SAN FRANCISCO -- I approached the aquarium of frogs with dinner on my mind.
A waiter hovered nearby as I eyed the amphibians that were doomed to be consumed.
"I'll have that plump one in the corner please," I said.
I couldn't see inside the kitchen, but I imagine my beady-eyed entree got in a few final kicks as it was carried to the kitchen chopping-block and then to a frying pan. The entire sectioned frog, not just the legs, was sautéed with straw mushrooms and mild onion, rice on the side. The US$17 dish is a specialty of Great Eastern Restaurant.
Welcome to San Francisco, a city of culinary connoisseurs who abide by two rules: Eat fresh, and eat food produced locally, which apparently includes frogs from local ponds.
The West Coast passion for food at its zenith of freshness was only one aspect of this funky California city that intrigued my wife Lois and me during our four-night visit.
When planning our trip, we vowed to be open to new experiences. The city's motto is "Only In San Francisco," and that's the attitude we packed.
Sure, we visited the usual tourist attractions like the Golden Gate Bridge, Haight-Ashbury and Alcatraz prison. And yes, we rode a cable car.
But more memorable experiences came when we strayed away from the mainstream, took offbeat tours and poked around on our own.
We ate only food that will never be on the menu at Salisbury House. Instead of renting a car, we relied on public transit and chatted to fellow passengers when they seemed up for it. We somehow got lost on foot in a downtrodden district where the sidewalks were colonized by homeless people with their shopping carts full of possessions. We toured the city in a cool 1924 vehicle. We sang along at America's longest-running musical, where the director is from Winnipeg and took time to personally welcome us.
Hotel with a conscience
But first we needed a good hotel, and we found a Good one.
The Good Hotel bills itself as "the hotel with a conscience." Everything is made from recycled content, including beds, wallpaper and carpet. Light fixtures are reused bottles. Even the bedspreads are made of 85-per-cent recycled garments and soda bottles (don't ask, I don't know how they turn bottles into bedspreads).
As part of its "conscience," the hotel provides a link to 100 non-profit groups and, at the check-in desk, politely asks guests to join hotel staff in volunteering for an hour or two in the community. Their bulletin board shows snapshots of guests happily planting flowers or helping in a soup kitchen.
The hotel is colourful and a bit kooky in a fun way. Decorators made lavish use of primary colours, such as yellows and bright blues. Our room's wall included the reminder "Be Good" printed in large glow-in-the-dark letters.
Best of all, it's affordable for a central location. It's only two blocks from the main traffic artery of Market Street, and rates range from US$64 to $89 a night.
It's billed as the top tourist area in town, but we found Fisherman's Wharf overpriced and overcrowded. It's a dockside string of more than a hundred shops and attractions, including the Ripley's Believe It Or Not Museum, Ghirardelli Chocolate Factory square, a wax museum, chain restaurants like a Hard Rock Café, an aquarium with 20,000 marine creatures and, if you come at the right time, glimpses of sea lions on rocks in the bay.
I suspect the only real San Franciscans here are those selling stuff to tourists. The jam-packed boardwalks had the feel of a busy night at the Red River Exhibition, when people carrying wallets are funnelled shoulder-to-shoulder through a passageway lined by hucksters.
We wanted to see unique areas of San Francisco such as the Haight-Ashbury bohemian district famous for its "Summer of Love" in 1967, the Pacific Heights area of restored Victorian mansions that include the house where Mrs. Doubtfire was filmed, and a Chinatown that, with 50,000 people, is the largest Chinese community outside of mainland China.
There's no shortage of big tourist buses to visit these popular sites, but we opted instead for an offbeat operation called Mr. Toads Tours. Its restored vehicles run on propane or natural gas and consist of a 1912 Rambler, a 1918 Packard Woodie, a 1924 Yellowstone Bus, a 1929 Model A Woodie and a 1967 Checker Aerobus.
