A Travellerspoint blog

April 2005

Man Eats San Francisco (for next to nothing)

San Francisco, California, USA

View Work Trips 2005 - 2006 on GregW's travel map.

The Big Boss Man called me into his office. The room was dark, and smelled slightly musty, like a grandparents’ bedroom. The Big Boss Man sat behind his massive oak desk, overflowing with important papers. He leaned forward, his leather chair… Nay, given its size and grandeur it would be better to call it his throne. His throne creaking as his hunched form moved towards me. He raised a bony finger and pointed it at me.

“Peon,” he said, as he was wont to call me, “we need you to go to San Francisco.”

“I can do that,” I replied.

I would be working at a client’s office close to SBC Park where the San Francisco Giants play. The client’s office is just down the street from the site of Jack London’s birth, and is located in a building that used to be the offices of Rolling Stone Magazine. Not much still exists of Rolling Stone in the offices, but one of the conference rooms is called “The Hunter S. Thompson Room.”

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“Get yourself a plane ticket, but keep it under $750 US,” he said. I had to strain to hear his raspy voice, which was barely a breath given his advanced age.

“What if I find a ticket for $350?” I asked.

“Then you have saved the company some money,” the Big Boss Man replied. Not much incentive for me to find a good deal there. So I booked myself Air Canada direct to San Francisco to collect the Aeroplan miles.

“Get yourself a hotel, and keep it under $250 a night!” he said, in a voice that walked a line between the voice a judge would use in scolding a criminal and the voice a teacher would use in talking to an extremely stupid child.

“What if I find a place that’s only $100 a night?” I asked.

“Then you save the company some money,” he said. Again, not much incentive for me to find a cheap hotel, so the Courtyard Marriott on 2nd at Folsom was where I chose to stay. For $159 a night, I got the 17th floor looking east towards the Bay Bridge. At night, I could lie in bed and see both the TV and the bridge illuminated like a Christmas tree.

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“Finally, Greg, you get $51 dollars a day for food.”

“What if I spend less than that?” I asked.

“Then you get to keep the rest,” the Big Boss Man replied. Now that is an incentive to find good food deals. I could eat fast food every meal, but I craved some taste! So, how do you eat cheap in San Francisco?

There are three main strategies to eating cheaply. The first is to avoid restaurants and purchase all your food at the grocery store. This is a good plan if one has a fridge, and hopefully a microwave in their hotel room. I, however, had neither. So another strategy would need to be employed.

The second strategy is to eat at the cheap places you know, specifically, the fast food joints. Wendy’s, McDonald’s, Subway – all are close to the hotel and easy to find. But fast food tends to be bland and the environments in the restaurants built to be familiar and safe. But I wanted to experience the flavor of San Francisco – both in my food and in the environment I was in.

So I employed the last strategy, which is to find the cheap local places and eat there. But how does one find the cheap but good local places to eat?

One way is to ask the locals where they eat. Based on the recommendations of the local San Franciscans from the client, I was directed to a couple of places.

I had a decent lunch at Koh Samui & the Monkey, 415 Brannan Street (Brannan and 4th Street) – The “quick Thai lunch” was $10.50, providing you with an appetizer (I had the spring rolls) and a curry dish (I had the yellow chicken curry). (website: www.kohsamuiandthemonkey.com)

For Dinner, the recommendation was Mistral in the Ferry Building at Market and Embarcadero. Mistral is a French rotisserie place. For $8.50 one is provided with ½ chicken with 2 sides. I took my meal outside to the walkway behind the Ferry Building and watch the ferries dock while eating. (www.ferrybuildingmarketplace.com).

The final recommendation was for Victor’s at 210 Townsend Street by SBC Park. I had the Chicken Mole Super Burrito for $5.75. A massive burrito stuffed with chicken, rice, lettuce, guacamole, sour cream and cheese. The burrito includes a handful of nacho chips. I grabbed my meal to go, but Victor’s has a nice patio and is a popular pre-game hangout.

The second way to find places to eat is to just wander around and find places. My first morning, I stumbled across the Eden Plaza Café (2nd and Harrison Streets). $2.50 gets you a breakfast sandwich with 1 scrambled egg, sausage or bacon and cheese on an English muffin. The friendly woman working the counter is likely to call you “sweetie” and “darling,” even if she doesn’t know you. She did know many of the customers, though, which is a great sign for a restaurant. Repeat customers mean that the place must be good, and is always an indication to a traveler that the meal you are about to get is good.

Walking to work, still licking my fingers after my breakfast sandwich, I came across a surprising sight: a New York City police car, a couple NYC Taxi cabs and a NYC transit bus. Apparently, Director Chris Columbus was in town filming the movie Rent, based on the Broadway musical of the same name. The crew had transformed a block of 3rd Street into a dirty New York block, including casting a local diner as a NYC greasy spoon.

