"The way to preserve a park is to put people in the parks," proclaimed tour guide and former national parks guide Tom Medin. And while the streets of San Francisco may be a far cry from his former office of acres of redwoods and spruce, his immersive philosophy directly translated to his new vocation: tour guide for Local Tastes of the City Tours, which leads slow, easy walks through San Francisco's diverse neighborhoods in an effort to uncover its soul and expose and help preserve the area's food artisans.
On the North Beach Tour, the city's historical Italian neighborhood and the center of the Beatnik scene in the 1950s, it became evident that Medin takes pride in showing off some of his favorite spots in his home city. And along the way, he tosses in bits of historical, architectural, and political insight. "I feel honored that somebody gives me part of their vacation for this tour," he says.
Our first stop was Caffe Roma, a coffee house, where we were instructed in the art of roasting coffee beans while standing in front of a car-sized 50-pound roaster, which turned round and round like a clothes dryer and filled the entire corner of the shop. We then ordered a cuppa and sat for a spell while Tom filled us in on some of the area's colorful history: how North Beach was the only part of San Francisco that didn't burn after the 1906 earthquake because the Italians opened their wine barrels and used the liquid to quench the flames, and that the 'hood was the chocolate capital of the U.S. in 1870 because it was the only place in the country cool enough to keep the chocolate from melting.
Fueled by a hearty dose of caffeine, we visited the Italian-French Baking Company of San Francisco, a vintage bakery where we watched bread being made and tasted items both sweet and savory. Next, we headed to Palermo Delicatessen, where workers hustled behind the counter, filling orders while we sampled a platter of Italian delicacies. Then we were off to Victoria Pastry, a more refined bakery where we sat down and sampled the freshest cannoli while customers pondered the carefully decorated cakes. We browsed another coffee house, Caffe Trieste, steeped in historyit's credited with having the first espresso machine on the West Coast, and it's where Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and friends once hung, and where Francis Ford Coppola wrote part of The Godfather. The tour ended underground at The Purple Onion nightclub, where we had the opportunity to take our picture while hamming it up on the same famous subterranean stage that has hosted legends such as Woody Allen, Robin Williams, and Barbra Streisand.
I'd expected to be full, and I was. I'd expected to have my taste buds come alive, and they did. But as a native of San Francisco, the best part of this culinary tour was that it exposed me to localesand flavorsI'd never encountered before.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication