I had a nagging fantasy about moving to New York. It’s not that I thought SF wasn’t cool or that there weren’t enough jobs to fight over. And it’s not like I had suffered from any shortage of fun stuff to do. The truth of the matter is that a media-driven inferiority complex made me question the greatness of my town. The idea that SF could ever compete with the historical gravity, size, cultural relevance, and sheer awesomeness of New York City seemed, well, a little delusional. So early this summer I abandoned my beautiful Dolores Park apartment (no subletting in SF!) and set out with my girlfriend and my cat for a summer gig in NYC.
Of course, my New York fantasy failed to become reality. The journey to the other side was a harrowing one – we lost our cat in the process and spent days looking for her before giving up. Still, I tried to stay positive as our dreams began to crumble and my girlfriend and I soon realized we’d had it pretty damn good in SF. But by then, we’d made it to New York and secured a room in an art loft in Williamsburg about two blocks from East River State Park; a place I assumed from my Internet research was going to be a New York version of Dolores Park.
Well, it’s not.
East River State Park is dusty, dirty, full of cops, and small. And as for our awesome new loft, well the roommates were super cool, but let’s just say it lacked charm (unless you find a filthy cave with no AC or Internet charming).
As we sat on the glowing-hot concrete slab the city was passing off as a picnic area, my girlfriend and I tried to figure out what the hell had happened. “Maybe this is what it feels like to take a risk and lose,” she said. “I just wanna go home.” But we couldn’t. So instead we did the next best thing and started searching for places that would remind us of San Francisco.
If there’s one surefire cure for homesickness it’s comfort food, and for San Franciscans that means burritos. As vegetarian Mission-dwellers, our go-to spot for awesome burritos had always been Papalote on 24th at Valencia. My girlfriend and I had been ordering takeout there for years so we’d grown accustomed to the parlor’s quick service, fresh ingredients, abundant options, and totally amazing salsa. Which is fine if you live in San Francisco where you can find variations on this stuff all over, but, we soon learned, sets the bar a little high if you happen to be elsewhere.
Our first few NY burritos missed the mark by about, oh, I’d say 3,000 miles or so. In my mind, a standard-issue burrito has a handful of defining features. First, it’s big. Second, it has cheese, beans, lettuce, pico de gallo, and rice. The tortilla is rolled in tinfoil or served on a plate drenched in a blend of different salsas. But what the hell was this shit? Every burrito we ordered came packed with carrots, broccoli, and cauliflower. We had to request cheese and lettuce and the servers looked at us like we were insane when we asked for more salsa.
But then we found it.
After grabbing coffee at the new Blue Bottle location on Berry Street (yes!), we strolled up Bedford Avenue and stopped for shade outside a restaurant that had a small mural of a hippie playing a guitar. Above it, a signpost marked the location: Haight and Ashbury. Home! And then we noticed the smell coming from inside the tiny kitchen. Without even realizing it, we’d stumbled upon a taqueria specifically designed for a San Francisco palette. It’s called L.A. Burrito (weird, given the sign in the painting, but now was not the time to get picky) and it’s small, a bit dirty, and perpetually hot – kind of a mix between Papalote and El Farolito in SF. The menu also reminds me of those standbys. Vegetarian burritos with marinated tofu. Mole for days. Tons of salsa. Perfection.
“It tastes like home,” my girlfriend said as she bit into her quesadilla. And with that, we were hooked. L.A. Burrito quickly became our nightly dinner spot and we soon began to explore the corner of Williamsburg it occupied, which, we discovered, had plenty more to offer a couple of homesick San Franciscans.
After mastering our coffee-and-food situation, the next thing we needed was a good place to drink. There are tons of dive bars with cheap pints, but most of these places are cramped and busy (like SF’s Attic Club or maybe the Phone Booth). Great spots if you’re looking to hang out late with a million sweaty hipsters, but I like to be in the sunshine when I drink and that’s why I wanted to find a place like Zeitgeist with open space, tables, and a somewhat-gritty vibe.
