A $1,000 Day in San Francisco for $100

Relaxing in Mission Dolores Park is easy on the body and on the budget.

Tom Wolfe, chief concierge at the Fairmont San Francisco, greeted me in the lobby of the palatial hotel, which opened in 1907 atop the expensive Nob Hill enclave. Impeccably dressed in a three-piece suit festooned with decorative pins, Mr. Wolfe claims to be first concierge in the United States — the concept didn’t exist in American hotels until the 1970s, he said. Richard Swig, who was then the owner of the Fairmont, asked Mr. Wolfe to create a concierge program in the image of hotels he had seen in Europe, where the service concept of “one-stop shopping,” as Mr. Wolfe put it, already existed.

“Before concierges, sometimes hotels would have an airline desk, or a shipping desk,” he said. “But there wasn’t one place where you could get a shoe repaired, a dinner reservation and, oh yeah, I’d like a Ferrari GTO.” That actually happened, he added, when he was at the Plaza Hotel in the early 1990s, right after Donald Trump had purchased it. Mr. Wolfe found the car, in the color the client wanted. The client then purchased it for $6 million.

The key to being a good concierge, he said, is motivation. You have to want to help. That, and good planning. “Anticipation is key. Have a Plan A and a Plan B. And also a Plan C and D.”

Call mine Plan E: Mr. Wolfe would send me out to explore the City by the Bay with a day’s itinerary for someone with deep pockets. But instead of indulging, I would remake the itinerary, adapting it to a more frugal budget of $100 while retaining the general spirit.


Mr. Wolfe recommended taking the Powell-Hyde cable car ($7) to the end of the line and walking over to the Buena Vista Cafe for breakfast and one of their famous creamy Irish coffees. Arriving early should allow you to nab a table with a view fairly easily. Breakfast for one, Irish coffee included, will run around $40 with tax and tip.


I took a cable car, too — the Powell-Mason line — but to the AA Bakery & Cafe on Stockton Street in Chinatown. A casual Chinese bakery with communal tables and serve-yourself coffee, this place can get crowded and you have to be a little aggressive to get served — don’t be offended if a tiny 90-year-old woman pushes past you in line. For your perseverance, you will be rewarded with fresh, tasty, absurdly inexpensive baked goods. My breakfast — a savory bacon and onion roll, a custard roll and a hot, chewy sesame ball filled with bean paste — was enough food for two people and cost, with coffee, $4.10.


Speaking of cable cars: Aside from that initial ride from the Fairmont to the Buena Vista Cafe, Mr. Wolfe’s client was traveling primarily by private car or boat throughout the day. He built that price into his estimates for some of the day’s activities but said that on its own, a private town car would rent for around $88 an hour.


I bought a one-day pass ($20) for the Muni, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. Twenty dollars might seem steep, but keep in mind that individual cable car rides cost $7 — if you ride even three times (which you should do, because cable cars are a blast), it makes good economic sense. The pass also gives you unlimited access to the Muni bus system, light rail and streetcars. Note that the pass does not allow you free use of the Bay Area Rapid Transit system (BART). While BART is far more efficient if you want to get from, say, the Embarcadero to the Mission quickly (and it’s the best way to get to the San Francisco airport), Muni can usually get you where you need to go.

Pro-tip: Routesy is a good (and free) app to give you a comprehensive sense of the Bay Area’s transit options, but its constant updating of the latest route information can cause load times of a minute or two every time you open the app.


Mr. Wolfe recommended that his fictitious client board a private sailboat tour from Pier 39, observing the bay, Alcatraz, the Bay and Golden Gate Bridges, and Angel Island. From there, the client would disembark at Sausalito, a former artists’ colony with excellent shopping and a luxurious flair. Total cost: around $400.


If you’re eager to explore the bay and feel the salty sea air on your face, just take the San Francisco Bay Ferry to Oakland, with regular departures from the Ferry Building to Jack London Square. I found the ferry ($6.40 each way) to be an enjoyable ride with great views, though I didn’t get that Instagrammable shot of the Golden Gate Bridge. There’s plenty to do when you reach Jack London Square after the approximately 30-minute trip. London, who was born in San Francisco, is honored with a cabin (reassembled with materials from his original cabin in Alaska) and Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon, a 19th-century watering hole the writer once frequented. I enjoyed a blond ale from Federation Brewing ($5, plus $1 tip) before heading back to San Francisco.


