About Marcia Gagliardi
Marcia Gagliardi is a freelance food writer in San Francisco. She writes a weekly column, Foodie 411 for the SFCVB on their “Taste” site; a monthly gossip column, “The Tablehopper” for The Northside; and regular features for Edible San Francisco. Her first book came out in March 2010: The Tablehopper’s Guide to Dining and Drinking in San Francisco: Find the Right Spot for Every Occasion.
Latest Posts by Marcia Gagliardi
The former home of Chez Spencer (which was damaged in a fire) has been taken over by Sylvan Mishima Brackett of Peko Peko. Mishima Brackett, who also worked at Chez Panisse before moving to Japan to study the cuisine there, is calling the new restaurant ~RINTARO~, which means “woods boy.”
The space has been completely renovated, with help from Mishima Brackett’s father, who runs a Japanese architecture and design company called East Wind. The front courtyard many will remember from the Chez Spencer days is still there, and the dining room features a bar on one side with open beams on the ceiling and booth seating in the dining room.
The space seats 60 altogether, plus a private dining room that can take additional diners or be rented out for special events.
As for the food, Mishima Brackett is sourcing his ingredients impeccably, as one would expect from a Chez Panisse alum. The menu will change regularly, of course.
A significant portion of the menu is devoted to yakitori (individual skewers range from $5-$6), including many different preparations of chicken (gizzard, liver, and skin are on there, offal lovers), or you can opt for the chef’s choice six-skewer set ($15.50). There is also a section of the menu devoted to vegetables and fried items. For main or “final” dishes, check out the uni donburi, with uni from Santa Barbara, fresh wasabi, yuzu, and toasted nori ($8 for one person or $15 for two).
For now, they aren’t taking reservations, but should be soon. There are also plans in the work to open for lunch, but for now hours are Mon-Thu 5:30pm-11pm and Fri-Sat 5:30pm-12am. 82 14th St. at Folsom, 415-589-7022.
As someone who has been living in and eating her way through San Francisco for more than 20 years, I have far too many favorite spots that I love and adore to list in a small article like this one.
I also understand what a traveler is looking for when they come to San Francisco. They usually want a seafood experience, some California cuisine, maybe a dim sum feast, and a hidden gem or two.
They want to know what’s good, what are the classics, and some new spots too. And of course some of our fantastic sourdough needs to be eaten. So let’s do this!
There is an exciting movement of New California cuisine happening in the city, which is a bit freestyle, pulling from different cuisines and cultures.
One of the most inventive places is ~BAR TARTINE~ in the Mission, where chefs Nick Balla and Cortney Burns do all kinds of pickling, fermentations, dehydrations, and more. Every time I eat there, the menu has some new finds, from Mediterranean dishes to Japanese flavor profiles. And big bonus: you get to enjoy the incomparable bread from Tartine Bakery, some of which is baked on-site. It’s also a popular spot for weekend brunch.
Everyone needs to pay a visit to the inimitable ~ZUNI CAFE~ at least once in their life, and once you have the famed roast chicken with bread salad, you’ll be a customer for life.
The Caesar, anchovies with celery, gnocchi, and oysters on the half shell are other fantastic standards on the menu.
~FOREIGN CINEMA~ in the Mission has one of the nicest sheltered patios in the city and also packs a great oyster list, enticing appetizers, and phenomenal fried chicken. Brunch on the terrace—with their unique egg dishes (and quality Bloody Marys)—is an SF institution.
The Hot Ticket
Everyone wants to eat at ~STATE BIRD PROVISIONS~, and for good reason: there is nothing like the globe-trotting dishes that Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski create—it’s chef food on another level.
It’s also incredibly fun: dishes come by on a dim sum cart, or a server offers something hot from the kitchen on a tray. It’s food for people who have adventurous palates and love appetizer-sized portions.
Don’t miss the SBP classics: CA state bird with provisions, any of the savory pancakes, and the duck liver mousse with almond biscuits. The rest is fair (and very delicious) game.
It’s worth lining up and trying to get a table at their first seating (doors open at 5:30pm), or come by on the late side (9pm) and see if you can nab a spot. They’ll do everything they can to seat you and keep you updated.
If you couldn’t score a seat at SBP and now you’re starving, you can walk a block up Fillmore Street to ~DOSA ON FILLMORE~ for flavor-packed South Indian dishes made with sustainable ingredients (and there’s a full bar).
Don’t miss the vada pav, a killer bar snack if you’re waiting for a table.
You can also head farther up Fillmore to ~SPQR~ for some of the most exciting soigné Italian cuisine in the city, where you’ll enjoy beautifully made pastas by chef Matthew Accarrino (and there’s a wine bar and kitchen counter where you can perch and taste your way through their extensive wine list).
Never been to ~SLANTED DOOR~? Locals prefer to go to ~OUT THE DOOR~, a sister restaurant, which is also nearby. You can enjoy many SD Vietnamese faves (shaking beef, daikon rice cake, Dungeness crab and cellophane noodles) plus their amazing fried chicken in less of a madhouse and more of an easygoing neighborhood vibe. (OTD is a great breakfast/brunch spot too.)
Okay, so you came to SF and you want to do it up? Then you need to get yourself to ~SAISON~, which is THE honcho in the high-end game in SF. The tasting menu will put you back $248, but you’ll experience some of the finest ingredients, treated with such creative finesse by chef Joshua Skenes and his team.
You should also pony up for the wine pairings, because Mark Bright is one of the best somms in the city. The custom dishes, glassware—everything is top notch. Enjoy the ride.
Another four-star pick is Corey Lee’s ~BENU~, especially if you are a fan of Asian ingredients and flavor profiles.
The room is quite plain, so don’t expect much in the way of atmosphere, but the food, service, and choice wines will demand and hold your full attention. (Ditto the beautiful plates—they’re as beautiful to look at as to eat off of.)
If you want to go the high-end route, a favorite is the elegant ~ACQUERELLO~, with choose-your-own tasting menu options (their menus during truffle season are especially smashing) and a very deep wine cellar too.
Another place noted for refined service and cuisine is the inimitable ~QUINCE~, with an eye-catching and très chic dining room that was recently updated, where you’ll find beautiful stuffed pastas and a posh crowd.
If you have a business lunch or dinner, ~PERBACCO~ is your spot (don’t miss the agnolotti dal plin and the excellent salumi).
On the opposite end of the spectrum (i.e., getting more casual here) is the neighborhood favorite ~LA CICCIA~, featuring the cuisine of Sardinia. Downtown is ~54 MINT~, with authentic Roman dishes (their cacio e pepe is a winner) and a patio that’s ideal on warm evenings.
Quince’s casual sister, ~COTOGNA~, falls more into the Cal-Italian realm (their sformato and the raviolo with egg are legendary), as well as the touchstone ~DELFINA~ (best spaghetti in town)—there’s also their Roman offshoot ~LOCANDA~ (there’s a full bar). The hip and casual ~FLOUR + WATER~ (quality pastas) is also in the Mission.
San Franciscans loooove their pizza, and you’ll find a variety of styles all over the city.
For those who want to experience an artisan-made pizza napoletana and won’t mind the bare-bones experience, you have to pay a visit to ~UNA PIZZA NAPOLETANA~ in SoMa (and be sure to have a cocktail at nearby Bar Agricole before or after). For more of a lively scene, ~TONY’S PIZZA NAPOLETANA~ totally rocks and has so many kinds of pizza on the menu, you won’t believe it. They’re also faithfully researched, like the napoletana and the Jersey tomato pie, a favorite of mine.
If you want true deep dish, head to Tony Gemignani’s other enterprise in the neighborhood, ~CAPO’S~. There are also a couple of ~PIZZERIA DELFINA~ locations in the city, which are always busy and have an excellent purgatorio (with an egg), a clam pie, and the chilled tripe is a killer appetizer (get a cannolo for dessert). ~RAGAZZA~ is a fun neighborhood spot, with beautiful salads and I live for their amatriciana pizza.
