to ask detailed questions about the kitchen and facilities, as we’ve had some places that only had the bare basics, while others like our properties in Austin and Cape Town had dream kitchens.

Favorite destination/apartment?
We’ve been to some amazing places but my favourites have been Tokyo and Austin. We’d only visited Tokyo once before on a stopover, stayed in a cramped hotel and just did the tourist sights. This time we really saw how people lived by staying in an apartment, we discovered different corners of the city we didn’t know existed, and we made new friends. In Austin, it was all about the people, who must be the USA’s friendliest and coolest. We spent a lot of time seeing live music and met lots of musicians, and we also got into the food scene – locals take their food very seriously in Austin! We even hosted a dinner party there with Terence cooking up a multi-course tasting menu for our new friends. In terms of properties, I’m torn between the rustic traditional white trullo set amongst olive groves that we stayed at in Puglia where we had our own pizza oven and bikes to ride in the countryside, the penthouse in the historic centre of Mexico City, and the two houses in Costa Rica, one set in the jungle and the other on the beach, literally within splashing distance of the sea!

Funny story about one of your stays?
The funniest moments weren’t funny at the time but we look back at them and laugh now. At our the Puglia trullo we had terrible internet access. It barely worked in the house because the walls were so thick, yet internet is crucial to what we’re doing so we had to work outside, which wasn’t much fun in the rain. Terence discovered that he could get the best access in the middle of the olive grove next door; you can see him working here! The monkeys that visited us everyday in our houses in Costa Rica were also hilarious. One morning I was enjoying a rare moment reading in the sun when I saw a rare red-backed squirrel monkey run across the fence, and then another leapfrog that one, and then another join them! I quickly got up and raced into the kitchen to make sure there was no food left on the bench, turned around and there was a family of 30-40 monkeys trooping through the house. These guys are endangered, but it didn’t look like it from where I was standing in the kitchen in my bikinis and towel, trying to protect our food as the property manager had warned us that they know how to open the cupboards! The manager also told us to leave the lights on at night, because otherwise the bats will think the house is a cave. She wasn’t kidding.

How is social media playing a role in your travels?
We decided not to use guidebooks this year and rely on advice from locals, many of which we come in contact with through social media. We’ve met many locals via their blogs or Twitter. We use Twitter every day, as a research and networking tool, to make contacts ahead of our visit and get tips from people when we’re there. We’ve had some amazing advice from our followers, from restaurant recommendations to suggestions on things we should do. When we were in Cape Town, loads of tweeps said we had to do the Township Tour offered by Cape Capers and we did and they were right, it was life-changing.

Terence learns how to make the quintessential dish of each place we visit and often asks tweeps what he should make. We’ve had great tips from food bloggers who use Twitter such as Eating Asia and Eat Mexico. We’ve ended up meeting loads of tweeps, including a bunch of New Yorkers – bloggers, writers and travelers – we met for drinks one night, including Gadling’s own Mike Barish and David Farley, while in Austin we had lunch with ‘the Taco Mafia‘ from the Taco Journalism blog and got the lowdown on Austin’s best tacos. We also use Twitter to share our own travel experiences and let people know when we have new stories on the site and we run a monthly travel blogging competition which we promote on Twitter (with very generous prizes donated by HomeAway Holiday Rentals, AFAR, Viator, Context, Trourist, and Our Explorer); the aim of that is to get other travelers to help spread our messages about the kind of traveling we’re doing.

What’s next?
As far as Grantourismo goes, we just left Istanbul (where we were delighted to meet another fascinating Gadling contributor!) and are in Budapest. After this it’s Austria for some fun in the snow, then Krakov for Christmas, Berlin for New Year’s Eve, and our last stop is Edinburgh end of January. After that? We’ve been invited to speak at an international wine tourism conference in Porto, Portugal, about Grantourismo and wine, as we’ve explored places through their wine as much as their food, doing wine courses, wine tastings, wine walks, and wine tours, and really trying to inspire people to drink local rather than imported wine. Then we’re going to write a book about Grantourismo and our year on the road, and later in the year – after we’re rested and energised – we’re going to take Grantourismo into a slightly different direction.

