The Mission: San Francisco’s Hottest Neighbourhood


Following North Beach, The Castro and Haight-Ashbury, The Mission is the latest San Francisco village to capture the zeitgeist, reports David Prior.

“The sun always shines on the Mission” goes the saying in frequently fog-enveloped San Francisco. Recently, this little piece of weather wisdom has taken on new meaning as the previously shunned district basks in its metaphorical moment in the sun.

San Francisco is a collection of villages crammed together on a narrow peninsula at the fringe of not only North American geography but its culture too. Throughout its colourful history, the city has always been Valhalla for the offbeat and early adopters; typically, in every age, one of its neighbourhoods has risen up to encapsulate the zeitgeist. The Beat Generation’s North Beach, the Summer of Love in the Haight-Ashbury and Harvey Milk’s Castro are all now as postcard-familiar as the city’s iconic Golden Gate and painted Victorian-era houses. The next to take its place in this influential pantheon is the Mission. Not long ago it was unimaginable that the flat, somewhat blighted and largely working class Latino area would evolve into the city’s most dynamic community and destination for creativity across many disciplines. It is too simple to put its evolution down to a textbook case of gentrification; yes, the cafes that now live beside the taquerías and dive bars emit an ‘Apple glow’, but there is something that is very true to San Francisco’s strongly subversive spirit that is manifesting itself in the Mission. Once again, a San Franciscan village is emitting a magnetic force as a centre for original thought and eccentric enterprise.  linebreakmission-records copyI moved to San Francisco three years ago and chose to live in the Mission, not necessarily because it was the area that resonated with my interests (that was a happy coincidence), but because in a city with skyrocketing rents the Mission was still somewhat affordable. Commuters to nearby Silicon Valley generally choose to live in the city, which has had the effect of pricing out everyone else from the traditionally desirable areas. As a result, some of the more idiosyncratic neighbourhoods have lost their lustre as a quieter kind of suburbia has taken hold. On the flip side, it has forced the creative class of the city to aggressively pitch their tents in the Mission and make it their enclave. Put simply, the Mission is the West Coast capital of hipster culture and all the hallmarks are there in abundance (read: bookstores, bicycles and beards). When writing this piece I had tried (in vain) to make it my own mission to avoid the word ‘hipster’. To me it is a term that often comes with an element of curmudgeonly derision, a broad brushstroke label that somehow immediately discredits. Like the beatniks, hippies and gay community before them, hipsters are a broad group of people united by their desire to live in a different way. Is it any wonder in the United States, land of perfected homogeny where bigger is better and sameness is often celebrated, that this reaction is taking place? Add to that a changed economic reality and you have a rapidly growing counterculture that prizes opposite values. linebreakmission-toplinebreakIt would, however, be inaccurate to say that the area is solely the domain of hipsters. In fact, the story of the modern Mission is really a tale of two streets and their two tribes. Running parallel along the entire length of the area like boulevards are Valencia and Mission Streets, the former with its restaurants, bookstores and boutiques and the latter with its murals, markets and taquerías. When I walk down Valencia and hear a vintage-clad gent asking his peer, “Do you think we are robbing future generations of their retro?”, instead of depleting my store of newly found charity, I simply take a hard right for a burrito and beer at La Taqueria and I am as far away from pretension as I can be. linebreakmission-unionmadelinebreakMission Street is gritty, bears a significant brunt of the city’s shameful homelessness problem and its dive bars are decidedly no-frills, though come two a.m. there can be some messy spills. In a city that perfected protest, the Mission expresses itself through murals, channelling the Mexican movement of the 1920s and the activism of now, which makes a stroll through its back alleys both provocative and visually stimulating. Yet as I write, I see on Valencia Street the doors of a new chocolate factory, beer cellar, and a host of restaurants and quirky stores are about to be swung open. It is only a block that separates them but the experience of weaving between the two couldn’t be more different. It is this precarious balance between new bohemian and old-school Latino that keeps things interesting. linebreakPizzeria DelfinalinebreakRecently, New York Times reporter and food writer Kim Severson wrote: “In the way an abundant oyster bed indicates a healthy estuary, a neighbourhood thick with hipsters is an indicator that good food is not far away.” She is right and her theory applies to the Mission perhaps more than anywhere else (with the possible exception of Brooklyn). San Francisco is a great food city – that is no secret. Many of America’s great restaurants call it home, the talent pool of cooks is deep and the quality of raw produce available is virtually unrivalled. The Mission has been the beneficiary of this newly adventurous spirit and is ever more dense with restaurants and food businesses bending the rules. The most famous example is probably Mission Chinese Food. Originally a ‘squatter’ restaurant, eccentric young chef Danny Bowien began a twice-weekly pop up in Lung Shan, the struggling local Chinese joint. linebreakZuni Cafe oysters
