When I moved back to San Francisco in 2006 after 12 years on the East Coast, I was desperate for an apartment. I took the first one I saw, as it was love at first sight. What I didn’t realize when I signed the lease was that I’d also fall in love with a little neighborhood called Cole Valley.
Now I can’t imagine living anywhere else. Not only am I steps away from Haight-Ashbury, blocks from Golden Gate Park, and a few short miles from the ocean, but also I live in a neighborhood that feels like a small town right in the middle of a city that isn’t always known for its friendliness. Restaurant and shop owners remember their patrons. Neighbors say hello to each other. And whether I just need to run errands, grab a coffee, or meet friends for a meal, I can do it all within a two-block radius, with several options for each.
Probably the most well-known spot on this list, Zazie is famous for its brunch, which is definitely worth the wait (and there will be a wait).
That being said, nothing beats a Monday- or Tuesday-night dinner on the heated garden patio complete with twinkling lights. On Mondays you can bring your dog and get $10 off any bottle of wine (plus lots of free treats for your pup), and on Tuesday there is no corkage fee.
I love every single thing on the seasonal menu. You’ll definitely want to save room for dessert. And as if I haven’t gone on long enough, their staff is warm and welcoming. Basically, I’m obsessed.
Say cheese, say charcuterie, say wine, and say, “Yes, please!” to this family-owned business.
Whether you need wine, cheese, and charcuterie for a dinner party or are just in the mood for a delicious and filling sandwich (my favorite is the Jambon Gruyere with French butter on a Dutch crunch roll), once you take your first bite, there will actually be no need for anyone to say cheese ’cause you’ll already be smiling from ear to ear. It’s that good.
Cole Valley Dog Park
This place is great for two reasons: it provides a shortcut from Clayton Street to Cole Street behind the N Judah tracks, and it’s a perfect place for locals to take their dogs.
Sure, it has its issues: it’s often muddy thanks to shoddy irrigation, and the dogs usually have to share the lawn with a sleeping homeless person. But everyone who brings their pups here is friendly, and Wine Wednesdays (bring a bottle or just a cup) are not to be missed. Sure, it’s not fenced in, but my puppy has run into BurgerMeister (next door) only once. OK, twice. Luckily, no one seemed to mind.
The Wild Parrots
Thanks to the documentary, most people think of these green parrots with red masks as belonging to Telegraph Hill. But the parrots actually enjoy summering in Cole Valley. There’s just something remarkable about seeing a flock of parrots flying outside your window or above your head. And I promise: it never gets old.
I cannot walk by this “fine goods and gifts” shop without coveting something in the window. Owned and run by a former art director, Urban Mercantile carries stationery, linens, pillows, trays, ceramics, and more for the whimsical and elegant home.
I come here a lot to buy gifts for friends, but I’ve never left without also buying something for myself.
Does San Francisco really need more fancy Mexican food? Probably not. Do I crave Padrecito’s food and drinks all the time anyway? Absolutely.
Also, considering that the most expensive thing on the menu is $16, I’m not even sure if that counts as “fancy fancy.” I mean, this is SF; people pay $16 for a burger without flinching. Plus, the meat comes from local farms, and they use organic produce whenever possible. And most importantly, it’s delicious. I even get excited about their salads, and, well, it takes a lot to get me stoked on lettuce.
If you’re not in the mood for dinner, grab a seat at the bar, where the cocktails will blow you away. I love the Piñata, made with reposado tequila, pineapple, rosemary, lime, and the kicker, Serrano chile. It warms you up in all the right ways.
This cozy wine bar is a perfect first-date place, as it offers wine and small plates without the commitment of an official dinner.
It’s always a little weird to see a wine list in SF without California wines on it (they’re all Italian), but the owner/wine director was amazing on my visits, bringing me exactly what I wanted based on just a few questions. Plus, all wines are available in three-, six-, or 12-ounce pours. (The latter is a carafe.)
The vibe is sophisticated and sexy, which is a nice addition for Cole Valley. It’s almost – dare I say – a place for grown-ups. Now if only they were open on Sundays.
Is it weird to include an auto-repair place on this list? Probably. But just walking by Cole Garage brightens my day. I love the shape of the building, the retro signage, the cleanliness, and the fact that the outside wall is a mural of real-life dogs that reside in Cole Valley.
And fine, this is probably the important part: the mechanics are honest, fair, and good. Maybe they’re not the cheapest, but they do a great job; they’re fast; they’re communicative; and I feel safe in their hands.
Frankly, there’s not much I don’t love about Cole Valley, and it was hard to choose my favorites because just about every place has something to love. But don’t take my word for it. Come and visit. And say hi if you see me on the street. That’s just what we do here.
Check out more neighborhoods that we covered in our "Why I Love ..." series here.