The slower pace of the Richmond, as well as the fog, relative lack of affluence and psychic distance from Silicon Valley, make the neighborhood a favorite for longtime San Franciscans, but slowly evidence of a newer city of extreme wealth and goofily bearded young men looking at their iPhones is creeping into the Richmond.
As late as the 70’s and 80’s, the area was home to thousands of working class San Franciscans, mostly Irish, Italian and Asian San Franciscans, but by 1990 new immigration, primarily from various Asian countries but also from the former Soviet Union, began to change the face of western San Francisco. Back then, like many native bookish San Franciscans of my age, I bought used books and occasionally tried to meet women at Green Apple Books, the anchor of Clement Street. I still frequently stop by the Blue Danube, which in the early 80’s was one of the few real cafes in the western half of the city. It was there that my high school friends and I first went after reading Kerouac or Ginsberg and deciding we too should spend our time in coffee shops discussing literature and politics. That idea lasted about a week. In the 80’s, the Blue Danube was pretty much the only café on Clement that did not cater to elderly pensioners who would sip coffee out of Styrofoam cups with their mesh Niners caps pulled down closely over their heads as they read the Chinese papers.
Minh’s Vietnamese Restaurant, a cheap dive whose food was, in hindsight, nothing special by the high standards of Clement Street, was the place where my friends and I often spent hung-over New Year’s mornings nursing lemongrass noodles and strong Vietnamese coffees. It has long ago given way to a slightly more upscale Chinese place. Burma Superstar, where I wandered in on a lark more than 20 years ago, curious about what Burmese food was, now has lines around the blocks as food-seekers from as far away as New York and Noe Valley wait to eat at the now-famous restaurant.
$13 cocktails in the space where you used to be able to buy $4 pitchers of Anchor Steam
On the eastern border of the Richmond, not far from the University of San Francisco, is Rossi Park. My high school team called the ballfields there home. On many weekends it was easy to find a pickup baseball game, but now the park is overrun on summer days by soccer camps for kids and by evening softball (and occasionally kickball) leagues. A few blocks away, at The Corner Store on Geary and Masonic, patrons can sip $13 cocktails and $4 homemade sodas while waiting for their braised beef tongue with pickled jalapeno or local California halibut with fresh cranberry beans and pesto to arrive, in the space where a generation ago a bar with a vague cable car motif sold $4 pitchers of Anchor Steam and did not aggressively enforce laws about minimum drinking age. Slowly even the Richmond is becoming a place where native San Franciscans give directions based on what used to be there because the names and businesses now change too quickly.
Despite these unavoidable changes, today, western San Francisco can still feel like the real San Francisco to a native. It is, unlike the more glamorous and well-known parts of the city, relatively flat with few dramatic hills or skyscrapers to speak of, only boulevards stretching through the fog all the way to a beach that is almost always too cold for swimming. The bars still skew Irish and are more likely to have a photo of Joe Montana behind the bar than a menu featuring any organic or locally grown products. You can eat very well in the Richmond and Sunset, particularly if you like authentic and cheap Asian food. You can hang out in the Mission or South Beach in a t-shirt and dungarees or even shorts, and think you’re in Sunny California, but in the western half of the city you usually need a few more layers because in fact you’re in San Francisco. The Richmond was, and remains, geographical comfort food for the true San Franciscan soul.