I first visited Bernal Heights when I knew nothing about San Francisco except its tourist spots, when I came to stay with a childhood friend. I remember this distinct feeling of being on the edge of something different for this city; the vibrant culture of Mission lay down below, while the hills above had a cozy neighborhood vibe. When I moved to the city in 2009, I was drawn back to Bernal. Its diversity and charm felt like the San Francisco I’d always dreamt of, with rent I could actually afford. Don’t get me wrong, I love the hustle of urban centers, but there’s something to be said for coming home to a manageable area full of familiar faces – the kind of place where some days, there’s no need to leave at all.
Bernal has experienced a popularity surge in recent years and the streets around me have changed even since I’ve lived here. There are locals – like the guy on my corner who watches football every Sunday in his garage with his Chihuahua (her toenails painted pink) – who seem to have been here forever. He’s an example of the folks who keep their roots firm against the rising tides of young people like myself who are buying and renting homes in the neighborhood. Even with the gentrification happening in Bernal, the neighborhood remains a diverse place. I’ve met Palestinian Chileans, African Americans, Latinos, and Asians who’ve been calling this place home for a very long time.
There are new bars and restaurants popping up on Cortland Ave. because, let’s face it, there’s no more room on Valencia St. But there’s also something old school about Bernal that I hope will never disappear – especially considering the fact that Bernal Heights was recently named the hottest neighborhood in the U.S. People look you in the eye and say hello as you pass them by, there’s a deep pride around keeping the neighborhood safe, and who can complain about being able to choose from five different types of ethnic foods within a three-block radius? When I think of my neighborhood, I think of truly affordable farmers’ markets, local families dressed to impress headed to church on Sundays, and the joyous relief of reaching the top of Bernal Hill.
Now that I have my own place here, I’ve been able to fully take in all that my neighborhood has to offer. Here are a couple of old and new favorites.
The Front Porch
Who in their right mind doesn’t love fried chicken? The Front Porch is one of the coziest restaurants I’ve been to, with beautiful black and red tiled floors, fried chicken that comes in a bucket, and mouth-watering cocktails. With dishes like bacon-wrapped fried dates, pulled pork tacos, and baked mac ’n’ cheese, this is the spot to come to when you want to open your belt buckle a notch and indulge in the best of Southern comfort cuisine.
If you’ve never been to Bernal Hill, you’re just plain crazy. It’s by far my favorite thing about Bernal Heights, offering a 360-degree panoramic view of the entire city, including the Golden Gate Bridge, downtown, San Bruno Mountain, and the East Bay. Here you’ll meet the sun even when Twin Peaks is covered in fog. Streets and paths from all sides of Bernal Heights lead to this urban oasis, and although the hike up can feel treacherous at times, the gift you get at the top is worth it. It’s a great spot to get romantic, athletic, or meditative, especially on those afternoons when you want to escape the city without having to drive an hour north.
A trendy new spot in Bernal, this is a great place to meet for happy hour. Holy Water’s rustic-chic ambience puts a fresh spin on local bars in this area. Shoot for a classic and order an Old Fashioned, or try something a little more dangerous and order a Mexican Firing Squad.
There’s nothing better in this world than a good pickle, and Paulie’s Pickling has the greatest pickles and then some. Located in a small culinary market that holds several different food stands – Eji’s Ethiopian and Suite Foods waffle shop among them – this is the perfect place to fill up on all of your pickle needs, or to experience authentic Jewish cuisine at its best. Chopped liver, brisket, and egg salad are only a few of Paulie’s options, and the best part of all this? You can eat them on a toasted fresh bagel.
The Lucky Horseshoe
This is one of those bars where, when frequented often enough, everybody’s going to know your name. The Lucky Horseshoe is a quintessential neighborhood watering hole, with cheap drinks, straightforward service, and weekly entertainment. Don’t miss Friday night karaoke or the Bernal Mountain Bluegrass Jam that happens every Sunday.
You’ll forget the word “hipster” ever existed when you step into this Salvadorian and Mexican spot on Mission just a little past 30th Street. This is the heart of old-school Bernal Heights, with an authentic vibe. Do not miss La Santaneca’s jalapeño cheese pupusas, and definitely make your way over after a late night of drinking. Fridays and Saturdays are open until 3 a.m.
The Wild Side West
A local favorite, this is the kind of bar that’s easy to cozy up to. The self-proclaimed “welcoming lesbian bar” welcomes everyone who walks in the door. Wild Side West’s secret gem is its beer garden – sit there on a sunny day and you’ll feel like you’ve stepped into a magical wonderland.
A quaint and charming restaurant on Cortland Ave. with some of the best homemade Italian food I’ve had in a while. Every time I pass by Vega it’s packed, so reservations are recommended. Don’t miss out on Divine Wine Wednesdays, where you get half off the price on bottles of wine with your dinner.
Alemany Farmers’ Market
I love going to the Ferry Building farmers’ markets, but the prices can get outrageous. Isn’t the point of shopping at a farmers’ market to support local growers while avoiding fancy health food store markups? The Alemany Farmers’ Market, known by some as “the people’s market,” has been around since the 1940s. Families have been selling here for many generations, and every Saturday morning you can find fresh produce, flowers, nuts, and even oysters for way less than other markets around town.
Check out more neighborhoods that we covered in our "Why I Love ..." series here.