Haight to Haight You Baby: Tourism for Locals

Rediscover the neighborhood you thought you knew.

Like the Marina, the Tenderloin, or the Mission, Haight-Ashbury elicits strong reactions from people even if they haven’t been there in years. (Even to call it “Haight-Ashbury,” as opposed to “the Upper Haight,” seems to send blood pressures rising.) Overall, it’s more of a place to drink than to eat — and of course, thrifting and vintage-store shopping are better still. But there are lots of spots to check out or re-explore, and virtually everything is found along a single, six-block stretch of Haight Street.

Where to Eat and Drink If You Have Only One Day to Do It

Above all else, do not miss Dave McLean’s Magnolia Gastropub & Brewery, which has reeked pleasantly of hops at 1398 Haight St. for 20 years now, and expanded to the Dogpatch last year. Between Proving Ground IPA and the exceptionally sessionable Kalifornia Kolsch, its bona fides have never been in doubt — but don’t neglect the house sausage. If you feel like a high-end cocktail with a reasonably priced and portioned chef’s tasting menu, mosey over to The Alembic (1725 Haight St.) for a Rittenhouse rye (High West double rye, ginger, carrot, Amaro Ciocicaro, lime, and saline) with one of executive chef David Faro’s $48 four-course dinners.

Keeping in line with the craft-cocktail vibe is Hobson’s Choice (1601 Haight St.). Named for the proverbial take-it-over-leave-it decision, Hobson’s is all about rum. And they’re not fussy about it, either, being unafraid to name something as banal as a Blue Hawaiian as a featured drink for July. Just up the block at 1633 Haight is the Bourdain-approved Aub Zam Zam, a 76-year-old dive that for many years was under the fiat of a martini Nazi of sorts named Bruno. He’s gone, but the peculiar, minaret-filled bar is otherwise largely unchanged.

If you need carbs in your belly, Slice House (1535 Haight St.) showcases the talents of master pizzaiolo Tony Gemignani. A lot of the menu is named for ’60s icons, such as the irresistible Love Me Two Times (pesto, mozzarella, double garlic, sun-bathed tomato, $5.75 per slice). Or stop into what’s almost certainly the only Thai restaurant to be housed on the second floor of a Victorian, Ploy II (1770 Haight St.). The mantel in the parlor now holds display wines.

Haight Street Market’s Poster Collection

Like a crunchier Bi-Rite or a Rainbow Grocery where you can get pancetta, the 36-year-old Haight Street Market epitomizes an independent neighborhood supermarket. Above the produce aisle are framed posters from every Haight-Ashbury Street Fair, from the first one in 1978 through 2006. (1992’s is sickening.) On the wall opposite is a mural that appears to be a Dalí-esque allegorical representation of cellular mitosis, but it looks a lot like the Sandworms scenes in Beetlejuice.

Aub Zam Zam (Photo by Mira Laing)

What Is “Aub Zam Zam” About, Anyway?

Opened in 1941, Persian cocktail emporium Aub Zam Zam isn’t the oldest dive on Haight Street. (That would be the Gold Cane Cocktail Lounge, which claims to have opened in the unusual mid-Prohibition year of 1926.) But it’s almost as fabulous as the smoking rooms buried deep in the Paramount Theater in Oakland — and it’s quite literally an oasis. The name refers to a well in Mecca called “Zam Zam” — “aub” means “water” in Persian — and as metaphorical watering holes go, we recommend the $8 martini during happy hour and the Patsy Cline-heavy jukebox. Orientalism may have fallen out of fashion in these politically correct times, but if — as the movie

Chinatown has it — “politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough,” the same applies to unique dives.

Street Sweepers See All

Picking up trash on Haight Street, a Department of Public Works

employee who asked not to be named said he’s seen just about everything — but mostly needles. He once offered a pair of shoes to a guy going barefoot, but the guy took offense. (He later realized the man was a hardcore hippie who went without footwear by choice.) The best perk of the job? Naked people during street fairs. “I like men, women — just beautiful bodies, whatever,” he says. “My mind’s in the gutter. The good gutter!”

Excerpts from the Best One-Star Yelp Reviews of the McDonald’s at 760 Stanyan St.

Drugs are sold here in such quantities that City Attorney Dennis Herrera threatened to sue the owners for narcotics trafficking, and there was a fatal stabbing just outside in late 2015. Yet the gravitational pull of all-day breakfast is strong.

“I dread coming to this McDonald’s,” says Lily S. of San Francisco, citing “long lines and always something missing from my orders.” It happened again, and insult was added to injury: “What is more upsetting is that I asked them to double check and they still got it wrong. Already contacted customer service since i called the store and NO ONE answered.”

Julian I. of San Francisco — by way of England, it would seem — complained about “pricey chips” and how the “£2 Menu is practically non-existant,” but noted, “The car park is very large and you can steal a parking space and park all day whilst shopping in the Haight which is the only Plus!”