The next morning the film crew had cleared, but the diner still remained and still looked greasy. The HRD Coffee Shop (521 3rd Street at Bryant) provided me an omelet, hashbrowns, toast and diet coke for under $5.00. I sat at the counter facing out to the street, and watched policemen and constructions workers come in for a blue-collar breakfast.

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Just a block from the office I found The Brickhouse Café (426 Brannan Street). Looking at the menu, I saw an 8 oz. three cheeseburger for $9.75 including fries or a Salad. I choose the fries, added a Diet Coke and with taxes, the bill came to $12.21. That’s not bad compared to a similar meal at McDonald’s. The Burger was excellent but the fries were middling. I should have gotten a salad. Service was not quick; it took about 15-20 minutes to fulfill the order. However, the burger was worth the wait.

Another great way to find places to eat is to check out the free paper. Most cities have at least one free newspaper that gives restaurant listings by area. In San Francisco, I checked out the San Francisco Bay Guardian. The SFBG (www.sfbg.com) had a listing for The Thirsty Bear Brewing Co., full of “Young work-hard, play-hard types from the Financial District and Multimedia Gulch” who have “made this brick-walled brew pub their own, knocking back pints of ale and nibbling their way through a great selection of Spanish tapas.” Sounded like my kind of place, but then I saw the listing for Big Nate's Barbecue, which is said to be “pretty stark inside – mostly linoleum arranged around a pair of massive brick ovens.” Not exactly the decor that inspires, but apparently “the hot sauce will make you sneeze.” How could I resist that?

The walk to Big Nate’s passed me through most of the area of San Francisco called SOMA (South of Market Street). SOMA is a neighborhood in transition (some would probably call it gentrification), a place full of industrial shops situated beside trendy restaurants and bars. Porn shops sit a few doors from high-end kitchenware stores. The closed doors of local nightclubs and Mercedes Benz dealerships provide shelter for homeless people. “Old industries” like metal workers and car repair shops sit beside “New Industries” like film production and software development.

Eventually I came to the mainly unadorned entrance for Big Nate’s and went in.
Big Nate’s is named after Nate Thurmond, former NBA Hall of Famer for the Golden State Warriors. And fitting for an NBA player’s joint, the portions are amazingly large. My Pork Ribs Dinner came with 6 pork ribs, but not off any normal sized pig. These were jumbo ribs – like Fred Flintstone would be served. Big Nate’s doesn’t bother with fluff either – dinner is mainly meat. You get two small portions of potato salad and cole slaw, all that for only $13.95. Even with a beer, tax and tip, the bill is under $20.

So ended my culinary adventure in the Soma district of San Francisco. I mainly kept my daily food purchases under $30 a day, meaning a good $21 a day (US) making it’s way into my pocket. $21 a day for 4 days means that I made $84 for doing nothing more than eating good food in local restaurants. Sometimes I think I have the best job in the world.

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Bon Appetite!

P.S. I know that the United States of America has its problems, but in some ways it is still the greatest country in the world. After all, I know of no other place in the world where one can purchase Diet Vanilla Cherry Dr. Pepper. Only in America can one find and truly appreciate the excess of having the tastes of Cherry, Vanilla and whatever it is that Dr. Pepper tastes like all melding into your mouth at one moment. And, do it all on a diet! God Bless you, America, from Diet Soda to Shining Diet Soda!

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Posted by GregW 18:26 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Paris, France,

Work trip in April of 2005

View Work Trips 2005 - 2006 & France April 2005 on GregW's travel map.

Every time I look down on this timeless town
whether blue or gray be her skies.
Whether loud be her cheers or soft be her tears,
more and more do I realize:

I love Paris in the springtime.
I love Paris in the fall.
I love Paris in the winter when it drizzles,
I love Paris in the summer when it sizzles.

I love Paris every moment,
every moment of the year.
I love Paris, why, oh why do I love Paris?
Because my love is near.

- I Love Paris, Cole Porter

Paris, capital of France and known by many monikers, including "Gay Paris," "The City of Light" and "The City of Love." And I got to experience all three during my short trip.

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The trip was a 5 day requirements gathering session, with 3 days on either side of the week for free time, totalling 8 days of fun in Paris.

I was staying at the Hotel Acacias at 20 rue du Temple. At 94 Euros a night, certainly priced like a business class hotel, but you would never have guessed it from the interior. My room was on the top floor, and was the most weirdly shaped hotel room I have ever seen. Walking into the room, the bed was to your right and the bathroom (as small as a closet) was straight ahead. To your left was a low, slanted ceiling (almost like the underside of a staircase), which, after a quick duck and drop of around 3/4 of an inch, opened up to a small desk, and long thin hallway towards the window.