San Francisco has some classic steakhouses, starting with ~HARRIS’ RESTAURANT~, which has some incredible dry-aged beef (get the Harris’ Steak, a bone-in New York, or the porterhouse), but their rib-eye (not aged) is also notable.
If you’re a prime rib fan, then the old-school experience at ~HOUSE OF PRIME RIB~ is over the top. For a more modern steak experience, ~ALEXANDER’S STEAKHOUSE~ sources phenomenal beef (hello, A5 wagyu from Japan) and their wine list is also extremely dialed.
For a true slice of SF late night, visit ~NOPA~, which has its kitchen open until 1am nightly. This casual urban spot has a long bar, a communal table, and two levels of seating, which are all usually packed to the gills.
You’ll find California ingredients at their peak of season, and their burger, chicken, and pork chop are justifiably famous. Great wine list. Nopa also serves one of the city’s best weekend brunches.
Oh, and if you’re looking for a party, ~CHINO~ in the Mission has a cocktail-fueled scene, with an eclectic menu of Asian favorites (killer wings, braised lamb noodles, and dumplings). Kitchen open until 1am!
If you like Szechuan heat, head to Chinatown to experience ~Z & Y RESTAURANT~, while more sensitive palates will prefer the cuisine (and xiao long bao) at ~BUND SHANGHAI~.
Another Chinatown classic is ~GREAT EASTERN~ (you can get dim sum during the day and Cantonese dishes until late), and one of my favorite dim sum spots on the weekend is ~HONG KONG LOUNGE~ (there are two locations on Geary), but be prepared to wait—trust, the Peking duck is so worth it. If you want to stay near downtown, ~YANK SING~ has quality dim sum, and really good XLB (but it comes at a price).
All hail ~SWAN OYSTER DEPOT~, which is the true heart and soul of San Francisco. The Sancimino family will make you feel like an old friend as they shuck fresh oysters.
It’s especially great to come here for Dungeness crab when it’s in season (the season starts in November).
There’s always a line, so come for a very early or late lunch. ~HOG ISLAND OYSTER COMPANY~ at the Ferry Building Marketplace has oysters galore and local seafood, plus a view of the water. If you have to eat at the Wharf, I enjoy the old-school vibe at ~SCOMA’S~ (get the lazy man’s cioppino).
You can’t come to San Francisco without experiencing a super burrito. I’m a fan of the al pastor version at ~CANCÚN~, and there’s nothing like a late-night burrito at ~EL FAROLITO~.
The off-menu taco dorado at ~LA TAQUERIA~ is tops (get the carnitas), and the tacos off the ~TONAYENSE~ trucks are always damn good. (Ditto the tacos from the El Norteño truck in SoMa.)
Try the tortas at ~LA TORTA GORDA~ (I prefer the tinga, although they are known for their pierna enchilada version), and chilaquiles at the family-style ~SAN JALISCO~ are a fave (and served all day). A visit to ~LA PALMA MEXICATESSEN~ is another top choice.
For a fun scene, don’t miss the colorful ~LOLÓ~ for dinner in the Mission—and their cocktails are fabulous. Over closer to Golden Gate Park is ~NOPALITO~, serving some of the best-made Mexican food in the city, with epic carnitas (and margaritas).
This is one area where SF lags a bit, but fortunately there’s ~AKIKO’S~, which has some of the finest seafood in town, and it’s beautifully handled (ditto the rice). Another downtown spot is newcomer ~PABU~ from Michael Mina and Ken Tominaga, which offers a chic omakase experience at a very long counter.
Don’t miss the Happy Spoon as part of your night, and the sake selection is tops. For a hot and happening sushi experience, head out to Bernal Heights to ~ICHI SUSHI~, which will have hip-hop going and a fun crowd, with quality seafood handled in creative and innovative ways.
Food Trucks and Pop-Ups
If you want to graze on a bunch of tasty bites from some food trucks all at once (mash-ups like a tikka masala burrito from Curry Up Now, and sisig nachos from Señor Sisig), hit up the various truck gatherings around town, like ~OFF THE GRID~ and ~THE SOMA STREAT FOOD PARK~, plus there’s the ~MISSION DISPATCH~ pod. Want to check out a pop-up dinner? ~NAKED KITCHEN~ in the Mission has a rotating roster of quality chefs each week.
San Francisco is obsessed with coffee. Like, really obsessed. You’ll find all kinds of third-wave roasters and their associated cafés in every neighborhood. For espresso lovers, a visit to the petite ~LINEA CAFFE~ in the Mission is a must.
Also in the Mission: a stylish location of ~SIGHTGLASS~, the hipster-flooded ~FOUR BARREL~, and for those who appreciate a light roast, check out the new location of ~RITUAL~.
Pay a visit to the ever-busy ~THE MILL~ on Divisadero, where you can enjoy Four Barrel coffee and a variety of house-milled and baked breads by Josey Baker (the black pepper and Parmesan loaf is a fave).
Just Because They Are Totally Delicious…
- ~MERIGAN SUB SHOP~ makes some crazy-good subs, like their chicken Parm and Italian combo on locally baked bread.
- ~KIN KHAO~ features a completely unique Thai experience since the dishes have a California ingredient spin. The flavors pop, and the cocktails are also fun.
- ~4505 MEATS~ is making some of the best damn barbecue in town (their ribs rock) and their burger has quite the fan club.
- If you have a sweet tooth, you’ll want to check out the elegant sweets at ~B. PATISSERIE~, while ~TARTINE BAKERY~ is a gold standard for good reason.
- Heading to (or from) the beach? Plan a pitstop at ~MARLA BAKERY~ for breakfast, lunch, a snack, dinner, whatever—you’ll find a homey space with excellent baked goods, from bagels to bread.
Cocktails (and Wine)
SF is a boozy town. There are far too many options for excellent drinks, but here are a few I love:
- ~COMSTOCK SALOON~ in North Beach for an authentic saloon feeling (their cherry bounce and Martinez are two of my faves).
- Also in North Beach, ~TOSCA CAFÉ~ is busy busy but the vintage 1930s atmosphere and Trouble in Paradise make it worth it. The late-night menu is also a bonus.
- ~TONY NIK’S~ is a great spot in North Beach for a Boulevardier when everything else feels too busy and new.
- ~TROU NORMAND~ is a handsome new addition downtown, with fab cocktails (and some of the best salumi in town).
- ~TRICK DOG~ in the Mission is absolutely packed all the time, but try to get a table upstairs to eat and enjoy their cocktails throughout dinner.
- I have been going to ~DALVA~ on 16th Street for years, and their backroom bar, The Hideout, has some notably delicious cocktails (try the Gin and Celery).
- Just across the street is newcomer ~ABV~—their lighter to midweight cocktails are great (and priced right), and you can’t beat their fantastic bar bites (served until 1am).
- Tequila lovers have to make a pilgrimage to ~TOMMY’S~ for one of Julio Bermejo’s stellar margaritas, which never stop at just one.
If you want to experience some quality wine bars (with great food!), visit ~LES CLOS~ (especially if you’re a Burgundy fan) or ~LA NEBBIA~ for Italian wine (and Champagne) lovers. ~20 SPOT~ in the Mission has a cozy neighborhood vibe.
This is by no means a totally comprehensive list, and there are many more quirky and offbeat places to visit, but it’s a good place to start.
All photos from Marcia Gagliardi except where noted otherwise.
San Francisco Magazine’s FallFest 2014 is celebrating fall in Northern California on Saturday October 11th at the Justin Herman Plaza from 12pm-4pm.
The festival, which benefits Meals on Wheels San Francisco, brings chefs from 40 different restaurants together, including Juhu Beach Club, 1760, Merigan Sub Shop, and Farmshop; take a look at the lineup here. There will also be wine, beer, and spirits from more than 30 different wineries, breweries, and distillers like Anchor Distilling, Fenestra Winery, and Paul Hobbs Winery.
