Ten days into my California trip and I’d hit up Anaheim, Marina del Ray, and Palm Springs — and I felt I’d barely scratched the surface of what SoCal had to offer. But alas, for my last few days in The Golden State I hopped a north-bound flight to San Jose to hang with my girl Abby and check out her neck of the woods.
From the moment Abby met me at baggage claim I remembered how we had become such good friends over the course of just few TBEX conferences, a Vegas visit, and many a commiserating email. We proceeded to spend the majority of the trip cackling over only-in-blogland stories, bonding over bad TV, guzzling wine and working side-by-side while her
assistant dog Jax paced between us. I also squeezed in lunch with a new blogging buddy, a drink with an old friend, and a meet up with a work contact — who knew I knew so many people in the Bay Area?
Basically, it would have been a very unbloggable trip, had it not been for Abby’s birthday celebrations.
It is a scientifically proven fact that the people of Northern California are born with a horrible genetic predisposition to a disease called Food Snoberius andconsidering Abby is a recent transplant from Las Vegas I told her she better get with the edible elitism STAT if she wanted to fit in around there. So I arranged for us to journey from the ‘burbs into the big bad city for Viator’s own San Francisco Combo: Ferry Building Food Tour and Alcatraz.
Though I’m a Viator ambassador, I travel totally anonymously — the local operators and guides have no idea that I’m affiliated with Viator when I’m on assignment. So it really was sheer luck that we ended up with the founder of the tour, Lisa Rogovin, as our guide. Lisa is a former employee of the iconic Gourmet magazine with over 20 years of experience in the culinary industry — these days, she’s so busy running her food tour business she rarely guides them personally anymore.
Stroke of luck number two? We were the only guests on the tour, meaning there would be ample leftovers to nosh on. Double score! As we began strolling through the iconic Ferry Building and its seemingly endless halls of yum, I felt grateful I skipped breakfast.
I’m actually about as far from a foodie as one can get (while my palate has expanded exponentially since I penned this post, I still stand by my belief that Kraft mac n’ cheese is one of the most delicious creations to have ever graced the planet) and so I was feeling a little self-conscious that this tour would be over my tongue. But I shouldn’t have feared — things kicked off simple and sweet with a cheese sampling from Cowgirl Creamery accompanied by a fresh baguette from Acme Breads. I gave silent kudos to Lisa (my mouth was full, after all) for how well-run the tour was, with prepared samples awaiting us at each stop.
Next up? Slanted Door, where Abby and Lisa both won my heart for not batting an eye as I apologetically yet savagely dissected my spring rolls to remove the shrimp inside (note to self: next time you attend a food tour, make note of non-seafood eating at booking). Other favorites included juice shots from Pressed, cured meat cones from Boccalone, beef chili from American Eatery, handmade chocolates from Recchuiti and French macarons from Miette Patisserie — this sugar lover’s favorite find.
Almost as good as the samples were the stories — from tales of the San Francisco landmark we were standing there chewing in to the history of the Bay Area’s notorious food culture to the behind-the-scenes accounts of how the taste-makers we were visiting along the way got where they are today.
I’ll never be accused of being a foodie. But our morning at the Ferry Building did help me understand Northern California’s obsession with what it eats. I love seeing others with a wild passion, and this is an area overflowing with enthusiasm for growing, cooking, and serving good food that is produced sustainably and compassionately. Even I, someone who may have starved were it not for the advent of the microwave and the takeout menu, can appreciate that.
Hugging Lisa goodbye, we grabbed our Alcatraz ferry tickets and set off for Pier 33. We made it just in time to board our boat to America’s most notorious prison island. From 1934 to 1963, the maximum security penitentiary was home to some of the country’s most ruthless criminals.
While I expected Alcatraz to be all kinds of eerie, the first thing we did upon disembarking was remark what a beautiful island we were on. In another life, this place would have been prime real estate — killer views of the San Francisco skyline, gorgeous wildflowers and blue waters lapping against the rocky shores.
These days, the crumbling remains of the compound’s many outer-lying buildings make for haunting photographs. But these ruins aren’t the main attraction — that honor goes to the Cellhouse audio tour.
The tour, delivered via a museum-style headset, is composed of live recordings from former prisoners and guards. The voices led us through the space with directions on when to walk and where to stand, accompanied by first hand accounts of what life was like at Alcatraz. It was beautifully executed with stories as haunting as they were heartbreaking, as intimate as they were insightful.
We concluded our time on the island with a picnic of our leftover treats from the morning, munching in silence while we reflected on the view in front of us and what it would feel like to be able to look at that city every day — and know you’d never step foot in it again. One anecdote I couldn’t shake was that on particularly raucous nights like New Year’s Eve, the prisoners could hear the sounds of the merrymaking carrying all the way across the Bay. I can’t imagine what it would be like to see and hear those hints of freedom, but know your days of experiencing it were over.
You know, lighthearted picnic lunch conversation.
We’d had a big day exploring the city’s past and present, but the celebrating wasn’t over yet — it was time to toast to Abby’s future! Back in San Jose, we loaded up on cupcakes from Sprinkles, including a dog-friendly one for our buddy Jax. Guys, can we talk about Sprinkles for a minute? If anyone reading here works at corporate, I have a personal plea. Stop expanding to new markets. My waistline can’t take the temptation. Thanks.
We capped off the night with “dinner” — and by dinner I obviously mean cocktails with a side of appetizer — at Rosewood Sandhill. Abby told me that it was sitting on this very deck watching a sunset much like the one we were watching that she decided it was time to pack up her life in Las Vegas and move to the Bay. I could see why she wanted to make this place her home.
And with that, it was time to return to my own home, the great state of New York, which I hadn’t stepped foot in for almost six months. Two weeks in California flew by far too quickly, and I left it whispering what is quickly becoming my catchphrase: I’ll be back.
Many thanks to my fabulous hosts Lindsay and Abby and all the other friends that made my California dreamin’ so very special!