Twenty years ago, the thought of finding one of San Francisco's ultra-chic corridors in Hayes Valley would have been considered absurd. Like New York City's Times Square of old, the area, bordered by the Van Ness performing-arts district and the Western Addition around Laguna Street, was a seedy reminder for opera and symphony patrons of the city's homeless and drug problems. But over the past decades, Hayes Valley has developed into a haven for haute couture.
Where the terms "ladies of the street" and "gentlemen of the street" once identified those who conducted an illegal exchange of various earthly sins for money, today they refer to the street's myriad window shoppers and restaurant-goers. Where the crack houses and tenements once stood, now there are trendy fashion boutiques, SoHo-style funky art galleries, high-end interior-decorating shops, top-notch restaurants and hip nightspots.
Hayes Valley came to prominence when film director Erich von Stroheim chose the corner of Hayes and Laguna for the filming of his 1924 epic "Greed." His affections were for a 19th-century Victorian that had been built in the early 1880s by Col. Michael Hayes as an amusement pavilion, though word has it Hayes constructed the building to lure an extension of the streetcar line to Hayes Valley. The building survived the 1906 earthquake and fire and at the time of filming was occupied only on the ground floor, by a French laundry and the Hayes Valley Pharmacy, which remained in business until the 1960s. Stroheim created signs for a dentist's office and a photographer's workplace for the movie, which fooled some locals into believing they were real. The film included numerous shots from the top floor of the building looking down on Hayes Valley. He also used 595-597 Hayes, a building that acted as a storeroom in the 1920s, as the site of the saloon in the film.
The success of Hayes Valley's current commercial district was boosted in part by the destruction caused by the 1989 earthquake to the Central Freeway, which had entrance ramps on Franklin and Gough streets. The freeway was an eyesore and created noise pollution that kept businesses and foot traffic away. Not long after that part of the freeway came down, the community began to transform, and commerce moved in.
Unlike some other parts of San Francisco, Hayes Valley has managed to retain a sense of community and a nonexclusive feel despite the fast build-up and high price tags. Some of the businesses that braved the less-than-savory days are still around, such as the Hayes Street Grill, now twice its original size. But many of the shops sprouted up in the '90s, making Hayes Valley a real destination spot. The combination results in a wide diversity in clientele. While high-end San Franciscans sip $11 cocktails at Absinthe, down the street many are powering down an entire meal for around the same price at Flipper's. Now, tourists also head here specifically for the shopping.
Octavia Boulevard & Hayes Green: Octavia Boulevard, which replaced the demolished Central Freeway, leads to a community park at the center of the neighborhood, the Hayes Green. It's flanked by hip eateries and housing.
Hayes Valley Alleys: From the shotgun style flats and flowering vines of Lily Street to Ivy Street's hidden garden, don't miss Hayes Valley's less croded side..
Octavia's Haze Gallery: Glassworks of varying shapes, textures and colors line the interior of this corner shop. The works, all unique, are mainly produced by Bay Area, national and Italian artists. Octavia's Haze Gallery also spotlights paintings by national as well as local artists in exhibits that change every 45 days. Closed Monday and Tuesday. 498 Hayes St., (415) 255-6818. (Web site)
Polanco: Polanco heads south of the border for its displays, which focus on Mexican folk arts and fine arts, as well as antiques. Established Mexican artists are represented, as are young artists, mainly from Mexico City and Oaxaca. Though special exhibitions run only every couple of months, the gallery is always filled with colorful Day of the Dead art, masks, religious crosses, ceramic plates, silver jewelry and various trinkets. Prices are reasonable, with typical Day of the Dead works costing from $5 on up. 393 Hayes St., (415) 252-5753.
RAG--Residents Apparel Gallery: RAG features more than 20 Bay Area designers, mostly focused on women's clothes, but men's options are available. Each designer rents floor space and can post a biography with the designs. Many hail from other locales, such as Belgium, Brazil, London, and the Midwest, but all reside here now. Some of the designs are one-of-a-kind, while others are limited production. 541 Octavia St., (415) 621-7718.