In addition to all the eating and drinking, catch live music and a Grill Off sponsored by Cole Hardware and Big Green Egg. Two professional teams and one amateur team will face off with their grills, cooking meats from AgLocal and offering samples to the crowd and judges. There will also be chef demonstrations and a DIY bar station where you’ll learn from the pros how to mix cocktails. Tickets are $110 per person
Justin Herman Plaza, 1 Market Street at Embarcadero in San Francisco.
Ramen Gaijin is a new pop-up in Sebastopol featuring authentic Japanese ramen.
Zazu will host a spirited dinner with local distillery Spirit Works.
First, we’ve got to state the obvious: there was a whole lotta shaking going on last Sunday. But Napa wants everyone to know it’s still very much open for business. Despite some damage and a few red- and yellow-tagged restaurants in downtown Napa, nearly everyone has reopened.
The good news is that many newer restaurants are in historic brick buildings that have already been retrofitted and thus survived the earthquake with relatively little damage. The vast majority of wineries are also open, despite some of the scary images of wine barrels that toppled like Lincoln Logs.
Sonoma County escaped relatively unscathed other than a broken dish or two, so its restaurants are also open for business.
~WINE COUNTRY WEEKEND~ is the top dog of wine events in Sonoma County and one of the most fun. More than 200 top-notch wineries and restaurants bring out their “A” game for the weekend. It is a see-and-be-seen hoopla that no one wants to miss.
The three-day event starts with winemaker dinners and barbecues throughout the county and a gala dinner at Francis Ford Coppola Winery tonight from 6:30-10pm. Locals know that the poolside stage and million-dollar vineyard views make this Geyserville destination worth the drive. The kickoff to the weekend of indulgence features chef John Toulze of the ~GIRL & THE FIG~ in the kitchen and more than 25 wineries pouring.
Saturday’s Taste of Sonoma at MacMurray Ranch is gastro overload with 65 restaurants sampling gourmet bites and more than 150 wineries pouring Sonoma’s best wines. Let’s just say you’ll have to work very, very hard to get to even half of the goodies on hand. Other Saturday events include wine and food pairings with Kendall-Jackson, wine tours with the “Sonoma Wine Country Weekend Sommelier Stars,” a self-guided tour of the MacMurray Estate, a Steel Chef competition, and plenty of bubbly in the Bubble Lounge.
So ramen is finally becoming a “thing” in Wine Country, and I almost don’t want to tell anyone about the ramen pop-up ~RAMEN GAIJIN~, happening on selected Mondays at Woodfour Brewing. Almost. But word of mouth is traveling fast and seats are selling out even faster.
In July, chefs Moishe Hahn-Schuman and Matthew Williams quietly started a every-other-week slurp-and-burp shindig featuring incredible bowls of ramen with homemade rye noodles, pork belly, bonito flakes, mushrooms, and pickled veggies.
This week, I got access to the kitchen, where the chefs were prepping for that evening’s dinner—it’s a whirlwind leading up to the first seating at 5:30pm. We absolutely loved the donburi ($11), with a chicken thigh with a six-minute egg, burnt kale, and salmon roe; heirloom tomato salad with creamy tofu and shiso ($9); and both the miso and shoyu ramens ($13 each).
I won’t claim to be a ramen expert, but nearby slurpers seemed totally sold. The shoyu ramen is a heartier and meatier broth that’s topped with a host of ingredients like toasted rye noodles, pork belly, leeks, wood ear mushrooms, and wakame. The vegetarian miso ramen has a lighter, brighter, tangier flavor. Leave room for dessert, though. We swooned over a blackberry sorbet with yuzu curd, coconut and sesame granola, and blackberries. The Woodfour Ramen Gaijin dinners run from 5:30pm-10pm. Come early, because seating is first come, first served, with the waiting list opening at 4:30pm. The next pop-up is Monday September 8th at Woodfour Brewing (6780 Depot St. at the Barlow, Sebastopol, 707-823-3144), with others planned for Sebastopol’s Forchetta and SHED in Healdsburg.
Get ready for a super-spirited dinner Thursday September 4th at ~ZAZU~ with Sonoma County craft distillery ~SPIRIT WORKS~ and Ziggy the Wine Gal. Spirit Works’ founders Timo and Ashby Marshall start the evening with a guided tour and tasting at their brand-new distillery (at Sebastopol’s Barlow), which is followed by a three-course meal at Zazu. Expect plenty of delightful and seasonal surprises on the menu. $89 per person; not including tax and gratuity. Call 707-523-4814 to secure your spot at the table.
Get up close and personal with the harvest at ~GARY FARRELL WINERY~ as they launch the Harvest Tour, Tasting, and Lunch high above the Russian River Valley. Guests get a behind-the-scenes winery tour and a chance to view all the crushpad action before a seated wine tasting and catered lunch on the winery’s woodland terrace. Six of Gary Farrell Winery’s acclaimed single-vineyard wines are featured, and guests can choose from a menu that includes artisan sandwiches and salads or a selection of local foods in a shared picnic basket. The cost is $75 per person and it’s offered at 12:30pm daily by reservation only.
By 707 correspondent Heather Irwin. Top photo credit: Heather Irwin, second photo credit: Zazu.
I may have been living in San Francisco for the past 20 years, but there is a country mouse side to this city mouse.
Back when I was in the middle of third grade, my family packed up our life in San Mateo to move to Gold Country.
We landed in Mariposa, not far from Yosemite National Park, where my parents bought 69 acres; they planned to build our dream home on the land, with our family friend as the architect.
My father manifested his dream of getting out of the burbs and opening a pizzeria and delicatessen.
My mother worked as an R.N. at a nearby hospital, and still managed to cook all our meals, make our clothes (it was that or order clothes from the Sears catalog for delivery into the depot in town—they wouldn’t even deliver to your house), and she also learned how to kill rattlesnakes (thanks Mom, good save that one afternoon).
We were there for three years, and while it didn’t pan out—it ends up Mariposa wasn’t quite ready for spicy coppa and imported Italian wine—and we had to move back to the Peninsula, our time there made for a really sweet period in our lives, especially for me and my sis. We had dirt bikes, a huge yard, dogs and cats and a horse, and we got to run around and unleash our inner tomboys. I’m ever grateful for those years living in Gold Country, they were such a vivid part of my childhood.
Some years later, I remember my parents going back up to Yosemite for a big wedding anniversary dinner, and they dined at a very special place, ~ERNA’S ELDERBERRY HOUSE RESTAURANT~. (It’s the kind of name that stays with you.) Flash forward to one evening at Gary Danko a few years ago, when a charming young lady from the staff and I put together that we both had connections to Gold Country—and look at that, her mother was the Erna of Erna’s Elderberry House Restaurant in Oakhurst.
And then let’s flash back to not too long ago, when I received a very kind invitation from the lovely Erna Kubin-Clanin to come experience a meal at Erna’s Elderberry House, and to stay at the ~CHÂTEAU DU SUREAU~. I couldn’t believe it—of course I called my parents immediately since they have such a treasured memory of the restaurant (the château was not built yet when they dined there).
Now, for anyone who has ever been to Yosemite, you may remember passing through Oakhurst, which is full of antique stores, big chain drugstores, and plenty of fast food. So to say that there is one of the most exquisite properties I have ever visited in the United States, a château that felt like it was transported from Europe lock, stock, and barrel (including the staff) and dropped off in Oakhurst of all places, well, that’s kind of what happened.
Ms. Erna is the most divine hostess, born in Vienna, and as soon as you get a look at her, you’ll be enchanted. She is so stylish and chic, with her fabulous French glasses, svelte figure, and tasteful high heels. She has a soothing and charming voice, full of kind words and comments. Ms. Erna is the kind of host who can handle diplomats and country folk with equal ease.
