I'm a bit of an Anglophile.
Ever since I can remember, I’ve been enamored of British music, expressions, humor, and celebrities. So after years spent pining from afar, I moved to London in my mid-20s. And like any crush realized, my fantasy quickly turned to familiarity. Like a true-blue Londoner, I was soon complaining about the Tube, the crappy weather, and the cost of living. It’s not that I’d stopped loving all things English.
It’s just that my relationship with that country had become a little more complex. It didn’t help that people were always reminding me of how awesome home was. “San Francisco is the only American city I’d consider living in” was something I heard more than once, along with, “You’re from California? Why on earth are you here?” Two years in, I moved back to the Bay.
And because I’m always nostalgic for last year or even five minutes ago, it wasn’t long before I missed London – remembering all the good and none of the bad. I started to wonder what British things I might find in San Francisco. I knew I wouldn’t be able to recreate my old life in The Big Smoke, but I was sure I could at least get a taste of England in our fair city. And given my fickle track record, this would probably be enough to satisfy me. So I went looking.
My first stop was You Say Tomato, a British grocery store on California Street in Nob Hill. Storeowner David Kidd is from Stoke-on-Trent, a city smack-dab in the center of England. He opened the shop back in 2004, and says that although plenty of Anglophiles like me walk through his doors, a good number of his patrons are British expats who just can’t settle for Safeway. His most popular sellers are tea and chocolate, but people also love the digestive crackers, detergents, and the Walkers crisps (chips), which don’t stay in stock for too long. Speaking of chocolate, there’s almost an entire wall of British candy bars – Curly Wurly, Crunchie, Aero, Cadbury Flake, and just about anything else you’d find at your standard news agent in the UK.
David and I start talking about the differences between American and European chocolates – for most Brits, the American variety is just too sweet. He tells me that in the UK, American chocolates are actually not called “chocolate” at all, but rather “chocolate flavored.” I don’t remember seeing that denotation, but then again I don’t remember seeing any American chocolate while I was there. What I do know is that American chocolate is usually made with less milk (some of the dairy is replaced with vegetable oil), more sugar, and less cocoa butter – the result is a lighter, sweeter, greasier product. I’m beginning to understand why the expats might pass on the Hershey bar and instead make a trip to You Say Tomato for their old favorites.
Aside from the sweet stuff, there’s a fridge full of cheddar, sausages, and pasties. Pasties are to pies what calzones are to pizza. Like other savory pies, they’re filed with minced meat, potatoes and onions; the difference is that the pastry is folded over and then sealed to form a semicircle.
I’m American, so of course I make a fool of myself in front of David. Instead of saying “pass-tees,” I call them “pace-tees.” I’m pretty embarrassed when he corrects me. Here I am, proudly telling him that I lived in London, and acting like he should practically consider me a compatriot. And then I go and refer to a national dish by the same name as an adhesive nipple covering. Oops!
You can find good tea at any number of coffee shops or restaurants in San Francisco. But I wanted to find where some friends and I could sit down to enjoy the British ritual of tea, complete with dainty china and tea sandwiches. I’m looking for a teahouse. I settle on Dartealing in SoMa based on recommendations and the fact that it seemed a little less formal than some of the others.
Dartealing opened just last April. The owner, Pauline Mai, was born in Vietnam, raised in Paris, and then moved to the US for high school. A self-described “pack rat,” she’s been collecting old teapots and other knickknacks since she was a kid.
The décor is part Victorian, part bohemian, and part your grandma’s living room.
Light blue walls are lined with adorable, mismatched china from Pauline’s own personal collection. Low ceilings and armchairs make the lounge cozy and comfortable.
I’m surprised to learn that Pauline also owns the nail salon next door, which is similar in look and clientele. Pauline even caters tea parties at the salon, which she calls the “tea and toe” package – perfect for showers or even just a day out with your mom.
My friends and I each go for one of the afternoon packages (mine’s called Serendipi-Tea), which, for $25, will get you a bottomless pot of tea and an assortment of small sandwiches, cakes, cookies, and scones. Everything is tasty, but I’m especially in love with the white chocolate and lavender scones, baked in-house and served warm.
In my experience, scones in this country usually taste like chalk, but these babies are moist and perfectly sweet. I’m not sure if you’ll find flavors like this at your traditional English teahouse, but I’m not too worried about that.