He began cooking the food from his imagination, with little regard for tradition, and has created a kind of Szechuan by way of American stoner culture cuisine. It was as close as you can get to an overnight sensation in the restaurant game, and now, on any given night, hoards queue outside to eat this mind-bending ‘Chinese food’ in a dimly lit room on the restaurant’s original dingy laminate tables as the music blares. Similarly well-known and irreverent is the ice creamery Humphry Slocombe. Its name should serve as a warning to those who know the British sitcom Are You Being Served? that this parlour is serving ice-cream with a side of slap-and-tickle. Salted caramel once seemed adventurous as a flavour, but not in the wake of HS’s ‘Secret Breakfast’, candied cornflake and bourbon, ‘Rosemary’s Baby’, rosemary and pinenut, and the ever-popular prosciutto ice-cream. linebreakWise Sons Jewish Deli
Although Humphry Slocombe, Mission Chinese Food and a host of others including the outstanding revisionist Jewish deli Wise Sons are relative newcomers, Mission’s status as the centre of San Francisco’s food scene has been some time in the making. Tartine Bakery, the now-legendary locale, seems to have had a queue at its door for the entire decade it has been open. It is not really surprising given the quality and consistency of the offerings but its most recent evolution is perhaps more interesting. Not only has master baker Chad Robertson begun to delve into the dark and delicious world of Eastern European bread with a new smørrebrød bolthole at the bakery’s burly brother Bar Tartine but he and his wife Liz Prueitt have turned over the original to a monthly pop-up restaurant appropriately called Tartine Afterhours. Every month, the famed bakery dons twinkling cafe lights and a family-style seasonal meal is served to guests by talented cook and teacher Samin Nosrat, who aims to “create community through food”, an endearingly earnest refrain that is often heard amid the food scene here. linebreakSandwiches from Tartine Afterhours
If anywhere in San Francisco has been doing exactly that it is the 30-year-old Zuni Café, a beloved institution that no map would say is technically in the Mission (but which is part of mine). In fact, I am not sure that calling it an institution is apt as that would seem to imply a place of habit, one that you visit for sentimental reasons. I visit for that too, but principally because it is as good as it has ever been and it embodies part of the spirit of San Francisco. Oysters at the copper bar, roast chicken for two, the elegant and eccentric co-owner Gilbert Pilgram floating through the dining room and the always fascinating crowd, from drag queens to the old-money Liberal elite.linebreakLocanda and FSC
It is not only with its food that the Mission is leading the way in San Francisco. Valencia Street in particular is home to some of the most individual stores both in the city and in the United States. With its macabre take on taxidermy and gardening, Paxton Gate is a kooky experience and its little brother, Paxton Gate’s Curiosities for Kids, is the kind of wacky and heartfelt toy store you imagine Roald Dahl, Dr Seuss and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry would have liked. And if they appreciated that store, they would have been head over heels for 826 Valencia. Dave Eggers, author of bestselling book A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, is not only a writer of rarest ability but also a visionary philanthropist and activist via his organisation 826, which helps children and young adults to develop writing skills and assists teachers in inspiring their students. His ‘Pirate Supply Store’ was originally created through necessity after red tape prevented him from using the space for anything other than retail. It was an obstacle that has reaped rewards, providing just the kind of whimsical inspiration the children needed, and now the brilliantly clever shop has the feeling of a pirate ship with spyglasses, skull flags and eyepatches for sale. Be warned though: there are plenty of surprises and tricks ready to by played upon you as you enter. Eggers has also contributed significantly to the literary identity of the Mission and – by extension – San Francisco, establishing one of the most successful boutique publishing houses, McSweeney’s, also housed on Valencia Street.linebreakMargaritas at Zuni

