San Francisco and Half Moon Bay

Written by Keridwen Cornelius Category: Travel Issue: October 2012
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PHOTO BY Anthony Gordon;California Academy of Science Aquarium

From Prohibition haunts to beach-side horseback-riding, plus a host of cultural and viticultural activities, this Bay Area duo serves up a bevy of traveling gems

We nearly walk past it, which is its sly intent. It is an inconspicuous building of an indeterminate shade of gunmetal, on a shadowy street in the gritty Tenderloin. A man opens the door, and we serve him the password in giddy, giggling whispers, like schoolgirls unpocketing a gold nugget of gossip: “Dewdropper.” Nonplussed, he opens the door, and we decant into Bourbon and Branch.

Having operated as a speakeasy from 1921 to 1933, Bourbon and Branch (501 Jones St., 415-346-1735, preserves the flavor of Prohibition with candlelight flickering seductively across brick and pressed tin, and a menu of cocktails infused with the likes of sloe gin, ginger juice and cardamom tincture. The atmosphere of sybaritic secrecy is scaffolded by a surprising amount of house rules for an establishment built on the foundation of lawlessness. But would we have it any other way? We would not.

Yes, adding a jigger of cloak-and-dagger to a perfectly legal watering hole may seem a tad Great Gatsby-gimmicky to some, but this is San Francisco – a city where the cultural competition is so stiff the citizenry must constantly reinvent ways to raise the entertainment bar. For travelers, this translates to a host of hidden, creatively-conceived activities sprinkled among the checklist itinerary items (streetcars, sea lions, sourdough-bowl soup). And in addition to its famed day trip destinations (Napa, Sonoma, et al), the area hides some sleepy yet sophisticated seaside side trips, like the soon-to-be-celebrity-status Half Moon Bay. Let’s look closer.

San Francisco
It is one of the truths of traveling that when one sees a line snaking out of a building that seems to be doing nothing in particular to attract said line, one should immediately queue up and ask questions later. Such is the case with Tartine Bakery (600 Guerrero St., 415-487-2600, As you chat with your fellow queuers and ask them to hold your place while you duck inside to be struck dumb by the display case, your burning questions will be answered. What does Tartine serve? Gem-like tarts, lavish cakes, bogglingly buttery croissants and bubbling, bronzed croque monsieurs. What makes it so popular? James Beard Award-winning baker Chad Robertson’s faintly fermented bread gets a rise from a natural leaven that takes a week to make, and everything that wafts out of the oven benefits from California’s bounty of fresh produce and dairy from enlightened ungulates. Eat inside or picnic at nearby Mission Dolores Park, then explore the Latino-accented Mission District, famous for its bold murals. Scout them out along Clarion Alley and the blocks south of there between Valencia, Mission and 20th streets, or take a tour with Precita Eyes Muralists (2981 24th St., 415-285-2287,

Ambling aimlessly across this eminently walkable, albeit stairmaster-esque, city is one of the best ways to while away a day. For the quintessential boutique-, bookstore-, and sidewalk-café-lined streetscape experience, start in Lower Pacific Heights at Fillmore Street around the intersection with Pine Street. This is where yuppies shop with their puppies. Join them at jewelry stores like Hiho Silver and design hubs like Zinc Details and Jonathan Adler. Stroll north, pausing at Broadway Street to drink in the big, blue bay views, then head to Union Street for more shopping (window or actual) at Union Street Papery, Ambiance boutique, and Chronicle Books. 

Another proto-San Francisco experience is Golden Gate Park (, a stunning green space home to the de Young Museum – which spotlights such diverse artists as fashion gender-bender Jean Paul Gaultier and Dutch masters Vermeer and Rembrandt – and the California Academy of Sciences (55 Music Concourse Drive, 415-379-8000,, the only place in the world with an aquarium, a planetarium, a natural history museum, and a rainforest under one roof. Explore the four-story rainforest, aflap with free-flying birds and butterflies and populated with bug-eyed amphibians and brobdingnagian fish. You can tour the exhibits on your own, take a regular tour or, if you want an inside look into how the museum works (plus a peek into the delightfully gory specimen vault), take a Behind-the-Scenes tour. Or, if you’re there on a Thursday night, join locals at Nightlife, the Academy’s adults-only event of live music, lectures and cocktails. Peckish? Skip the café and head downstairs to the more elegant Moss Room, where you can dine on Asian and Italian specialties against the backdrop of a fern-draped living wall.