The shower was amazingly small. Standing in the shower, you had to press yourself up against the shower door, because if you tried and back away from the door, you would end up hitting the shower control, and turning the shower off, or worse, changing the temperature of the shower - either freezing you or scalding you.

I arrived on Saturday, April 2nd to a beautiful and sunny day. The temperature was around 16 celcius, and I had a lovely time setting out and seeing the sites. The Arc De Troimphe, Eiffel Tower, Opera house and the Musee D'Orsay were all on the list of things to see.

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A full day of site-seeing, and I was starving, so I set out the first night to find dinner close to my hotel. And that's where I experienced the first of Paris' monikers, "Gay Paris."

I am sure when people first starting calling Paris "Gay Paris," it probably was because of the joie du vivre of the inhabitants or some such thing, but I experienced a whole other type of gay Paris. Turns out that my hotel was in the heart of the gay district, and most of the clubs and restaurants in the area where full of guys. Not (to steal a quote from Seinfeld) that there is anything wrong with that. It was just a little unexpected.

Knowing that I would have a week full of pricey and no doubt excellent business dinners, I decided to go light on the first night, grabbing myself a panini and chocolate crepe at a local stand. I then wandered around the neighbourhood, eating my dinner and looking at the growing lineups at the gay clubs (even though it was only 8 o'clock at night).

Outside one club, a bald man approached me and asked me something in French.

"Desole, je ne parle pas Francais," I replied.

"Oh," he replied back in English, "where are you from?"


He lit up, "I am from Geneva! I am just here for a weekend to enjoy the city. Are you gay? Do you like boys?"

"No," I replied, "I like girls."

"Really," he said, "because this is the gay area."

I looked over at two guys were making out in a line-up to one of the clubs. "Yes, I can see that."

"I like both boys and girls," my bald Geneva friend continued, "but this weekend is for boys. You have never thought of being with a boy?"

"No, it's really not my thing."

At this point, my new friend from Geneva offered to pleasure me orally anyway, despite the fact that I was not gay. Sweet, I thought, though very misguided. I mean, I have had fantasies about sexual naughtiness with the Swiss, though in my fantasies the Swiss involved tend to be blonde, eighteen and female (and perhaps even with a friend). I politely rejected his offer and bide him adieu. Already Paris was proving to be an adventure.

The next day, I woke to the news that Pope John Paul II had died. After a traditional French breakfast of bread and pastry, I made my way down to Notre Dame Cathedral. Notre Dame is on Ile de la Cite, the place where Paris was founded, and is a massive Catholic Cathedral. It can hold up to 6,000 people, and is built in the imposing Gothic style, which means lots of huge vaulted ceilings and tons of ornate gargoyles and statues.

The Catholics in the City of Light had turned out to Notre Dame to pay homage to the life of his holiness John Paul II, and the inside of the church was glowing with the light of votive candles. The lights of the city burned inside on this day.

And finally, but perhaps most importantly, Paris is the City of Love. I know what you are thinking, "ah, the juene filles have filled the heart of Greg with springtime lust." And I will admit that the young ladies of Paris did fill my heart (and perhaps areas lower) with sensations of love. However, the true love I found in Paris was of a completely different sort.

The Paris Metro has 213 km of track, over 300 stations. It's a beautiful public transit system, with both the subway and regional trains feeding both downtown and suburban Paris, and criss-crossing the city to an extent that it feels like one is never more than 3 blocks from a Metro station.

I would ride the Metro into work, looking at the spider-web of lines on the subway map, and dream of what Toronto could be with such a system. Interconnected ticketing for GO Transit, the TTC and other regional systems. Subways running from the Don Valley Parkway to the 427 along Eglington, St. Clair and Queen. Light rail lines along the power corridor from Yonge to the airport, connecting with the subway at York University. Light rail running up to Brampton, Richmond Hill and Markham, connecting with the Viva rail line running along the 407. Dare I even dream it, a harbour-front subway, running to the island airport!

But alas, I return to Toronto to find the cash straped TTC fighting for it's fiscal future with the union, arguing over pennies and obviously without the capital might to implement such a grand dream. Besides, while the population of Paris and Toronto are similar (2,3 million for Paris, 2.5 million for Toronto), the greater areas don't compare at all - Paris has over 11 million people in her suburbs, Toronto a mere 5.7 million. Paris just has more people to move.

A final irony, of course related to transit, is coming from France, known across the world for striking unions (from truckers to airport workers to train operators) upon arriving home to a TTC union on the verge of a strike. I travelled all that way, never saw a single union demonstrating, and returned home to find the European strike ethic hard at work.

To destroy Cole Porter, "Why, oh why do I love Paris? Because my love of efficient public transit is near."

Posted by GregW 17:29 Archived in France Tagged business_travel Comments (0)