Most of the action can be found in three general areas: by South Park and the Giants ballpark, around the SF MOMA and Yerba Buena gardens, and over by Folsom and Eleventh Street. SoMa, as it's known, sounds a little like a SoHo wannabe, and it does have a strong downtown vibe. However, the name has its roots in the old nickname "South of the Slot," referring to its position on the "wrong side" of the Market Street cable car track when it was an industrial district of factories and Gold Rush immigrant workers.
These days the industry most associated with South of Market has to do with that other Gold Rush: the dot com boom. Once buzzing with purple-haired programmers and hobnobbing young executives, South Park is noticeably more subdued since the Internet companies started closing shop, and probably all the more pleasant for it. The grassy square is a nice place to walk your dog or eat a sandwich, and is bordered by several good shops and restaurants. In the summer the area gets more foot traffic as packs of Giants fans head for the ballpark. A handful of new restaurants have also opened to serve this crowd.
The western end of the district is the most industrial, and is dominated by huge wholesale marts and superstores like Costco and Bed, Bath & Beyond. Originally this made it an ideal zone for loud nightclubs, but as SoMa has become more residential some of the clubs have had trouble with noise complaints. However, this hasn't kept a crop of newcomers like Butter and Wish from opening in the past few years. The stretch along Eleventh and Folsom is the heart of the gay leather and S&M scene, which has its roots in the Folsom Street "Miracle Mile" of gay clubs and bathhouses in the '70s. This is also the site of the annual fetish bonanza of the Folsom Street Fair.
The area around Market and Third Street is more well heeled, influenced by the nearby Financial District and conventions at the Moscone Center. Several of the city's arts organizations are located here, including the SF MOMA, the Center for the Arts at Yerba Gardens and the California Historical Society. It has a bohemian undercurrent, with the museums, several independent bookstores, the line of artsy clubbers waiting to get into the gallery and club 111 Minna, and students from the Academy of Art slouching around the Utrecht art supply store on New Montgomery.
The SoMa district is large and spread out, so if you do find yourself South of the Slot, it helps to know where you're going. The zone around Sixth and Mission can be sketchy if you're walking alone, and at the very least the unschooled wanderer could come away with an impression of nothing more than highway overpasses and warehouses. Target your exploration in the pockets of culture around Yerba Buena, South Park and Eleventh Street, and you'll be sure to stumble upon lots of hidden treasures and funky urban charm.
Alice Street Community Gardens: This small but surprisingly serene urban garden is kept and manicured by 164 seniors and younger disabled people from the neighborhood, who each get a plot for creative expression. Everything from Chinese vegetables to roses and daisies grows here, watched over by a 9-story painting entitled "Manila Village Mural." The garden is open during daylight with wooden tables for picnics. At the intersection of Bonifacio and Lapu Lapu (in the blocks bordered by Fourth and Third, Folsom and Harrison).
California Historical Society: The organization's museum galleries showcase the history of the Golden State through photography, manuscripts, posters and artwork. Recent exhibits have looked at sunken Gold Rush treasure, citrus label art and California as it was in 1900. The North Baker Research Library is open to the public, and there is also a museum store. 678 Mission St., (415) 357-1848. (Web site)
Cartoon Art Museum: Charles Schulz supplied the funds that allowed this museum to officially set up shop, bestowing his blessing on its mission to preserve and exhibit cartoon art "in all its forms." Special exhibits have looked at subjects such as superheroes in comics, great women cartoonists, comic strip controversies, the art of Edward Gorey and the work of the Peanuts creator himself. 655 Mission St., (415) 227-8666. (Web site)
Contemporary Jewish Museum: The CJM's mission is to engage the public on Jewish culture, history, art, and ideas. Founded in 1984 the space is a non-collecting entity that partners with national and international institutions to bring timely exhibitions of a high level of artistic achievement and scholarship. Half off admission Thursdays after 5 pm; closed Wednesdays. 736 Mission St., (415) 655-7800. (Web site)
Folsom Street Fair: The annual grand finale of Leather Pride Week, this celebration of the leather and fetish culture features equipment vendors, demonstrations of safe BDSM techniques and kinky souls trotting around in studded leather harnesses. Takes place the last Sunday in September on Folsom St., between Seventh and Twelfth Sts. (Web site)
Fourth Street Bridge and Francis "Lefty" O'Doul Bridge: Both of these working drawbridges were designed by J.B. Strauss, whose firm, the Bascule Bridge Co., later became famous for erecting the Golden Gate Bridge. The Fourth Street Bridge, erected in 1917 and also known as the Peter R. Maloney Bridge, is the oldest operating bascule bridge in the state and has been determined eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. The two-lane structure includes a two-story operator house, a watchman's house and an electrical house. The Francis "Lefty" O'Doul Bridge, 17 years younger, is a block away and still has the original bridge operator's cottages at each end and is raised and lowered occasionally to let boat traffic in and out of Mission Channel.
