Despite its proximity to the Haight, anyone who has spent time in this small community knows Cole Valley has a distinct character all its own. "Community" is the operative word in this thin slice of San Francisco real estate, bordered on the west by Stanyan Street and the Sutro Forest, on the south by Tank Hill and on the east by Clayton Street. Residents are largely families and young professionals, though there is no trace of the snootiness that has affected other parts of the city. Most of the businesses in Cole Valley are of the mom-and-pop variety, in lieu of chain stores or franchises, and shop owners are outwardly supportive of each other.
Food and coffee are the specialties in Cole Valley. In the three-block commercial strip along Cole Street and part of Carl Street, there are more than a dozen restaurants and cafés, some of which draw visitors from around the Bay Area. EOS, for instance, is considered one of the city's top dining spots, while Zazie is a magnet for locals on weekends for brunch. For historians and old-timers, traces of Cole Valley's past are still visible. Above the Crepes on Cole awning, along the Carl Street side, remains the old sign for the Other Café, a comedy spot where Robin Williams and Dana Carvey performed before they hit the big time. Even more historic are the photos in the Kezar Bar and Restaurant dating from the early 1900s, when the region was home to dairy farms.
Though most visitors never make it past the restaurants and shops, Cole Valley does offer dramatic views of the city. The best spot is atop 600-foot-high Tank Hill, named for an old water tank stationed there in the late 1800s. The eucalyptus trees there were planted after the attack on Pearl Harbor to hide the water tank from bombers. To get to the hill's summit and panoramic viewpoint, walk up Shrader Street to Belgrave Street and turn left, taking it to the end.
Cole Valley may not be one of the city's most bustling tourist destinations, but it makes for a relaxing respite from the Haight, and there are enough attractions for a day's outing.
Wild Parrots: For more than a decade Cole Valley has been a destination of choice for a flock of birds known as the "wild parrots of Telegraph Hill." Anywhere from late June to late August, usually just between 7 am and 8 am, a cluster of up to 20 birds makes its way from their nighttime nesting place around Jackson and Davis streets to one section of Cole Valley, around Willard, Belmont, Woodland and Edgewood streets. These parrots, most of which are cherry-headed conures native to South America, sport green bodies and red heads and tend to make a lot of noise, so they're hard to miss. First, they head for the pine trees, and then the hawthorne, apple and plum trees.
Though most visitors never make it past the commercial block in Cole Valley, there is one site worth visiting farther afield. In front of 1591 Shrader St. stands a carving in the trunk of an old Monterey cypress titled Angel of Hope. The tree had to be taken down after another tree on the other side of the driveway toppled during a windstorm in the mid-'90s, damaging nearby houses. The former owner of the house, philanthropist Pat Montandon, commissioned the carving of an angel.
At the corner of Shrader and Rivoli streets -- at 1401 Shrader St., to be exact -- sits a house designed by renowned architect Ira Kurlander. The first floor of the house was built in 1908 and was the home of Bernice Lane Brown, mother of former California Gov. and current Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown and Kathleen Brown.
On Halloween, the strip of Belvedere Street between Parnassus and 17th streets is blocked off as packs of kids gather to show off their costumes and celebrate the holiday. Another event takes place Easter Sunday in the park along Carl Street between Clayton and Cole streets, when many people from the neighborhood turn out in full Easter bonnets and other costumes.
Cole Valley Street Festival: Called the Heart of Cole Festival, this free annual celebration, usually held in October, features booths of arts and crafts (most by local artists), food from local eateries, activities for kids and live music. For information, email email@example.com.
Bambino's Ristorante: The highlight of this family-style restaurant is the consistent Italian fare. Pastas like spicy linguini with sun-dried tomatoes, spinach and mushrooms, or grilled salmon with leeks, mushrooms, capers and dill, are easy on the wallet, especially considering the large portions. Bambino's thin-crust pizzas are also popular, and it serves a variety of salads and tasty starters. Basic Italian wines are available. A large floral display on the bar and photos of an Italian food market on the walls give Bambino's an upbeat air. 945 Cole St., (415) 731-1343, website.
Boulange de Cole Valley: In Parisian café style, Boulange is Cole Valley's people-watching, socializing center. The bakery and patisserie, owned by the same folks who run Boulangerie Bay Bread on Pine Street, specializes in pastries like croissants, éclairs, tarts and brioche, as well as sandwiches, soups and salads. Tartines, open-faced sandwiches, are popular, with choices ranging from the Canard (smoked duck with prunes) to the Jardin (béchamel sauce, eggplant, tomato, and gruyere cheese). Wash it all down with an espresso drink or an organic tea. 1000 Cole St., (415) 242-2442, website.
Burger Meister: What was once a crepery as well as a taqueria is now home to Burger Meister, decorated with whimsical painted burgers, hot dogs and fries on the walls. The Meister serves Niman Ranch beef, meaning there are no nasty hormones or antibiotics used, as well as garden burgers and a grilled-chicken salad. All come with basic fries, though it's worth trying the lemon-garlic fries. Top it off with a beer or an old-fashioned milkshake. The food is not gourmet, but it is filling. 86 Carl St., (415) 566-1274 website.
