As you’ve probably heard me mention before, San Francisco is a place near and dear to my heart. Joey and I visit the city at least once a month. But since I lived there for a few years back in college, I sometimes get caught up in running errands or making our appointments instead of actually enjoying the sights and acting like a tourist. That’s why for our February day trip, we decided we would stroll through Union Square, like tourists, with a new set of eyes, and hungry bellies!
San Francisco’s Union Square district is about an hour and forty five minutes North of Salinas. We’re pretty familiar with the drive and the sights so the time on the road gives us a bit to organize our thoughts on what we want to accomplish while in the bay.
Traffic of course is one thing you’ll experience when visiting. But it also gives you a chance to people watch while you’re waiting for cars to move it along.
We ended up parking at The White House Garage located on Sutter Street and Grant Avenue, right next to the Banana Republic where I got my first job in the city back in 2011. The White House Garage was built in 1908 and sits in the perfect area if you’re planning to venture to neighboring districts like Chinatown or the Financial District.
This may be a good time to warn you, if you’re planning to visit Union Square be aware that: 1) You will be walking a lot so wear comfortable shoes; 2) No matter what time of year, wear layers. This is San Francisco. It can go from being the warmest summer day to the coldest fall evening with a snap of your fingers; 3) With all the alley ways and tall buildings and cars swishing passed you, it is windy. Don’t wear a flowy mini dress unless you are prepared to show the goods to everyone on those double decker red sightseeing buses. Which leads me to; 4) The sidewalks, stores, and restaurants will be full of tourists no matter what time of the year.
Anyway, our first stop was, of course, Union Square which can easily be spotted by the tall tower of Nike, the Greek Goddess of Victory. It is also known as the Dewey Monument. It’s a beautiful open space to gather with family or friends to plan the day, or again, to grab a cappuccino at one of the cafes and just people watch. I would recommend visiting during the holidays. There is an ice rink and the Macy’s windows are festively decorated from top to bottom.
After some photos there we headed to Neiman Marcus right across the street. No we weren’t there to shop. We were there to have a beautiful lunch at The Rotunda to celebrate Valentine’s Day since we didn’t get a chance to on the 14th.
The Rotunda is located on the top floor of the Neiman Marcus building. I researched this building a bit and learned that back in the early 80's when Neiman Marcus was going to replace a store called City of Paris, the locals were outraged. Mainly because the building was designed by a famous architectural firm from New York, Philip Johnson and John Burgee. But Neiman's kept the Rotunda's intricate ceiling structure as a nod to the original architects.
Anyway, back to modern times. Our waiter (I think I recall his name being Charlie), was incredibly poised and kind. He was attentive and whenever we took a sip of water, we were immediately poured more. So the service was impeccable, but what about the food you ask? Well, it was pinky up, darn delicious! I ordered the Chicken Paillard Milanese that included herb Parmesan breaded chicken, Israeli couscous, mushrooms, baby carrots, tomato basil sauce, arugula, and olive oil. Joey went with Rotunda Burger that was made up of a beef patty, Swiss cheese, lettuce, tomato, dill pickles on brioche buns, and a side of fries. While we ate every last bit of our yummy selections, we were already thinking about what we would order on our next visit (I’m thinking the Prime Rib French Dip)!
Unlike Joey, I am not usually a fan of dessert immediately at the end of a meal. But after seeing the waiters serve dessert dishes to the table next to us, I was set on ordering something equally as fancy and scrumptious! I went for the heavenly Apple Mille Feuille, while Joey went with the decadent Chocolate Orange Cake. I loved my dessert because it was almost light and airy, making me feel less guilty about eating it. The chocolate cake was nirvana for Joey, but for me it was WAY too rich and chocolaty.
The Rotunda, although pricey, is probably the average cost at any other Union Square restaurant. You should plan on about $50 per person, more if you are planning to try any of their signature teas or cocktails. But the service, food, and experience of this luminescent restaurant is definitely worth checking out at least once during your visit.
When I lived in San Francisco, I lived only 2 blocks away from Maiden Lane, but I rarely walked through here because I didn’t feel adequate, or even worthy to be walking down an alley with stores like Gucci, Chanel, and Maison Margiela. Now, knowing the darker history of this once dangerous "red-light" street makes me realize that beautiful things can have dark pasts, and yet blossom into something admirable.
This alley is the perfect place for a photo shoot or another people watching session. While we were there, there were at least 5 other bloggers taking photos, and a musician shooting a video.
After a bit of window shopping, Joey and I headed to Powell Street to catch a Cable Car! The cable car was invented in 1873's, and to this day is still the San Francisco mascot. We had never been on one, so today was our chance. We waited in line for a bit and in the rain. But once were on, the city seemed more magical! I could almost hear Tony Bennett singing in the background! It was also exhilarating to see the cable cars going up the steep city hills!
A single one way ride is only $7, and totally worth it!
After a quick ride, we jumped off the cable car to visit the restaurant we both had added to our bucket list a couple of years ago after seeing the late Anthony Bourdain give it a thumbs up on TV.
The Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar is located inside the Fairmont San Francisco is a restaurant serving Polynesian-infusion. Like most other things in San Francisco, The Tonga Room has been a popular go-to spot since 1945. And, although the Tonga Room isn't technically in the Union Square district, it's still a likely spot for people visiting this area.
Warning to those planning to visit on a whim, be prepared to wait at least an hour for a bar or dining table. We arrived just a few minutes after they opened at 5 pm, and the line was already to the opposite side of the hotel first floor! We waited a little over an hour to get a shared bar table. The wait for a table in the dining room was at least 2 hours! And reservations are only for groups of 10 or more guests. But it wasn't too bad since we were able to hang out and have a drink in the standing area of the restaurant where we could still experience the tropical decor, faux rain and thunderstorms.
Since Joey would be driving us home later that evening, he stuck with water. I, on the other hand, chose the Tonga's Planter's Punch from the Modern Tiki menu. It was yummy, quite strong, and a bit on the pricier side at $15.
Since we weren't all that hungry, Joey and I decided to only order a couple of appetizers: the Coconut Shrimp Skewers with sweet chili sauce and the Kalua Pork Tacos on corn tortillas with cabbage slaw, and tomato salsa. We both loved these dishes and would highly recommend them to anyone visiting. But to be 100% honest, I don't think I would make an effort to visit The Tonga Room again, unless it is to bring someone who really wants to experience the Polynesian decor. Also, it was not cheap. For one alcoholic drink and two small appetizers, we paid over almost $60. Again, it was a fun place, but if you're in the city for a short period of time, maybe not the best way to invest it.
Once leaving the Tonga Room at about 7 pm, we strolled downhill into Chinatown. I know, this day trip post is supposed to be all about Union Square, but once you're here you'll notice it's kinda difficult to stick to one area. You may catch yourself in SOMA at one point and in North Beach the next.
But that's the beauty of San Francisco.
Walking through Union Square at night really makes my heart feel whole. I love seeing the shining windows of the closed down luxury stores; the faint echo of someone playing the saxophone; the people rushing through the sidewalk trying to catch the next BART train; while others are sitting, just admiring the night.
And with that, our day trip to Union Square had come to a close.
I've said it a million times, and I'll say it again, I love San Francisco! I'm so happy that I had the chance to skip around the city with my love as if we'd never stepped foot in this marvelous place. I can't wait to visit again! Maybe spend the day in another area?
If you get a chance to visit Union Square and use any of my tips and recommendations, please feel free to send me some pictures! I'd love to see!
Thank you for reading!
-The B of V