NFT San Francisco Bernal Heights

Bernal Heights

Tucked away beneath Bernal Heights Park and its commanding views of downtown and the Bay, Bernal Heights is perhaps San Francisco's best-kept neighborhood secret. Cortland Avenue has everything a lazy afternoon-into-evening could require: bookshops, hair salons, gourmet restaurants, and even an overgrown back-yard beer garden. Nice.

Bernal brims with restaurants for every taste and budget: from gourmet comfort food at The Blue Plate to Taqueria Cancun or Zante Pizza & Indian Cuisine. After dinner, treat yourself to some tropical ice cream at Mitchell's, see live music at See more.

>El Rio, or tie one on at the lesbian-friendly Wild Side West.


On Our Radar:

Posted By:  Molly Riordan
Photo:  Molly Riordan

Wild Side West
I found magic in the streaming sunlight of a weekday afternoon. The light chatter of birds and bargoers floated in the green-gold glow with the tinkling of a small fountain behind me. Under a blue sky with a verdant canopy between it and me, sitting on a glass-paved patio, I felt I'd walked through the wardrobe to a land of wonder, where everyone is beautiful and happy. Narnia? No. The Wild Side West. Crassly and largely inaccurately described as a "lesbian bar" (hi, this is San Francisco 2009, people.) folks of all stripes were sipping beers far better than Red Stripe for a price the birds in the backyard's trees would call "cheap cheap cheap." Laid back and lovely, with pool and a jukebox inside and artfully-random statuary on the multi-level patios and backyard, every neighborhood should be so lucky as Bernal Heights to host a secret garden where all are welcome.

Posted By:  Elissa Pociask
Photo:  Elissa Pociask

The Front Porch
Since I usually equate eating fried chicken with desperate and dirty rest-stops in Middle America, trying it at the hip and cozy Front Porch threw me for a loop. The chicken didn't leave an oil slick on my fingers, the fritters actually had a distinct flavor of chilies and cod, the grits were laced with lumps of juicy crab, and the patrons were wearing neither Marlboro hats nor Tasmanian Devil sweatshirts. The charming decor (dim porch lanterns, old-fashioned water carafes, chicken served out of a popcorn bucket) and bountiful and reasonably-priced drink list, (including jug wine), were only secondary to the secret Caribbean/soul food recipes that are good enough to make brussel sprouts taste good. Come to indulge, but leave without feeling like there’s a brick in your stomach. 

Posted By:  Jennifer Anthony
Photo:  Jennifer Anthony

El Zocalo
Every once in a while, I hanker for Salvadoran food. Luckily, I have friends with the same cravings, such as a former Californian who recently dipped into San Francisco for a conference and was hit hard with pupusa cravings. Off we went to El Zocalo, where we knew we could count on hot pupusas, plantains with sour cream and beans, and large tumblers of horchata. My personal favorite is the pupusa with cheese and loroco, an edible flower. My friend opted for chicken and cheese. We both dove into the plantains, not minding that their sheer heat seared off a layer or two from the roofs of our mouths. So delicious--and so very reasonably priced. It's also an ideal place to pick up some roses for your beloved--while we were there, five different people came by with buckets of fabulous flores for sale.

Posted By:  Jennifer Anthony
Photo:  Jennifer Anthony

Badger Books
A cousin of Dog Eared Books on Valencia and Phoenix Books on 24th, Red Hill Books is a throwback to the name the cops used for the hill when labor activists and organizers were prominent in the neighborhood. I'm a sucker for bookstores with bargain tables outside, which draw me in like Sirens lure ships to rocks. I always promise myself I'll just flip through the items on the table and then tear myself away, but that never happens, of course. This time, it was a sale on 2009 calendars that did me in, with prices usually found in the middle of the following year (for those mysterious people who find themselves still needing calendars by the summer?). Red Hill renovated and expanded two years ago, allowing more space for book signings and other live events. And if you're truly a fan, you can donate at least $1 on the website to pay the outstanding debt for the renovation and ensure that SF doesn't lose another independent bookstore.

Posted By:  Jennifer Anthony
Photo:  Jennifer Anthony

Progressive Grounds
There are few places in the city where one can roll up just outside a cafe, and have a pick of not just one, but two parking spaces on a Saturday afternoon. This has happened to me the last two weekends I've been to Progressive Grounds, and that alone is reason enough to have me singing for joy. Most of the customers--and there are usually many--have walked over from within their cozy Bernal Heights neighborhood. At Progressive Grounds, one can get something to eat or just join the laptop brigade with an espresso. Patrons can sit in the front room, plop down in the middle room on benches topped with cushy pillows, or mosey out to the patio to celebrate the gorgeous fall weather. On my last jaunt, I had a delicious salmon/spinach wrap and a soda for less than ten dollars. Bring cash for the no-plastic counter, quarters for the meter, and a good friend or book, and you're set. On the way out, grab some Mitchell's ice cream at lines that are considerably shorter than those found at the Mitchell's mother ship on San Jose Ave.