All photos courtesy of Terence Carter.

Eating Japanese Culinary Time Warp Cuisine

I just flew 7,000 miles to eat a Salisbury steak with a side of ketchup-laced spaghetti. Well, okay, that’s not the only reason I’m in Tokyo, but have to admit when I first learned about yoshoku cuisine my anticipation to try it trumped all the tiny ramen restaurants I’d go to and even the Tsukiji fish market for just-pulled-from-the-sea fresh sushi.

Yoshoku cuisine is, after all, like eating in a timewarp, like stepping back into another dimension in time and space. After all, Americans relegated Salisbury steak to the TV dinner decades ago, not to be found outside of bottom shelf of the freezer section in suburban grocery stores. So why, you ask, would a westerner go to Japan and eschew the garden of Japanese culinary delights for this westernized Japanese cuisine?

Besides the fact that it’s historically frozen food and that most of it is actually quite good, let’s go back about 150 years. Japan had been closed off for centuries. But what is known as the Meiji Restoration – when the emperor opened up the country and westerners, mostly Americans, British, and Dutch – changed all that. According to the story, the Japanese, undernourished at the time, were amazed at how big and tall the westerners were, so they started eating like them too. And since then, yoshoku – which means “western cuisine,” by the way, and that name hardly does it justice – has really barely changed.

But as I sat in Homitei, a yoshoku restaurant that opened in the 1930s, my Tokyo-based friend and yoshoku dining companion, Dave Conklin (who gives bike tours of Tsukiji fish market and has an advanced degree in Japanese history) told me it was more than that. “The Americans and British had colonial attitudes to eating the local cuisine – meaning they wouldn’t eat it,” he told me, as I cut into my “steak” and he chipped away at a crab salad doused with mayonnaise. “So they set up restaurants, usually in hotels, that served Western food. And Japanese were cooking this stuff for the westerners.” Eventually, the Japanese adopted many of the dishes but put their own Japanese spin on them. And, like where we were eating now, opened their own yoshoku restaurants, not for Westerners but for Japanese.

Conklin added that in the 1920s a local artist created plastic food of western dishes so the Japanese would know what the food looked like before ordering it. “Ironically,” he added, “today so many restaurants here now display plastic food of Japanese dishes so westerners and other non-Japanese tourists will know what Japanese food looks like.”

Interestingly, I spoke to two high-profile westerner chefs working in Tokyo — David Myers who just opened an eponymous restaurant in the Ginza district and Nadine Waechter, the executive chef at the Park Hyatt Tokyo — and neither had ever even heard of yoshoku cuisine. The young Japanese I spoke to about yoshoku, though were very enthusiastic. My friend Koji beamed with surprise when I mentioned it, his mouth salivating at the thought of ketchup-kissed stir-fried spaghetti.

But it’s not all TV dinners. In addition to the Salisbury steak drenched in gravy I’m eating (called hambagoo here), there’s also menchi katsu, a deep fried panko-encrusted hamburger; Neapolitan spaghetti which is stir fried and drenched in ketchup (there’s really nothing Neapolitan about it); there are various croquettes and there’s also curry rice, to name a few.

The following day I ate at Taimeiken, which opened in 1931, in the Nihonbashi district to try one of the most famous yoshoku dishes: omurice, which is exactly what it (almost) sounds: an omelet filled with rice sitting next to a puddle of ketchup. There was a line out the door and the place was packed with young people, silverware in hands, enjoying this Japanese comfort food, dishes in front of them that are both familiar and odd to me at the same time. This is, after all, what makes travel fun in the increasingly homogenized 21st century: to feel like we’ve landed on a different planet and found a quasi-parallel society living on it, but as if somewhat different historical events and forces have shaped it just enough to continue giving us wonderment. .