As soon as you pass through the gates to the château, it seems incredible that you are actually in dusty Gold Country. The place is an oasis of beauty, full of flowers and gorgeous landscaping. While many guests travel from far and wide to dine at Erna’s Elderberry House, the 10-room Château du Sureau (opened in 1991) also has an impeccable reputation. Not only is it a Relais & Châteaux property (since 1993), but it has won many other awards as well, from being a five-star Forbes Travel Guide property for more than 18 years to its five diamonds from AAA since 1992. And here’s why: Erna has a deep love for beauty, hospitality, and the finer things in life, and it shows in every corner and square inch of the property.
The two nights my friend and I spent there were like a shot in the arm of European class and elegance. The château is filled with antiques Erna found abroad, with tapestries, artwork, and unique pieces everywhere, along with fresh flowers and orchids too. Fresh lemonade sits out for guests. Oh, and how can you not love the chambermaids flitting about the property with their white aprons? I felt like I was going back in time. The staff is incredibly gracious.
All the 10 rooms are different; our room (The Elderberry Room) had exposed beams and a canopy bed (complete with a feather duvet and silky ironed linens, oh you know it). The room was mercifully devoid of a TV, a fireplace taking its place. It was actually pretty challenging (in a charming way) to find a place to plug in my iPhone and iPad by the bed (it would be better to write a letter to a friend on the château’s stationery). The spacious bathroom came with French tiles, and a soaking tub that I wish I had made time to enjoy.
On arrival, we were greeted with an afternoon snack in our room (tea sandwiches of housemade ricotta, cucumber, and beet on housemade bread, plus a tasty little almond cake) and two glasses of sparkling wine. (That’ll do fine, why thank you.) When we made our way down to the pool for an afternoon dip, we were offered more pink bubbles to enjoy poolside. (Careful, Marcia, don’t get to used to this…)
When it was time for dinner, it was an easy stroll through the gardens to Erna’s Elderberry House Restaurant, which opened in 1984. It has a French country look, with a trio of rooms (the Escoffier, Point, and Paul Bocuse rooms) full of fabric and old-world charm, plus a garden terrace (if you sit near the windows, your view is framed with flowers).
Before Erna was overseeing all aspects of the property, she was the chef and managing owner (her husband René owns it with her)—she now has chef de cuisine Jonathon Perkins overseeing the kitchen. Her first restaurant was Scorpio’s in Westwood (Los Angeles), and she then became known in the Sierras in 1977, when she cooked at The Redwood Inn next to the Wawona Hotel for six years, offering a five-course meal of nouvelle and European cuisine. She was a trailblazer in the area for sure.
My guest and I enjoyed an elegant five-course meal ($108, $78 wine pairings), full of seasonal and well-prepared ingredients, along with a few modern techniques too (dessert featured some coconut “snow”). Our amuse was stunning: arctic char, pickled mustard seed, cucumber gelée, and trout roe, and a fragrant cauliflower soup had fascinating ribbons of flavor, with apricot chutney, curry oil, cilantro, and toasted almonds.
I also loved the old-world touch of serving the salad after the meat course, and the presentation was so inventive: the heirloom beet salad came with field greens with a thyme and lavender vinaigrette, and there was a scoop of a chèvre mousse with beet whipped in (it was the most gorgeous color), as well as Bull’s Blood beet purée and mulberries on the plate.
A few dishes had components that were a bit strong, like the Tahitian vanilla jus that dominated the milk-poached veal loin, but otherwise I could not believe I was having this elevated dining experience in Oakhurst of all places, and not some beautiful château in France. Pastry chef Kyle Waller’s dessert of milk chocolate panna cotta would fit right into most of San Francisco’s fine dining rooms. (They are many more photos here.)
You can see how much training the staff has had (it’s not like there’s a big pool of employees trained in fine dining service in the area), and we also had some excellent wine service and pairings (from Sinskey’s Abraxas to the Azelia “Bricco Fiasco” Barolo). It was one of those “somebody please pinch me” moments when we were able to walk back down the garden path after dinner and fall into our feather bed for a night of deep sleep. While the “full board” experience is part of the charm of staying in this fairy-tale place, you can also just come to Erna’s Elderberry House Restaurant for dinner—you don’t need to be a guest of the château.
They also host a three-day cooking school twice a year, and many themed meals, including the annual Evening in Vienna dinner, with music. I’d subscribe to the newsletter to keep up on the happenings (and special offers) in case you are mulling over taking a trip to Yosemite. (How long has it been? When was the last time you walked through a meadow? It was far too long for me.)
While it’s very hard to leave the kingdom for the day (trust), we got up early to make our way to the other kingdom: Yosemite. It’s a short drive to the South Gate from the château, and the staff kindly packed us a picnic lunch to enjoy in the park. We also had a fabulous breakfast on the terrace before we headed out for the day that we were going to need to hike off: freshly made croissants and brioche with housemade jam, marmalade, and thick pats of butter, plus a European-style platter of meats and cheeses, a ramekin of egg frittata topped with ratatouille, and excellent coffee.
Our day in Yosemite was pure magic—we were there in mid-May, so we had beautiful springlike weather and the falls were running. We spent the day walking the trails around the majestic valley floor, and since it was a Friday, we didn’t have to deal with a crush of humanity. We had our picnic lunch next to the Merced River, such a dreamy spot.
We ended our epic day with bubbles on the back terrace at the Ahwahnee Hotel and were invited to stay for dinner. Is there a more jaw-dropping dining room, with its 34-foot-high beamed ceiling and hulking granite pillars? Of course you end up thinking about The Shining half the time (Kubrick’s set designer mimicked many elements of the Ahwahnee for the Overlook Hotel).
We got a kick out of our jacketed server, who handled the huge pepper grinder with aplomb, and I’d say sticking with simpler classics is the move here, like roasted Brussels sprouts ($15). It’s all about the prime rib ($42-$48) with Yorkshire pudding; some of the other dishes were too much of a reach, like my friend’s lobster and coconut bisque. I can imagine the setting for Sunday brunch is fabulous.
I wouldn’t recommend the long drive back to the Château du Sureau after a late dinner like ours to many people—fortunately I love driving mountain roads and so does my Fiat. But it was definitely a haul in the darkness after such a big day. Again, that feather duvet was waiting for me at the end, a strong motivator to get back safely.
The next morning we enjoyed a more leisurely start, with breakfast on the terrace once again (hello, croissant, I was missing you), a last dip in the pool, and a walk around the grounds. A newer addition to the property is the Spa Sureau and the Villa Sureau, which we were lucky to get a peek at since they were in between guests.
Because Ms. Erna just doesn’t stop, she created this secluded and private manor house in 1999, full of turn-of-the-century antiques (her husband René helped restore many of the treasures), a marble tub, a baby grand piano, and two bedrooms in its spacious 2,000-square-foot footprint. It’s grand, daaahling, and for those who can afford a stay there (it’s $2,950 a night), it’s a very singular spot where you can effectively play out a manor-born fantasy. Just gorgeous.
A visit to the Château du Sureau and Erna’s Elderberry House Restaurant is a unique one, because its particular kind of luxury is so personal. Fortunately the elegant and visionary Ms. Erna wanted to create and share her world of cosmopolitan flair and grace—it so obviously (and thankfully) couldn’t be contained.
All photos are from tablehopper.com.
Rio made me really lonely when it was time for dinner; in all my years of traveling solo, I have never felt so solitary at night. The city’s restaurants are not set up for solo diners—good luck finding anything resembling our city’s many counters, bars, and communal tables. One restaurant I went to had a bar, and no one was sitting at it—well, except me. Walking into a restaurant, every time, I’d have to explain “just one”—which at many places would elicit a raised eyebrow for a split second. Cariocas tend to dine out in big groups, or you’ll see lots of couples. Party of one, not so much.
Portions were another frustrating thing: so much of the food is portioned for people to share. I had to walk out of three restaurants (ugh!) when they wouldn’t be able to serve me less than a whole chicken, or an entire pot of moqueca. It would be too wasteful for me to order a huge feast just for myself. And not much fun.
