San Francisco has always been a Francophile’s refuge.
The French influence began with the city itself. Some of the first immigrants were Parisians feeling the uprising of l848.
And of course there was the lure of the gold rush. The French fortune seekers stayed and opened department stores, restaurants, a hospital, laundries and bakeries – the famous sourdough bread was called French bread, and Isidore Boudin (whose bread is still made) was one of the first to bake it. The City of Paris, a venerable department store modeled after the Galleries Lafayette, first did business on a ship in the harbor; today it is a Neiman Marcus store, and only the dome remains.
A few blocks away, on Bush Street near the gates of Chinatown, an area once known as Frenchman’s Hill is now called the French Quarter. This is not some invented tourist theme park but an area rooted in the history of the city.
“A City Hall, a café, a church”, traditionally that’s what you need for a village,” remarked Jean Gabriel, founder Café de la Presse (www.cafedelapresse.com) It includes a news stand selling French newspapers and magazines, a small bookstore and a large café/restaurant. Across the street is the French Consulate, which is near Notre Dame des Victoires, the French Catholic church.
The French Quarter has several clusters of restaurants. Among the most authentic is Le Central (www.lecentralbistro.com). It is achingly traditional, with banquettes, mirrors and chalkboard menus. The food includes traditional fare like leeks vinaigrette and a cassoulet rumoured to be simmering since 1974. San Francisco’s flamboyant former mayor, Willy Brown, is a frequent customer, and so are French tourists who cannot do without their cuisine. The wine list here is exceptional, and includes both California and French wines by the glass.
Nearby is Café Claude (www.cafeclaude.com), in Claude Lane, just behind the intersection of Stockton and Sutter streets. On Bastille Day, July l4, the streets are packed with revelers. Café Claude is French down o its zinc bar and the other furnishings, which were bought from an old Paris bar. Inexpensive and casual, but also romantic, it was once awarded first prize by the Bay Guardian weekly newspaper as the “best place to have a clandestine lunch”. The croque monsieur, the couscous with the traditional Merguez sausage are assertively French. So is the luscious tarte tatin, rich with apples and creme fraiche. Fusion might the culinary trademark of restaurant-obsessed San Francisco, but it is conspicuously absent in this French enclave.
One of San Francisco’s most celebrated restaurants, Fleur de Lys, is run by Hubert Keller, known as the chef’s chef. Now boasting a Michelin star, this haute cuisine palace, with its votive candles and tented ceiling is the place San Franciscans go for special occasions. www.fleurdelyssf.com
The French influence extends well outside the “village”. The best bakery-cafe in San Francisco, Tartine, is in the Latin Mission District, at 600 Guerrero Street (www.tartinebakery.com). It serves celestial tarts, croissants and other sweet and savoury goodies; the only downside is the lines, even in the rain.
San Francisco’s French connection goes beyond food. France Today, a monthly U.S. magazine about all things French, is published in San Francisco. In the Richmond District, the Palace of the Legion of Honor (34th and Clement Street) is a museum modeled after Le Palais de la Legion d’honneur in Paris, on the spot where Napoleon first established his civil and military order. It was built for the people of San Francisco by sugar heiress Alma Spreckels and opened in l924.
Spreckels was a passionate collector of French art, and thanks to her early championing of the sculptor, Rodin, the museum has over 80 pieces by him. It’s worth a visit just for the setting, dramatically situated on a hill overlooking the San Francisco Bay and the coastline.
San Francisco’s Museum of Modern art (www.sfmoma.org) , ranked second only to New York’s), has its own French collection: a startling roomful of paintings by Matisse. They were donated by the Haas family, of Levi Strauss fame, who bought the paintings from Gertrude Stein, originally from Oakland and later of Paris.
The French influence extends to the vineyards of the Napa Valley, San Francisco’s wine country, a mere hour and a half from the city by car. Even before the gold rush, the first grapevines in the Napa Valley were planted in 1836 by George Yount, from Alsace. In 1899, the Marquis Georges de Latour settled in the valley and came to produce the famous Cabernets of Beaulieu vineyards.
San Franciscan’s can drink to that.