Girl In The City: SF's Mission District
San Francisco's queer visitors often flock to the famed Castro neighborhood, often mistaking the city's vibrant lesbian district, the Mission, as more of a residential enclave than a genuine attraction. In fact, there's plenty to see and do here.
Like all of San Francisco's most engaging neighborhoods, the Mission is blessed with a trinity of diversions: cool shopping, outstanding dining, and spicy people-watching. With these activities in mind, meander along the neighborhood's main commercial drags, Mission and Valencia streets. You'll find cheap and tasty ethnic cuisine, left-leaning and lesbian-oriented shops and galleries, and some of the city's queer and women's performance spaces mixed in among the many Latin American and Chinese groceries and dry-goods stores. And you'll see plenty of cute dykes!
For a look at what's doing in the neighborhood, drop by the Women's Building, a community center that hosts dozens of events, readings, meetings, and workshops for women. Note the striking mural on two sides of this recently renovated building; it illustrates the lives of prominent women over the centuries.
Now, here's a quick primer on local shopping. Looking for groovy secondhand duds and bargain-basement furniture? Check out Community Thrift, whose profits benefit local queer charities. Gotta a new-age sweetie waiting at home? Botanica Yoruba has incense, candles, and oils galore. Peruse the racks of Modern Times for lefty lit crit, political manifestos, and hefty tomes on Eastern religion. For friendly and sensitive advice on locating your G-spot (or somebody else's), try Good Vibrations, a terrific women-owned erotica boutique. And after all that walking, consider steaming away your troubles at the Osento Baths, a women's (nonsexual) bathhouse.
You might break up your shopping adventures with a couple of hours of sunning at sprawling Dolores Park, a queer "beach" on warm days (the city's infamous fog rarely affects the Mission). If you simply love to walk, venture into any of the adjacent neighborhoods: the Castro, once a gay male haven, has become very popular with women in recent years; fashionable Noe Valley, especially along 24th Street from Church to Diamond streets, offers much of the sapphic cachet of the Mission; quiet Bernal Heights supposedly has the highest concentration of lesbian-owned houses in the city; and rapidly gayifying Potrero Hill has a few fun shops and restaurants along 18th Street.
The Mission's culinary scene has redefined itself over the years, offering everything from traditional Mexican fare to cutting-edge California cuisine. Saunter over to Noe Valley to find one of the most romantic neighborhood bistros in the city, the Firefly, whose enticing brand of home-style cooking incorporates a United Nations of ingredients. Or head up the hill to Bernal Heights to sample the delicious yet inexpensive New American cooking at Liberty Café. If it's crowded, have a drink next door at the lesbian-popular Wild Side West, a cozy tavern with a pool table; when you're table's up, someone from Liberty Cafe will pop over and let you know.
One of the Mission's big hits, Universal Cafe, has a striking postmodern dining room set inside a converted turn-of-the-century warehouse. The menu concentrates on French and Italian Mediterranean fare. The Slow Club presents a diverse menu of California-inspired fare and has a stellar wine list. Expect to wait in line for a table at the grrl-heavy Ti-Couz, a delightful creperie where you can invent your own crepe or choose from a long list. And if it's a very special occasion, try to score a table at the ultra-swanky Cal-French spot, Foreign Cinema Café where, yes, you can actually watch arty films while you eat.
Nightlife, once the Mission's downfall, perked up a bit with the opening in 1997 of the city's only full-time women's bar, the Lexington Club. Skater girls, hipsters, and Doc Marten devotees pack this cozy space to hear Joan Jett and Courtney Love tunes on the fierce jukebox. As for mixed hangouts, try El Rio, a disco and pool hall, during its Saturday-night rock alternative parties. More guys than gals frequent Esta Noche, but it still has a thriving Latina scene on many weekends. On Sunday afternoons, El Rio dishes up live salsa music and great food to a totally diverse crowd: gay, straight, female, male, Latino, African-American, white, old, and young.
While the Mission doesn't exactly abound with hotels, there are a few excellent lesbian-friendly accommodations in the neighborhood. Both the Andora Inn and Inn San Francisco are towering old wood-frame buildings with high ceiling, tall windows, and eclectic furnishings. The Andora is mostly lesbians and gay men, while the Inn San Francisco is mainstream but family friendly. Also mixed gay-straight and with some of the most romantic rooms in the city, the lovely Dolores Park Inn occupies a stunning 1874 Italianate garden-side mansion on a quiet street near Mission Dolores. When you're looking for that special place to take your honey, look no further than here.
By Andrew Collins
Andrew Collins authored Fodor's Gay Guide to the USA, as well as six gay guides covering the West Coast, New York City, South Florida, and Amsterdam. He can be reached at GayFodors@aol.com.
Photos: Getty Images