The NorCal Explorer

Some of my photos are now for sale at ImageKind.

Nature Index
(My hiking and camping adventures in Northern California.)

Culture Index
(NorCal cities, highways, restaurants, museums, architecture, historic attractions, vintage neon signs, roadside attractions, etc.)

Monday, June 16, 2014

Interesting Eateries of San Francisco: It's Tops Coffee Shop

20140615_1281

Oh, It’s Tops Coffee Shop! You are absolutely perfect, with your wooden booths and ceiling, lunch counter and stools, and vintage neon sign! Where have you been all my life?

Oh . . . right there on Market Street. All my life. And a few decades before my existence to boot. Well . . . why doesn’t anybody inform me of these things?!?!?! Maybe my friends just don’t want me to be happy.

20140615_1073

Luckily there’s San Francisco Heritage, and their Legacy Bars & Restaurants program, which is how I belatedly discovered this totally classic and completely charming eatery in the Hayes Valley neighborhood of San Francisco. I heard of the program when contacted by San Francisco Heritage for permission to use some of my photos--7 of which now appear in the handy little map/pamphlet they have published with 100 legacy eating and drinking establishments in it. You can see my growing collection of photos from those businesses here.

20140615_1042

But back to my new love--It’s Tops opened in 1935 when, unbelievably, it was much smaller than it is now. There was no separate kitchen and dining area then, according to the restaurant’s website. The luxury of such separation had to wait until an expansion into an adjoining business space “about a decade’ later. And the lovely neon sign dates from then as well.

The menu offers your basic diner fare, but has some fun twists--like the various combinations you can get for your pancakes involving chocolate chips, peanut butter, bananas, and whipped cream. And they take the “coffee shop” thing seriously, serving up espresso drinks and an espresso milkshake, which I can’t wait to get back and try sometime.

20140615_1122

My cheeseburger, Dick’s Double, and onion rings were quite tasty, as were my daughter’s chocolate chip pancakes. And I had no problem finding parking right nearby--although I think next time we go, we will ride the trolley to get there, since it runs down Market Street right in front of the place.

And hopefully there will be many, many next times. I’m not sure how I managed to go so long without being aware of the existence of this place, but now that I do know of it, I am going to try to make up for all those years of neglect.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Coachella Valley's Shields Date Garden

20130515_2988

Palm Springs: a luxurious resort community with ideal weather, or a scorching hot desert unfit for humanity? From what little I had gleaned from passing references in pop culture, I wasn't sure exactly what to expect when I had the opportunity to visit the town and the surrounding communities of the Coachella Valley in Southern California last May.


It turns out it's a bit of both. The warm weather makes it a popular vacation resort in the winter, but in the summer temperatures can reach a withering 120 degrees. The natural desert landscape is barren, but a large aquifer, fed by the snow melt from nearby mountain ranges, allows for irrigation and such extravagances as the man-made lake and indoor/outdoor boat taxi at the JW Marriott Desert Springs Resort in Palm Desert, where we were staying.

20130519_3618
JW Marritott

This combination of intense sunshine, hot weather, and abundant water makes the Coachella Valley ideally suited for date palms. Which are different, in case you didn't know, from coconut-bearing palm trees. Don't feel bad—I didn't know before my trip either.

Why did I become interested in date palms? It was the giant knight with “Since 1924” on his shield, beckoning to the 1950 visitor center/retail outlet/theater/cafe at Shields Date Garden in Indio, about 23 miles southwest of Palm Springs. You can learn everything you ever wanted to know, but were afraid to ask, about the “sex life of the date” in the old movie theater, as well as much of the history of Shields Date Garden and date palm cultivation in the Coachella Valley.

20130515_3018
A Knight

For $5, one can tour the garden where Floyd Shields used to give talks about the process of date cultivation. Later he made a recording of himself and set up a theater for a slideshow, which he playfully titled “Romance and Sex Life of the Date.” The free film that plays there now excerpts portions of that original recording.

20130515 Romance Theater
Romance Theatre

Date palms are not native to the area—the California fan palms (Washingtonia filifera) that line the main thoroughfare along old CA-111 (now Business Route 111) in Palm Springs are. But date-producing palm trees were imported by federal agricultural researchers in 1890 (according to Wikipedia), and today the Coachella Valley produces 95% of the dates consumed in the US (http://ucrtoday.ucr.edu/2397). There's even an annual National Date Festival held in Indio each winter! (See http://www.datefest.org/ for more information.)

After getting all jazzed up on the fascinating history of the date in the theater, I went date crazy in the cafe at Shields Date Garden. I got the date burger with a salad topped with dates and a date milkshake. The date burger was an interesting novelty, but date shakes are the real deal, and are quite popular in the Coachella Valley. They make it a little bit differently at Shields than other locations, using their date crystals, rather than fresh dates. The result is that it has the date flavor, but not chewy bits of date like I found in the shake I got from Hadley's on my way out of the area.

20130515 Shields Signature Date Burger
Date Burger

If you can venture out of the air-conditioned comfort of your hotel, I heartily recommend that you try one. And don't just take it from me, take it from the giant knight who has been beckoning to drivers along CA-111 for more than 60 years. While I'm sure date shakes are delicious wherever you drink them, wouldn't yours be even better when enjoyed on a 1950s stool next to the Romance Theatre?

20130515_3109

About Me

My Photo

I love to learn about, visit, photograph, research, and write about everything that is interesting, unique, and historical about Northern California, and wherever else I should be fortunate enough to find myself.  I've spent many years scouring the roadside in my little car for interesting subjects and walking down hiking trails in the Sierra Nevada and along the coast to get to know the wonder that is Northern California.  I share most of this via photos on Flickr, and as much as time permits me to on my blog, the NorCal Explorer.  Fine art prints of my photos are for sale on Imagekind.