Museum of the African Diaspora: A decade in the works, MoAD explores the culture, history and contributions of people of African ancestry around the world. Rather than collect art or display masks and other ethnographic objects, MoAD presents exhibitions of work by contemporary artists of African descent, as well as permanent multimedia presentations and programs about the origins and movement of the African diaspora, how people adapted to new environments and transformed themselves and the cultures they interacted with in the process. (-SF Chronicle) 685 Mission St. (at Third Street), (415) 358-7200. (Web site)
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San Francisco Museum of Modern Art: Inside the striking building is a modern art collection that boasts excellent touring exhibits, films and photography. The permanent collection includes works by Pollack, Warhol, Matisse, Picasso and O'Keeffe, as well as artists with a connection to the Bay Area, such as Diebenkorn and Thiebaud. Have an espresso at the relaxed café before tackling the top-notch gift shop full of sleek gadgets and glossy art books. Half-price on Thursday nights, from 6 to 9 pm; the first Tuesday of every month is free. 151 3rd St., (415) 357-4000. (Web site)
Chronicle article: SFMOMA Turns 10 (See photos)
AT&T Park: The classically designed stadium boasts a waterfront promenade, an elaborate playground for kids, a free viewing area and, of course, the thrill of the game. 24 Willie Mays Plaza, (415) 972-2000. (Web site)
SF Camerawork: A non-profit arts organization established in 1974 that provides gallery space, lectures, educational programs and more for the artist community. Admission to the gallery is free, but the bookstore may inspire you to part with some cash. 1246 Folsom St., (415) 863-1001. (Web site)
South Park: Once upon a time, South Park was built as an upscale residential square, modeled on London's Berkeley Square. In the '90s this oval park went from drug-dealer central to the epicenter of the "New Media" revolution, the place where many a dot-com deal was sealed. It's much quieter now, but still a good place sit on a sunny day, get a cup of coffee and do a little shopping. Bordered by Second, Third, Bryant and Brannan streets.
Yerba Buena Gardens: Located across the street from the SF MOMA, this complex provides a cultural focal point for the South of Market area with two blocks of museums, activities and peaceful gardens. The Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, located at Third and Mission, hosts visual art exhibits, performances, and other events. At Fourth and Howard is Zeum, an interactive multimedia and technology museum for kids and teens. There's also a bowling alley, an indoor ice-skating rink with huge windows looking onto the downtown skyline and a painstakingly restored carousel from San Francisco's old amusement park, Playland-at-the-Beach. Bordered by Third, Fourth, Mission and Folsom Sts. (www.yerbabuenaarts.org / www.zeum.org / www.skatebowl.com)
Asia SF: Pan-Asian-Californian fare battles for attention with the tall, glamorous gender illusionists who serve it, and despite the competition the food manages to shine. Plush surroundings provide the perfect backdrop for the sexy and campy waiters. 201 9th St. (at Howard Street), (415) 255-2742 (Chronicle Review / Web site)
Beard Papa's: Inside, the scent of baked pastry dough is heavy in the air. Employees pump light, creamy vanilla filling into crisp golden shells, while customers hover at the counter watching the action. The flaky pastries can be purchased by the piece, half-dozen or dozen, and puffs are filled to order, ensuring freshness. Bring an appetite -- the airy sweets are super-sized, and the crumbly shell makes sharing difficult. And if vanilla's not your thing, wait until mid-summer to make the trip. Other flavors like chocolate, strawberry and green tea -- plus cheesecake sticks, eclairs, and a chocolate fondant cake -- will be available then. (-SF Chronicle) 99 Yerba Buena Lane (between Third and Fourth Streets on Mission),(415) 978-9972. (Web site)
Brain Wash Cafe & Laundromat: Wash away your cares with a strong cup of coffee, or take a load off while you get the laundry done and tuck into a simple meal. Live music is featured some evenings. 1122 Folsom (415) 861-3663. (Web site)
The Butler & the Chef: This heartbreakingly Parisian cafe offers good coffee, bistro classics like the croque monsieur, and crisp, buttery croissants. 155 South Park Ave. (415) 896-2075. (Web site)