But I was not going to miss indulging in the famed feijoada, which is traditionally served on Saturday afternoon (well, it depends on where you are—I heard other Brazilian cities have different nights). I found a classic place (58 years old and counting) called Garden in between Ipanema and Leblon, with an older and classier crowd. I love how late people eat in Rio. A table of eight, with a median age of 74, were just sitting down to eat at 10pm. I made a little promise to myself that I’m going to return to Rio to live when I’m older—I can start getting tan again and go to the beach every day, wear bright lipstick, and hang out with my friends and eat late. Sign me up.
My solicitous server poured me a huge glass of wine, so big I chuckled to myself (“Mama’s gettin’ heated tonight!”), although I can’t believe how many Cariocas drink Coke Zero with everything, no exaggeration. I was served slowly cooked and garlicky black beans, beef tongue, pig’s ear and tail (my server was very happy to see me eat this), thin slices and little chubs of linguiça, and thin air-dried meat, plus the classic accompaniments of shredded kale, aipim frito (fried yuca), farofa (toasted manioc flour, made from yuca), white rice, and orange supremes. My table was completely covered in bowls and plates. I was an army of one with that dinner. I gave it my best shot, but I needed at least two other people dining with me to make a proper dent.
So yeah, dinner in Rio was not very fun after the fourth night of going out. Although I will admit posting images to Instagram at least made me feel like I was dining with friends in a strange, techy, modern way. Twenty-nine likes for my feijoada pic. Yeah, was it good for you too?
Saturday night feijoada at Garden.
One afternoon while I was doing a little shopping after my beach time, I checked out the cute Gilson Martins shop, where I found some of my favorite souvenirs to bring home (little coin purses with the wave pattern of the pavers of Ipanema, um, yes, I’ll take five). I befriended the way-too-adorable manager of the shop, who used to bartend in Miami, and after a little sassy banter we were fast friends.
Marcelo was a sweetheart and met me a couple of days later to take me to lunch to one of his favorite places in Ipanema, Via Sete. I was so excited to finally have someone to dine with, I know I was beaming. I can see why he’s a regular there: there’s a lovely outdoor terrace, a cute stylish crowd, and probably the best steak I had on the trip, their grilled picanha, Marcelo’s top dish. It was bonkers good. And guess who was thrilled to have grilled hearts of palm again on her last meal in Rio? This girl. Pro tip: go for their combination meal, it’s a good deal (you get two sides—they had really fresh salads). After your lunch, be sure to walk a few blocks over to Gilson Martins and say “Bom dia!” to Marcelo.
Picanha and grilled heart of palm at Via Sete.
I’m also here to report that my party of one status didn’t stop me from having quite a romantic dinner by myself at one of the restaurants most renowned for its beautiful atmosphere in Rio: Aprazível. It’s like a tree house in the open air, perched up in the historic neighborhood in the hills of Santa Teresa; you’ll hear birds chirping over the soft backing track of bossa nova, adding to the sultry tropical vibe. The really, truly breathtaking view of the twinkling city made for some excellent company while I was surrounded by canoodling couples. Truth be told, I also had one of the nicest servers of the entire trip, Marcos, who got a big kick out of my curiosity about each dish, and provided plenty of friendly company.
You’ll notice the dishes are much more northeastern in style, hailing from Minas Gerais and Bahia. I loved their little half-moon pasteles of acarajé (filled with beef), the cheesy gratin of sweet potato puree with air-dried beef, and I was so thrilled to try the freshly grilled hearts of palm, still in the stalk! It was a first for me. It was simply drizzled with some pesto, which I actually scraped off—the taste of the fresh palmito was plenty to savor. The thick and bubbling pot of moquequinha made with dogfish was homey and rustic, and the cheese plate with cheeses from Minas Gerais—with preserved orange rind and fig and dulce de leche—was over the top, and made for quite a finale.
One of my favorite things about Aprazível is their love and dedication to Brazilian wine! Sommelier Paul Medder, a Kiwi, shared some insider stories of the small-production wines he poured, like Vilmar Bettú, a garagiste who is making wine from the peverella grape that was brought over by the Italians when they came to Brazil in 1875 and later, one of the few wineries to still grow it.
I tried the 2011 malvasia, which had a bit of wildness to it, but balanced acidity, and became even more fragrant as it opened up. If you want to learn about Brazilian wine, Medder is a great champion. The restaurant even has their own wine (Era dos Ventos), cachaças (aged on premise), and pale ale they make in Niterói; they also have their own CDs—I totally had to buy one so I could re-create the bossa vibe back home. Although where is Marcos with my passion fruit caipirinha?
If you have a chance to spend a day wandering around Santa Teresa, do it. It has a bohemian and less-touristed vibe, with a bunch of cool galleries and cafés, although I was not going to walk around at night by myself (see, Mom, I told you I was careful!). You can easily take a cab to the neighborhood (it’s about a 15-minute drive from Ipanema) or a bus, and you’ll drive past some favelas along the way.
You better be wearing some sturdy shoes in Santa Teresa; the cobblestones are tough to walk on. I was there a couple of weeks too early for the annual festival called Arte de Portas Abertas, when artists let people into their studios, and there are a bunch of parties (be sure to check Time Out Rio; it can happen from June-August). There are many unique places to eat and hang out, like Bar do Mineiro, Jasmim Manga Café, “Bar do Gomez”/Armazém São Thiago, Rústico, and Espírito Santa.
Who has two thumbs and is one lucky lady? This girl. I was so damn fortunate to get to stay a night in Santa Teresa at the stunning boutique hotel, the Hotel Santa Teresa, which was originally a coffee plantation that was converted into the oasis of your dreams. You won’t want to leave, which is kind of dangerous because you really should explore the neighborhood. The hotel has beautiful views everywhere: from its rooms, its restaurant, even at the sexy pool (pay a visit to the hotel Bar Dos Descasados, complete with lounging beds where you enjoy your view with your bubbly).
My luxe-rustic room was so peaceful, with a natural-modern look, and a peek out the windows was full of green tree leaves and fronds. It really feels more like you’re hanging out at your fabulously rich Carioca friend’s place in the hills. As if! A girl can dream. The abundant breakfast spread reminded me of some of the more special Turkish breakfasts I experienced, although this one was laden with a Rio rainbow of tropical fruits. Carmen Miranda would have approved. Wonderful hospitality, what a special place. I was sorry to leave the peaceful kingdom when it was time to check out, but my 24 hours there left me feeling so calm and happy.
So, I just realized I am saving the best for last here, the one dish that stood out over everything I ate in Brazil: acarajé! My sister thankfully told me to hunt this street food bite down—it’s actually an Afro-Brazilian dish from Bahia (by way of Nigeria), so you have to search for it a bit in Rio. But every Sunday in Ipanema is the Hippie Fair at the Praça General Osório, which is a street fair selling crafts and tchotchkes (where I did manage to find a beautiful leather bag tucked away in one of the stands). And that’s where you’ll find the Bahian barracas! You can’t miss them—the ladies running these pop-up stands have colorful skirts and their hair up in white scarves and eyelet turbans to match their tops. (I realized I saw another Bahian barraca in town later on—look for the ladies in traditional head scarves.)
Get in line, and order the acarajé, which is a black-eyed pea fritter fried in dendê (palm oil)—it gets slathered with vatapá, a thick, rich, and spicy sauce made from shrimp, coconut milk, bread, cashews (or peanuts), garlic, onion, and more dendê, and then it gets topped with baby fried shrimp. Be sure to request a few shakes of the hot sauce. No, it’s not light, but the deep, layered flavor and textures of this dish will haunt me until I return to Brazil again. It made me want to go to Bahia, stat. Do not miss this experience. You can huddle at the counter or share a rickety table with your fellow diners, it’s a fun scene. Other folks are there for the sweets and the tapioca crêpes made with coconut and condensed milk.
Here are a few sights to see as well. I was there during the winter so I had some rainy days inside, which means yay, museum days!
