Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Urban frontiers in Austin and San Francisco

Michael Barnes, Out & About

Staff Writer
Austin 360

This city is Austin, only taller, denser and more diverse. No wonder we always feel at home here. Great cities come with singular attractions that never bore. We spent only one day in Baghdad by the Bay before heading east and north along California's blissful valleys. But what a day!

(Read more at austin360.com/outandabout.)

The shopping exception: Everyone collects something. For us, it is words and music. We keep our book collection lean these days, but we are slowly picking up CDs of rare material that others have abandoned. That's why one of our first stops in the Bay Area is always Amoeba, either in Berkeley, or, this time, in Haight Ashbury. Manned by dreadful, burned-out staff, but it's an empire of discarded music starting at $2.

The quiet place: The builders of the San Francisco Botanical Garden in Golden Gate Park took forlorn sand dunes and turned them into a land where you escape the city while knowing the city is nearby. I feel this way hiking along Austin's Barton Creek trail or in Wild Basin Preserve, but at Golden Gate, gardeners have planted samples from Mediterranean climates from around the world. We added the nearby free observation tower at the De Young Fine Art Museum, which opens up views of San Francisco's heart like no other high point.

The secret restaurant: Even though San Francisco supports hundreds of mouthwatering eateries, we always devote one meal to Le Charm, an unpretentious bistro in the SoMa district. This could be Chez Nous, Artisan or Justine's in Austin, but the twists on standard bistro fare here are so vigorous and the service is so civilized, Le Charm puts us supremely at ease after the jangle of travel.

The cultural spot: The San Francisco Opera is the country's second largest, after New York's Metropolitan. The War Memorial Opera House is grand in the most traditional style, although the seats are too narrow for the duration of something like Mozart's "Don Giovanni," splendidly sung on our only night here. (Our alternative would have been a jazz club like Yoshi's, but one apportions these experiences with care.)

The neighborhood walks: Like Austin, San Francisco is a city of scenes, of districts and neighborhoods, of distinct choices amid the chaotic wonder of street life. We visited a dear friend in what is known as Hayes Valley, chock full of candy-colored Victorians, newly gentrified to the point of hosting art galleries, odd restaurants and boutiques.

After the opera, we searched high and low for a spot to unwind, and eventually found it on a slowly upgraded stretch of Market Street, which, in columnist Herb Caen's day, was among the city's meanest streets. We discovered a tiny wine bar there called Pause, where the pourer treated us like visiting royalty.

In a real city, one can always find outposts of civilization on shifting frontiers. Head out of downtown Austin on foot in any direction and you'll discover something like Pause, a place where you, too, will count among the explorers.

mbarnes@statesman.com