After all that walking and mental stimulation, slay a few brain cells in the noble name of oenophilia. The only operating winery in the downtown area, Bluxome Street Winery (53 Bluxome St., 415-543-5353, harkens to a sepia-toned time in the early 1900s when San Fran’s SoMa (South of Market) ’hood was a winemaking hub. Sip a thinking person’s rosé of pinot noir as you gaze through windows, watching winemakers craft vino in an unorthodoxly urban setting.

Kensington Park Hotel, a former Elks Lodge-turned-sophisticated pensionSpeaking of striking settings, Farallon (450 Post St., 415-956-6969, serves a staggering array of seafood in an Art Nouveau-meets-Finding Nemo setting. Fill up on fruits de mer and tuna tartare with lemon and sea beans as you gaze up at jellyfish chandeliers.

Bed down in the heart of San Fran at a boutique hotel that mixes classic history with a cheeky sensibility. Hotel Diva (440 Geary St., 800-553-1900, may have a prima donna moniker and corseted, leggy ladies silkscreened on the blinds, but its black-and-ash palette, sleek lounges and complimentary afternoon sake will make men feel welcome, too. Dashiell Hammett wrote and essentially lived at the Hotel Union Square (114 Powell St., 415-397-3000,, which honors the man and his era with Maltese Falcon playing constantly in a lobby framed by 1920s murals, plus a Dashiell Hammett suite that feels like the writer’s den. For the baseball fan in your family, book the hotel’s orange-toned, fan gear-filled San Francisco Giants suite. Nearby, erstwhile Elks Lodge Kensington Park Hotel (450 Post St., 800-553-1900, retains a certain aristocratic aura with painted wooden ceilings and elevators, complimentary afternoon tea and sherry, and classic decor with sassy twists.

the sleek, sexy, centrally-located Hotel DivaHalf Moon Bay
You could drive past it a thousand times and never know it was there. For years, Mavericks was kept secret, and then as the rumors leaked, it was dismissed as myth by the very people who discovered it. This fall, a movie about the Mt. Everest of surfing, Chasing Mavericks, will put Half Moon Bay on the map for more than just big wave riders.

Located about 25 miles south of San Francisco, Half Moon Bay lies along a crenellated coastline where emerald cliffs plunge into a seething sapphire sea. It’s the kind of semi-secret place favored by rum-runners during Prohibition and modern sightseers seeking the unlikely confluence of sleepy seaside burg with big-city amenities like fabulous food and wine. Add a splash of arts and culture and a streak of outdoor activities, and it all comes together like the waters at Mavericks that it holds in one of its coastal folds.

Taking full advantage of Half Moon Bay’s fog-shrouded coves, Moss Beach Distillery (140 Beach Way, Moss Beach, 650-728-5595, was once Frank’s Place, a Prohibition-era speakeasy supplied by seafaring bootleggers. Dashiell Hammett was a habitué and appropriated the setting into his suspense short story The Girl with the Silver Eyes. Today, you can chase crab cakes Benedict with a horseradish-rich Bloody Mary and keep your eyes peeled for another colorful gal, the Blue Lady. The resident cobalt-clad ghost was allegedly a scarlet woman who had an affair with a prurient piano player and was murdered while strolling with her lover on the beach.

Your ramble on the shore will have a happier ending thanks to Sea Horse Ranch (1828 N. Cabrillo Hwy., Half Moon Bay, 650-726-9903,, which stables steeds that will trot you through flowery flora where birds flash red feathers to the beach, where you’ll kick up sand as gulls glide overhead and rhythmic waves dissolve into froth.

If the sea is sounding its siren call, paddle out with Half Moon Bay Kayak Co. (Pillar Point Harbor, 650-773-6101, You’ll navigate between moored ships in Pillar Point Harbor, then take to the open Pacific, watching for seals, seagulls and sundry marine life.