Absinthe Brasserie and Bar: Moneyed San Franciscans, unassuming locals and show-going tourists converge on a regular basis at Absinthe. This South of France-style brasserie offers a range of American-influenced French-Italian cuisine, like grilled halibut with tomato-zucchini gratin and salt-roasted potatoes. According to owner Bill Russell-Shapiro, Absinthe is meant to evoke the essence of the Belle Époque, when the toxic green liqueur the place was named for was the subject of paintings and poetry by many famed artists. In that vein, cocktails with names like Casino and the popular Ginger Rogers are based on recipes found in early-20th-century cocktail books. Diners can choose from informal or formal dining rooms, or can eat outside. Before and after shows, the place can get quite crowded, but otherwise, Absinthe is a quiet neighborhood bistro. There is also a private dining room, perfect for sit-down dinners for up to 42 people or cocktail receptions up to 48. At 388 Hayes St., it has its own entrance and bar. 398 Hayes St., (415) 551-1590. (Chronicle Review/Web site)
Arlequin: At the entrance to this cheery café is a stack of condiments sporting the Arlequin label, plus tasting spoons. Combinations like fig balsamic vinaigrette or toasted-walnut fudge sauce merely whet the appetite. The Arlequin condiments are served on the café's sandwiches, such as turkey with roasted corn chutney, as well. Innovative soups include cranberry bean with mascarpone, while dessert items such as basil sorbet equally please the palate. Everything at Arlequin is house-made -- the cookies, the biscottis and even the granola. While the café fits about a dozen patrons inside, it has access to a community garden in back that seats about 50. 384 Hayes St., (415) 626-1211.
Bar Jules: This small, 38-seat space provides a more personal dining experience, where it feels like owner and chef Jessica Boncutter is intimately involved with every aspect of the meal. Bar Jules has no set menu, but you can find the dayis offerings--a limited but tasty selection of new American cuisine--posted each morning on the website or written on two large blackboards at the back of the restaurant. 609 Hayes St., (415) 621-5482. (In the Chronicle/Web site)
Biergarten: An offshoot from Suppenkuche owners Fabricio Wiest and Aaron Hulme, Biergarten, as the name suggests, is a beer garden tucked along Octavia Boulevard's pedestrian-only zone. Indulge in liter mugs of German beers along with bratwurst and soft pretzels. (In the Chronicle/Web site)
Blue Bottle Coffee Company: Caffeinated cult-favorite and local "artisanal roaster" Blue Bottle sells its organic, small-batch-roasted, super-fresh beans and brew at this tiny outlet off the main drag. The space is actually just the front few feet of an architect's office, and the tables (two) and chairs (four) seem like they might fit into a dollhouse. The steamed milk containers hold enough for one order, and one order only. And forget ordering a mega-frappo-mocha-concoction -- the menu keeps to the basics and things only come in one size. It all goes with Blue Bottle's credo: it's quality, not quantity, that matters. But be forewarned: once you have a taste, you'll definitely want more. 315 Linden St. (parallel to Hayes, near Gough), (510) 653-3394. (Web site)
Boxing Room: Named for the building's origins as a box factory, Boxing Room is about as authentic a New Orleans experience as you can find in San Francisco. The airy space--with its picture windows, exposed ceiling, large bar area and open kitchen--is laidback and homey. The excellent Louisiana cuisine, from native Justin Simoneaux, features all things fried: chicken, oysters, seafood po-boy and even alligator. 399 Grove St., (415) 430-6590. (Chronicle Review/Web site)
Caffe delle Stelle: It may not be in North Beach, but patrons to Caffe delle Stelle will enjoy a satisfying Italian dining experiences. Inexpensive Tuscan-based pastas such as the pumpkin or asparagus ravioli and entrees like the crab-and-shrimp cannelloni with a light caper mustard sauce combine fresh ingredients in creative ways. The distinctly Italian interior includes stacks of pasta boxes, tomato cans, Chianti cases and olive-oil bottles for decoration. Fine wines from the Tuscany and Umbria regions of Italy dominate the wine list, though California varieties are there as well. The tiramisu is a perennial favorite. Reservations are recommended for preshow seating. 395 Hayes St., (415) 252-1110. (Web site)
Canto do Brasil: Some wonderful Brazilian dishes, including fried yucca root, codfish croquettes and coconut flan. Pretty space, hefty portions at reasonable prices. 41 Franklin St. (between Oak and Page), (415) 626-8727. (Web site)
Chez Maman: San Francisco is full of fusion dining, but French bistro and Mexican cuisine still jumps out as an unexpected combination. It's not quite as strange as it sounds; beef tartare is served next to tacos at this spin-off of the original Chez Maman in Potrero Hill, not on the same plate. Nonetheless, you're unlikely to eat ceviche while surrounded by whimsical French art posters at any other restaurant in the city. 401 Gough St., (415) 355-9067. (Web site)
Cu Co's Restaurant: This family-run burrito joint has been in the neighborhood for more than 20 years. It is renowned for its vegetarian plantain burrito, which one local foodie blog called the best in San Francisco. You won't be able to satisfy your late-night cravings; however, Cu Co's is only open for lunch and dinner and is closed on Sundays. 488 Haight St., (415) 863-4906.