One of the coolest museums is the Instituto Moreira Salles in Gávea, with an awesome photography collection—I got to see three fantastically curated shows. It was a private residence, and is such a cool tropical-modern building, with gardens designed by Burle Marx. I was ready to move in.
On the day I walked around the Centro area, I spent a rainy afternoon in the Museu de Arte Moderna, which not only was showing some provocative art by Brazilian artists, but it also has beautiful landscaping by Burle Marx in the back.
There was no way I was going to miss seeing the Museu do Arte Contemporânea in Niterói, which looks like a UFO (it was designed by by Oscar Niemeyer). There were a few cool pieces inside, but it’s really the building that steals the show. You take a ferry over, it’s a fun daytime adventure.
The Jardim Botânico is lovely to visit during the week, talk about a lush and serene place (it’s also orchid central). And you have to visit the Parque Lage, with a former mansion (now a visual arts school) that has a dramatic view of Corcovado looming overhead (there’s a café where you can grab a coffee or brunch). There’s also the nearby La Bicyclette (a local fave) or Jojo if you want more to eat, and there’s Yumê for Japanese.
You really should take a stroll through the colonial Centro area, with plazas dating back to the early 1800s (they fill up with people at lunch and after work, like the bright yellow Amarelinho on the Praça Floriano), and you absolutely have to visit the breathtaking Confeitaria Colombo which dates back to 1894. This coffeehouse is the picture of grand, full of rosy marble, stained glass, ornate hand-carved wood, beautiful tiles, and a rather tasty pastel de nata.
Just come here, relax, order a coffee or a cocktail (and candies to bring home), and soak the old world ambiance in—I have never seen anything like it. On a much smaller scale is the Casa Cavé, which I took shelter in during a rainstorm (it’s also historically charming, with tile floors). And if you want a bite, head to Casa Paladino (open since 1906!) for a classic, old-school lunch or snack.
The tropical treehouse vibe at Aprazível.
The beautiful pool deck at Hotel Santa Teresa.
My calming, beautiful room at Hotel Santa Teresa.
Fruit extravaganza at the breakfast spread at Hotel Santa Teresa.
One of the Bahian barracas at the Hippie Fair.
My favorite dish of the trip: acarajé.
The gorgeous grounds at Instituto Moreira Salles.
The modern Museu de Arte Moderna.
The Museu do Arte Contemporânea in Niterói.
Parque Lage (and that’s Cristo Redentor perched on top of Corcovado in the back).
The old world atmosphere at Confeitaria Colombo.
One of the many interesting buildings in the historic Centro.
Ascending Pão de Açúcar.
You’ll see some of the best graffiti and street art all over Rio.
Boa noite from the Hotel Santa Teresa.
Sights on my list for next time:
- The Sítio Roberto Burle Marx, a huge estate of the amazing landscape architect.
- Cristo Redentor: On a rare cloudless day, I opted to visit the stunning Pão de Açúcar instead of making the trek to Cristo, but I will definitely make my way to the top of Corcovado next time!
A few observations and tips:
Cariocas are some of the most friendly and warm people, and chivalry is alive and well. As a solo female traveler, I always felt so well taken care of.
Riding the buses is quite the adventure. I used Google maps for up-to-the-minute bus timetables on how to get somewhere, because there are so many buses you’ll never figure it out. If you want a bus to stop for you, you have to stick your arm out and wave like a crazy person to hail it, or it’ll never stop, even if you’re at a bus stop. It’s like the buses are in a mad race to somewhere, I don’t know. As soon as you get on, grab hold of something, because you’re about to experience torque like you have never felt it. The drivers will totally floor it, even if you’re an old lady with your groceries and you haven’t sat down yet, and totally lurch you around as they take a corner, and then slam on the brakes. It’s, uh, an adventure! There’s a cashier on board, so don’t worry about having exact fare.
ATMs can be a nightmare. You’ll see a lot of bank lobbies with ATMs, but sometimes they’ll be out of money, and most wouldn’t work with international banks. I learned the hard way that most of them don’t work after 10pm and on Sundays. (Gimme my money!) I had some success with Banco do Brasil, but plan on being frustrated most of the time—you start looking everywhere for those little Cirrus symbols.
Other frustrating things (i.e., you aren’t in California anymore): the amount of plastic used everywhere (like regular silverware wrapped in plastic and your napkin wrapped in plastic too), no comment on the flimsy napkins and toilet paper, and finding 3G on your phone is the picture of sporadic. Fortunately almost every business has Wi-Fi, and they’re usually generous with handing out the password.
Coffee was mostly depressing. They’ll dump chocolate syrup in your cappuccino if you don’t keep an eye out. There are some beautiful espresso machines run by people who don’t know what they’re doing, and the coffee itself was pretty grim. I found one cafe where the “barista” would let me gesture to her how I wanted her to make my espresso (my pantomime of a hard tamp was pretty hilarious—we both shared a good laugh). At least all the coffees come with a little treat on the side, which is a cute tradition. At the end of the trip, a Carioca told me Grão Espresso is pretty decent, and here’s a piece on cafés to try. Oh, and Guerin, a French boulangerie, is supposedly good for coffee.
Other restaurants that were recommended to me or on my list:
- Chico & Alaide: an awesome boteco known for their bolinho de bacalhau (salted cod croquette).
- Talho Capixaba: a bakery in Leblon that has good empadinhas, sandwiches, and more (supposedly a good spot for breakfast or before the beach).
- Amir for Lebanese food.
- Cocktails and seafood at the fancy Fasano.
- Catch the sunset and have drinks with everyone on the little wall at Bar Urca.
- A fantastic resource for places to eat is Culinary Backstreets.
Northern California, we are desperately Seeking Ramen. Ever since Doug Keane shuttered his haute Japanese noodle bar, Shimo, the North Bay has suffered an appalling lack of decent ramen. There is, of course, Hana Japanese in Rohnert Park, but we’re talking casual, slurp-at-the-table ramen. Well, we’ve finally found it.
~SHIGE SUSHI~ in Cotati is the absolute real deal. The tiny Japanese kitchen simmers pork bone, chicken, and dashi over several days, concentrating the flavors into a cloudy, deeply pork-flavored broth. Slices of pork, a soft-boiled egg, strips of mushroom and green onions, and chewy ramen noodles—all served piping-hot (with a dash or two of togarashi)—make this a sinus-cleansing, soul-warming meal.
Ramen isn’t available every day, so call ahead to make sure they’ve got it. If not, you’re still covered. Shige’s sushi, sashimi, and home-style dishes (like kara-age) easily stand up to the food at Hana Japanese, Hiro’s in Petaluma, and Bennett Valley’s Yao-Kiku. Just don’t tell anyone else about this awesome find, or it’ll be standing room only. Open Tues-Fri, closed Mon. 8235 Old Redwood Hwy, Cotati, 707-795-9753.
Last-Minute Mom’s Day Ideas: Really? You waited until now to figure out where to go for Mom’s special day? Oops, so did we. Here are a few spots where the deliciousness of the meal will redeem your lack of planning.
~ZAZU KITCHEN + FARM~: Fried green tomato BLT Benedict with Tabasco hollandaise, “Momosas,” hot chocolate with housemade cinnamon marshmallows, maple-glazed doughnuts with bacon jimmies, corned beef hash, and more. 9am-10pm. 6770 McKinley St., #150, Sebastopol, 707-523-4814.
~FORCHETTA BASTONI~: Bottomless mimosas entertain Mom; face painting entertains the kids. On the menu, Vietnamese doughnuts, Monte Cristo, loco moco, juk (Asian-style rice porridge), gravlax flatbread, deep-fried waffles, and a Big Ole’ Salad for Mom (fresh from the farmers’ market). 10am-3pm. 6948 Sebastopol Ave., Sebastopol, 707-829-9500.