Very little about Dartealing is traditional. This place takes the English concept of a tearoom, and then turns it on its head. And I’m not just talking about the nail salon tie-in. Sure, you’ll get your standard cucumber or ham and cheddar sandwiches, but you’ll also find PB&J, goat cheese with sun dried tomato, and pulled beef. Pauline likes to have fun with the menu, changing it often; she even takes suggestions from customers. She tells us she’s got a fish and chips sandwich coming out soon. Now this I gotta see.
The pub: It’s pretty much a staple of English life. You go there after work with colleagues, before big nights out with friends, and even for lunch on a Sunday with the family. So I couldn’t do a tour of all things English without trying to find a great British pub in the city. Everyone I asked said to go to The Pig and Whistle. And so, one night after work, that’s where I went.
The pub is on the corner of Geary and Wood in Laurel Heights. I hate admitting this, but I don’t normally feel comfortable having a beer by myself at a bar or pub. At The Pig and Whistle, though, I feel perfectly at ease sitting alone, sipping a pint without so much as a book to distract me.
I’m not alone for long, though. Pub owner Steve Anderson joins me after my first drink to tell me his story.
Originally from Catford in southeast London, he came to San Francisco 30 years ago after visiting friends here and falling in love with the city. He opened the bar in 1991 because he had yet to find a pub like the ones he knew back home.
The Pig and Whistle exemplifies all that you’d find at a British pub. For starters, I’m hearing English and Irish accents all along the bar. There’s also a wide selection of ales, a trivia quiz, darts, and your standard pub food. I try the bangers and mash, which is just as good – if not better – than anything I’d ever had at pubs in London.
And then there are the sports. When Americans think of English sports, they usually think soccer. But the bat and ball game of cricket is probably just as ingrained in the national consciousness.
The Pig and Whistle has its own cricket team – made up of staff, regulars, and anyone else who wants to take part – who come together to play friendly games on the weekends against other Bay Area teams.
The pub is also big on supporting local teams, even if the sports they play are anything but British. In fact, for the first half hour I’m here, USF coaches record a live radio broadcast, commentating on a basketball game that’s being shown on the screen above the bar. So while college kids in Giants caps watch on, cheering intermittently, I am reminded that although this pub is British, we are still very much in America.
My tour of British San Francisco ends where it all began for me: the music.
Leisure is a Britpop night held at the Cat Club on the first Saturday of every month. It plays indie, Madchester, shoegaze, and some old ’60s classics, including The Smiths, Suede, The Rolling Stones, and The Libertines.
I get a chance to speak with the guy who started it all. By day, Aaron Axelsen is the music director at Live 105. By night, he DJs some of San Francisco’s oldest and most-loved club nights.
He started Leisure seven years ago as an offshoot of Popscene, his other brainchild. Whereas Popscene embraces new music (a lot of English bands play their first US live sets here), Leisure is where Aaron and his partner Omar get nostalgic and celebrate the classics.
The crowd is a mix. I see guys with long hair, bandanas, and leather pants; mod chicks in vintage dresses; and hipster goths in head-to-toe black.
There are two rooms: the one in the back is for dancing and the one in the front hosts Britpop karaoke. Brave souls stand atop a tiny stage (it’s really more of a ledge) to sing Suede’s “Beautiful Ones” and Billy Idol’s “Eyes Without a Face.” I try to convince my partner in crime to get up and sing “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” with me – but I’m shot down. Too shy to go it alone, I settle for singing everyone else’s selections at the top of my lungs, sans stage or mic.
If you love British bands from every era (but especially the ’80s and ’90s), Leisure is the place to go. It’s one hit after another all night long, and just about everyone is dancing. I have an amazing time, but this reminds me a lot more of parties I had in college than it does anything I ever experienced in England. In a good way.
Go to You Say Tomato to stock up on British chocolates and crackers, and if you’re lucky, Walkers crisps. Grab your best girlfriends (or brave guy friends) and enjoy an afternoon tea package at Dartealing. Maybe even get a pedicure before, during, or after. Go to The Pig and Whistle for happy hour between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. daily, trivia night on Wednesdays and Sundays, or call the bar to find out how you can join the pub’s cricket team. Sing and dance to your favorite Britpop at Leisure on the first Saturday of the month. Doors open at 10 p.m. Get there early to avoid lines, but don’t expect it to pick up until closer to midnight (the night goes till 3 a.m.).