Domo: This tiny sushi bar barely seats more than a dozen, but its innovative recipes and hip music choices have made Domo a hapenning spot that often produces an hour-long wait to eat. There are no reservations, so prepare to stand in line, and be aware that the most popular items might already be sold out. 511 Laguna St., (415) 861-8887. (Web site)
DragonEats: For a light lunch or late-afternoon snack, the tiny, cash-only DragonEats offers Vietnamese favorites like bahn mi sandwiches, veggie rolls and noodle bowls. Prices are cheap for Hayes Valley, but higher than one might pay for similar food in other parts of the city. 520 Gough St., (415) 795-1469. ( Web site)
Espetus: This "churrascaria" serves grilled meats Southern Brazilian-style. Start by helping yourself to salads from a bar with at least a dozen choices, from couscous to tossed greens to tabbouleh. Next, a server approaches the table with a meat-laden swordlike-skewer and stand filled with grilled house-made pork sausages, marinated chicken legs, pork loin, lamb, sirloin steak or other meats, accompanied by tart tomato and onion salsa. The carver knows when you're done, because you turn a dial on the table to the setting that means "no more" in Portuguese. The dinner is $28.95 and it is all-you-can-eat. The restaurant has a decent wine list and luscious caipirinhas made with Brazilian cachaca, sugar and lime. (-SF Chronicle and SF Gate) 1686 Market St. (near Gough), (415) 552-8792. (Chronicle Review/Web site)
Flipper's: This eatery's tagline is "a gourmet hamburger place," reflecting its very California take on the basic burger. There's the Flipper Dipper, glazed with teriyaki sauce, and a menu section titled "World Flippers," including the Taste of Russia, with sautéed mushrooms, onions and Swiss cheese, the French Lovers, with melted feta and sautéed spinach and the Mediterranean Flavor, with eggplant, garlic and tomato. These flippers can be made with ground chuck, chicken breast, ground turkey, a garden-burger patty or tofu. 482 Hayes St., (415) 552-8880.
The Grove Hayes: This fourth branch of the San Francisco chain offers all-day breakfast, as well as an upscale blend of comfort foods and ethnic favorites known as new American cuisine. Billing itself as "San Franciscois living room," the Grove has a casual atmosphere that includes a working stone fireplace, a Utah timber pavilion and reclaimed furniture. 301 Hayes St., (415) 624-3953. (Web site)
Hayes & Kebab: More upscale than the typical falafel joint, but more affordable than the typical Hayes Valley restaurant, Hayes & Kebab offers standard Middle Eastern and Mediterranean fare. Keep room for desert, especially the homemade Kurdish baklava, a family recipe. 580 Hayes St., (415) 861-2977. (Web site)
Hayes Street Grill: Established in 1979, the Hayes Street Grill was the first neighborhood restaurant and the first major commercial business on Hayes Street. Back then, what is now a Hayes Valley staple was about one-third the current size and ran on a shoestring budget. Today, the straightforward decor includes proper silverware and china. The bistro features a variety of basic but tasty grilled-fish dishes and the signature house-made whiskey-fennel sausages and crispy french fries. The crème br–leé is a hit, too. The place can get packed by 6 pm on performance nights, so it's best to book ahead of time. Once the show crowd leaves, though, it's possible to get a table on the spot. 320 Hayes St., (415) 863-5545. (Web site)
Hayes Valley Bakeworks: Hayes Valley Bakeworks gained a lot of attention upon opening for its mission of community empowerment. The chic bakery and café is staffed by trainees from local non-profit Toolworks, which helps employ homeless, disabled and at-risk individuals. Whether you can stomach the steeper prices for artisan pastries and sandwiches will depend on how you feel about the cause. 550 Gough St., (415) 864-2688. (In the Chronicle/Web site)
Indigo: Attentive service and moderate prices make this a popular Civic Center restaurant for arts patrons. 687 McAllister (near Gough), (415) 673-9353. (Web site)
Jardiniere: Jardiniere's exquisite interior manages to be elegant without pretension. At its center stands a circular bar topped with mahogany and black marble and a staircase leading to a mezzanine overlooking the bar. The dome is in the shape of an inverted champagne glass, one of the featured items at Jardiniere, along with more than 20 wines. California-French entrees such as Niman Ranch red-wine-braised short ribs with horseradish mashed potatoes or the duck-confit salad starter with pomegranates and toasted pistachios dominate the menu. Jardiniere belongs to restaurateur Pat Kuleto, who is responsible also for Boulevard and Farallon. The restaurant also has a late-night menu of light fare. A jazz trio performs Sunday through Tuesday. 300 Grove St. (at Franklin Street), (415) 861-5555. (Chronicle Review/Web site)
