Someone asked me recently where to go on a nighttime picnic and, though I never, ever, ever go on nighttime picnics, I surprised myself by coming up with the perfect answer. Are any of you out there more romantic than I am? Looking for a nice spot to go howl at the moon when you have the misfortune of being on unfamiliar ground when it gets full? Well, friends, if you answered yes to either question, I’ve got just the spot for you.
The Lawrence Hall of Science is a great place in it’s own right, an interactive science museum for kids, affiliated with UC Berkeley. It doesn’t deserve to just be the setting for the romantic night I’m creating for you, but life’s not fair and it happens that it’s sitting on some amazing real estate with a very particular attraction. Perched in the Berkeley hills, it’s got a view of the bay that, to quote a friend’s mother, almost makes you believe in god. Not that this is the only place in those hills to get that view, but it is the only place you can get it while sitting on the back of a whale. I guess it’s a great whale, anyway it’s a big whale, built to scale, well worn by years of scampering kids, living in the courtyard in front of the museum. Sitting on it, you are both perched above crazy, surreal beauty, and also a safe 10 feet from a protective wall. During the day it’s amazing and/but you compete with kids for the space. At night, though, and this was my revelation, confirmed by the friend I sent up there, it’s completely un-treacherous access to natural wonderment by moonlight. I might even go check it out myself sometime, if I can be bothered.
Finally, after all these years, I’m remembering to write about Dia de los Muertos in time to tell you to go to it! This has been a huge failure on my part, so, now that I’ve remembered, I need all of you to pay attention because I’m sending you to one of the best things that happens in San Francisco. But it’s a one-day-only thing, though, so you’ve got to get it together and go, OK?
Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, for those of you who don’t know, is a smashing together of ancient Aztec practice and All Soul’s Day. It’s meant both to remember friends and relatives who have passed away and also to illuminate the link between life and death. In Mexico it’s a two-day celebration that includes picnics in graveyards and plenty of mescal.
San Francisco’s Dia de los Muertos is a carriage of old tradition into the modern world. Every year, a park in the Mission, the city’s Latino neighborhood, is filled with altars made by local artists, and this collection of altars becomes the starting point of a giant procession. Everyone is welcome and many come painted as skeletons, wearing vivid colors, and carrying the mementos of their beloved dead, to parade all night through the city streets. It’s ghostly and celebratory and deeply peaceful. This parade is one of the things that San Francisco comes together to do that shows its eccentric, loving nature in the fullest light. This city this is a place unlike any other, and Dia de los Muertos is a great way to see exactly what that means. It’s on November 2nd this year, and the parade starts at 7pm. Please come out for it!
This month, instead of writing about a particular employee, I’d like to involve you in a little hotel scandal. Or controversy, maybe controversy is a better word. As some of you may have noticed, when both the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland A’s got into the playoffs this year, the staff here started showing up in gear devoted to whichever of those two teams they preferred. As I write this, some are still coming in in orange and black. This was not optional, if you were wondering, but decreed from above. Fun, said our dear general manager, good old mandatory fun.
Except, if you noticed the jerseys and t-shirts behind the front desk and the wheel of the limo, maybe you also noticed that your breakfast was being served in the same white shirt and vest as always, your room cleaned in the same old pastels. That’s because the housekeeping and kitchen staffs were forbidden to obey the temporary change in dress code by their respective managers. Carlos, our kitchen manager, is said to have said that those who made the change looked like clowns and he would not permit his employees to disgrace themselves like that. For my part, personally, I can’t really disagree. Still, is this treason?
I saw poor Sammy, who works on the kitchen staff in the morning, but then tends the bar at night, which is not technically a kitchen position. Carlos had told him that he was absolutely not to wear anything baseball related to work, and yet there he was, Sammy, being asked by the general manager why he was heading behind the bar in a tie.
By the time you read this, surely, the Giants will have lost and gone home and everyone will be back to normal. But I thought it might be a fun little peek behind the scenes for you, our guests.
If anyone actually reads this little newsletter, then surely someone out there remembers that earlier this year I told you that the best winery to visit in all of Napa Valley, and maybe the whole world, was Chandon. Well, let’s just say that, as I write this, I am acutely aware of how all these politicians can start looking like such flip-floppy flakes. There’s always something new to learn, but once you’re on record as declaring something to be the truth, it becomes awkward to admit you’ve changed your mind. But, what can I say? I’ve had a new experience and, yes, I’ve got a new favorite!
The Rombauer Winery is elegant and lush. It sits on top of a hill, but instead of the big valley panorama one comes to expect on a winery-hopping sojourn like the one I was just on, what Rombauer gives is a little hillside peekaboo, framed by the trees and flowers of their crazily beautiful garden. This garden, actually, is the star of the Rombauer experience. It’s got a wild and exotic array of colorful flowers, plus tall trees that make it feel more like a forest. There are picnic tables for sitting shaded on its inside, and lounge chairs for sitting on a patio overlooking it. Does this seem too serious? Because it’s also got a few random Christmas trees and some rusty dinosaur sculptures, to lighten the mood a bit. I felt enclosed in an intimate botanical paradise, with just the slightest hint of an eccentric edge.
