In anticipation of this month’s day of activities, I had the best haircut of my life at Dogpatch Barber and Shave. Not by my own reckoning but, more importantly, according to my wife, who, as she’s known me since I was 12, could be considered an authority on the subject.
I’ve spent the last decade and half mostly looking like a floppy-haired goofball, unable to bind myself to an adult hairstyle. Jan Galang, one of four barbers at 2632 Third Street, had the foresight to disregard my instructions to continue my shaggy dog look, and instead sculpted the mess atop my head into a cleaned-up, delicately textured expression of seemingly natural masculinity.
Dogpatch Barber and Shave serves both men and women, though Yelp reviews suggest male customers outnumber female ones. At $40 a cut, prices aren’t low, but the place has a neighborhood vibe that doesn’t feel excessively professionalized. It seems like the type of spot where the barbers’ friends might stop in for a conversation on a day when they aren’t getting a haircut.
Sporting my new style, I started my day in earnest. Although Dogpatch and Potrero Hill are indelibly linked in San Francisco’s popular imagination – more closely even than other pairs of adjacent neighborhoods that aren’t separated by a grade – I sometimes wonder how often the residents of the former have the energy to trudge up the 18th or 20 Street overpasses from Third Street to enter the Hill’s slightly sleepier world. Still, the communities make sense together precisely because of their differences: where Dogpatch is the exciting Wild West boomtown of technology innovation and urban redevelopment, Potrero Hill is the idyllic, comforting hamlet of smiling schoolchildren and Victorians. More specifically, if the Hill’s 18th Street commercial corridor is like an adorable small town, the businesses around 20th Street create the atmosphere of a remote mountaintop village. Yet there’s plenty to do up there; does the rest of the neighborhood know about it?
By elevation, the highest commercial enterprise in Potrero Hill is Chiotras Grocery, 858 Rhode Island Street, between 20th and Southern Heights Boulevard. It’s one of four corner markets on or above 20th that make life a lot more convenient for Hill dwellers. Where the other three crowd together in the east, Chiotras Grocery sits alone at the western summit. Even though it’s been around for nearly a century, it comes across as a local secret. It’s the only grocery store on the Hill’s north slope that has a deli counter, in addition to shelves of household staples, snacks, and beverages. For lunch, I often pick up a sandwich there, usually with Toscano salami, soppressata, mortadella, or some other exotically rustic Italian meat.
Chiotras has a small outdoor wooden deck in back where you can eat. If you don’t mind walking a little farther, you might instead take your sandwich to the Potrero Hill Community Garden, 752 San Bruno Avenue, where amidst 51 small plots of fruits, vegetables, flowers, and chickens, a couple picnic tables invite visitors to enjoy the splendor. My earliest Potrero Hill memory involves the Community Garden: I was a
tourist in San Francisco a few years ago when I visited 18th Street to experience the blog-famous brunch at Plow. Discovering that the wait would be about 36 hours, I decided to wander the neighborhood, and found my way to the oasis of sunny Mediterranean lushness at 20th and San Bruno. Marveling at the view over the Mission to Twin Peaks, I imagined what it’d be like to live in one of the lovely nearby homes on this tranquil hilltop and daily tend my own plot of dirt and vegetation clinging to a cliff above Highway 101.
I didn’t think it’d ever happen, but my Potrero Hill fantasy revolved around the garden, and it stuck with me. Now that I somehow actually live here, though, I haven’t even put my name on the (lengthy) waitlist for membership. In my Hill reality, I don’t know the first thing about gardening, and am too lazy to learn. But the most wonderful thing about this exclusive-looking fenced green space, which must know that it’s one of the most beautiful locations in the whole City, is that its retained its modesty: it openly welcomes all of us who don’t quite deserve to be there. Picnickers are common, yet, owing to the elevation, not so common that you have to wait in line for a seat on the wooden bench.
My next favorite place on the Hill’s north slope is the Potrero Hill Recreation Center, 801 Arkansas Street. This park, a popular site for children’s birthday parties and barbecues, is a miracle, in part for its no-wait tennis courts, where players enjoy expansive Bay views as much as the game itself. Even more impressive is the basketball gymnasium. Where else can one find so much free open gym time on a full-sized indoor court? The schedule varies month to month, but typically, from Tuesday to Friday you can find pickup games around lunchtime and again between six and nine in the evening. On Saturdays, if no other event is scheduled, pickup runs from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
There’s usually a good crowd. What may begin as five-on-five on the regulation court will transition into two crosswise four-on-four games as more players arrive. Relative to most of the regulars, I’m pretty bad at basketball, but no one seems to mind. Thanks to its location at the top of Arkansas, the Rec Center is one of the only places where the largely separate universes of the Hill’s north and south slopes truly converge. Though generally all-male, it’s otherwise a genuinely diverse bunch of teenagers, young professionals, middle-aged dads, and oldsters who still have a trick or two up their sleeve. There are still a few photographs of O.J. Simpson posted on the walls.
Lest you risk altitude sickness, head back down to sea level for dinner. If you’re trying to keep your finger on the pulse of the local restaurant scene, go to Dumpling Time, 11 Division Street, which opened last spring in the Design District. What sounds like a Richmond hole-in-the-wall is in fact the trendiest operation yet from Kash Feng’s Omakase Restaurant Group, which has already set up a mini-empire of Asian cuisine in the area with Japanese restaurants Omakase, Okane, and Live Sushi Bistro. Here, Feng expands his range and narrows his focus. Dumpling Time’s recipes come primarily from Chinese cuisine, but despite a small selection of vegetable side dishes, it’s really all about that dough, from har gow to xiao long bao.
The dining experience at Dumpling Time is a little weird. Wait times are long on weekdays and weekends alike, for lunch and dinner, which means standing outside beneath a speaker blaring pop music and a sporadically functioning heat lamp before entering a crowded and incredibly noisy interior. The service is scattered – my dessert buns showed up in the middle of the meal – and the dumplings, which cost between $1 and $1.50 each, are expensive. But they may be the best and widest array of dumplings in San Francisco, with plump, tasty, distinctly varied fillings encased in fresh, substantive wrappers. There’s certainly nothing else like it in our neck of the woods.
I recommend the seafood gyoza, which tastes like it ought to be served on the coast of Maine; and the beautifully arranged vegetarian Xian dumpling, which could almost qualify as a salad. The white-hot popularity of Dumpling Time makes sense. It signifies that Showplace Square has “arrived” as a considerable neighborhood rather than just a vaguely re-conceptualized interstice between Potrero Hill and South-of-Market, known only to developers. The first step to relevance in today’s San Francisco is having a restaurant so good that it inspires as much enmity as it does affection.