La Boulange de Hayes: This spin-off of San Francisco's La Boulangerie offers a French café experience, with brunch and lunch menus heavy on bread and sandwiches. Founder Pascal Rigo studied with French bakers near Bourdeaux and in Paris. He sold this local chain to Starbucks last summer for $100 million. 500 Hayes St., (415) 863-3376. (Web site)
Moishe's Pippic: Although it might not have quite the same allure as downing a Chicago-style hot dog in Wrigleyville, this kosher deli serves a close version. For a true taste of Chi-town's finest, opt for the Soldier Field, one hot dog and one Polish sausage topped with everything from sport peppers to sliced tomatoes. There's plenty of Chicago memorabilia and sporting paraphernalia on the walls to keep diners stimulated as they chow down on dogs or other deli favorites, like the West 57th sandwich with hot pastrami and chopped liver. 425-A Hayes St. (near Gough), (415) 431-2440. (Chronicle review)
Momi Toby's Revolution Café/Art Bar: Named after one of the proprietor's great-grandmothers, who was a head cook for Pancho Villa during the Mexican Revolution, Momi Toby's draws a strong corps of regulars, some who come in twice a day. The café also serves pastries and sandwiches, such as the popular pesto-chicken focaccia. Featured artwork changes every five weeks. A few times a month, Momi Toby's presents live music, poetry or spoken-word performances. 528 Laguna St., (415) 626-1508.
O-Toro Sushi: Its name refers to the lowest section of the tuna belly, considered the best part of the fish, but O-Toro is more than just a sushi bar. This small restaurant combines traditional Japanese cuisine with local California flair, as evinced by the "Japanese tapas" section of its menu. 205 Oak St., (415) 553-3986. (Web site)
Patxi's: This Chicago-style pizza restaurant offers only salad and pizza. Deep dish is the specialty, though thin crust is also available. Diners can choose from a selection of six specialty pizzas like spinach-pesto or Californian with a whole wheat crust. 511 Hayes St. (at Octavia), (415) 558-9991. (Web site
Place Pigalle: Locals come to Place Pigalle for its boutique wines and microbrews, as well as the homey atmosphere. Both the front and back rooms offer comfortable couch seating, and the back room features a pool table and installations from local artists, which change monthly. The choice of music depends on the mood of the bartender. On weekends, the bar can get quite crowded, but at other times, Place Pigalle has more of a lounge vibe. 520 Hayes St., (415) 552-2671. (Web site)
Plaj Scandinavian Restaurant & Bar: Chef Roberth Sundell takes inspiration from his native Stockholm and mixes it with California cuisine at this elegant Scandinavian restaurant. Wood paneling and a large fireplace give Plaj (pronounced "play") an old-world European look, but the friendly staff and smooth service maintain a relaxed feeling of accessibility. The menu--divided into vegetables, fish, meat and desserts--gives stylized updates to traditional favorites like potato dumplings and Swedish meatballs. Even the standard herring plate, now arranged with various fruits and spices, is worth reconsidering for those who normally avoid its fishy flavor. 333 Fulton St., (415) 294-8925. Chronicle Review/Web site)
Rich Table: This 60-seat restaurant from chef-owners Evan and Sarah Rich offers exceptional food in a casual, rustic atmosphere. The daily changing menu includes unique flavors even within the most simple dishes. Desserts are straightforward but very satisfying -- and don't skip the bars well-crafted cocktails. The house-made bread is worth the price tag. 199 Gough Street, (415) 355-9085 (In the Chronicle/Web site)
Rickshaw Stop: Long, tall curtains of crushed red velvet highlight the spacious interior of this friendly, inviting music club and cool, groovy bar on a quiet block. Genuine rickshaws dot the corners of the huge downstairs room and upstairs loft, while the rest of the decor is a hodgepodge of mod furniture, lush fabrics, gentle candles and exotic hanging lamps. The crowd and the mood is somewhere between indie-rock hipster and downtown dot-com, but it's all good, fine and down-home friendly. This is a place that's glad to have your company -- there's not a scowl to be found. Dating from 1927, the space was formerly a commercial soundstage and before that an auto garage, but the Rickshaw crew has done a fantastic job transforming it into a funky, warm, arty and altogether inviting hangout. (Kurt Wolff) 155 Fell St., (415) 861-2011. (Web site)