I do, of course, realize that if it was possible to find a winery I like more than Chandon, it must also be possible that there’s still another winery that I’ll like more than Rombauer. What a strange and complicated world this is. All I can say to you, then, is that you’d better get over to Rombauer before something better shows up!
When my dad was growing up, going to the movies was a pretty big experience. It seems to me that they went in on Saturday at dawn and came out after midnight, having seen the week’s news plus cartoons plus eight or nine features. Maybe I’m exaggerating, but I think that what’s true is that it was a pretty magical part of the world, not to mention a huge source of cultural information. Even when I was growing up, going to the movies was something special. VCRs were just sneaking into our lives, but a movie wouldn’t show up in a video store until about six months after its theater release, which is a lifetime in kid years, and, anyway, the gap in quality was enormous. Nowadays it feels almost silly to see a movie in a theater. Everything you want can be pirated off the internet while it’s still in the theater and huge HDTVs make even the big screen redundant. But what about the magic?
Well, let me tell you about San Francisco’s Castro Theater! It’s celebrating its 90th birthday this year, which means that it literally is one of those theaters my dad used to go to. It went through a period of corporate ownership, but now it’s back in the hands of the family that owned it at the start. It’s huge, ornately decorated, with a balcony and a capacity of something like 1,400. There’s an organ that’s played as introductory music, the space that other theaters are now filling with ads. And, now that I’ve at least got you believing that this is a beautiful old theater, let me tell you what’s playing just in the few days following this random day that I happen to be writing to you. Tonight will be a sing-along screening of Grease. Tomorrow there will be a “BFF triple feature”: Clueless, Mean Girls and Heavenly Creatures. The following day it’s an indie animated film festival called Scary Cow. The day after it’s a Muppet Movie/Phantom of the Paradise double feature. Lest you think this is a kids place, next week, which I will skip detailing, seems to have more of a narcotic theme. This is a magnificent, historic relic that’s being programmed with eccentricity and a sense of humor. This is the place to come re-find the magic of going to the movies.
As you may have heard, California is a great place for wine. We try to keep a huge, and constantly rotating, variety here at the hotel, which means that it yours to sip for free every night in our bar. It’s a pretty nice little set up for you, our guests. But, you know, California wines are available, really, all over the world, including where you’re from. What’s special about coming here, to Northern California, when you’ve got a little bit of free time, is going wine tasting, and this month I thought I’d tell you about my favorite winery to visit.
And, no, this is not about my favorite wine. If you’re searching for the best tasting wine, sit in our bar and look. It’s free and you don’t have to have a designated driver. I’m talking about the most fun I’ve had at a winery, and the winery I’m talking about is Chandon. Chandon, of course, starts with a bit more fun because all its wines sparkle, and, you know, the visit lived up to the promise of those bubbles. The grounds are light and airy, littered with interesting and beautiful sculptures. The staff, too, is easy and good-humored, which is not necessarily true of every winery in the Napa Valley. There is a huge hilltop terrace where you can sit with your samples and order small plates from their amazing restaurant. It’s elegant, and yet not the kind of place that’s going to make you feel self-conscious about having maybe just a little more of their delicious bubbly wine than you had planned to drink. When I was there recently, it was with the plan to hop from place to place, wine tasting the way one hears about it being done. We got stuck, though, for hours and hours, at Chandon. It was so endlessly inviting, so exactly the thing we had in mind when we set out on the adventure. My advice to you, skip the rest and head straight for the best.
My mom grew up before video games and texting and the internet. Before cable TV and reality TV and endless reruns of everything. Plus she was somewhere out in the Midwest. She had nothing. And so, she says, she and her brothers and sister would go to the airport to watch people come and go. Needless to say this was also before 9/11 and they could actually just sit at gates and stare at the passengers getting on and off the planes. Fun times, I’m sure. They were especially transfixed, she remembers, by the Californians, all “weirdos” as she recalls, though this was still the 50s and I wonder what that even meant. Were the men were waiting an extra week to trim their hair? Were the ladies not wearing gloves on the planes?
Still, people watching is kind of a time-honored practice and if it’s something you enjoy, there’s no better place for it than Dolores Park on a sunny weekend. Since my mom was watching the Californians who could afford air travel back in the 50s, San Francisco has been through the cultural revolution of the 60s, allowed the infamous Castro district to rise from its loins, let the dot com-ers redefine professional standards and spawned Burning Man. It is, today, a unique haven for people who want the freedom to look, act and be exactly what they choose, and think it’s possible that the choices they make might scare their families. And all those people go to Dolores Park when the sun comes out. It’s a beautiful, eclectic parade of fashion and culture and these few weeks, spring, are kind of a sweet spot for it. The sun is sparkling and the air is warm and San Francisco is the most beautiful city in the whole world, until the chill of the summer fog rolls in and everyone goes back inside and gets depressed.
