Civic Center

Date Night: A Night at the San Francisco Symphony and Dinner in Hayes Valley

Wednesday December 7, 2011

Date nights are fun, even (and maybe particularly) if you’re in a committed relationship. For one night, you have an excuse to kick off your chucks and put on your big girl heels. And maybe even wear a dress. I know. It is getting fancy up in here.

This date night takes you through the posh Hayes Valley, for shopping and dinner at Bar Jules. Follow that up with some curbside ice cream courtesy of Smitten Ice Cream. Then, the San Francisco Symphony itself in the beautiful Davies Symphony Hall.

Date Night: A Night at the San Francisco Symphony and Dinner in Hayes Valley


Recommended Itinerary (6 hours)

1. Get to Hayes Valley
2. Shopping on Hayes Street
3. Dinner at Bar Jules
4. Stop in for a scoop at Smitten Ice Cream
5. Attend a performance by the San Francisco Symphony
6. Head home


What you’ll need:

1. Reserved tickets to the San Francisco Symphony
2. If you’re driving, a reserved event parking spot
3. A reservation at Bar Jules or a restaurant of your choosing — restaurants will be booked early for the pre-Symphony seating



1. Get to Hayes Valley


Hayes Valley, geographically in central SF, is both easy and troublesome to get to. It’s accessible from Union Square on either BART (Civic Center station) or the MUNI Metro (Van Ness station).  Both let out on mid-Market, a neighborhood that’s dodgy even in full daylight. You’ll pass numerous homeless folks rolled up in blankets, sleeping over grates, or generally down-and-out folks that may or may not be on drugs. It’s not dangerous as much as it is seedy.

Then you have the 49, 47, and 22 MUNI buses, which stop close enough but are some of the most uncomfortable buses to ride in the city. (See How to Ride the Bus, How to Ride the MUNI Metro, and How to Ride Bart.)

If you’re driving, it’s conveniently located right at the entrance/exit to the Central Freeway (more on that later). I would HIGHLY RECOMMEND splurging the $15 for event parking at the Civic Center Garage or Performing Arts Garage.  You can park for 3 hours before the performance and pick up your car up to two hours after the performance. It’s a steal.


2. Shopping on Hayes Street


Once you’ve made it through desolate Civic Center, Hayes Street glows like a jewel. I think it sucked all the glam of the surrounding neighborhood to deposit it all on one street. For two blocks along Hayes, each and every storefront is selling sparkling chandeliers, polished silver accents, modern office supplies, gilded mirrors and pops of preppy pinks, greens, and yellows. If Kate Spade made disco balls, you’d find them here.





It’d be easy to write off Hayes Valley as just another chic San Francisco neighborhood. Its history is much more colorful. Originally called Happy Valley, it was home to strawberry fields and a seasonal (and malarial) creek, it’s sandy terrain absorbing all the runoff from the nearby hills. By the industrial revolution, it was home to furniture and textile factories, where factory girls spent their lunch hour playing the lottery at soda pop shops.





In the 1950s, the dawn of the automobile brought the Trafficsway Plan, which would have added 10 highways to San Francisco. Planners got as far as I-101, I-280, the Embarcadero Freeway and the Central Freeway before San Francisco residents revolted. It’s odd to think that city planners thought it would be a good idea to put in a double-decker, elevated freeway right through the middle of a neighborhood, but I guess it was a different time.





From the 1970s through the 1990s, the neighborhood was home to, as a local resident so delicately put it, “ clouds of crack smoke, used condoms littering the ground, doorways used as bathrooms, hookers overdosing and getting beat up.” When Loma Prieta hit in 1989, the portion of the Central Freeway bisecting Hayes Valley was so severely compromised that portions of it had to be shut down and demolished.

Auto enthusiasts wouldn’t go down without a fight though– Hayes Valley had to wrestle that 1600ft stretch of freeway out of their cold, dead hands. It was finally completely dismantled in 2003, FOURTEEN YEARS after the earthquake hit.





The neighborhood transformed from skid row to prepster overnight. Just think, it only took 60 years and a 6.9 magnitude earthquake to undo the effects of poor urban planning.

Which brings us back to the sparkles. I can and do spend hours walking through all of the stores here. My favorites include Plantation (beautiful home goods), minimal (Scandinavian home decor),  and Cisco Home (thick wood tables and white couches). There are also tons of clothing boutiques for men and women. I just tend to focus on the decorating stores.




3. Dinner at Bar Jules


There are dozens of restaurants to choose from in Hayes Valley, and we opted for the adorable Bar Jules. Candy-colored patio furniture and a ransom letter-esque sign out front obscure the sophisticated restaurant inside. The menu changes daily and is written on a chalkboard – in somewhat hard to read cursive. The price alongside each item will help you figure out what is an appetizer versus an entrée.

