Best Foodie Tour Guide - 2012
By Sean Timberlake
San Franciscans have an insatiable taste for the new. Just like today's catch or the season's first asparagus, the perceived worth of the city's food attractions is inversely proportionate to how long they have spent beneath the heat lamp of the public eye. But sometimes, as with scotch or balsamico, time tempers the rough edges and adds depth and complexity.
Such is the case with GraceAnn Walden's walking tour of North Beach. For well over two decades, Walden has treated her charges to her knowledge of San Francisco's restaurant scene and her fondness for the people behind it, particularly in the neighborhood she so long called home. (Today, Walden keeps residence in Marin County, but, as she quips, she "lives in North Beach but sleeps in Novato.")
Walden, of course, originated the Chronicle's foodie column "The Inside Scoop," which she wrote for 16 years. She modeled her approach after the Chron's own Herb Caen, focusing on the stories of the people behind San Francisco's vibrant dining scene. Consequently, Walden became something of an entrenched reporter, mingling with chefs and servers alike.
Leading tours was a natural extension, a way to spotlight the food she finds compelling. Over the course of several hours, the tour meanders to various shops for a nibble and chat with the proprietor. Given the neighborhood's density, it's not enough exertion to burn off even a fraction of the calories you'll consume.
Over the years the tour's specifics have changed along with the neighborhood's eateries. Currently, Walden stops in at Liguria Bakery (1700 Stockton at Filbert, 421-3786) for its incredibly fluffy focaccia, which routinely sells out early, but Walden's groups are guaranteed a slice as well as a behind-the-scenes peek at the impressive oven it's baked in, fueled with a gas flamethrower that heats the interior to over 800 degrees. At Little City Market (1400 Stockton at Vallejo, 986-2601), the Walden tour tastes sausages made by the father-son owners; across the street at Victoria Pastry (1362 Stockton at Vallejo, 781-2015), famous for its St. Honoré cake, the agenda includes classic Italian cookies made with almond flour, like the chewy brutti ma buoni — "ugly but good" — studded with candied citron.
The tour crescendos with a sit-down lunch at Rose Pistola (532 Columbus at Green, 399-0499). Walden orders up an array of starters, like the chips — whisper-thin zucchini or Jerusalem artichoke slices fried crisp and delicately salted — and the refreshing, crunchy chopped salad, followed by a variety of pastas, including the divine carbonara, made only with egg, no cream. Though you certainly won't have room for it, you'll finish the tour at XOX Truffles (745 Columbus at Greenwich, 421-4814) to taste five of chef Jean-Marc Gorce's confections.
But what goes into your mouth is at best as interesting as what comes out of Walden's. Flitting from shop to shop, restaurant to restaurant, she is equal parts ambassador, envoy, and raconteur, pollinating local gossip between shopkeepers, pumping hands with patrons, chatting with nuns on Washington Square. With her spitfire disposition, she dishes up anecdotes of the party politics of the local restaurateurs, power players in the social scene, and the deep roots of the Italian-American community with equal reverence. In the end, you'll come away with both belly and brain sated.