I have kind of an odd one for you this month. Who knows, though, maybe one of you out there will have been dreaming of this all your life and I’ll be the one to tell you about it. For the rest, hopefully it’ll be a sweet little curiosity that’s maybe worth checking out instead of a movie on some day off. Ready for it? I want to tell you about a pinball museum in Alameda.
What would a pinball museum even look like, you ask? This, anyway, is what I wondered in the months between the first time I heard of it and the first time I went. Well, it turns out that it’s a whole lot of pinball machines, separated into different rooms by era. And what’s great about it is that not only are they all in working condition, but with the price of admission you can play them all for free! For me this was the real draw of the place because I, for one, am not such a pinball aficionado. The historical machines would have had no interest for me if I couldn’t touch them and even then I had very little curiosity about the shifting mechanics through the years, I only wanted to keep stopping that damn little ball from getting past my flippers. To get infinite shots at that task, though, was amazing. My ability to continue playing was tied, for once, to neither the number of quarters I could scrounge up nor any particular personal skill. It was sweet release from past pinball experience.
I don’t imagine you could get a life changing experience out of this place, but, you know, some days it rains. Some days when you’re away from home you get bored. Some days quirky is more appealing than grand. If you find yourself having one of those days while you’re here with us, I recommend the pinball museum.
Before I get into this month’s day trip recommendation, I have to acknowledge that I’m kind of on a kick. I am loving Oakland lately. A couple of months ago I encouraged all of you to just strike out and visit Oakland in a broad sort of way, but I feel unsatisfied and now want to start singling out my favorite places. This is only my second time talking to you about Oakland, so it’s still a little early to be too worried about redundancy, but the problem is that I can’t see this being the last time either.
At least, I can say, my enthusiasm has some validation and my desire to write more has some justification. The New York Times recently ranked Oakland #5 on its list of 45 places to go in 2012. Even better, it was right between London and Tokyo! Which is great and well deserved, but then they would have you rush up there to go, for example, to a restaurant called Boot & Shoe Service, which, yes, has a very fancy pedigree and is chock full of the hippest people in the Bay, but, as restaurant experiences go, is pretty unspecial.
The place I want to tell you to go instead, I have to warn you, is not very cool at all. There will be no hipsters at the Lake Chalet. It’s more the kind of a place that families go on special occasions, kind of a classic “nice” restaurant. So why should I single it out for you here? A few reasons. One is that the lake in its name is Lake Merritt, which is sort of unstoppably lovely, and there are very few seats that don’t have a view. Second, a staff that is genuinely friendly, almost conspiratorially friendly. And, finally, crazy as it seems to put this last, the food is super super tasty. I had such an easy good time at this restaurant. I felt comfortable and charmed in a way that is somehow unique to Oakland, different from the generic trendiness of a place like Boot & Shoe Service, whose aim seems to be successfully imitating the feeling of being in Brooklyn or Berlin.
I guess, as recommendations go, this one could send you off to either place, depending on what you’re looking for. Me, I’ll be at the Lake Chalet. Maybe I’ll see you there.
When I was growing up, Oakland was getting a lot of notoriety. It was poverty stricken, the crime rate was high and, as this was the dawn of rap, all of the difficulties of life on its streets were being articulated in this new and exciting way. Oakland’s danger took on a gritty glamour in this music, made it mythological to me. Somehow, in those years, it didn’t occur to me that it was the same Oakland I went to to watch A’s games, that normal place just a short little car ride away.
As you may have noticed, Oakland is back in the news again lately. Why it’s the most violent of all the Occupy camps is a question for a sociologist and not anything I want to speculate on here; what I want to say is that, just like when I was a kid, the real Oakland is so much different from what you see on TV. It’s on my mind because it’s on TV, I admit, but it’s because it’s looking so apocalyptic and scary in the news that I want to tell you all to go.
I was there yesterday with my brother. It was sunny, and warm enough to take our jackets off. We walked around Lake Merritt, watching birds and joggers, trying to pin down exactly what it is that makes Oakland feel so comfortable. We talked about its diversity, which feels, in a way that I’ve never seen anyplace else, complete. It’s also in this very sweet spot between urban and suburban, where you feel like you get the good things of each, without any of that pesky alienation. It’s affordable. It’s warm. There are views of the bay and the hills.
I’m asking you to go because it’s one of the treasures of the Bay Area and well worth an afternoon’s trip. I’m asking you to go now because it’s a treasure whose small businesses will suffer in the next months because it looks like Armageddon on the nightly news.