Posted By:  Jennifer Anthony
Photo:  Jennifer Anthony

Heartfelt is all about funky kitsch and toys. It is everything you want and nothing you need. The perfect one-stop-shopping spot for a child's birthday gift, a goofy adult's stocking stuffing, or just something fun to fritter away the day. It is not a place for the painfully serious, as it is unabashedly quirky and cute. On my last visit, I brought a paddleball with sound effects that broke within less than two minutes. But those two minutes of ridiculous laughter were well worth the measly (arguable) $4 spent. Paddleball: $4. One hour of metered parking: several quarters. Laughter from accidentally hitting yourself in the head with a rubber ball: priceless.

Posted By:  Jennifer Anthony
Photo:  Jennifer Anthony

Bernal Beast
I have an eclectic assortment of beasts at home, and it's nice to find a neighborhood store that has a little something for the standard pet (say, cat or dog) and the unique (smaller feathered/furried/scaled pals). B-squared also has an onsite, do-it-yourself bathing station, a monthly vaccination clinic, and makes custom pet tags. Pets are welcome guests and staff provide information on community resources such as dog walkers and local vets. But the best feature of all is that it gives people who have adopted a pet 10% off their first purchase.

Posted By:  Jennifer Anthony
Photo:  Jennifer Anthony

Mitchell's Ice Cream
The empty spot just around the corner from Mitchell's demanded that I park in it. It refused to have things any other way. So what could I do? It was one of those rare summer nights when the line for Mitchell's wasn't out the door. I picked up a half gallon of Halo Halo, one of Mitchell's tropical flavors made with fruits imported from the Philippines, and slipped into the speedy line for non-cone buyers. I hoped that my selection's unique purple hue and even more unusual ingredients would be a crowd pleaser at a work party. I didn't have to worry. When I unearthed the amethyst-colored gem in the midday heat the following day, spoons came a-digging. When friends asked what was in it, I shrugged and said, "Oh, you know. Pineapple, Sweet Beans, Buko, Langka, Ube, and Mongo." None of us knew what I was talking about, but the spoons kept diving in, nonetheless. I mean, it was Mitchell's.

Posted By:  Ivana Ivanovic
Photo:  Ivana Ivanovic

East & West Gourmet Afghan Foods
With all due respect to honorable mentions of Bolani in reviews of various Farmers Markets, I feel like I owe the fine readership of NFT a special pointer to this food treat most divine... even for the most spoiled SF palate. I mean, I really thought I'd tried it all. I was, in fact, getting bored (don't shoot me please! As much variety as SF offers, after a few years, one needs... more variety). And then, an innocent visit to the Crocker Galleria farmers' market changed it all. If perhaps I'd merely glimpsed at the displayed bolanis--Afghani flatbreads filled with spinach, pumpkin, lentils--I might not have been tempted. But the sweet & gorgeous salespeople distributed the samples so generously and joyously that I simply had to taste. And then… the closest I can come to describing the sensation is: they melt in your mouth and fill you like the greasiest burrito or croissant or [insert favorite carb treat here], and yet leave you feeling light and refreshed. No wonder: with all natural ingredients and at 80 calories/pop, bolani is the new best surprise San Francisco lunch.

Posted By:  Jennifer Anthony
Photo:  Jennifer Anthony

Maybe it was the cozy porch, with its flickering votive candles, wooden rocking chairs and ever-present clusters of intriguing people chatting in the night. Or perhaps it was the sign that offers its name in humble lower case courier font. Whatever the reason, I knew I had to try the restaurant the first time I spotted it on the outskirts of the Mission. Apparently others feel the same, because once you mosey past the porch and open the front door, you will find that the place is always crowded. Is it the booze selection that includes everything from tall boys to Bellinis? Or the West Indian/Caribbean menu that offers up such items as Crab and Grits or Miss Ollie’s Fried Chicken (which, incidentally, arrives in a popcorn box along with a few handfuls of popcorn)? I have gone with crowds large and small, and the favorite is always, always the corn bread served just before the meal. Each small piece, shaped like an ear of corn, is heaven, and, I believe, the real reason for the crowds.

Posted By:  Ryn
Photo:  Courtesy Dykeplex

El Rio
San Francisco is lucky Chantelle Tibbs flutters here during this nostalgic verano in the foggy bay. Her third San Francisco appearance this year, at Bazaar Café she joined the Women Rock series. Wednesday’s performance was a chance to learn her classics like “Do You in the Booty” and “Cry”. And now you can hum along on September 4 when she graces the stage at El Rio. Chantelle sings and strums melodies. Folk, a bit of soul y ella se habla rock. A mod messenger on stage, she howls. Off stage she designs Wear Me Naked and redistributes. Backstage she is cinematic. These don't do her justice...she's meant to be experienced live, complete with witty banter.