Photo courtesy Jay Graham Half Moon Bay’s Pillar Point Harbor

There’s something about watery locations that fosters glassmaking industries; the world’s epicenter of the craft is the Venetian island of Murano, and famed glass twister Dale Chihuly hails from bay-bound, rain-drenched Tacoma, Washington. Whatever the reason, if you’ve always had a hankering to stick a molten blob of silica into a furnace and see what develops, Half Moon Bay Art Glass (12341 San Mateo Rd., Half Moon Bay, 650-283-5626, is a good place to start. You’ll be in the capable and gentle hands of Douglass “nominative determinism” Brown, who’ll ask you to choose a shape (beginners can craft a paperweight, an egg, or a pumpkin) and colors, then guide you as you spool neon-orange molten glass on a blowpipe, fire it up in a furnace, and slowly swirl it spit-style into the desired form. No matter which colors you choose, your glass blob looks orange until Brown takes it out of the cooler the next day to reveal seaweed-like swirls of green, blue, or whatever.

After working next to a 2,500-degree Fahrenheit furnace, refresh yourself with a few glasses of vino at next-door La Nebbia Winery (12341 San Mateo Rd., Half Moon Bay, 650-726-9463, Gregarious vintner Kendyl Kellogg fosters a casual setting at her winery, where you can sample vintages for a modest fee (don’t miss the port, served in an edible chocolate cup), then take a glass outside to the picnic tables and try your hand at bocce ball.

Photo courtesy Jay Graham; Harley Farms

Pair your wine tasting with a cheese experience at bucolic Harley Farms (205 North St., Pescadero, 650-879-0480,, an award-winning goat dairy where you can meet the goats and the giant llamas that zealously guard them, cradle a baby goat in your arms, tour the dairy and learn how the cheese is made, then sample and shop for feta, fudge, and chevre (the lavender honey chevre is to die for).

Continue the time-honored marriage of alcohol and cheese at Half Moon Bay Brewing Co. (390 Capistrano Rd., Half Moon Bay, 650-728-2739,, which was a favorite haunt of Gerard Butler and the rest of the Chasing Mavericks cast after they filmed at the nearby surfing spot. Kick back on the bier-garden-style patio overlooking the bay, listen to live music, and order a beer and cheese platter, followed by the delectable seafood sampler and a Mavericks Amber Ale, as robust and refreshing as its namesake wave. If you’re there on the first Thursday evening of the month, join in on Brews and Views, where pilsner meets political discussion; show your support by ordering your choice of Alection Ale, either Obama Ale or Romney Ale. They’re both nutty.

Back in charming, historic downtown Half Moon Bay, peruse the boutiques and specialty stores before succumbing once again to the aforementioned motif at Half Moon Bay Wine & Cheese Co. (421 Main St., Half Moon Bay, 650-726-1520,, where you can taste from among 60 revolving wines paired with cheeses.

For dinner, you can go vino-and-pasta-centric at Pasta Moon (315 Main St., Half Moon Bay, 650-726-5125,, an airy, lipstick-red-accented farm-to-table affair that dishes up a feisty linguini with pan-seared ahi, capers, olives and anchovies. Or follow the crowds to Sam’s Chowder House (4210 N. Cabrillo Hwy., Half Moon Bay, 650-712-0245,, a sprawling bayside classy-shack where you can fulfill your most far-fetched fish fantasies with bay scallop ceviche, an award-winning lobster roll sandwich, a massive, messy platter of chile-garlic-roasted Dungeness crab, and an ocean of other sea-fresh delectables.

You’ll waddle back fully satisfied to the next-door Beach House (4100 N. Cabrillo Hwy., Half Moon Bay, 650-712-0220, a sand-colored, coastal-cottage-style boutique on a bluff overlooking Pillar Point Harbor. In the morning you can step onto the breezy balcony and watch fishermen in waders foraging for shellfish.

Breakfast at tiny Half Moon Bay airport’s 3-Zero Café (9850 N. Cabrillo Hwy., Half Moon Bay, 650-728-1411,, a pilot hangout hung with plane paraphernalia where you can go hearty with a crab omelet or spicy sweet potato pancakes, watch the planes zoom into the air, and plan your own return flight to the Bay Area