Though we were in California for five nights on our trip out west two weeks ago, we stayed in Berkeley while in the Bay Area and only allotted a few paltry hours for bopping around San Francisco. Given that I spent four years living there, covering every restaurant and bar opening within the seven square-mile peninsula, this stressed me out to no end. How on Earth was I to even begin to eat my way through the delicious city, visit my old haunts and make up for lost time by discovering all that’s opened since I left in 2011?
The short answer: There was simply no way. The long answer: But I could cram in as many flavors as possible via an Avital tour.
I’ve been on a few food walking tours in the past; among them, Savor Seattle, Bulldog Tours in Charleston and, of course, Walk Eat Nashville. Prior to that trifecta of great experiences, I never fancied myself much of a day tour kind of person.
My friend Akila, who owns Atlanta Food Walks—which I’ve yet to try, but believe me it is on my list—told me about Avital Unger’s San Francisco-based company and suggested I check it out sometime. Sometime came sooner rather than later, as I knew I’d be parachuting into the Bay Area for a quick blink-and-you’ll-miss-me visit.
Even more perfect was that our lone day in San Francisco fell on a Friday, the day her tour always explores the Mission, one of my very favorite neighborhoods chock full of the city’s best murals, tacos aplenty and other Latin-inspired fare.
Our departure time was scheduled for 11am, which was perfect: We could eat a light and early breakfast at the hotel and then give our stomachs time to build up a solid state of hunger.
But first, we took our time driving into the city seeing as we were up before the sun thanks to our internal clocks being permanently set on Central Standard Time and swung by Yerba Buena Island to check out the skyline and make sure it was just as we left it.
It was indeed, and it was also every bit as windy as I remember the Bay Area being, so we moved along and spent the remainder of our time until the tour began driving through the Haight, Hayes Valley and up to Bernal Heights, one of the highest spots in the hilly city with a fantastic vantage point to boot.
Of course, as luck would have it, the rain started coming down, first slowly and then with a little more gumption, just as we were moseying on back down the hill.
I didn’t have a proper rain jacket—it rarely rains in the Bay Area, particularly at this time of year—but being in San Francisco meant I had a light jacket and some tennis shoes, so I put them both on as we headed to our meeting place at the Women’s Building (also, funny enough, the site of where I spoke at Women’s Travel Fest last year).
Our guide, Maddie, was bubbly and fun. There were only two others in our group, so we got to know each other quickly before heading out on foot in the direction of our first stop of the day: Mission Cheese.
This cheese shop opened right around the time I left in 2011, so I’d never been there before. We sampled the Estero Gold Reserve from California’s Valley Ford Creamery and goat cheese from Avalanche Cheese Company, both paired with a Chocolate Hazelnut Porter from Heretic Brewery (so much yum). While there, we had a cheese chat with cheesemonger Alex—seriously, in my next life, I would like to earn a title such as his—and learned about how the tiniest of things such as elevation affect the kind of milk the cows produce and the overall taste of the cheese.
I quickly gathered that this wasn’t so much a food “tour” as a “progressive dining experience.” Avital prefers to think of it as “storytelling through food,” a far more curated event where tables at some of the top restaurants in town are reserved, guests are seated once they arrive, and they get to hear and learn the stories behind the people making the food. Best of all: no lines!
The second of our four stops was Tacolicious, where I’d dined before but was more than happy to go back. Baja-style fried Pacific Cod taco paired with a Mucho Gusto and Pasiòn margarita. SVV, who told his mom from a young age “I don’t have a sweet tooth, I have a taco tooth,” got all cat-with-heart-eye emojis when the platters of chips, salsa, guacamole and tacos were laid out before us, family-style.
Word on the street is that the tacos are so good here, they’re even opening an outpost in Mexico!
Our “main course” was down the way at La Cumbre, where we not only got to gorge on a classic Mission Style Burrito, but we got a master’s course in Burrito-ology courtesy of the owner, Eddie.
This was one of SVV’s San Francisco-raised family’s favorite taquerias, but I’d somehow escaped ever going there before, and boy was that mistake. It was the best burrito of my life, and that Eddie is a total character. If you ever pop in and see him behind the corner, ask him to tell you a story. He’s full of them, including the TV shows that have filmed there and famous faces like President Obama and Anthony Bourdain, who are fans of his family-owned, 44-year-old establishment.
The afternoon ended all too quickly at Bi-Rite Market, where we had freshly picked strawberries, chatted with the store manager Fergus, randomly ran into my friend and former Semester at Sea co-worker Kat, and stocked up on artisan chocolate to bring back home with me (it lasted through the end of my subsequent week in South Dakota and then was gone, TBH).
Then, it was across the street to Bi-Rite Creamery, which couldn’t have been more perfect as I’d already planned a post-tour visit to the iconic ice cream shop for their famed salted caramel ice cream (probably my favorite ice cream in the world, a term I don’t use lightly).
So Maddie saved me time by preventing me from making an extra stop. It was also the first time I’ve ever been to Bi-Rite when the line wasn’t out the door and wrapped around the corner, so what I’m saying is either visit via an Avital Tour or on another random Friday mid-afternoon when it’s raining.
In all, Avital’s was one of my favorite tours I’ve taken, ever, food-themed or not. It was informative—I wrote more than a dozen guidebooks on California, not to mention countless magazine articles and learned so much about the history of the Mission—it was fun, it gave me an up-close look at some of the coolest murals in town and, best of all, it was damn tasty.
Prices are $84 for food only or $102 if you include the alcohol pairings (you’d be silly not to get the full experience, don’t you think?). Given that I easily spend that per night when I go out for dinner, I thought this was great value for the amount of food and drink we each received. Each tour route also has a dozen or so stops in rotation, so you won’t necessarily repeat this exact route. I love that about the concept: It’s fun just showing up and not having any idea where you’re going!
I also left the tour pretty full—not uncomfortably so, but I definitely didn’t need to eat again until dinnertime. It was the perfect pace, the perfect number of stops and the perfect portion sizes at that.
Naturally, the moment our tour was over—literally—the rain stopped. But then at least we got to enjoy a sunny drive down the Pacific Coast Highway to Santa Cruz, where we were meeting the VV clan for the next leg of our California vacation.
But my stomach will also remain in San Francisco. I’m already looking forward to joining in on the North Beach tour next time I’m in town, not to mention exploring LA via my stomach on Avital’s newly launched Los Angeles experiences in Venice Beach and Downtown LA. Who’s with me?
But first, I need to lose the five pounds that seems to have taken up residence around my mid-section these past couple weeks. Still? #WorthIt