~SHED HEALDSBURG~: The recently crowned James Beard Award-winning space will host a Mom’s Day fest for the locavore. Heirloom-grain Belgian waffles with fresh strawberries, rhubarb compote, and whipped crème fraîche; and poached eggs with asparagus, smoked trout, tiny potatoes, and tarragon persillade. All Moms will also receive a fresh herb bouquet that dries beautifully and might enliven a meal she could make from scratch just for you—if you saw her more often. 25 North St., Healdsburg, 707-431-7433.
~SILVERADO RESORT~: Impress Mom with the local bounty of Napa’s spring harvest, including pristine sustainably caught seafood, hormone-free beef and poultry, farm-fresh eggs, and local fruit. Silverado’s pastry chef will also create a dark chocolate fountain. $60 adults, $25 children ages 4-9. 10:30am-2:30pm. 1600 Atlas Peak Road, Napa.
The owners of the high-profile ~RENDEZ VOUS BISTRO~ in downtown Santa Rosa (as well as Flipside Burgers, Flipside Steakhouse & Sports Bar, and Lakeside Grill) are planning a “fresh market concept” in the former Rendez Vous Bistro in Courthouse Square, which judging by the name, Flip a Crêpe, will include, uh, crêpes? Reps aren’t talking yet, but it’s slated to open this summer, along with Flipside Brewhouse in Rohnert Park, which was formerly Latitude Island Grill.
~LAKESIDE GRILL~, the outdoor restaurant that opened last year in Spring Lake Park, will open with a limited menu on Saturdays and Sundays from May 17th through Memorial Day, then offer weekend breakfast and brunch, daily lunch and dinner, and a happy hour starting at 2pm all summer long. Hours are 10:30am until the park closes at sunset. 393 Violetti Road, Santa Rosa, 707-523-1406.
~FARM TO FEAST 2014~: On Saturday May 17th, Farm to Feast, the annual food and wine event, pretty much sums up what it’s like to live in Sonoma County. Held at the Summerfield Waldorf School’s breathtaking biodynamic farm, top Bay Area chefs and vintners come together (many of whom are alums or have children at the school) to feast under the stars. Among the feast-makers: Traci Des Jardins of Jardinière, Jon Stewart and Duskie Estes of Zazu, Nick Peyton of Healdsburg Bar & Grill (and formerly of Cyrus), Lowell Sheldon of Peter Lowell’s, and the school’s own chef, Mat Petersen. Vintners pouring include Claypool Cellars, Coturri, Davis Family Vineyards, Littorai, Truett Hurst, Roederer, Small Vines Wines, Porter-Bass, and Martinelli Winery. 3:30pm-10:30pm, $90, all proceeds go to scholarships. Tickets at farmtofeast.org. 655 Willowside Road, Santa Rosa.
~BOUVERIE PRESERVE’S ART OF EATING PICNIC~: Inspired by the life of culinary author M.F.K. Fisher, this annual picnic presented by the Audubon Canyon Ranch invites guests to the limited-access Glen Ellen reserve for a day of eating, drinking, and exploring. Benefitting the ranch’s Nature Education Programs for schoolchildren, the Art of Eating event runs from 12:30pm-4:30pm, with chefs from Brown Sugar Kitchen, Rivoli Restaurant, and Taste Catering providing the food. $150. 13935 Sonoma Highway 12, Glen Ellen.
By 707 correspondent Heather Irwin including all photo credits.
When I was invited to Brazil to learn about Brazilian wine in the Serra Gaúcha region, you can bet one of the first things that went through my head was: trip extension!
With some complicated ticket maneuvering and finagling, I was able to get myself to Rio de Janeiro for a week, a dream destination of mine (heck, of many!).
I tracked down an apartment in Ipanema, a 10-minute walk from the beach.
This was going to be one of my bigger solo trip adventures, and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I was a bit apprehensive to be arriving in Rio late on a Saturday night.
After me and my sister’s crazy experience getting a cab in the Mumbai airport at 3am, I guess I was ready for anything. I took it as a good omen that my cabbie was the most charming, kind man, who wasn’t out to fleece me—he just wanted to make sure I could see Cristo Redentor, lit up in the night sky and peeking through the clouds.
In fact, I didn’t have a single problem with any of the cabdrivers I had for the entire week in Rio.
A couple were flummoxed by my odd attempt at Portuguese that leaned heavily on a combination of Italian and Spanish words, but most wanted to find out where I was from, practice their English, and get me to where I was going (and of course were stoked with my San Franciscan tipping practices).
A big win for solo (female) travelers doing Airbnb in Rio is that most residential buildings have doormen who will buzz you in and keep a close eye on things. I always felt safe where I was staying.
After checking in with my Airbnb host, I ditched my bag and went out for my first Brazilian pizza at Alessandro E Federico in Leblon.
Considering how many Brazilian pizzas I have ordered from Mozzarella di Bufala here in SF over the years, it was time to have one in its native country, and my hard-boiled egg, black olive, and ham-topped pizza portuguesa did not disappoint (even better with a few shakes of piri piri sauce).
I sat outside at a table on the terrace, drinking some pink bubs, watching the pretty crowd—my week in Rio was officially on.
I was visiting in July, which is their winter, and the temps were the picture of pleasant: in the high 70s/low 80s during the day, and only slightly humid.
Although, bummer, most of the days were cloudy, and I caught some rain too. My sister gave me some great advice, since she stayed in Rio once during the same period.
She said if it was a clear day, to cancel your plans and head to the beach, because there’s no guarantee about having sunny beach days in the winter. She’s a fellow beach and sun hound, so it was good advice. Or save your sunny days to visit Cristo Redentor or Pão de Açúcar (Sugarloaf Mountain)—you’ll want a clear view for those.
Before heading to the praia (beach), I recommend stopping at one of the many sucos bars for fresh juices and açaí bowls (order it “na tigela” to get it in a bowl—I loved mine with granola, guaraná, and banana).
One place that was excellent was Polis Sucos—I was all over the acerola, a sour fruit with a nutty amount of vitamin C (I was fighting a cold on my last few days, and I’m convinced that thing saved me).
If you’re in Leblon, other places that are recommended are Bibi Sucos and BB Lanches (a word that always cracked me up—it means “snacks”). It’s fun to hang out at the open counter (I looooved the alfresco life in Rio), sipping your juice and taking in the scene. Italians have caffès, Cariocas have sucos bars.
A friend recommended suco de abacaxi com hortela (pineapple juice with mint)—what an elixir. I also liked being able to say “maracuja” (passion fruit) whenever possible (it’s also delicious in a caipirinha).
I never made it to this place in Flamengo, which serves fresh açaí, but I sure wanted to. You can also get fresh coconut juice at the many stands for just a few reais on the promenade by the beach.
The beach culture is amazing—lined up along the beach are barracas, beach stands that people are very loyal to. They will rent you a chair, an umbrella, and basically bring you cocktails and cold beers all day—some even serve good food too.
I enjoyed my steak sandwich from Barraca do Uruguay (#80), but it was Barraca do Joel (#79) that rocked my world on another afternoon—I noticed a guy was shaking up drinks like a pro, and I’ll be damned, I had some of the best caipirinhas of the trip while I lazed there in my beach chair. (Yes, plural.)
A few Rio-savvy friends and readers gave me some great tips about which part of the beach to go to.
There are a series of postos that run along the beach, 12 in all (you’ll find bathrooms and changing rooms at each posto). I was told I’d want to park myself between postos 8 and 9, which would be gay/mixed, with “cool kids and weed smokers.” All good by me.
There are also some rainbow flags along that stretch, but I saw fabulous gays mixed in all along the beach, not just in a designated area (although the beach was definitely gay-dense at the end of my street, Rua Farme de Amoedo).
Ipanema is full of gays, so I felt like I was back in SF with all my boys—except everyone was tan and wearing tight shorts. As you go toward postos 10 and 11 in Leblon, you’ll find more rich, famous, and fashiony folks on the beach.
Sure, it’s intimidating to show up on a Rio beach all pasty and overweight, but you know what? These people don’t know you. You will probably never, ever see them again.
