Uncover layers of San Francisco history in the shops and houses of Cow Hollow

April 18, 1993|By Janet Celesta Lowe 8 | Janet Celesta Lowe 8,Copley News Service

Walk briskly through Cow Hollow, along Fillmore Street, down through the Marina District, skirt Fort Mason Center, climb the hill through the park, smile at the joggers, speed walkers and fortysome- thing parents pushing strollers. Step lively to the end of the first fishing pier.

Then, no matter how many times you've done this before, let yourself be enraptured by a single sweeping view of practically everything that makes San Francisco unforgettable: Fisherman's Wharf, the clipper ship Balclutha, Ghirardelli Square, Coit Tower, the Transamerica pyramid, the painted Victorian ladies of Russian Hill. Turn around. Alcatraz, half hidden by fog, seems close enough to touch, and beyond that Tiburon. To the west, the Golden Gate Bridge looms through threads of mist.

San Francisco is famous for mesmerizing views, glorious food, the most contemporary culture anywhere and, unless a visitor discovers little-publicized Cow Hollow, for fairly pricey accommodations.

Neither as well known as Union Square and Fisherman's Wharf nor as classy as Nob Hill, Cow Hollow, nonetheless, is a San Francisco classic. In the early days it was pastureland for farmers who fed both soldiers at the Presidio and the socialites of Pacific Heights. Tucked between Pacific Heights and the Marina District, it is safe, lively, friendly and quintessentially San Francisco.

Today, it is a bastion of reasonably priced but comfortable hotels and motels within strolling distance of excellent restaurants and bistros, the Presidio, the Embarcadero and many of the city's most photogenic neighborhoods. Thanks to San Francisco's first-rate public transportation system, it's also easy to reach Union Square, Golden Gate Park and Marin County.

Lombard Street, also designated as Highway 101 as it passes through the city, is the busiest and most visible street in Cow Hollow, but it isn't the street that grants the area its charm.

Cow Hollow's greatest claim to fame is Union Street, a trendy strip of shops, galleries, coffeehouses and restaurants. Most of the buildings are restored Victorians. Peek into walkways and alleys for flower shops, pubs and boutiques. The shops have a reputation for selling T-shirts with ribald -- but clever -- slogans. Take a slow dinner at Prego Ristorante, then stroll on down to Bepple's Pies for fresh-baked dessert.

The best-known Union Street architectural landmark is the Octagon House, built in 1861 and one of only two remaining San Francisco homes in that style. It's now a museum for the decorative arts.

Closer to the bay is a marvelous example of how a tired old neighborhood can be made au courant -- Chestnut Street. Chestnut has '50s charm, with several family-owned grocery markets (each with a genuine meat counter and a butcher who takes requests), movie theaters and youth-oriented clothing .

stores.

As in most of San Francisco, it's nearly impossible to find bad food on Chestnut. Original Marina Joe's, La Pergola, the Chestnut Grill and a half-dozen espresso emporiums make for a brisk night life.

Chestnut Street is in the middle of the area hardest hit by the 1989 earthquake, but the damaged buildings and streets have now been rebuilt to modern earthquake standards.

Today, apartments in the area are snapped up as quickly as they come the market and rents are daunting. The earthquake restoration seems only to have added to the local charm.

But there's more to Cow Hollow than eating and shopping. Many of San Francisco's finest attractions are close enough that even a casual walker can reach them.

Busy, heavily trafficked Lombard Street is the spirited and admittedly world-weary soul of Cow Hollow. Though most of the hotels on Lombard are of an unfashionable vintage, many have been renovated, and the rooms are spacious and truly comfortable. Hotel room costs on Union Square often begin at $125 a night; the best double-occupancy room on Lombard runs around $75.

Among the niftiest Lombard Street finds are the "Motor Inns," including Chelsea Motor Inn, Cow Hollow Motor Inn & Suites and Coventry Motor Inn. Part of a small, Northern California chain that includes the Vineyard Inn of St. Helena in Napa Valley, they are tastefully decorated. The staffs are small and seem to take a paternal interest in the well-being of their guests.

Unlike many of their uptown and Fisherman's Wharf competitors, these hotels provide free, inside parking for guests.

IF YOU GO . . .

San Francisco's climate is temperate year-round, but summers can be overcast and foggy.

What to wear: San Francisco was once famous for its well-dressed women, usually decked out in hats and fur. It's still a stylish city, though casual attire is entirely acceptable for daytime and most evening wear. Men still may be required to wear jackets in the better restaurants. Take a sweater, raincoat and umbrella.

How to get there: While most visitors who fly in use the San Francisco International Airport, this isn't always the best option. There are many bargain flights into Oakland and San Jose, neither of which is far from the city. All Bay Area airports are served by excellent shuttle services.

For more information: Contact the San Francisco Visitor Information Center. To request an information package or hear recorded message of daily events in San Francisco, call (415) 391-2000.

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