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Monday’s Neighborhood: 9th Avenue and Irving, Inner Sunset, San Francisco

The Sunset District of San Francisco doesn’t see the sunset too often with the near constant fog that blankets the neighborhood, especially this time of year. Indeed, the most common description to this area of the city is not about its diverse culture. The usual response has something to do with wearing ski jackets and preparing for the fog. By no means is the Inner Sunset a hectic, rush hour grinder like the Financial District and Civic Center areas. In fact, rush hour seems to be the 3pm post lunch and school rush when the cafes are bustling and the MUNI street car and bus stops overflow with shoppers and students.

The Sunset District refers to the mostly residential numerical avenues in the western part of the city, south of Golden Gate Park. The north side of the park is the Richmond District. The two get confused frequently. 19th Avenue is the main thoroughfare through both neighborhoods, along with being the very slow main approach to the Golden Gate Bridge from the peninsula. To the east of 19th Avenue is the Inner Sunset and to the west resides the more sleepy Outer Sunset.

The commercial heart of the Inner Sunset lies along 9th Avenue between Irving Street and Judah Street. You’ll always know Judah because that is where the street car runs (not on a reliable schedule ever) and driving north-south on any numerical avenue, the east-west cross streets run alphabetically from north to south (Hugo…Irving…Judah…). Irving Street is one block south of Golden Gate Park and its plentiful outdoor options from paddle boating in Stow Lake to the San Francisco Botanical Garden to the city’s premier art museum, the de Young, and the family favorite California Academy of Sciences, known for its living roof.

Parking is an intense sport here. An hour hasn’t gone by without somebody receiving a ticket at a meter. That might be because locals and residents from across the city are enjoying  meat stews on injera bread at the city’s premier Eritrean restaurant, New Eritrea, located at 10th and Irving. The cuisine is a close relative to Ethiopian, all served with that wonderful bread used as the eating utensil, a truly brilliant concept.

Between Lincoln to the north and Judah, 9th Avenue is the densest concentration for dining, with a wide variety of spots to choose from. Grab a Guinness across from the park at the Little Shamrock, then some excellent homey American cooking at Park Chow (especially the burger, the pot roast, and the ginger cake with pumpkin ice cream even if it isn’t Autumn), a relative to the handful of other Chow restaurants in the city and the East Bay. Ebisu across the street is an excellent sushi option. Across Irving, the focus is on Art’s Cafe for hash browns and omelettes with enough calories and grease to get you through the hangover and the next day.

Arizmendi’s Spinach, Caramelized Onion, and Gorgonzola Cheese Pizza

Across the street is the much celebrated and replicated Arizmendi Bakery, a branch of the Cheeseboard in Berkeley, all owned and run by the works as a co-operative. Outside Arizmendi is one of San Francisco’s dozens of new parklets, tiny areas of greenery for alfresco seating. With the cramped inside, the parklet is the choice seating with your baked goods and coffee here. Arizmendi’s pizza is what draws the lines, topped with everything from three types of mushrooms and a sesame ginger vinaigrette one day to roasted poblano chilies, fresh corn, and lime oil another day. There is always one option and it will never feature meat. Nice and straightforward.

A recent visit had a terrific combination of gorgonzola cheese, caramelized onions, spinach, and rosemary oil. The orthodox combination worked beautifully, but the crust lacked the spongy, herbal focaccia bent that is what truly makes the pizzas at the Cheeseboard in Berkeley. Perhaps the pizzas had gone been sitting in the back for too long. Much better were the exceptional, doughy chocolate chip cookies and the chocolate-chocolate chip-mint cookies, along with the cult favorite Wolverine roll (sourdough bread with raisins and diced apricot). Then again, you can’t go wrong with any muffin, scone, or challah on Fridays. Only the slightly boring focaccia left something to be desired. What is it with Arizmendi and focaccia and foccia-inspired pizza crusts faltering?

Indeed, Make Scones, Not War– Inside Arizmendi

Grab some homemade gelato after the pizza across 9th Avenue at Holy Gelato, and a homemade beer at the microbrewery and restaurant Social Kitchen and Brewery, who toes the sudsy line between brew pub and gastropub. Social’s IPA is very worthy of a pint, but it’s their Belgian inspired brews such as L’Enfant Terrible that shine brightest. Nearby on Irving, go for another pizza and beer duo at Pasquale’s Pizzeria and the area dive bar, The Blackthorn Tavern. My personal pick for the entire region is at Irving and 6th, for excellent Malaysian and Singaporean cuisine in the modern looking, shoebox sized Lime Tree Restaurant. One block away resides superb sushi at Koo’s. And if it’s high tea time, get your scones and dainty cucumber sandwiches at The Secret Garden Tea House, facing Golden Gate Park. If coffee is the name of the game, skip the Starbucks on Irving and go local at The Beanery, right at 9th Avenue and Irving.

Very quickly, going any direction from this dining heart of the neighborhood you’ll find either a park, a residential area, or the UCSF Hospital. That’s why the parking meters and MUNI trains tend to be crucial to a visit here. It’s one of the great pleasures in San Francisco to visit Golden Gate Park, some bread and pizza at Arizmendi, and after sunset, dinner at one of the neighborhood’s dining gems.

One response

  1. George

    Avoid Arizmendi. They are very snooty and put that “parklet” in without asking their neighbors and neighboring businesses (who were livid when they found out!). The best dining is past 19th Avenue on Irving.

    Shang Hee is a Chinese-style bakery. There is also a Vietnamese vegetarian restaurant run by cult members.

    June 29, 2012 at 6:26 pm

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