The Inner Sunset felt like home before I lived there. Granted, I have a history with the neighborhood: When I was a kid, my dad owned an automotive repair shop on Ninth Avenue – the heart of the neighborhood. We lived in Noe Valley, but I’d spend many of my childhood afternoons and weekends in the shop. Sometimes my dad would let me sweep the floor for a dollar – a generous sum since I’m sure the seven-year-old me spread the mess more than cleaned it. With that dollar I’d walk up Ninth, cross Irving, and head into Reliable Rexall to purchase my beloved Nestlé Crunch bar. My parents trusted that the neighborhood locals were keeping an eye on me.
This was in the mid-’90s, before my family decided to move out of the city and into quaint suburbia. More than a decade later, I came back to live in the Inner Sunset and rediscovered that same big-city neighborhood with the small-town feel. But the years have definitely given San Francisco’s foggiest locale a new edge. True, it’s not as hip as the Mission, glamorous as Pac Heights, or charming as North Beach, but the Inner Sunset has a bit of everything, from old to new.
To get a better grip on neighborhood spots worth visiting, I went to the two people I trust most: my parents. However, their most recent Inner Sunset knowledge dates back to the turn of the century, so I’ve had to do a bit of exploring on my own to find the fresher additions. Here’s to rediscovering the neighborhood’s well-worn favorites and uncovering its latest hotspots.
My dad’s first suggestion is Misdirections Magic Shop, a place where I have fond memories of picking out trick gum packs and fake poo (it looks so real!). On a recent evening, I step in to find a store that hasn’t changed much since my prepubescent days. It’s packed with more books and DVDs, but the gum that will shock your friend and the plastic poo still hang on the walls, along with other old-school jokes and magic items: whoopee cushions, Groucho glasses, Klutz craft books, and more.
Joe Pon, the owner, has run Misdirections as a one-man show since he opened the place 15 years ago. He tells me he’s especially fond of the Inner Sunset because its residents are supportive and loyal to mom-and-pop shops. “I’ve actually taught magic to kids that are adults now, who have kids and bring their kids in,” Joe says. “It’s really a wonderful community for the magic.”
Following my dad’s next recommendation takes me a block up Ninth to Howard’s Cafe. Walking into Howard’s is like walking back in time. The broken-in diner features an old U-shaped breakfast bar in the back, which happens to be my favorite place to eat my morning veggie omelet. The bar stools are a little wobbly, it’s right up next to the kitchen noises, and waitresses will magically appear behind the bar to refill everyone’s water. It’s the kind of no-nonsense place that has had the same regulars and staff for years.
After I eat something salty, I always need something sweet. That’s when I turn to Donut World, the 24-hour donut shop at the corner of Ninth and Judah. I’d already visited more than a baker’s dozen times when my mom finally let me in on her secret: Her first San Francisco job was at Donut World. If that’s not old school, then I don’t know what is. Imagining a younger version of my mom serving the shop’s clientele, which ranges from working professionals grabbing a quick breakfast before catching the N to already-jittery toddlers pulling their reluctant parents through the door, makes me even fonder of the place. (Full disclosure: My mom quit that job after a few months. I like to think it’s because she was too tempted by all of the donuts.)
The Inner Sunset isn’t dotted with only old-timey drugstores, diners, and shops, though. UCSF’s close proximity and the lower-than-average rent have attracted a younger crowd, to which several new businesses are aiming to cater.
One of my favorites is Paragraph, a small boutique that opened its doors in 2007. Paragraph carries unique clothing – a navy button-up tank with golden elephant print catches my eye on this particular visit – and jewelry from local, independent, and mainstream designers. SF-centric books and stationery, along with other cute trinkets, also line the shelves. The shop wouldn’t be out of place in the boutique-lined streets of Lower Pac Heights. But owner Vanessa Viray, who also works the graveyard shift at Bayer HealthCare Pharmaceuticals, says that she loves the neighborhood’s laid-back feel.
When asked about her favorite places in the neighborhood, Vanessa mentions Urban Bazaar, one of the newest of newcomers to Ninth Avenue. Opened in the summer of 2010, Urban Bazaar is owned by local artists Briana Bers and Brandi Chalker. The shop is 100 percent stocked with handcrafted and fair trade products from both local and international artists. On a recent Saturday, I step into Urban Bazaar in search for a card to mail to an East Coast friend.
It’s hard, however, not to get distracted by everything the store has to offer. Artist bios and locations are displayed in front of jewelry, paintings, and other pieces. It’s akin to being at Whole Foods and reading where your produce is grown. I finally make my way to the back of the shop where I find all of the greeting cards. I choose one with a print of Sutro Tower, a classic neighborhood sight, with a heart-shaped balloon floating next to it. This should help in convincing my friend to visit.
Whenever I do have out-of-towners come visit, they always want to experience the SF nightlife. While the Inner Sunset isn’t known for its bar scene, it’s not lacking in places for good drinks and good times. For instance, Social Kitchen & Brewery, the local brewery has a very happy Happy Hour on Mondays: all day. I’m not much of a drinker, mostly because I have that scientifically proven and politically correct illness called Asian glow. But that doesn’t mean I can’t take advantage of Social’s appetizer deals, most importantly the addictive mac and cheese with truffle oil. And according to my beer-loving boyfriend, the brews, which are made onsite under the watchful eye of brewmaster Rich Higgins, are quite good too.
Social has quickly become a nighttime hub for the neighborhood’s young and old. On a recent visit, I sat next to a group of UCSF students and researchers, while a few tables down a family of four enjoyed their meal. The bar residents ranged from a lone white-haired man watching the football game to plaid-wearing hipsters sharing beers and laughs.
Whereas Social adds chic to the Inner Sunset, the older bars give the neighborhood its unique character. Across the street from Social is one of the most memorable sidewalk signs of Ninth Avenue: A lounging duck with a pint in one hand and a red scarf wrapped around his neck. Mucky Duck sells itself as “A friendly pub where everyone is welcome,” and it certainly lives up to its slogan, as evidenced by the friendly bartenders and general good cheer of the drinkers. And yes, the fact that my dad used to come here makes me biased.
After a night of drinking, you’ll find one of the best hangover cures at Arizmendi Bakery: a chewy, sourdough cheese roll. If there’s a heart to this neighborhood, it’s here. It takes patience and common courtesy to move through the crowds in the shop’s tiny storefront, but it’s well worth the wait, even when the line is curling out onto the sidewalk.
I make it a habit of going to Arizmendi at least once a week. (Knowing that I’m supporting a worker-owned business justifies the carb overload.) On one of my recent visits, I grab a tomato focaccia round and brioche, and head out to the neighborhood’s most prized asset: Golden Gate Park. The Ninth Avenue entrance leads to green fields and two baseball fields within the park where there’s plenty of grass and bleacher seating to enjoy my fresh Arizmendi goods.
I pick a spot on the bleachers. From here I also get the best view: the dog walkers, Frisbee-throwing teenagers, and runners coming in and out of GGP; the candy-colored houses lining Lincoln; the movement of Ninth Avenue. I’m lucky enough to have picked a sunny day. Still, I think to myself, I wouldn’t let the fog push me away from here.
To experience the Inner Sunset yourself, visit any of the businesses mentioned above. There are dozens of other gems in the neighborhood that I wasn’t able to include in this story, but just take a stroll down Ninth Avenue and you’ll pass more than a fair share of restaurants and shops worth visiting. Explore neighboring avenues and streets to find the nooks and crannies of this homey SF neighborhood.