Should you be lucky and visiting San Francisco on a sunny Saturday or Sunday, forget cycling over the Golden Gate, riding a cable car or visiting Alcatraz Island and head immediately to Dolores Park. It is – without fail – the sunniest spot on the entire peninsula, so when the fog breaks it becomes the Mission’s town square and San Francisco’s wonderful weirdness is very much on display. One weekend might see the San Francisco Symphony playing a free concert; the next, The Whole Enchihuahua, a contest for chihuahuas dressed as Frida Kahlo, among others; the following, a ‘Bears’ Picnic’ that has very little to do with stuffed animals; or Easter’s special Hunky Jesus, where the bearded hipsters of the Mission compete for the title of Holiest of Holies. Though the activities change, you can be guaranteed to see tattooed bodies performing acrobatics, young couples drinking rosé and plenty of liberated behaviour all set to the unmistakable scent of San Francisco’s favourite herb, wafting in and out like the city’s fog. In a subversive, eccentric and ever-evolving city, at least some things never change.linebreakmap-and-list

Text: David Prior
All images copyright photographer Eric Wolfinger

This story was first published in Vogue Living March 2013, on news stands and on Zinio now.

11 Responses to “The Mission: San Francisco’s Hottest Neighbourhood”
  1. Lower Haighter says:

    Great write-up!
    As a long time SF resident though, I’d like to address the comment about the “city’s shameful homeless problem.” The homeless problem is indeed shameful, but it is a problem created by the entire nation, not just this city, and SF has done more than most cities to address it as humanely and effectively as possible. We’ve watched our tax money become an incubator for one solution after another, and we celebrate our successes in providing services that work and are grateful to watch the homeless numbers slowly go down. Many of the homeless come from other parts of the nation where services and weather are much more hostile (right-wing talking heads deriding SF as a community that takes any pleasure in having homeless people on our streets makes my blood boil).
    When visiting SF, the best way to contribute to our efforts would be to get involved with a local charity such as Glide Memorial, St. Anthony’s, or Project Connect.

  2. George says:

    Three of these establishments aren’t even in the Mission. And aside from La Taqueria, which is lauded for being “totally unpretentious and authentic,” every single other place mentioned is extremely pretentious and inauthentic, with the exception of Precita Eyes.
    What a waste of time.

  3. Thuy says:

    Union Made is in the Castro & Zuni is in Hayes Valley, not the Mission. Just sayin!

    • Vogue Living says:

      Thanks for taking the time to reply, Thuy. David agrees that Zuni isn’t “technically” in The Mission – please note that he writes, If anywhere in San Francisco has been doing exactly that it is the 30-year-old Zuni Café, a beloved institution that no map would say is technically in the Mission (but which is part of mine).

  4. Felinous says:

    There was a large bohemian and underground subculture for decades before, with many affordable cafes, etc. A college, numerous art galleries, record labels, video and movie spaces, Lesbian bars. These people didn’t avoid it!!

  5. La Mission says:

    If “a centre for original thought and eccentric enterprise” means a place developing novel and numerous ways to consume, I agree. If it means something that has to do with any sort of artistic or intellectual product, I disagree. Artists and intellectuals cannot afford $3000 for a one-bedroom apartment, and are more likely to appear in Oakland. The Mission is becoming, for better or for worse, a bedroom community for tech workers looking for ways to spend their app-money.

  6. you wish says:

    union made is in the castro. but im sure you already knew that.

  7. Lenny says:

    Good piece…Had the opportunity to spend a short stay in San Fran a couple years back and it is truly a fantastic, eclectic city unlike any other!

Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] Mission is having its moment in the sun. Vogue Living writer David Prior combines photos and writing, describing the Mission as San […]

  2. […] The article offers a very interesting, detailed take on the evolution of the Mission, accompanied by some great photos. There’s a lot more to the story than hipsters, coffee and the throngs of people at Dolores Park. Read the article in full here. […]

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