There are happy hours and there are happy hours. The ones we are familiar with have to do with spirited drinks, 2 for 1, quaffed after an arduous workday. On a recent trip here, I discovered two other types of cheerful time, one involving the chewy Parisian sandwich cookie, the macaron, and the other centered on pork.
On weekdays from 5 to 7 p.m., the lovely French bakery and candy store Miette sells macarons for $1 each, 75 cents off the regular price, at its Hayes Valley store. And the nearby Fatted Calf butcher shop puts out house-cured pork products to be nibbled with cocktails from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Wednesdays.
Pork and cookies. How can a soul not be happy?
Both Miette and Fatted Calf are stops on a food walking tour of the Hayes Valley neighborhood, just a few blocks west of the city's civic center, the War Memorial Opera House and Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall, where the San Francisco Symphony performs. Today, the neighborhood is a trendy tangle of restaurants, shops and young, hip residents who have lots and lots of dogs. For years, though, Hayes Valley was overlooked and frankly a bit seedy. People leaving the opera or symphony went around Hayes Valley, not through it.
The neighborhood can thank the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake for its evolution. The elevated Central Freeway running through the area was damaged and torn down soon after the shaker, paving the way for regentrification. A nearby Highway 101 on-ramp was also demolished, and last year the Hayes Valley urban farm sprung up on a huge city block. Bees, greens and community spirit are the predominant commodities right now.
On a sunny June day, a dozen food lovers set out to nibble their way through the neighborhood on the Gourmet San Francisco ramble organized by Gourmet Walks. Food walking tours have sprung up all over the country, including at Pike Place Market in Seattle and various locations in New York. There are several Chinatown food walking tours in San Francisco. For a set price, you get samples of food and a street-level look at places you might otherwise blow by or never even find it you're an out-of-towner.
We meet at Patricia's Green, a thin park strip named after the woman who championed the area's comeback from blight. The centerpiece of the park is Ecstasy, a 28-foot steel and wood sculpture of a woman with head thrown back and looking at the heavens, her hair a flowing mass of rusty chains. She has only been there since the beginning of the year, but the neighbors have fallen in love. She announces her presence forcefully and theirs by association.
For the walking tour, we are promised seven stops, enough food for a late lunch, plus flat terrain on the three-hour walk. Well, there is one wicked trudge up Page Street that leads us to Samovar tea shop and a peek at the Zen Center. A cushy stool at the tea bar is our reward for the huffing and puffing. That and glimpses of some fine Edwardian and Victorian homes on the way, in front of which fuchsia bougainvillea are in full bloom. A true San Francisco sight.
Our first stop is Smitten Ice Cream, where the ice cream is made to order thanks to a dramatic dance with liquid nitrogen. It's a lesson in molecular gastronomy, and we scarf up the scoop of salted caramel in no time. A 40-foot recycled shipping container cut in half houses the shop, and the cleverness of it all forces me to think what has been said so many times about the city by the bay: "Only in San Francisco."
From Smitten, we walk to Fatted Calf for a selection of salumi, eaten on the sidewalk with gherkins to cleanse the palate. Passers-by stare longingly at the plate of pork. From Fatted Calf we head up the hill to the tea shop for another sort of cleansing, sipped from dainty, handleless cups. From there, we file into a beautiful sake store, which is on the tour Sundays only. We are there on a Friday. We simply ogle the wares.
We gorge ourselves on chunky Belgian frites at Frjtz on Hayes, dipped into a wide variety of sauces, including spicy versions thanks to chipotle and wasabi. We're just about halfway into the tour so it's nice to sit for a while and listen to our guide tell us more about Hayes Valley. The Victorians sell for more than $2 million. I swallow and dip another fry.
My favorite stop on the tour is Arlequin Cafe, where we perch under trees in the cozy courtyard out back. We eat locally made blue cheese draped with honey and the most subtle fresh goat cheese I've ever had. A glass of crisp white wine is included for those of drinking age. For the 30 minutes or so that we nosh and talk, we actually feel like San Franciscans. I eavesdrop on the after-work conversations of the hipster trio sitting next to us. They are complaining about their bosses while spearing glistening greens dotted with nobs of cheese. They drink BIG glasses of wine.
We've got two more stops, both of them sweet offerings. Kansas City, Mo., chocolatier Christopher Elbow has opened his first non-Midwest store in Hayes Valley. His beautiful chocolates look too pretty to eat, painted with colorful designs on the wee candy squares. We manage to gulp down our samples, one peanut butter and the other a fruity little package. Some of us buy more to take home at $2.50 each.
We finish the tour at Miette, a charming and very European confection shop. The macarons, their almond flour shells surrounding delicate creams, are mounded artfully in clear glass canisters. We surge toward the counter like kids in a, well, in a candy shop. It's after 5 p.m. and the line is starting to form for happy hour. Really, a $1 macaron in San Francisco is a deal. From the window, I see Ecstasy in the park, the dominant image in a sea of plenty to look at.
I can only imagine how much more delirious she would be if she could sample a hazelnut macaron.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8586.