Travel Black Book With Lou Hoffman

Surprising San Francisco

Fisherman's Wharf and Alcatraz aside, the Californian city has restaurants, shops and museums to explore

Who: American Lou Hoffman, 59, chief executive of public relations firm The Hoffman Agency.

He and his wife Heather, 59, have three children - Otis, 41; Elliot, 24; and Grace, 22.

Favourite destination: San Francisco, California

Why: The cliches alone - Fisherman's Wharf on a foggy day, sourdough bread, notorious island prison Alcatraz - make San Francisco worthy of a visit. But the city offers so much more - natural beauty, an international selection of restaurants and always something unexpected around the corner.

We live in San Jose, roughly 80km south of San Francisco, so Heather and I visit San Francisco about six times a year.

Favourite hotel

Ritz Carlton San Francisco on Nob Hill (www.ritzcarlton.com/en/hotels/california/san-francisco) is hard to beat. It is situated in the affluent Nob Hill district on the intersection of California Street and Powell Street.

Major attractions are close by. It is a 10-minute drive to Coit Tower for panoramic views of the city, a 10-minute walk to Union Square and Chinatown is just a block away. The location is also quiet, since the hotel sits uphill.

Favourite restaurant

State Bird Provisions (statebirdsf.com), which recently earned a Michelin star, blends Californian cooking with dim sum.

Similar to dim sum, the food comes in small, sharing plates. Some of my favourite dishes are roasted delicata squash with pepita mole and pomegranate (US$5 or S$7) and pork ribs with black bean sauce and black garlic (US$9).

Leave room for dessert. The best bet is the homemade ice-cream sandwich (US$10), made to order with flavours such as cocoa nib macaron, orange caramel and almonds.

Because the restaurant is booked months in advance, it is difficult to get a table. But it keeps a few tables open for walk-in customers each night. Dinner starts at 5.30pm, so getting in line between 2 and 3pm will typically score you a table.

It sounds crazy waiting in line so long, but it is actually part of the experience, meeting and talking with a mix of people also waiting in line.

Budget US$100 for a dinner for two without wine.

Best breakfast

Dottie's True Blue Cafe (www.dottiestruebluesf.com) serves breakfasts which will fortify you for the rest of the day.

I usually get the pulled pork, roasted onion and Jack cheese scramble (US$12.25) that comes with tortillas. A pancake snob, I have to say the ones at Dottie's pass the test.

Avoid weekends if you can, as the lines start from 8am.

Favourite museum

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (www.sfmoma.org) has a world-class collection that rivals other contemporary art museums such as MoMA in New York City. The museum also showcases a good amount of photography.

Experience local culture

The best way is through the coffee and craft beer scene. Head to Valencia Street to get a feel of the local vibe. Heather and I love Four Barrel Coffee (fourbarrelcoffee.com) there. It sources its own fair-trade coffee beans and does its own roasting. Baristas do pourovers over a bar top.

You will also meet people from all walks of life, including students, hipsters, executives and older folks.

I also recommend a bar called Zeitgeist (www.zeitgeistsf.com), which wouldn't make the tourist list, but has one of the largest selections of microbrewery and craft beers in the city. It carries an up-and-coming microbrew out of San Jose called Camino.

In the spirit of full disclosure, my youngest son is the assistant brew master at Camino, but I'd still be a fan of Zeitgeist even if that weren't the case.

Favourite neighbourhood

Valencia Street. Near Four Barrel Coffee is an eclectic store called Accident And Artifact (accidentandartifact.com), where you'll find one-of-a-kind vintage art and collectibles by local artists. Martin, the owner, will take time with you and track down goods if he knows what you're looking for.

Best view

While a safe bet for a good view will be the touristy Coit Tower in the Telegraph Hill neighbourhood (bit.ly/1igI1Lt), I'd recommend taking a ferry across the bay to Tiburon, a town north of San Francisco, in Marin County.

There are restaurants on the bay that will allow you to look back to San Francisco from across the water. It's like eating inside a postcard.

I like going to Sam's Anchor Cafe (www.samscafe.com) for the scene as well as the food. It makes a mean mimosa for Sunday brunch.

Best hidden find

Polk Street has evolved over the years to house a fun mix of stores, restaurants and cafes. Being coffee fans, Heather and I enjoy the brew at Saint Frank Coffee (www.saintfrankcoffee.com) there.

Side trips

The Tech Museum Of Innovation in San Jose (www.thetech.org) is roughly an hour's drive from San Francisco, but you can also take the Caltrain to San Jose Diridon Station, a 20-minute walk to the museum. Even if you're not geeky, you'll still enjoy the hands-on exhibitions and experiences.

You could also do a food trip in Oakland. Ten years ago, tourists would have avoided it as a dodgy place. But because of the rising costs in San Francisco, a lot of creative energy there is moving to Oakland.

One of our favourite places there is Beauty's Bagel Shop (www.beautysbagelshop.com). It makes its bagels in the old Montreal-style, where they are finished off in a wood-fired oven. The end result is a perfect bagel - a nice crust on the outside and a chewy and pillowy inside.

As with pancakes, my standards for bagels are very high. Beauty's is the best in Northern California. It also creates some interesting schmears (spreads) besides cream cheese.

Event to bookmark

Outside Lands Music & Arts Festival (www.sfoutsidelands.com) takes place every August over a weekend in Golden Gate Park. The festival has brought in some of the biggest names in music, such as Elton John, Paul McCartney and Kanye West.

Best souvenir

Many people think of Ghirardelli chocolates as the default San Francisco gift, but there are other craft chocolate makers that are worth trying. These "bean-to-bar" chocolatiers dot the Bay Area. Two of my favourites are Dandelion Chocolate (www.dandelionchocolate.com) and TCHO (www.tcho.com), which is also carried at Whole Foods Markets at a reasonable price.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 11, 2016, with the headline 'Surprising San Francisco'. Print Edition | Subscribe