The small size of our vehicle let our tour driver and her eight passengers weave through traffic, sneak down alleys and pull over when we wanted to explore on foot. Perhaps because the close confines of a car are intimate, our tour guide, Rebecca, seemed more like a funny, hip friend eager to show us the cool aspects of her hometown. (Adults fares are US$34 for a 90-minute tour, US$48 for a three-hour tour).
In a country that has the highest documented incarceration rate in the world, it's unsurprising that the biggest single tourist attraction in San Francisco is a hellhole of a former prison.
The current U.S. enthusiasm for jailing its citizens means that, in 2008, more than one in 100 Americans was locked up.
And many of the rest of them were lined up to get a ticket to see Alcatraz.
Of Americans who remain free, 1.3 million a year take a ferry two kilometres to the rocky island that housed prisoners such as Al "Scarface" Capone, Alvis "Creepy" Karpis and Robert Stroud, the "Birdman of Alcatraz."
Inside the prison, visitors take a 45-minute audio tour with personal headphones and hear former Alcatraz prisoners and guards reminisce about life inside the prison that was closed in 1963.
Yes, visitors can go inside a cell and experience that locked-up feeling. And yes, the tour guides will let you out of the cell if you behave well.
(Tickets including ferry ride are US$26 to $33. Warning: Alcatraz tickets are often purchased months in advance and, during sold-out summer months, scalpers get triple the list price.)
MEET THE FOOD FASCISTS
Our favourite tour was one called Local Tastes of the City. Motto: "We Eat Our Way Through San Francisco."
We had unforgettable encounters with colourful characters as host Tom Medin led our walking group of six people on a behind-the-scenes tour of shops in an eight-block area of North Beach/Little Italy.
Tom's three-hour tour introduced us to a succession of chefs who, like him, are zealous about the politics of food. These outspoken food snobs are passionate about cooking with ingredients that are in-season fresh and produced locally. They curse chains such as McDonald's and Starbucks as evil empires.
Anthony Azzollini, owner of a coffee shop called Caffe Roma, doesn't just grind his beans fresh; he roasts his own beans. His roaster is the size of a small car and it's inside his coffee shop. For our benefit, he raised his voice and asked his customers their opinion of Starbucks. They booed loudly. After Azzollini poured us home-roasted cappuccino, we had to agree.
Jean Marc Gorce came from France to open a one-man shop called Truffles. He appears genuinely sorrowful that North Americans eat wax-like chocolate full of preservatives and sugar. He served us his truffles, still warm from the oven. I pledged to never again eat a Hershey's bar.
So it went. A baker insisted brick ovens like his need 20 or 30 years to get broken in before they can start making "good" bread. A man who makes only olive oil insists customers bring their own containers -- "I make olive oil, not bottles." A specialist in sourdough bread said when the family had to move to a different bakery 30 years ago, they moved their sourdough starter in an armoured car because it's so precious.
The food fascists tell the following story with pride: A Burger King outlet made the mistake of opening in their territory and, four years later, that chain restaurant is still picketed every day by people who value good food and want Burger King to leave their neighbourhood.
Adult price for the three-hour Local Tastes tour is US$59, which includes more food than you can comfortably eat and admission to The Beat Museum, which celebrates groundbreaking writers such as Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs.
A show unlike anything we'd ever seen was Teatro Zinzanni, a three-hour adventure. It was like a classy dinner theatre -- a five-course gourmet meal centred around an interactive drama about spies and romance. But it also included a torch singer, a swinging five-piece orchestra and world-class jugglers, illusionists and acrobats.
It all happens in a spiegletent, one of the few remaining examples of a type of tent built in the 1920s in Europe as travelling dance halls.
Our favourite entertainers were Sam Payne and Sandra Feusi, who had previously toured for five years with Cirque du soleil. Wrapped around a pole high in the air, they performed a beautiful, sensual dance called Vertical Tango.