Rickybobby: Despite the name, the only thing Rickybobby shares with Will Ferrell's NASCAR spoof is all-American food. Here you'll find crawshrimp grits, short rib lasagna and Sweet Potatertots. The signature dish is a double-patty beef and bacon burger, in which the two meats are ground together. Much like a day at the races, the bar has a boisterous atmosphere, with communal seating, deafening noise levels and always a movie silently projecting on one wall. 400 Haight St. (In the Chronicle/Web site)
Sauce: The menu at this comfortably sophisticated restaurant is designed to elevate comfort food classics. The offerings sound appetizing, but you'll be sorry if your eyes are bigger than your stomach. Dishes are heavy, and it's easy to fill up early on. The best way to eat dessert is to grab 10 of your friends to join you -- portions are huge and filling. Meal pacing is brisk: If you arrive before the Opera or Ballet is set to begin, you'll make it with time to spare. (-SF Chronicle/SF Gate) 131 Gough St. (near Oak), (415) 252 1369. (Web site)
Sebo: Small plates are worth a taste at this comfortable and stylish Japanese spot, but the sushi is what really shines. Try the maguro maki roll -- tuna with lemon, avocado and daikon sprouts; sweet, creamy uni and in-house seasoned mackerel, or omakase, the chef's five- or seven-course tasting menu. Sushi chefs Michael Black and Danny Dunham were both former chefs at cult favorite, and now-closed, Midori Mushi. Beau Timken, owner of nearby True Sake, created the interesting by-the-glass-or-bottle sake list with some rarely seen treasures. 517 Hayes St. (near Octavia Blvd.), (415) 864-2122. (Web site)
Smitten Ice Cream: It didn't take long for this modern ice cream shop to become a fan favorite. Using a specially designed machine by owner Robyn Sue Fisher, this shop churns out ice cream from scratch in just a minute. Choose your flavor-- they offer a few choices each day--and watch the fresh ingredients come together to create a delicious scoop of ice cream. 432 Octavia St. #1a, (415) 863-1518 (Web site
Smuggler's Cove: Rum's the word at Smugglers Cove, where patrons can admire the themed decor while sipping on unique cocktails inspired by tiki bars and Caribbean drinks. (Web site)
Stelline: If you're looking for a casual, comfy neighborhood restaurant with good prices, look no further. 330 Gough St., (415) 626-4292.
Suppenkuche: Winning accolades for its international scene, Suppenkuche serves traditional, hearty comfort food such as traditional German wiener schnitzel, pork chops and sausages. Though the stark white walls and basic pine-wood tables aren't all that warming, the upbeat clientele and zesty German beers such as Bitburger, Erdinger Dunkel, Weltenburger and Franziskaner more than make up for it. There is some color in the intimate bar area, with paintings and other artwork from Germany along the walls. The great-grandson of the Red Baron is said to frequent Suppenkuche, too. Locals come early for dinner before the crowd gets too loud. 525 Laguna St. (at Hayes Street), (415) 252-9289. (Web site)
Straw: San Francisco may be the only Bay Area county without an annual fair, but diners can indulge all year long at Straw. The restaurant goes all-in on its carnival theme: booths are made from former Tilt-a-Whirl seats, the bathrooms have funhouse mirrors and menus are bound by old children's book covers. The food includes fairground fare like chicken and waffles, buffalo wings and, if you're so inclined, a hamburger patty stuffed into a doughnut instead of a bun. There's also a cotton candy machine, and you can try to win your dessert (maybe a peanut-butter-bacon pie) for free by playing a mid-meal game. 203 Octavia Blvd., (415) 431-3663. (In the Chronicle/Web site)
Two Sisters Bar and Books: Bibliophiles looking for a watering hole to call their own will love Two Sisters Bar and Books. Owner Mikha Diaz drew inspiration for the spot from a variety of sources, including bars, bookstores and coffeehouses she visited while traveling in Europe with her sister, Mary. The elegant cocktails and light appetizers portioned to share lend Two Sisters a female-friendly vibe, but gentlemen are allowed. The Books and Booze Club offers monthly get-togethers to discuss literature and drink cocktails inspired by the reading. 579 Hayes St., (415) 863-3655. (In the Chronicle/Web site)
Zuni Cafe: Hip local hangout. Roast chicken, hamburgers, Caesar salad and espresso granita are beyond compare. 1658 Market St. (near Franklin), (415) 552-2522. (Michael Bauer reflects on 30+ years of Zuni Cafe)