After fruitlessly scouring Yelp and other recommendation sites, I happened upon a new spot that had exactly what I needed. Luckydog is a block over from L.A. Burrito on Bedford Avenue and South First. I didn’t think much of it when I first walked in, but when I noticed the vintage beer cans lining the walls and heard the opening chords of The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” on the jukebox, I decided to get comfy. I ordered a pint of Stella and headed out back to find a seat. And that’s when I noticed this wasn’t your average dive. In place of the usual rancid-ass garbage area you find behind most places, Luckydog has a full patio with tables, chairs, and yes, even dogs.
I sat out back and smoked and drank to my heart’s content and eventually got to talking to the owner, Sal Fristensky, who told me he’d designed the place – shuffleboard table, pinball machine, dim PBR lamps and all – with San Francisco in mind. Apparently his friend Mike is from San Francisco and Sal had spent countless nights hearing about SF hotspots like Toronado and Lone Palm. “He actually just opened a new spot in Park Slope called Mission Dolores Bar,” Sal said before telling the bartender to put my beer on his tab. Nice!
A few days later, my girlfriend and I jumped on our bikes and set out for an afternoon ride followed by a few pints at what sounded like it might be a direct portal to home.
Mission Dolores Bar sits on the far outskirts of Park Slope on a random corner occupied by tiny bodegas and the occasional hole-in-the-wall Chinese diner. It seemed a little sketchy, but when my girlfriend and I saw the cluster of fixies out front, we knew we were at the right spot. We locked up our bikes and strolled through the gaping mouth of a door that once functioned as the entrance to an auto body shop. Inside we were greeted by hoards of not-too-broke, not-too-bourgeoisie, 20- and 30-somethings, many of whom seemed to have dropped straight out of San Francisco.
There in the corner near the pinball machine sat a cluster of flannel-shirted cool kids sipping PBR, smoking, and eating nachos from a taco spot down the street. In the other corner, a rowdy group of girls celebrated a 30th birthday party with towering glasses of Hefeweizen. Through the crowd, I could see a couple of tattooed barmaids doling out pints of obscure microbrews and cans of cheap swill from a long bar in back.
My girlfriend and I sighed with relief before saddling up to order, and that’s when I noticed how truly San Franciscan this place is. The bar looks almost exactly like the one at Toronado, right down to the elbow rests. I found out, after talking to owner Mike Wiley, that he actually had the rests from the Lower Haight locale measured down to the millimeter to fit his bar. “Toronado is the best beer bar in the world,” he said. “And San Francisco is one of the best places.” No argument here.
After getting our beers, my girlfriend and I found a spot in the courtyard next to a scruffy dude wearing cutoff jeans and a pork pie hat. “Where are you guys from?” he asked. When we told him, he just laughed. “Well,” he said. “You’ve definitely found the right place. This is the hottest spot in Park Slope right now. It’s just amazing” Agreed.
I’ve been in New York long enough to feel more at home in my temporary new city, and I’m finally ready to explore it. After all, the point of coming here is not to spend the whole time looking for stuff I’m already familiar with. Still, it’s nice to know the options are out there. In fact, they’re ever-present. During an afternoon nap, I was awakened by a man shuffling by my window with a large duffle bag. “Empanada, empanada,” he said over and over again. Not quite as magical or mysterious as the Tamale Lady, but his home-fried snacks will tide me over until I get back to the city by the bay. And now it’s time to get down to business. NYC, you might not be as awesome as my hometown, but you’re still pretty damn great. Prepare yourself. I’m gonna experience the shit out of you!
If you’re considering moving to New York, my advice is that you go on a little staycation first. Walk out your door and grab some coffee at Blue Bottle and then stroll through Dolores Park until you’re hungry. Hit up Papalote or El Farolito for burritos afterward and then go grab drinks at Zeitgeist or Toronado. Later that night, when you see the Tamale Lady break through the door with her cooler full of magic, just ask yourself, “Am I ready to give all this up?” If the answer’s yes, then you’re in for some serious withdrawal sessions. But if the answer’s no, well, then you’re probably smarter than me.