We decided to share an appetizer – an incredibly crispy, whole white fish (hey, I was on a date! I can’t memorize everything!) that had been salted and fried, over a bed of potatoes and scrambled egg.  I’m sure the menu made it sound fancier than that, but the egg, it was scrambled. I had to debone the fish tableside, with the back of a soup spoon. It’s one of my hidden skills. I’m very useful at Chinese restaurants. The fish was thin, so we mostly tasted the fried coating, which is really the point with fried food, isn’t it? The dish was delicious and we thought it’d be super great alongside a Bloody Mary at brunch.

My entrée was less successful – seared tuna with olives and Mediterranean medley of vegetables, over a bed of broccolini. (Again, I’m rehashing this from my wine-deluted memory. Don’t call the blog authorities on me if it was actually broccoli rabe.) The cut of tuna was full of sinew. It was actually hard to eat. You gotta trim that part off, people. The vegetables were tasteless, which is almost heresy in San Francisco cuisine. I’m not sure how you make olives tasteless, but there you go.

Dave’s entrée was much more successful – pork shoulder over polenta with grilled red peppers. It was rich and hearty, and the pork shoulder just melted into pieces. He basically treated the plate like a trough.

The real highlight of our meal, though, was the service. Truly outstanding and warm service. The hostess seemed to genuinely care about how our meal was going. The bartendress slid us over some desert wine, specially paired for each of our desserts, with a nod (I think trying to make up for a table mix up that neither Dave nor I even cared about.) They were wonderful.

We would recommend this restaurant for those who are picky tastes, want a hearty meal, and want a cute/hip environment with friendly service. If you crave something more adventurous, you might want to go elsewhere. (OH! I hate saying that, you guys, but it’s true!)




4. Stop in for a scoop at Smitten Ice Cream


After dinner, head back through Hayes Street to Octavia. I found out about Smitten Ice Cream when David Lebovitz paid them a visit back in September and wrote a lauditory blog post about them. When David Lebovitz speaks, you really should listen.  This might be the finest of the fancy-ice-cream-shops that are all the rage in SF right now.





Smitten Ice Cream is run out of a trailer (I don’t know what else to call it) on Octavia between Hayes and Linden Streets. It has no indoor seating, but Eater recently reported that they’re going to enclose the space and provide blankets, which is BRILLIANT.

They boast that each scoop of ice cream is made on the spot, and they aren’t lying. Using liquid nitrogen churners, you literally watch them pour in cream, and a few minutes later, it’s ice cream.





This all results in luscious, smooth, creamy ice cream. The flavors are dead-on. My Earl Gray ice cream tasted exactly like Earl Gray. Their caramel is dark and smoky, the way it should be. Their website has a sneak peak at their upcoming flavors, and I can’t wait to try them.




5. Attend a performance by the San Francisco Symphony


I’m not sure which is more fantastical – the San Francisco Symphony or Davies Symphony Hall. Particularly this time of year, when there is a 15 foot Christmas tree in every other window.

You’ll enter Davies Hall on Grove street. It has all the elements of a fabulous concert hall – crystals, mirrors, sweeping staircases, so much glass, marble, and a plush, deep red carpet. The concert hall is ensconced in a cylindrical glass shell, overlooking the glowing City Hall rotunda. It’s very pretty.

There are plenty of tables along the window, if you’d like to have a glass of wine before the show. Whatever you do, don’t assume that an open door to the concert hall means that you can head to your seats. I made that mistake, and next thing you know, I’m back in high school and the hall monitor is AGHAST that someone is trying to break into the symphony EARLY. She stood by that door and kept an eye on me for the rest of the night.

We chose to see “MTT conducts Schubert.” I wouldn’t blame you for thinking that MTT is a corporate sponser; I surely did when I bought the tickets, hoping we wouldn’t be inundated with free pens and mouse pads. But, no, that’s the hipcool name conductor Michael Tilson Thomas chooses to go by. I’m not sure how far his cult of personality extends beyond Davies Symphony Hall, but inside, he’s kind of a big deal. So remember, MTT: a person, not a telecomm giant.

We settled in to our balcony seats and had a great time. The auditorium is intimate and well-designed; I’m not sure there is a bad seat in the house.

In the age of auto-tune, it’s remarkable to sit in a music hall and listen to a solitary violin, amplified into the bleachers through shear musicianship and acoustical engineering. How amazing must that feel for the violinist?




6. Head home


Well, you guys, date night is nearly over. It is T minus 30 minutes before you’re back in your yoga pants.

Outside of Davies Symphony Hall, stay on Grove Street and walk past City Hall to get back to BART and MUNI. You’ll likely be walking with a throng of people exiting the symphony on the way to BART and MUNI, so it won’t feel unsafe.

Good night, and I hope you had a refined — but still fun — night out on the town.




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