Streets of San Francisco: Seaside sights and tasty delights on Judah Street

Judah Street sunset

Often tucked beneath a silky veil of fog, Judah Street, between 44th Avenue and the Great Highway in the Outer Sunset, is a hidden gem of foodie-approved eateries, communal spaces, and laid-back beach town vibes. While you might initially be drawn to the Sunset district to explore Ocean Beach, the western end of Golden Gate Park, or the Cliff House and Sutro Baths, there are plenty of reasons to stick around and discover the allure of this sliver of San Francisco. For this, the sixth installment of our Streets of San Francisco series, we journey to the land of last chances for refreshments, locavore dining, and people-watching where the San Francisco peninsula meets the great Pacific Ocean.

The human impact of the last century has entirely transformed this area once known as the "Outside Lands," an expanse of rolling sand dunes. Following the 1906 earthquake and subsequent fires (which consumed many of San Francisco's residences), these pristine dunes were the site of a housing boom that accelerated with the construction of the West Portal and Judah streetcar tunnels in 1917 and 1923, respectively, and by 1934, the majority of what we now call the Outer Sunset had been paved. In fact, the very Outer Sunset house where I've lived for the past five years was built during the boom, in 1931. 

Today, the "Outside Lands" are a thing of the past but, if you're lucky and very patient, you might be able to snag a table at Outerlands, a locally sourced, organic restaurant which opened in 2009. Outerlands is open for lunch and dinner Tuesday - Saturday, but it's their Sunday brunch that really, and I mean really, brings out the crowds. They open for business at 10 a.m., but if you want even a slight chance of eating before noon, you'll need to arrive an hour beforehand to add your name to the clipboard. While you wait, kick up your feet on rustic driftwood benches and relax in the Kickstarter-funded parklet built from salvaged wood and adorned with native plants. Tasty brunch favorites include the fried egg open-faced sandwiches and Dutch pancakes, available in both sweet and savory varieties. Outerlands also features San Francisco-based Sightglass coffee, drip-brewed, and served in an elegant glass carafe.

If waiting hours for breakfast is not your cup of tea, fear not -- just across the street is a little neighborhood joint called Sea Breeze Cafe. While lacking in Outerland's hipster vibes -- and let's be honest, for many of us, a lack of pretense is refreshing -- Sea Breeze consistently projects a family-owned, friendly atmosphere, and serves up classic and reliable fare. The chipotle benedict is my favorite, which is surprising since I'm not a big fan of hollandaise sauce. I think their chipotle-accented version is amazing though -- so much so that when I order something else, I always get a side of it for dunking the delicious Yukon gold potatoes that come with most breakfasts.

Next to Sea Breeze, you'll find Other Avenues, a worker-owned cooperative where I love to stock up on fresh, organic fruits and veggies, and bulk goods like rice, grains, coffee, and spices. They even have items like soap, shampoo, conditioner, and lotion available in bulk, so bring your empty bottles and save a few bucks while cutting down on plastic waste. If you're looking for a new treat to obsess over, don’t miss their organic dried cranberries. Juicy and bursting with flavor, the cranberries are apple juice-sweetened (sunflower oil is the only other additive), so they remain the delectable morsels they should be -- worlds apart from the hard and shriveled variety found in most stores. I have out-of-town friends who stock up on these by the pound when they come to visit. Seriously, they're that good.  

Take a break from eating to peruse General Store, a delightful hub of local artisan crafts and nifty odds and ends. While many of the handcrafted and vintage wares are understandably pricey, rest assured that this is a friendly, community space where window shopping is encouraged. Come in to admire the natural beauty of the store's architecture, and enjoy the greenhouse in the back, brimming with succulents, which are also for sale. You'll never see the same thing twice in this lovely shop, which was started by local artists, and wife and husband duo, Serena Mitnik-Miller and Mason St. Peter.

If a convenience store run is in order, skip the 7-11 and head to Western Sunset Market instead. This welcoming Korean family-run business has a deli with sandwiches, piroshki, and calzones, an impressive wine and chocolate selection, and an oddball assortment of other items like hats, socks, and sunglasses. The customer service is wonderful and, if you like kimchi -- a traditional Korean side dish made of fermented cabbage mixed with garlic, vinegar, chile peppers, and other spices -- be sure to try their homemade version. 

No day strolling through the Outer Sunset is complete without a visit to Java Beach. This coffee house, which also serves up a large selection of house baked goods, sandwiches, and salads, opened in 1993 and is now practically synonymous with Ocean Beach itself. All of their coffees are fair-trade and organic, and I especially like that they offer almond and rice milk, in addition to soy and cow. Grab a steamy cup of joe, or tea if that's more your style, and stay warm as you walk the dunes at Ocean Beach. 

Feeling inspired by the surfers you see riding the waves? Head to Mollusk Surf Shop (located one block from Judah, on Irving Street), where you'll find surfing necessities -- new and used surfboards, wetsuits, and accessories -- and much more. This cozy shop appeals to a wider clientele than just hardcore surfers with an indoor tree-house to admire, and a central lounge area to relax in while you thumb through their selection of funky art and music books. Mollusk is also home to a small gallery featuring the art of local woodworkers, visual artists, musicians, and craftspeople. Art show receptions and intimate concerts are hosted here, too. I always bring out-of-town friends to Mollusk, because they carry a wide selection of incredibly soft t-shirts that are printed with one-of-a-kind, mostly sea-themed, graphics. It's the perfect place to pick up a unique memento of your stay in the Bay. 

Beachcombing the strikingly beautiful but ceaselessly windy Ocean Beach has a way of making me ravenous, and Celia's by the Beach is just the place to warm up with hearty, home-style Mexican fare and first-rate margaritas. This family business opened in 1960, and is now managed by the grandchildren of Celia Lopez-Rodriguez. Enjoy the warm, inviting atmosphere and try not to fill up on the delectable chips and salsa while you wait for your meal. The combination plates are a great choice for indecisive types like me, as you can have both the enchilada and the chile relleno you were eyeing. I spent many of my formative years in Tucson, Arizona -- a place where Sonoran-style Mexican food is as abundant as the cacti -- so my standards are high, and Celia's never disappoints. As for the drinks, the Perfecto Margarita -- made with Tres Generaciones anejo tequila, fresh lime juice, simple syrup, and cointreau -- is a personal favorite, but there are plenty more to choose from; they even mix up an Organic Margarita (insert "you know you're in San Francisco when" joke here!).

Though the Outer Sunset is still largely overlooked as a hip destination spot (and to be honest, that's a big part of what I love about it), the inviting green spaces, sandy shores, and diverse assortment of family-run businesses make the misty adventure worth the trek. If you're looking for a sweet reprieve from the hustle and bustle of downtown, hop on the N Judah line, and come explore all the quirky, coastal charm the Outer Sunset has to offer. 

This story was written by Fiume Drummond Simnacher, Marketing + Communications Coordinator for Hostelling International's eight Northern California hostelsBorn in England, Fiume is a perpetual seeker of intercultural experiences, and has lived in Arizona, Argentina, and Nepal. She has called San Francisco home for the past five years.

Check out our map of spots to visit in the Outer Sunset.

If You Go 

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