And they really don’t care. So enjoy yourself. That was my attitude at least. Sure, there are hardbodies and painfully gorgeous women, but not everyone is beach Adonis/Aphrodite material—I saw allll types.
Although yes, I did see some really amazing specimens of humanity. The Cariocas are some mighty fine people. Anyway, don’t stress out about it and have fun.
There is so much action—beaches in Mexico have nothing on Ipanema. There is a constant swirl of men selling food and drinks and snacks and bathing suits and hats.
You just have to barely wave and they’ll come right over. My heart broke for some of them trudging through the sand, schlepping the heavier stuff.
The beach is a total circus. I can only imagine what it’s like in peak season.
There’s the incessant yelling of “BISCOITO GLOBO!” (they are sweet or salty doughnut-shaped biscuits, a classic beach treat), and I was always happy to espy the guys dressed in white hawking “pão árabe pão árabe pão árabe!” (an awesome stuffed pita-like bread)—I also enjoyed the savory empadas, and the Matte Leão (iced tea) guys will refresh you. All without ever leaving your chair. Magic!
On my first visit, I didn’t bring anything of real value to the beach (besides my phone).
Left my precious camera and all my credit cards in the apartment, and when I wanted to walk on the beach or go in the water, I sussed out some folks nearby and asked if they would watch my bag (and brought it over to them). People are so nice, so don’t worry, you’re not a bother. There is theft that can happen on the beach, but just pay attention to what’s going on around you.
The sand is so fine, and fluffy, and white. (You’ll track it everywhere.) The water is a little rowdy, so don’t just hop in—see where other folks are swimming.
And you don’t want to miss a sunset on the beach (go to Arpoador for some of the best).
The peachy-pink colors and the water and the dramatic backdrop of the mountains combine to make it such a breathtaking sight; one evening everyone around me made it so much more amazing: they applauded. I get goose bumps even writing about it, it was such a sweet, appreciative moment.
Hard-core beach lovers will want to consider trekking out of town to Prainha, which is supposedly beyond gorgeous (and not tooooo far, it’s about an hour south)—if you do go there, you have to eat at Restaurante Bira, famous for its moqueca (the owner is a fisherman), shrimp pasteis, and view (a friend warned that they don’t usually stay open past early afternoon, so try to arrive early).
I did a ton of walking in Rio. You’ll want to walk around a bunch—it was all so lush and tropical, trees dripping with vines, and there’s a fading modern glamour to a lot of the buildings.
went bonkers for the patterned, tiled pavement (calçada portuguesa) everywhere—seeing the iconic geometric wave pattern on the Copacabana promenade (designed by Roberto Burle Marx) for the first time brought a huge smile to my face.
But those little tiles are murder when it’s raining, and are really easy to catch and trip on (and especially tough if you’re in heels), so tread carefully.
You’ll also see some of the best street art and graffiti, it’s everywhere.
There were a few times I felt a little sketched out, but I mostly felt pretty safe. I always kept my camera and phone stashed away, and took a look around before taking them out of my shoulder bag (I swear by my Basil Racuk Monterey bag). Sometimes, I missed a shot I wanted, but that’s okay.
I was told that the food in Rio wasn’t going to blow my mind, and I didn’t have the budget to hit up a bunch of awesome (but spendy) places like Roberta Sudbrack.
But I found so many spots that I really enjoyed, namely all the botecos/botequims that reminded me of Spanish tapas bars, with people hanging out, drinking choppes (which are draft beers—someone thankfully explained to me “chopp” comes from German: “Schopp”), and snacking on petiscos (I was digging all the little bolinhos (croquettes) and savory pasteis (little tarts).
Some favorite botecos were definitely the old-school Jobi (which is where I went after Brazil won the Confederations Cup in 2013 and the city exploded—can you believe I was in Rio for that?), and Bar Bracarense had some of the best bites (loved their coxinha de frango with catupiry cheese and their bolinhos de aipim).
One of my favorite nights was in Copacabana—in between catching a few pickup/live music sessions at the utterly charming Bip Bip (open since 1968!), I walked over to the stand-up counter at Restaurante O Caranguejo (it was like Rio’s version of Swan Oyster Depot). All seafood. Salty servers. Folks around me were tipsy, happy to chat you up while you drink your chopp and eat warm shrimp empadas and octopus salad. Loved this place.
Then it was back to Bip Bip—the well-seasoned owner who has seen it all is parked out front at his table, with his ledger and change and beer—people walk in to the back of the shoebox space that’s shingled in memorabilia, grab a cold beer from the fridge, and then gesture to him and he writes it down on his pad of paper.
You can stand around with other folks, listen to the sambaistas play as they sit around the table inside (or whatever that night’s genre of music is), and pay up at the end of the night. Pro tip: people don’t clap after a song, they snap their fingers. It was all so groovy.
You really, truly don’t want to miss a visit to the Copacabana Palace. (I know, go ahead and sing it.) This white palace is stately and elegant without being ostentatious—it’s truly so grand.
For Sunday brunch, Pérgula Restaurant puts on quite the spread (for R$170, about $75), and if the weather is right, you can sit outside overlooking the chic pool area while servers dressed all in white swarm around tables, clearing plates and continually filling your glass. It’s a perfect place for you to get tipsy on bubbles, flaunt your sunglasses, and do some excellent people watching. It’s faaaaabulous.
I started with a plate of caviar and blini (and was very happy to see their house sparkling wine was Cave Geisse—finally, a Brazilian restaurant honoring their domestic product!) and almost needed to pinch myself.
It was one of those moments. (“I’m in Rio de Janeiro. I am having brunch at the Copacabana Palace. It’s balmy and all so beautiful. This is crazy. I can’t believe my life.”).
There was so much seafood, including these unusual mussels with a huge red spot on them served in a vieira sauce, and towers of shrimp, and so many hot dishes too. Extravaganza. Good luck making it to the platters of desserts. They also put on a feijoada Saturday lunch, but it might put you in a serious coma, so be careful.
Another thing you have to do: experience the Brazilian churrascaria. For a culture known for being so healthy and gorgeous, they sure seem to chow down.
I have had many Italian family and holiday meals to prepare me for massive consumption in one sitting, but I still don’t think I have a handle on how to best manage the churrascaria experience. Just show up hungry, that’s for sure.
One morning I went to the top of Sugarloaf, and then had lunch at Porcão Rio, which has a stunning view of Sugarloaf and the bay. The lunchtime extravaganza was R$112 (about $50).
There’s a caipirinha station, and then the most insane salad bar spread you’ll ever see in your life. Everything is carefully plated and presented (there’s a hell of a lot of garnish, and I have never seen chives used with such abandon). It’s a bit campy and over the top, but everything is really fresh.
For my first round at the salad bar, I tried a medley of items like a salmon and omelet roulade, and any chance I could get in Brazil, I was serving myself the fresh hearts of palm (obsessed!).
I also tried their cold mussel salad, and carpaccio, and noticed a bunch of creamy + fish combos (Brazilians seem to dig those). No, the sushi bar was not going to be getting any action from me—I had to save up room for the meats. Was happy to find a 375ml of Casa Valduga sparkling on the wine list, come to mama.
The staff was incredibly nice and of course being a solo female diner means you get lots of extra attention. It was time for the meats: the roving meat carvers come to your table, proffering all kinds of cuts, from salty sirloin to rib-eye to saucy pork ribs to chicken hearts to linguiça.
Beef and cheese, why not? The beef can be really seasoned and a bit chewy, but then suddenly you get a cut of the novilho (veal) and you’re like, ahhhh, damn, that’s really good. It’s a total adventure in food pushing, and you’re never exactly sure which cut they’re putting on your plate.
Your table is also loaded with fried aipim (cassava), farofa, fries, and don’t forget the vinegary Brazilian salsa on the table, so good with the meats. I walked out of there feeling as sturdy and stout as Pão de Açúcar.