“Security patrols inside but I didn’t notice a gun, which seems like it would be a good idea,” says Dirty D. of Redding, who went on to bemoan an unsweetened iced tea that was definitely sweetened. Christopher R. of El Sobrante begs to differ: “No sweet tea. Thats the only reason to ever come here. Lady at the coubtrr [sic] was rude af too.”

The Haight-iest block:

Where: The 1600 block of Haight Street, between Clayton and Cole streets.

Why: It’s got bars (Hobson’s Choice, Aub Zam Zam), vintage shopping (Wasteland), an indie bookstore with a full calendar of readings (The Booksmith), a place to buy skull rings and bats encased in Lucite (Loved to Death), the other record shop (Rasputin), and an excellent Mexico City-style taqueria (Street Taco). The ghost of the former American Apparel is there too, having followed the nearby Gap that closed in 2007 into retail purgatory.

Cal Surplus Might Be the World’s Least-Threatening Army Surplus Store

Sometimes, you go into a military surplus shop and you come out polishing a rifle and demanding to know what everybody’s major malfunction is. Not so much at Cal Surplus, where you can find vintage 1930s government posters to make a bathroom accent wall pop, and plenty of hot-pink camo (T-shirts, $14.99; cargo shorts, $26.98).

(Photo by Jessica Christian)

Look Familiar?
A Haight Street building features prominently in Big Hero 6.

In “San Fransokyo,” the setting of the Academy-award winning animated film Big Hero 6, protagonist Hiro Hamada lives in a house inspired by the large Victorian on the corner of Haight and Masonic streets, that, IRL, is home to Gypsy Streetwear and Coffee to the People. This distinctly San Franciscan building, adorned with Japanese cherry blossoms and a Maneki Neko cat — a Japanese symbol of good luck — exemplifies the wonderful hybridization of Japan and America that comes to life throughout Big Hero 6. Though fictional, San Fransokyo’s name epitomizes cultural coexistence, and the subtle presence of the Haight in this world reflects real-life San Francisco’s long history of cultural intermingling and diversity.

(Photo by Jessica Christian)

Disappearing Dino
The Haight’s turquoise dinosaur is no longer extinct.

Dino is a large turquoise dinosaur who has graced the front of the former Shoe Biz II (now Anthem) at 1553 Haight St. since 1975. An inviting mascot for the store and the surrounding Haight community, Dino vanished inexplicably in January, 2016, while Shoe Biz was renovating its floors. Almost two months later, he miraculously reappeared outside the storefront one morning without any sign of where he had been held or who had taken him. No one ever found out the details, but ever since his return, Dino has resumed his role as store greeter and community friend.

(Photo by Jessica Christian)

A Game Changer For Hippies
The Haight Ashbury Free Clinic turns 50 this year.

Founded during the Summer of Love, Dr. David Smith opened the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic at 558 Haight St. in response to a growing drug epidemic and a refusal by private practices to serve the stigmatized hippie population. Smith’s outreach efforts were an anomaly during this time period, given how drug addiction was often considered a sign of moral depravity, but his practices ultimately inspired a free-clinic movement that spread all over the country. Honoring its slogan — “Health care is a right, not a privilege” — the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic continues to provide free drug-addiction treatment and other health-care services to the local community.

Sticky Fingers Plague Haight-Ashbury
The intersection’s street signs are frequently stolen.

Head to the corner of Haight and Ashbury, and you’ll notice that the street signs are nailed inordinately high to the poles. The reason: People love stealing the famous intersection’s street signs. Redditors brag about hanging the signs in their hallways — “Liberated it myself,” writes one user — and it’s on at least one blogger’s “most-stolen road signs” lists, alongside those from Route 66 and Beer Road in Orange, Australia. In the last decade, the city finally figured out that if you install the signs higher, people can’t steal them, which has helped deter all but the most-dedicated thief. And besides, you can buy a souvenir version in Chinatown, anyway. 

(Photo by Jessica Christian)

The Legends Live on In Mel Waters’ Murals
The artist commemorates deceased public figures in his work.

For more than a decade, San Francisco native Mel Waters has been painting the city’s walls with murals of dead famous people, like Prince and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. For years, he worked as a patient transporter for the California Pacific Medical Center, and he didn’t start pursuing a career in art until his late 20s. One of Waters’ best-known public pieces is a black-and-white painting on 19th Street in the Mission that depicts Carlos Santana, his long fingers resting on his chin, and the words “Para La Mission” in a gothic font. At the end of 2016, Waters left his mark on the Upper Haight  at the corner of Haight and Cole streets, with a mural of Jerry Garcia strumming the guitar, and crisp red roses in the background. Because of his background in graffiti and tattooing, Waters says he works fast when making art, so you’ll have to keep your eyes peeled if you want to catch him in action.

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