Caffe Roma: Roma patriarch Sergio Azzollini brings the convivial, family-style aura he cultivated for 30 years at his North Beach coffeehouse to this unlikely corner of SoMa. The fresh daily menu of house-made Italian soups, salads, panini and desserts features artisan bread brought in daily from Panorama Bakery on Florida Street, prosciutto from Ital Foods in South San Francisco, balsamic vinegar from Modena, and even olive oil (available for sale) imported from Puglia, Italy. 885 Bryant St., (415) 296-7662. Closed weekends. (Chronicle review/Web site)
Canton: Some of best dim sum in the city. Don't miss the chicken thighs, dumplings and bok choy in oyster sauce. (-SF Chronicle) 655 Folsom St. (near Third St.), (415) 495-3064. (Web site)
Caffe Centro: South Park's staple for a quick bite at lunch, this breezy cafe uses mostly local, organic ingredients and draws a clientele of local tech workers. Try French-influenced sandwiches and salads, or a rich brownie or pecan square. 102 South Park Ave. (415) 882-1500. (Web site)
Caffé Museo: SF MOMA's airy sidewalk cafe is gaining a reputation as a destination unto itself. The moderately priced sandwiches, salads and pizzas are impressive for a museum cafe, and can be enjoyed inside or out with, if you like, a nice glass of wine. Open every day except Wednesdays, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Open late Thursdays until 9 p.m. 151 Third Street, (415) 357-4500. (Chronicle Review)
Chaat Cafe: This casually vibrant Indian restaurant offers irresistible naan, with one side browned and crisp and the other fluffy. The naan serves as a wrap for sandwiches filled with chicken and lamb, well-spiced. Also noteworthy are pakoras, cheese, chicken or catfish encased in a golden chickpea batter. Although lunch can be hectic, servers are friendly and helpful. (-SF Chronicle) 320 Third St. (at Folsom), (415) 979-9946. (Web site)
Goat Hill Pizza: This second location of the Potrero Hill favorite is offering the traditionally Monday-only all-you-can-eat pizza night every day. It's a good way to avoid the lines at the Potrero Hill original. (-SF Chronicle) 715 Harrison (at Third Street), (415) 974-1303. (Web site)
Harvest Urban Market: A second outlet of the Harvest Ranch Market, which has been supplying the Castro neighborhood with groceries and a fantastic salad bar for more than 15 years. The new store has six times the retail space of the original market and a larger variety of natural and specialty groceries, organic produce and vegetarian offerings. Hot meals, soups and salads are available to take home or eat in the airy cafe. Cafe opens at 7 a.m.; market is open 8:30 a.m.-11 p.m. daily. (-SF Chronicle) 191 Eighth St. (at Howard), (415) 621-1000. (Web site)
Henry's Hunan Restaurant: The spice is right and the portions generous at this comfortable, friendly venue. Smoked ham with green beans and country-style vegetables have just enough heat to tease the palate, but not enough to call the fire department. (-SF Chronicle) 110 Natoma St. (at Second Street); (415) 456-4999. Open 11:30-9 p.m. Monday-Saturday. Also at 674 Sacramento St., 924 Sansome St. and 1016 Bryant St. (Web site)
Koh Samui and the Monkey: The distinctive Thai menu features many well-executed classics such as green papaya salad, spring rolls with shrimp, mint and noodles and tom ka gai, plus unique items like crushed scallops mounded with sesame seeds and pumpkin curry with red chiles, galangal, kaffir lime and basil in coconut milk. Shrimp with asparagus should be on a diner's must-order list. The loftlike room, soothingly painted in green and gold, has windows on two walls and is dominated by Buddhas, angels and other statues. (-SF Chronicle and SF Gate) 415 Brannan St. (near Third), (415) 369-0007. (Chronicle Review/Web site)
LuLu: This nationally award-winning restaurant is housed in the vaulted space of an exposed-beam converted warehouse. Choose from Mediterranean-influenced dishes, pizzas, pastas, and rotisserie items. The staff is cool, but welcoming. 816 Folsom St. (between Fourth and Fifth streets), (415) 495-5775. (Chronicle Review/Web site)
Oola Restaurant & Bar: "San Francisco bistro cuisine," featuring organic meats and produce and artisan cheeses and wines, is offered until 1 a.m. Tuesday-Saturday and 12 a.m. Sunday-Monday. The intimate, narrow space is framed by exposed brick walls, and sheer rust-colored fabric hanging from the ceiling separates the booths from the rest of the dining room and bar. (-SF Chronicle and SF Gate) 860 Folsom St. (between Fourth and Fifth streets), (415) 995-2061. (Web site)
Organic Coffee Company Cafe: This bustling java joint is located on the ground floor of San Francisco City College's downtown campus, a stone's throw from the new Westfield Centre on Mission Street. The coffee comes from the San Leandro-based Rogers Family Co.'s very own organic coffee farms in Panama. In addition to offering up tasty lattes, mochas and a variety of fresh-squeezed juices, the cafe also serve freshly baked pastries and sandwiches prepared daily by City College culinary arts students. (-SF Chronicle) 88 Fourth St., (415) 512-7436. (Web site)
