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If You're Going to San Francisco ...

January 27, 2011 By:
Elyse Glickman, Jewish Exponent Feature
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In the late 1990s, when dot-com youth culture was in full swing and I was dating a nice Jewish programmer from nearby Silicon Valley, there were frequent jaunts to the Haight and Filmore West to drink in a taste of American pop culture and a groovy show that only San Francisco could offer.

We spent many a Chanukah at Union Square, where Lollapalooza founder/ rocker/impresario Perry Farrell staged a day of performances and the local motorcycle-riding Chabad Rabbi Yosef Langer lit the giant menorah with great fanfare.

I have always liked the fact that every trip I make up there is radically different from the last. While my 2006 visit, for example, was focused on antiquing and visiting historical tourist draws, such as the Buena Vista (the presumed birthplace of Irish coffee), the Marina District and the De Young, my friends and I this year voted to go where the proverbial day took us.

This included jaunts to several innovative bars, where American cocktail culture trends take shape and Banana Republic's flagship store runs its annual post-holiday mega-sale.

This go-round, we upgraded our lodgings to the Kimpton Palomar Hotel in the literal heart of the city, just steps from BART subway trains that hit every neighborhood worth visiting.

The Palomar has everything you want in a San Francisco boutique hotel -- comfy rooms, workout room, razor-sharp staff up on the latest hot spots, proximity to Union Square, solid department store shopping with top U.S. names (Nordstrom, Saks, Neiman-Marcus, Macy's) and a nearby street vendor peddling fresh, crispy churros that mate beautifully with a cup of coffee from the hotel or the nearby branch of Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf.

While this hotel does have a hint of old-school San Francisco elegance in its vibe, Hotel, its nearby sister property skirting Maiden Lane and Chinatown, translates 1920s style and 1960s color into 21st-century luxury.

Kimpton is also now the proud parent of the famous Sir Francis Drake Hotel, which has been updated to bridge its historic past with present-day luxury and amenities.

Speaking of bridging the past with the present, the Palomar is also a two-block trek to the Contemporary Jewish Museum, which neighbors the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

All the Jewish museum's exhibits are organized in an interactive manner. The permanent "Being Jewish: A Bay Area Portrait" poignantly illustrates how Jewish life took shape in San Francisco and continues to evolve.

The current temporary exhibits -- around until the middle or end of March -- are simply wonderful. "As It Is Written: Project 304, 805" captures soferet ("scribe") Julie Seltzer in the act of writing out scripture for a new Torah slated to travel around the world to congregations in need.

While the visuals reflect on ages-old traditions and practices using mixed media and synagogue artifacts from around the globe, they are also emblematic about how the Jewish world endlessly adapts to the times, including the fact that women have only recently been allowed to serve in the capacity of Torah scribes.

"Black Sabbath," set up like a minimalist jazz club, represents a lively journey through 20th-century pop music, illustrating the powerful connections between the African-American and Jewish culture that shaped it.

And "Curious George: The Art of Margret and H.A. Rey" is perhaps the biggest surprise, not only spelling out the literary couple's Jewish roots, but also their dramatic escape from Nazi-occupied Europe. The Reys' experiences with anti-Semitism and attenuated journey from Paris to New York partially by bicycle and with a stopover in Rio ended up providing an enduring foundation for the beloved series of children's stories.

Where to eat? We visited Lucky Creation, a go-to vegetarian lunch place in Chinatown, especially as it is top ranked by local papers as the best vegetarian restaurant in the city. We were wowed by everything we ordered, from a faux-chicken-curry chow mein to a heaping plate of stellar "kosher" pork and beef (made from gluten and soy) that were spot-on in flavor.

However, by being brave enough to approach locals with leftovers on our first night, we were referred to Z & Y Szechwan, one of the area's newer spice hound havens. The four-alarm hot pots and the venue's star dish, "Chicken With Explosive Chili," exceeded expectations.

Things continue moving forward. The trendiness of dot-com culture has given way to foodie culture, and people have traded in their Grateful Dead threads and ultra-casual Polartec sweats for fashionable, tailored outfits and high-end designer labels. (Nob Hill is always a deluxe treat and visit.)

San Francisco's overall vibe is very youth-driven, though that continues to change over time. Thankfully, when it comes to keeping a visitor's experience fresh, San Francisco stays the same in the ways that matter -- from its quirky-chic architecture to Chinatown, the green parks and the majestic views of the Pacific Ocean, and even the touristy trappings near Fisherman's Wharf and charming neighborhoods where bohemian harmoniously flirts with a city-slicker mindset.

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