San Francisco in the fall: Take your mini-vacation now

San Francisco viewed from Hotel Vitale

San Francisco is the city of sights, though often enough, peered at through fog. But last weekend, I saw something remarkable: women in sundresses.

These carefree gals were practically prancing down the sidewalks, lavishing in the uncommonly warm temperatures and a particularly bright, clear day. I was there on a mini-vacation, treating myself to a bit of cosmopolitan culture away from my more rural Sonoma home, and while this time of year is often one of the best times to experience the city, I’d discovered the extra-special treat of absolutely perfect weather.

October and November are notoriously temperate – It’s a terrific time to rediscover San Francisco.

Where to stay: Hotel Vitale is celebrating its five-year anniversary as one of the city’s premier eco-lifestyle destinations (its slogan is “luxury, naturally”). The modern, elegant property on the Embarcadero offers waterfront views; my room showcased Treasure Island, the Bay Bridge, and picturesque passenger ferries crawling back and forth.

Standard rooms are more streamlined and stylish than opulent, though the bedding and cushy robes remind that we’re here to sink in and relax. If you plan on spending a lot of time cocooned inside (why? The city tempts just outside your door) it’s worth upgrading to a suite, for more spread-out space including sofas, and in some cases terraces and dining tables.

Bathing ritual awaits

Yet my time was better spent in the spa, an intimate retreat with just three treatment rooms and a rooftop patio set with soaking tubs. Start with a “bathing ritual,” which is a deep, soothing bath overlooking Mission Street. It’s an intriguing experience as you sip hot tea and nibble on fruit while sprawling naked in the burbling water high atop the downtown traffic, shaded from towering office building windows by screens of live bamboo.

For meals, Vitale’s signature restaurant Americano showcases the talents of chef Kory Stewart, in Italian farm-to-table dishes like artichoke hearts with baccala (salt cod) stuffing and Meyer lemon aioli; house-made Maine lobster and ham hock ravioli topped with a golden lobster zabaglione; and a New York steak over bone marrow and lemon risotto, dandelion greens and Barolo sauce. For a more casual bite, try the whimsical Margarita pizza with nopales (cactus), pickled jalapeno, Fontina cheese, cilantro, a sea-salt crust and a wedge of lime to squeeze over the top.

Bevande Fragole cocktail

When it’s time for a nightcap, indulge in Vitale’s signature Bevande Fragole. Artisan mixologist Ronaldo Colli crafts a Collins-style quaff of muddled strawberries, Aperol and Veev, splashed with lemon juice over ice, topped with a touch of soda and lemon garnish.

Where else to eat: The new Prospect restaurant is nearly next door, and a must-visit. This is the more casual concept from the team behind San Francisco’s acclaimed Boulevard (also a must-dine, and directly next door to Vitale). Partners Nancy Oakes, Pam Mazzola and Kathy King work with executive chef Ravi Kapur for a tribute to contemporary American cuisine in a contemporary setting that’s sophisticated with earth tones, natural fibers, reclaimed wood and artisan-crafted wrought iron chandeliers.

Prospect bar

The bar is particularly inviting, set at the front of the open room and tempting with creative, edible cocktails like the Candace (42 Below vodka, white wine, cantaloupe, vanilla and lime) plus nibbles like crispy pig trotters topped in Maine lobster relish, lobster aioli, summer squash and mint.

Then, move into the dining room (the booths are luxurious), for comfort-chic entrees like chicken roulade of cheddar grits, yellow wax and Blue Lake beans, pickled shallots and bacon in pioppini mushroom jus; or lamb loin paired with fingerling potatoes, purple artichokes, Marcona almond romesco, green olive, mint and tongue relish.

What to do: Just put on your walking shoes. With Vitale’s prime location on the Embarcadero, the neighborhood brims with both high-end and bargain shopping, street markets and sidewalk art shows or music performances. The Ferry Building is right across the street, with its cornucopia of food and culinary stores, while on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, the ship platform transforms into one of the state’s largest farmer’s markets.

Of particular note are the just-introduced heirloom tortillas from Steve Sando of the acclaimed Rancho Gordo store in Napa. They are crafted of prized heirloom corn that he is importing from Mexico (the starch is colored, too, in red, white, blue or purple, with heritage names like Maíz Blanco Iturbide, Maíz Rojo Nealtican and Maíz Azul Nealtican). The lacy-thin wraps are made by San Francisco’s legendary Las Palmas, and in their start, are being offered only at Sando’s booth at the main Saturday market.

Now is a good time to plan for holiday gift giving, by the way. If you stay at Hotel Vitale this month, you can also book a private shopping excursion with the prestigious boutique clothier Wilkes Bashford – ask your concierge for details.

Details: Hotel Vitale, 8 Mission Street, San Francisco, 415-278-3700,

Prospect, 300 Spear Street, San Francisco, 415-247-7770.

Rancho Gordo, products sold at multiple markets across the North Bay, 707-259-1935,

Tip: for the most relaxing mini-vacation, why stress with a drive into the city, and difficult, expensive parking? Pure Luxury offers door-to-door chauffeuring service in your own private Town Car.

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