Posted By:  Jennifer Anthony
Photo:  Jennifer Anthony

Moki's Sushi & Pacific Grill
One of the best ways I gauge the service in a restaurant is by taking the sixteen-year-old girl I mentor out for dinner. If they treat her well, then I’m sold. Two weeks ago, the waitress at Moki’s did just that, and so within minutes I already had a warm and fuzzy feeling, compounded by the cozy, lively feel of the place. The love deepened when the waitress brought out a bowl of edamame. Plump, steaming hot, covered with salt, and garnished with two wedges of lemon, they were heavenly. As we popped them one by one into our mouths, out came the next two dishes: fried calamari with a zippy cocktail sauce, and a spicy papaya salad replete with shards of bell pepper, cilantro, carrot, and the green fruit itself. Three for three: tasty food, good service, and a sneakily successful introduction to something different.

Posted By:  Ryn
Photo:  Ryn

Maggie Mudd
MaggieMudd is a frozen dessert haven. They have dairy, non-dairy (made from almond, coconut, and soy milks), and even no sugar added options. Around fifty flavors to peruse, including the Irish Crème packed Doubliner, the chunky Rocky Road, Peanut Butter Palooka. The hot cashiers can hook you up with fresh waffle cones that they make in irons before your very eyes. It's a great place for a date. Sugary shakes and ice cream cakes made to order. Tunes and an eclectic crowd. It's spacious for an ice cream shop and has yellow walls, orange plastic chairs, and stacks of The Onion.

Posted By:  Jennifer Anthony
Photo:  Jennifer Anthony

El Patio
Every so often, the pupusa cravings hit me, insistent and demanding. When they struck last, my friend and I decided to bypass our favorite haunt and try El Patio, a Salvadorian restaurant in Bernal Heights. It was a Wednesday night, and the place was practically empty save for one other family, a handful of employees, and the low din of the soccer game. We had our pick of tables. My friend flipped immediately to the pupusa offerings, already misty-eyed at the thought of pupusas con queso y loroco (a vine flower bud from Central America). But my eyes drifted to another menu item: the empanadas de leche. Did I dare do battle with the pupusa cravings? Yes, yes I did. And I was rewarded for my bravado with two fried pastries, filled with rice and milk and plantain chunks. Across the table, my friend lit into her pupusas, gleefully noting that they weren’t as greasy as the ones at our usual place. The empanadas were tasty goodness and yet a little too sweet to be listed among the appetizers. Next time I’ll heed the call of my beloved pupusas and split the empanada dish for dessert.

Posted By:  Jody Ryan
Photo:  Courtesy of Mitchell’s Ice Cream

Mitchell's Ice Cream
If you’re looking to cool down with some outrageous ice cream, Mitchell’s is the place to go. Since 1953, they have been serving up the most unique and unusual (not to mention yummy) ice cream flavors. Their newest flavors include Grasshopper Pie (mint chocolate chip with Oreos and fudge), Caramelo Crunch (caramel ice cream with filled chocolate candy pieces), Elderberry Sorbet, and Strawberry Rhubarb Sorbet. The store began as a neighborhood ice cream shop and now manufactures their super premium gourmet ice cream. Mitchell’s imports avocado, buko (baby coconut), guava, langka, macapuno, mango, pineapple and ube from the Philippines to make their ice cream. If you’re not in an adventurous mood, don’t worry, they also offer the traditional fare—all made fresh in their shop daily. In the next few weeks, Mitchell’s will be offering their holiday flavors including Pumpkin, Egg Nog, Peppermint Candy, and Spumoni.

Posted By:  Kevin Cutler
Photo:  Kevin Cutler

Little Nepal
Offering a taste of the Himalayas from the lofty peaks of Cortland Avenue, Little Nepal offers delicious curries and tandoori plates in a sophisticated setting. A friendly “namaste” from the host invites visitors into the restaurant, where they are seated in a spare, serene dining area. Patrons are presented with a menu featuring a wide array of Nepalese delicacies. A good place to start is with an order of momos, plump dumplings stuffed with pork, chicken, or vegetables. The lentil soup is also fabulous. Next, move on to the entrees, which can be ordered a la carte or as a combination. Go for the combo, which includes lentils, naan, mixed vegetables, and rice. Of the many remarkable offerings, my favorite is the sabjiko tarkari, a potato and cauliflower curry that is pleasantly spicy without being overwhelming. Tandoori dishes, which spend 8 hours marinating before hitting the oven, are another house specialty. All in all, this restaurant is well worth the trek up Bernal Heights.

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