Café Cole: Sitting right on the edge of the Haight, Café Cole offers healthier treats than just coffee and pastries. The café serves shots of wheatgrass juice and fresh fruit juices and smoothies like the Hurricane, with banana, cinnamon, mango and apple juice, or the Flamenco, with tomato, carrot and red-pepper juice. Vegans can find cookies, sandwiches and calzones prepared especially for them, though the menu has meat options too. Internet access costs about $7 an hour. 609 Cole St., (415) 668-7771.
Cole Valley Café: One of the newest additions on the block, Cole Valley Café took over where Jammin' Java used to sit. This café has a more substantial menu than its predecessor, with basic deli sandwiches like corned beef or turkey, or more catered fare like lox sandwiches with avocado, onions, arugula and capers or veggie falafel wraps. There are some custom drinks like the Arctic Tundra (blended white chocolate with raspberry syrup) and the Java Blast (espresso, milk, vanilla syrup and whipped cream). 701 Cole St., (415) 668-5282, website
Crepes on Cole: Make sure to come here with a sufficient appetite. Portions spill off the sides of the plate, whether you've ordered a mammoth green salad or a savory crepe with house potatoes. Crepe flavors are complex: a tofu crepe with vegetables in peanut sauce, or the cannelloni, with cheddar, cream cheese, cottage cheese, onions, mushrooms and marinara sauce. Dessert blintzes and crepes are filled with fruits, jellies, Nutella, the works. On weekends, Crepes on Cole, which was once The Other Café, can get quite packed at brunch time. The old Other Café sign is still visible high on the side of the building facing Carl Street. 100 Carl St. (at Cole Street), (415) 664-1800.
Grandeho's Kamekyo: The friendly service and high-quality sushi rank Grandeho's as a favorite among connoisseurs. House specials are varied, including the shrimp clay pot, the sesame chicken and the Dynamite Roll -- tuna unagi and asparagus, deep fried. Sushi selections such as the Spider Roll -- fried soft-shell crab -- can be ordered at the bar, and sometimes the sushi chef will concoct a special creation on request. Grandeho's also offers grilled dinners such as beef teriyaki and salmon fillet, all of which come with soup, salad and rice. Finish it all off with plum wine or warm sake, of which there are several varieties available. The restaurant is small, so be prepared for a wait. 943 Cole St., (415) 759-8428.
Kezar Bar and Restaurant: Though the casual décor and neighborhood clientele lend the Kezar a pub atmosphere, the food here surpasses pub-quality provender. Appetizers like baked portabella mushroom and main dishes like broiled ahi-tuna steak are reasonably priced. Behind the bar there is a selection of microbrews, as well as Italian, Californian and French wines by the glass or bottle. Photos of Cole Valley from the early 1900s, when dairies stood where houses and shops are today, hang on the walls in each of the two dining rooms. Kezar has a full bar open past dinnertime. 900 Cole St., (415) 681-7678.
Reverie Cafe: This place is famed for its Rosetta latte, a marbled mix of coffee and cream. The morning menu consist of muffins, scones, croissants, bagels and carrot cake. Nooks and outdoor seating in the garden allow for a peaceful, somewhat private setting. Indoors, Chet Baker plays, and there's subdued lighting from artsy lamps, but it's sufficient for reading. A small bookshelf toward the back holds novels, art books, encyclopedias and games like Scrabble, chess and backgammon. Seats out front are usually filled on weekends. 848 Cole St., (415) 242-0200,
Say Cheese: This is one of the premier specialty cheese shops in the Bay Area, amd the list of cheeses available reads like an international who's who in the dairy world. More common fare like havarti is offered, as well as more specialized flavors such as pesto pine-nut brie and the award-winning Humboldt Fog chevre. Ask Daniel for advice about which wine to serve with which cheese. Aside from cheese, Say Cheese offers sandwiches (fresh mozzarella, tomato, basil and olive oil, for example), plus an eclectic selection of wines and an array of condiments, pastas and dried fruits and nuts. 856 Cole St., (415) 665-5020, website.
Tully's Coffee: Where Spinelli's, Cole Valley's favorite coffee stop, once stood, Tully's has taken over, serving espresso coffees, smoothies and fresh-squeezed orange juice, along with breakfast bagels or pastries. With just about five stools inside, a bit of room on the windowsills and a few tables and chairs set up outside, this is not the kind of café where patrons linger. Try Tully's special iced or hot caramel-macchiato coffee indulgence. 919 Cole St., (415) 753-2287,website)
Recently, there has been a well-received flux of upscale Mexican cuisine and you can thank Padrecito for that. The restaurant serves updated Mexican classics in a sophisticated, yet casual atmosphere. If you're looking to go somewhere that's a cut above your local taco trunk, but still tastes just as delicious, then this is your place. 901 Cole St. (415) 742-5505.
Zazie: Named after the 1961 Louis Malle comedy, Zazie has a longstanding tradition as a brunch venue, with gingerbread or buttermilk pancakes a favorite. The rest of the menu is extensive -- ostrich burger, vegetarian Mediterranean plate and fresh goat-cheese ravioli basquaise with red, green and yellow peppers, garlic and herbs. There's also a prix-fixe option for less than $20, including one of the restaurant's decadent homemade desserts, like the Zazie brownie with raspberry sauce or carmelized-apple bread pudding. Lattes are served in ceramic bowls, and there is a good selection of wines. For late risers, breakfast is available until 2:30 pm. There is often a wait for brunch, either for a table inside or in the garden setting out back. 941 Cole St., (415) 564-5332, website.