Paragon Restaurant & Bar: Good, well-priced food near SBC Park. Try the roast chicken with macaroni and cheese. Service can be frustrating. (-SF Chronicle) 701 Second St., (415) 537-9020. (Chronicle Review/Web site)
Primo Patio Cafe: Owners Chris and Noel Kelton have been serving what Noel calls "global tropical" (Mediterranean and Caribbean) cuisine for nearly a decade at this whimsically-painted SoMa spot. The added bonus of this no-frills cafe is alfresco dining in the back. Try the snapper sandwich, grilled lamb pita or anything with jerk marinade. Entrees come with black beans, rice and vegetables, making the food even more of a bargain. Breakfast, lunch and dinner daily. Beer and wine, happy hour Monday-Friday. Cash only. (-SF Chronicle) 214 Townsend St. (near Third Street), (415) 957-1129. (Web site)
Roe: Boasting an epicurean menu and great happy hour specials, Roe is conveniently located near the Moscone Center. Old world sensibilities combined with an elegant modern twist make for a classy lounge experience. 651 Howard St. (at Hawthorne Lane), (415) 227-0288. (Chronicle Review/Web site)
Salt House: A homey beacon amongst the industrial skyscrapers, this turn-of-the-century warehouse offers a convivial atmosphere and diverse American flavors. 545 Mission St. (between First and Second streets), (415) 543-8900. (Chronicle Review/Web site)
Supperclub: Spend hours eating in bed at the first U.S. outpost of the original Amsterdam Supperclub. There is only one seating per night, beginning at 7:30 p.m. Dinner is served in five courses. The meal is at the whim of the chef, so don't expect a printed menu, as it's constantly in flux. Entertainment varies but has included aerial performers, exotic dancers and roller skaters. (-SF Chronicle/SF Gate) 657 Harrison St. (at Third Street), (415) 348-0900. (Chronicle Review/Web site)
Sushi Groove South: Known for good nigiri, sake cocktails and unexpected items such as sushi pizza, this sister branch of the Russian Hill establishment asserts its own hip SOMA flair with a modern interior accented by a glowing glass sculpture and a wall of yellow light. A DJ is on hand most evenings to set the vibe. 1516 Folsom St., (415) 503-1950. (Chronicle Review)
Triptych: This cafe/gallery features a mosaic bar and tables, a 30-seat outdoor garden patio, and a chef from Gordon Biersch in San Jose. 1155 Folsom St. (Web site)
Town Hall: San Francisco's modern urbanity meets New England's homey simplicity at this restaurant from the Postrio gang, sans Wolfgang Puck. The dining room, with a long mahogany bar stretching from the entry, is a mix of old-fashioned creamy wainscoting with gilt-framed portraits from grandma's parlor and blow-your-lights-out starburst chandeliers salvaged from 1930s Spanish Harlem. The menu is a fusion of traditional American flavors and 21st century creativity, of East Coast and West, with appetizers like baby spinach salad sporting cornmeal-fried oysters and entrees such as the pork chop coated with New Orleans-style tasso and peanuts. (--SF Chronicle and SF Gate) 342 Howard St. (at Fremont), (415) 908-3900. (Chronicle Review/Web site)
Tu Lan: Vietnamese greasy spoon that is enduringly popular with its die-hard fans (and formerly with Julia Child). Fried rice is a favorite. 8 Sixth St., 626-0927. (Web site)
V Cafe: Formerly Whiz Wit, it claims to serve the best cheese steak sandwiches in town. V's version of the classic cheese steak is made with grilled onions, sweet or hot cherry peppers and your choice of American, provolone, Swiss, cheddar or jack. They also serve a variety of salads, hoagies, burgers and grinders (or hot sandwiches), such as a salmon club on wheat toast; meatball; eggplant parmigiana and a po-boy fried shrimp. 1525 Folsom St., near 11th; (415) 863-3620. Open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Friday and Saturday; closed Sunday. Delivery and catering services available. (-- SF Chronicle; read Lord Martine's first-hand account/Web site)
Zuppa: Joseph and Mary Manzare of Globe continue their love affair with the look, food and wine of Italy with Zuppa. An all-Italian wine list sets the mood for chef Rudy Mihal's menu of cured meats, wood-fired pizza and antipasti. The space is industrial, warmed up with yellow and gold, two bars and views of the wood-fired oven and open kitchen. 564 Fourth St. (at Freelon), (415) 777-5900. (Web site)
21st Amendment: The 21st amendment meant the freedom and the right to brew beer. This brewery seeks to bring the "local" back to the beer culture of the Bay Area. 563 2nd St., (415) 369-0900. (Chronicle Review / Web site)