San Francisco is often known as the Bay Area, but many visitors – and even locals – forget that in the southwestern parts exists an ocean. The beach rises up and crests in to dunes, which separate the Pacific from the streets of the Outer Sunset. Sand verbena grows naturally down here, its salt-resistant roots binding the gritty soil.
This western grid remained rural until the turn of the twentieth century. It was the Irish who first settled here; and in the 1970s the Chinese – who had long outgrown Chinatown – headed this way. Then came the surf community, attracted by the relative peace and quiet of streets beyond 19th Avenue. The proximity to the ocean was an obvious draw, as were the commodities of plentiful space and outdoor living.
The independent spirit that prevails throughout San Francisco shines even more brightly in these parts. And there is a sense of civic pride seen nowhere else in the city: houses have green front yards; planters and makeshift pots filled with trees and vegetables sit comfortably on the sidewalk. Every cement quadrant of the pavement has been given life of sorts; extra seating for coffee shops has been built from driftwood in spaces that would normally be occupied by parking. This surf-loving community values craftsmanship and the good life. The restaurants here have a different flavour, the bars are more informal. Artists have made this place their home and a countercultural spirit prevails.
Mollusk Surf Shop
The corner of Irving and 46th Street is a haven of ocean culture, established by John McCambridge and Johanna St. Clair nearly a decade ago – though you wouldn’t think there was a surfers’ emporium behind the high windows here, filled with succulents, cheese plants and climbers.
Giant Japanese paper lanterns fling hazy light over the surfboards, wax and fins standing at ease along one wall. Local artist and carpenter Jay Nelson has built a submersible geodesic dome from scrap wood found in the neighbourhood – he’s since moved on to tree houses in Hawaii. This place feels less like a store and more like a gallery for surf culture. Or perhaps it is a clubhouse for the local surfer-artist-filmmaker-musician scene. Mollusk has since spread its fins to other cities, but has never lost touch with its homebase, and is certainly the beating heart of this community.
Coffee is a sacred enterprise here in Fog City. It’s a grown-up game and the result is a rich and storied ‘where’s where’ of good coffee shops.
Trouble Coffee is one of the best. The sidewalk outside the store has been converted into outdoor seating; benches grouped around a giant hulk of driftwood redwood. The coffee is good but the cinnamon toasts are better. The faultless bar team negotiate hundreds of orders for the very special toasts daily, each one slathered in butter and sugar, topped with cinnamon powder and grilled until sweet, sticky and delicious.
This is where swimmers and surfers come after bracing the cold of an ocean that never really warms up. Next door is the General Store, a good place to get lost for a few hours flicking through independent magazines, hand spun ceramics and textiles. The garden is worth a peek, too: it’s laid out in homage to the ocean succulents at the end of the block on the beach.
Driftwood is a theme in these parts: the ocean brings in this raw material on the waves, and it finds its way into many an establishment. The woodworkers who crafted Outerlands restaurant, for instance, weaved the washed-up twigs first around the room, then around the bar.
Chefs Bayani Inclano and Brooke Mosley have styles that are very different but harmonise well here, and a chair at Outerlands for Sunday brunch is one of the most coveted spots in the city. The food is – as San Francisco protocol generally dictates – very local, very seasonal, and very fresh: white beans, clams, nettles in winter. The approach here is heartiness and homeliness, no doubt a culinary reaction to the permafog of The Sunset and the salt in the air.
If any business personifies independence and deep-rooted creativity, it’s Woodshop. Formed by four creative minds with a shared interest in woodwork, craftsmanship and surfing, the showroom is an emporium of the wooden ephemera the four produce: Luke Bartels’s furniture made from salvaged hardwood, Danny Hess’s surfboards, Josh Duthie’s old chairs with new ideas, and Jeff Canham’s signpaintings and artistic experiments. While each designer has his niche, a spirit of collaboration binds the team.
“We tried not to overthink the name,” they say. And like their chosen name, the space is kept charming and simple: the red lino floor of the part-studio, part-store has been collecting sawdust and chippings for seven years. Surfboards are made like guitars: from the inside out. Danny has become one of the leading shapers in California, using mainly sustainable components in his work, and the four all share an interest in trying to have as little impact on the planet as possible.