Our least favourite performer was the master of ceremonies, who portrayed a randy old homosexual repeatedly badgering men from the audience to join in a lewd improv. It amused some people at first but, when he was still giggling over his own frat-house double entendres into the third hour of the show, his schtick didn't stick.
(Adult tickets: US$158.)
WARM WINNIPEG WELCOME
The best entertainment we saw in San Fran was Beach Blanket Babylon. It's a sassy satire of celebrities, a parody of pop culture that is as current as its spoof of Barack Obama.
At 35 years and counting, it's the longest-running musical in America. (Tickets range from US$25 to $80.)
When its director, Kenny Maslow, heard we were from Winnipeg, he greeted us before and after the show and told us he graduated from Garden City Collegiate High School, worked at Rainbow Stage and the Hollow Mug Theatre, and directed his first show at 18 at the Pantages Playhouse Theatre.
Two of Maslow's siblings stayed in Winnipeg and are also in the limelight: Debbie Maslowski has been acclaimed for her roles in musical theatre, and Jerry Maslowski is a Blue Bombers marketing executive.
"It's always a thrill to meet someone after the show from Winnipeg," Maslow said. "Winnipeg provided me with a solid theatrical foundation to allow me to pursue my career, and I'm incredibly grateful for its continued support."
He sees a lot of similarities between his hometown of Winnipeg and his adopted city of San Francisco.
"San Franciscans and Winnipeggers are both open-minded and accepting of different lifestyles and variety of cultures. Like San Franciscans, Winnipeggers celebrate these different cultures through a variety of events such as Folklorama and the Winnipeg Fringe Festival."
SEEN ON THE STREETS
* While I watched four policemen arrest a man on a city sidewalk, a man with dreadlocks sidled up beside me to also watch. My fellow spectator was smoking a pungent joint and, even with police only about 10 meters away, he didn't extinguish. I later read that San Francisco Assemblyman Tom Ammiano recently introduced a bill to legalize marijuana.
* Sign inside The Beat Museum, which celebrates the birth of 1960s counter culture: "Stop bitching and start a revolution".
* Even in the business district and near nightclubs, it was rare to see women wearing high heels, full makeup or look-at-me bling. The look for stylish women seemed to be clean, healthy and natural. Think of the Winnipeg women who are passionate about living in Wolseley. Now imagine hundreds of thousands of them.
* You know you're in San Francisco when you see slogans like: "It's not my fault" and "Gender bender"
* Over four days, we encountered hundreds of people who appeared to be living on the street, pushing shopping-carts of belongings or curled unconscious in alleys. Many of them were alone and talked loudly, and not because they were wearing Bluetooth phones. We were often asked for money, but San Fran panhandlers struck us as more gentle and contrite than the bullying beggars we sometimes encounter in downtown Winnipeg.
* We're glad we followed advice to use public transit instead of renting a car. Vacant parking spaces seemed as rare as snow tires. And, for a flatlander, it would be tricky driving in a city that is built on 43 hills, some as steep as 30 degrees.
* Traffic seemed dominated by a wonderfully large percentage of energy-smart vehicles, such as electric cars, scooters, Toyota Prius and packs of bicycles cramming the plentiful bike lanes.
* At an open-air market, dozens of women lined up to buy live chickens from a poultry truck. Each bird was dropped into a paper bag and the top was stapled shut, the bird's wings flapping franticly against the inside of the bag. Dinner doesn't get any fresher.
Answer these questions that link Winnipeg and San Francisco:
1) Which San Francisco man murdered 24 women and one child before he was caught in Manitoba?
2) Which film about Winnipeg won the Best Documentary category of the 2008 San Francisco Film Festival?
3) Both Winnipeggers and San Franciscans look high to golden symbols. But, while the colour of the Golden Boy is as billed, what colour is The Golden Gate Bridge?
4) San Francisco hosts the longest-running musical in the U.S., and its director is proud to be from Winnipeg. Who is he?