Still in Sausalito from the morning excursion? Mr. Wolfe recommends the Trident, the chef Seiji Wakabayashi’s seafood restaurant. Lunch, while you sip a margarita at a table overlooking the bay, will run around $60.


If you have the patience, head to the corner of 18th Street and Guerrero in the Mission District and proceed to the back of what is probably an extremely long line. Everyone there is waiting for the sandwiches, bread and pastries at the much-acclaimed Tartine Bakery, owned by the baking virtuosos Elisabeth Prueitt and Chad Robertson. I met up with my brother, Loren, and we picked up a couple of sandwiches to take over to nearby Mission Dolores Park. For $14.50, I had pastrami loaded up with horseradish, mustard and Gruyère; it was positively awesome. The bread (which, as everyone knows, makes or breaks a sandwich) was particularly good: chewy but yielding, with a crusty exterior. The view from the southwest corner of the park was spectacular.

While you’re in the neighborhood, you might as well walk off the sandwich and get a little history lesson, too. San Francisco City Guides provides free walking tours of the Mission; they begin at the golden hydrant on Church Street that, as the story is told, saved the Mission after the 1906 earthquake.


Mr. Wolfe recommends a private car to Mill Valley for a walk through Muir Woods National Monument, known for its majestic redwood trees. From there, the driver heads back to San Francisco over the Golden Gate Bridge for a tour of Golden Gate Park and afternoon tea at the beautiful Japanese Tea Garden. Total cost: $200.


I wanted to see Golden Gate Park too, so Loren and I headed to Stow Lake Boathouse, which has stood at the heart of the park since 1893. There, we rented a rowboat for $20 and took a spin around the lake (there are also pedal boats and electric-powered boats for rent that are more expensive). It took us awhile, taking turns to row, but we made it around without capsizing.

And we traded redwoods for wildlife: From the boathouse, we headed over to the bison paddock on John F. Kennedy Drive. They were there, grazing (I counted six of them), none too excited to see us, but I was amazed that such a thing existed in the middle of San Francisco. Finally, we took in the de Young Museum ($10) and its impressive collection of American art. A friendly security guard tipped me off that the museum, which closes at 5:15, is free after 4:30 — we took advantage and saved ourselves the admission fee. Forty-five minutes was a good amount of time to survey the indoor collections and outdoor sculpture garden.


Giancarlo Paterlini and Suzette Gresham-Tognetti own what Mr. Wolfe declares “the finest Italian restaurant in town.” Indeed, Acquerello, on Sacramento Street, received two Michelin stars this year. The seasonal tasting menu, which includes licorice-smoked lamb loin, ridged pasta with foie gras, and seared scallop with Périgord truffles, will run around $250 with a glass of wine or two.


Why eat Italian food when you could eat Italian-Thai fusion? You heard right — I did a double-take when I saw the description of the restaurant. But Thoughts Style Cuisine on Eighth Street in the SoMa (South of Market) neighborhood, is one of the more fascinating dining experiences I’ve had in a long time. The design is sleek, minimalist and almost blindingly white, and the food intriguing: dishes like kra prow mussels with spaghetti, larb brussels sprouts fritti, and tom kha khai ravioli fill the menu. I ordered the tom yum goong risotto ($13) and it was unlike anything I’d ever had: a fist-size portion of arborio rice infused with flavors of lemongrass, citrus and chile.


The Big 4 restaurant and bar seeks to evoke the era when industrialists ruled the West: It’s named after Collis P. Huntington, Charles Crocker, Leland Stanford and Mark Hopkins, the “Big Four” who built the Central Pacific Railroad. Mr. Wolfe recommends its Vesper martini, with gin, vodka and Lillet, for $14.


My friends Rachel and Eli invited me out to Doc’s Clock, a divey local bar on Mission Street close to their apartment. I ordered us a gin and tonic, a martini and a beer. The total was $10 — for all three drinks. Was the martini served in a jelly glass? Sure. Was the bartender downright surly when I asked for a receipt? No question. Did she scrawl the number “10” on a scrap of paper and toss it onto the bar? Yes. Did it all make my San Francisco experience that much more enjoyable? Absolutely.

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