It’s a tale of two cities: Detroit and San Francisco. Both hold out compelling attractions for visitors and residents alike.
My youthful years were spent in the western suburb of Wayne, Mich., and this town has much in common with the area in general. The roaring 1960s and 70s saw the population peak at 2,666,751 and tumble to 1,820,584 in 2010. While recent publicity takes the easy route and knocks the area, which has been hit with more than one recession over the past few decades, it retains a solid core of committed residents, uncommon architectural gems, world-class museums and ethnic influences from Native American and Irish to African American and Finnish.
There’s no doubt donuts and Coney Island-style hotdogs are signature diner fare across the region, but there is also Greek, Middle Eastern and Midwest meat and potatoes to be found. And fine dining is available in traditional haunts of upscale neighborhoods or at newbies such as the MGM Grand downtown, which brought in signature restaurants by Michael Mina and Wolfgang Puck.
Museums abound, with a few that are arguably among the country’s best: The Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village complex, Detroit Institute of the Arts, Motown Museum and Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.
Like other Midwest centers, Detroit is situated on waterfront, and in this case along the magnificent Detroit River joining Lake St. Claire to the north and Lake Erie on the southern end. The region is also dotted with lakes and the many tentacles of the Rouge River’s 126 miles.
Today, when I visit, I often schedule it to attend the North American International Auto Show in January, when I’m almost guaranteed to see snow; other years I shoot for September or October, to catch the fall colors. Hotels in the lively center near the new sports arenas, famous Fisher Theatre, Greektown nightlife and waterfront are luxurious and affordable. Try the Atheneum Suite Hotel, Detroit Marriott at Renaissance Center, Doubletree Suites by Hilton Detroit Downtown Fort Shelby, Hotel St. Regis and The Westin Book Cadillac Detroit. For convenience to Dearborn attractions, try The Henry Hotel, Autograph Collection or the Hyatt Regency Dearborn.
San Francisco, my adopted hometown near my current residence in Sausalito, have roots in working-class industries much like the auto industry in Detroit—Shipbuilding in Sausalito and fishing, coffee and nearly anything you could imagine in San Francisco over the years. Many of the factories for heavier industries have been replaced by offices for medical research, technology, insurance, magazines and websites.
Colorful, liberal, enchanting, loud, quaint, exciting, progressive, artsy, tech-happy and all the rest of the terms lobbed at the San Francisco Bay Area are correct. The geography is enough, but the open, inventive and loyal people are what keep the place alive even when the restaurants and clubs close so early. If you have an interest, anything imaginable, there’s probably a local support group for it.
The marquee attractions are too numerous (don’t miss Muir Woods) to mention. Hayes Valley, Polk Street and Belden Alley (in the faux French Quarter) all remain favorite neighborhoods to explore. SOMA, Rincon Center and area downtown adjacent to Embarcadero including the Ferry Building never fail to titillate the senses.
Music and theater connect the cities too. From Motown to the San Francisco Sound of the latter 1960s and early 1970s, and later the club music of Lower Haight and electronic and rap spin-offs from Detroit, music has marked the history of both areas. The San Francisco Symphony is easily also the best music club in town. For Americana, rock and other along with good sightlines, try the Great American Music Hall, The Fillmore and Warfield. More local fodder can be found at No Name in Sausalito or Bottom of the Hill, Red Devil Lounge, Make-Out Room and Café du Nord in San Francisco.
Stay at the Griffon, Harbor Court, Hotel Rex, Four Seasons, Le Meridien, St. Regis, Mandarin Oriental, Taj Campton Place or the Huntington Hotel.
Mexican – Papalote Mexican Grill, Colibri Mexican Bistro
Californian – Zuni, One Market, Coco 500, Lulu
French – Hyde Street Bistro, Gitane, La Folie, Jardiniere, Café Claude
Italian/Med – Kokkari, Farina, Delfina, Frantoio, Poggio, Perbacco