Insider tips: Author Michelle Tea
For 15 years, San Francisco author Michelle Tea has spearheaded Sister Spit, a loose collaborative of roadtripping queer writers and performers that brings alcohol- and vegan meatloaf-fueled evenings of cabaret-styled provocation to college campuses, community centers, and art spaces around the country. This fall, venerable SF publisher City Lights will launch an entire line of Sister Spit Books, to be curated by Tea, whose own past novels, including the lesbian landmark Valencia bode well for what promises to be an edgy, engaging imprint. We’ll keep SF Agenda readers informed about local authors and events related to Sister Spit, but while we wait for news, we asked Michelle to answer our Insider Tips questionnaire about some of her recommendations for SF visitors and locals.
The GLBT Historical Society. Their archives are open to the public, and contain really incredible artifacts – Harvey Milk’s Levi’s, Sylvester’s sequined stage costumes, a bar stool from the legendary ‘female impersonators’ nightclub Finnochio’s. They have the entire collection of every On Our Backs ever published (who knew Dorothy Allison was writing for them at the start?! Not me!). One gentleman left the Society a collection of his lovers’ pubic hair, all neatly collected in little glass jars and labeled with their names. It’s really a fun and vast collection, and they also run a storefront museum in Castro on 18th Street that shows different aspects of the archives with cultural context. San Francisco is really lucky to have this institution!
What’s the best spot to take in a view of the city?
Probably the view from the top of Dolores Park. The park itself curves out beneath you like this pretty green bowl, and then beyond that is the city. It’s a great, inspiring view, especially on a sunny day. At night I like the view of the waterfront when you’re driving back over the Bay Bridge. It looks so charming and exciting, old fashioned somehow with the ferry building, but totally not, with the giant buildings.
You are one of the best dressed literary ladies around. Where do you like to shop.
For clothes, in the Mission, I like the Candy Store Collective and The Bell Jar. For vintage Stone Pony and Painted Bird are great and for actual thrifting, Community Thrift and Thrift Town. In a city of mad thrifters you can still find treasures at these places! I also love high-end consignment and discount stores, and good places for that are Sui Generis and in the Castro (second hand stuff you can’t afford the first time around) [Ed.: Honey, love that store, but I can't afford most of their stuff the second time around either!], and My Roomate’s Closet in the Marina (where Philip Lim and Costume National go to die).
For interesting ephemera I like 826 Valencia (which is like a fun house on top of being an actual store, where one can open drawers and discover dioramas, or get themselves swabbed. That would be a trap door of mop heads tumbling down on you.) and Paxton Gate and Viracocha, which is like a beautiful art installation you can buy earrings at.
For books I love Dog Eared Books, which are new and used with a fantastic remainder table. And City Lights is the best is like being in a museum and wonderful bookstore at the same time. There is so much history, and then shelves of the best edgy and political work that is out right now. A whole alcove dedicated to zines and chapbooks, and a whole floor dedicated to poetry! Unheard of!
What would you tell visitors are San Francisco’s “must eats”?
I am obsessed with the tacos and burritos from Pancho Villa on 16th Street in the Mission, in particular their chili verde chicken, which is stewed and delicious. I like to get ‘baby burritos’, which are slightly smaller version of the giant ones that can be a bit too much. You can pick spinich or chili tortillas, and there are tons of bean options, like 10 different agua frescas and a giant salsa bar. Also, for a really special and slightly otherworldly dining experience, check out Outerlands, in the Outer Sunset just blocks from the ocean. It looks like it was made by ocean-dwelling gnomes, with driftwood and plants hung on rusting chains, and the food is really great.Their Sunday brunch is awesome, and the wait can be annoying but a few doors down is Trouble Coffee, a little shop that sells only three things – coffee, fresh young coconuts (they slice the top off for you) and thick slices of cinnamon toast. Get some caffeine and a snack to tide you over and browse overpriced but lovely hippie wares at The General Store. If it’s a nice day check out their backyard, which has a big old picnic table and a lovely little greenhouse.
And for the best, most extravagant meal of your life, splurge at Atelier Crenn, a Michelin-starred restaurant where a wildly talented and creative French chef serves up Asian-inspired dishes with the help of molecular gastronomy.The menu is a poem, and on my visit one of the desserts came with smoked fog. Yes, fog.
More food, drink, and—gulp—death, after the jump
Where would you guide folks for cocktail hour?
As a sober person, it’s really important that a bar knows how to whip up a mocktail that is so excellent that I won’t be jealous of my friends. The best one I’ve had was served up at the Hideout, which is a bar within a bar, located in the back room of Dalva on 16th Street in the Mission. Dalva serves a fantastic sangria, but if you walk through the bar into the back room there is another bar that is whipping up all sorts of creative, unusual and delicious beverages.
If you had $50 or more per person for a dinner (somewhere other than Atelier Crenn), where would you pick?
I’d probably take my $50 to Front Porch and get their giant creamy grits entree. Sometimes it comes with shrimp, sometimes with peas, sometimes with shrimp and peas. It is always amazing, and they have great fried chicken and hamburgers and also a vegan selection. And they will fix me up a special limeade in a mason jar. I love Southern food and Front Porch is always great (corn bread shaped like little ears of corn!) and also it’s really pretty and ambient. OR I would go to my other favorite restaurant, Pauline’s Pizza, which is easily the BEST pizza I have ever had in my whole life. They offer unusual toppings that totally work, like cherries or strawberries or meyer lemons. If you eat meat make sure you get the tasso because it is the best. They also make my favorite dessert ever, Butterscotch Pudding, which I thought sounded super boring til I tried a bite and now I am hooked. They also make their own ice cream and sorbet. The mint chocolate chip is so fresh it makes you realize you’ve never actually eaten real mint ice cream before, and the sorbets have flavors like mint cantaloupe that are dreamy.
And what if you had $15 or less per person?
For $15 I would hurry down to Hog Island Oyster Co. at the Ferry Building on one of their Happy Hours that happen on Mondays and Thursdays, and chow down on the best dollar oysters ever. I think they have dollar pints, too. Of course, you might get seduced by the most aesthetically beautiful (and delicious) clam chowder I’ve ever eaten, thus breaking your $15 budget, but it’s only money.
Where would you recommend visitors go in SF that they’d be unlikely to find in a guidebook?
The Columbarium. It ‘s the only non-denominational burial place still in use within San Francisco’s city limits, a relic from a time when the whole city beyond Divisidero Street was cemeteries (it was formerly part of the Odd Fellows Cemetery). It is a gorgeous building, baroque and neo-classical with a rotunda and stained glass windows, and it houses the remains thousands of people, including Harvey Milk. The glass niches are decorated very whimsically, with the ashes of indiviuals stored in martini shakers and cookie jars – it is not a somber or gruesome place at all. It’s like the senibilities of Peewee Herman or John Waters were incorporated into sort of castle. It really celebrates the lives of the people interred there. You can go there whenever you want, but if you can catch a tour by the caretaker Emmit Watson, don’t miss it. He is a fascinating person with an incredible story, and single-handedly restored the Columbarium from a neglected, spooky place filled with mold and pigeons and raccoons to the total grandeur that exists today (You can often find Emmit on the property even when not conducting a tour, and if you ask him questions he’ll gladly talk your ear off. Ask him about the ghosts!). If I had to die I would totally want to be interred at the Columbarium, but as I’m going to live forever I don’t have to think about such things.