Old-School Haunts: Give the Kids a Taste of Vintage SF

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With those ubiquitous construction cranes building new high-rises for the city’s expanding population, the face of San Francisco is changing dramatically. Each day trendy new restaurants, stores, and beguilements rise to the top of our must-do list. But true Bay Area kids should be schooled on old-school San Francisco. We’ve rounded up 10 classic SF locales that should be on your vintage SF bucket list. After all, you never know when one of these relics will disappear for good.

photo: torbakhopper via flickr 

The Japanese Tea Garden
Not only is The Japanese Tea Garden the oldest public Japanese garden in the United States but the tea house is reportedly the first place to serve fortune cookies in the US, at the turn of the century. The gorgeously landscaped gardens with an arched drum bridge, pagodas, stepping stone paths koi ponds and a Zen garden are both lovely and fun to explore and the tea house serves treats like green tea cheese cake, sweet rice cakes and cookies and Udon noodles and miso soup for the chilly Golden Gate park weather.

75 Hagiwara Tea Garden Dr.
Golden Gate Park
San Francisco, CA
Online: japaneseteagardensf.com

Musée Mécanique
This is the best place in San Francisco to spend a quarter. It’s called a museum, but it’s really an old-timey coin-op arcade pavilion full of odd curiosities, old fashioned slot machines, and a creepy fortune teller machine. You can wander through the place for free and check out over 200 items, all in their original working condition. For a few coins, you can play pin ball or watch strange mechanical dioramas that showcase macabre scenes like the 1906 earthquake and fire or a public execution. One particularly weird activity is trying to arm wrestle a very strong masked mechanical arm wrestler. For the more timid, there’s whack-a-mole, batting practice, classic video games and mechanical moving scenes of a carousel and a farm. Player pianos and turn-of-the-century hand cranked music boxes battle with beeping, buzzing and ringing in this one of a kind antique playland where kids get a gander of how youngsters entertained themselves in olden times.

45 Sausalito
Pier 41 at Fisherman’s Wharf
San Francisco, CA
Online: museemecaniquesf.com

Mitchell’s Ice Cream
Long before The Mission had 12 ice cream shops, there was Mitchell’s. This family-owned business was established in 1953 and continues to pack the sidewalk. Grab a number and wait outside with the crowd for your turn to choose from boring old delicious Chocolate Caramel Crackle or a purple cone made from purple yam. There are lots of Filipino tropical flavors but Macapuno—sweet, meaty coconut wins hands down. A good tip: buy a gallon from the freezer and you get to go to the front of the line.

688 San Jose Ave.
San Francisco, CA
Online: mitchellsicecream.com

Photo: Luis Villa del Campo via Flickr

City Lights Bookstore
This bookstore was opened in the heart of North Beach in 1953 by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter D. Martin, and was the unofficial clubhouse of Beat writers and the poets, artists and activists of the day. It has remained true to its mission and original vision (and independently owned), and it’s a great place to go to pick up some consciousness-raising kids’ and young adult books for your baby beatniks.

261 Columbus Ave.
San Francisco, CA
Online: citylights.com

High Tea at the Garden Court
Here’s the place to get your kids to take you on Mother’s Day. Get everyone gussied up to enjoy a fancy delancey signature tea in The Palace Hotel’s Garden Court dining room. The iconic room is the epitome of elegance. With its vaulted glass ceilings, crystal chandeliers and marble columns, this could be the ballroom where Cinderella met her prince. Instead, a traditional tea is served here on Saturday afternoons with silver service, China, savory sandwiches, petite sweet treats, scones, cream and house-made preserves. At $70 per person, this is a special occasion experience, where you will get to practice your raised pinky skills to the sound of live harp music.

The Palace Hotel
2 New Montgomery St.
San Francisco, CA
Online: sfpalace.com/garden-court

The Castro Theater
Registered as one of the city’s historic landmarks, The Castro movie palace is one of only a few remaining theaters from the 1920s still in operation. With the theater’s ornate art deco design, chandeliers and rococo detail, seeing a movie here becomes an exciting experience no matter what your seeing. 15 minutes before show time, the large Wurlitzer organ rises from the orchestra pit as the organist plays a timeless tune (often “San Francisco, open your Golden Gates…”). The film fare includes newly restored classic movies that are so much better to see on a big screen than in your living room. Especially fun for littles is attending one of The Castro’s special “Sing-Along” shows. If your kids know all the words, its highly probable that it’s on the schedule, from Moana to Mary Poppins, to, of course, Frozen. The theater provides appropriate things to pop, throw and wave along with the plot. Come in costume!

429 Castro St.
San Francisco, CA
Online: castrotheatre.com


The Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar
Skip the Rainforest Cafe and go to the real deal instead. Opened in 1945 within the Fairmont Hotel, this campy and yes, touristy lounge showers visitors in old-school Tropicana. The Polynesian-esque ambiance includes the Tonga Room’s epic rain showers every 30 minutes and a lagoon where a live band plays on a thatch-covered barge. Happy hour (Wed.–Fri., 5–7 p.m.) offers a sweet deal on food and drinks for the whole family, and bartenders are happy to whip up a colorful, fruity, booze-free concoction in a coconut for the kids.

The Fairmont Hotel
950 Mason St.
San Francisco, CA
Online: tongaroom.com

Shaw’s Candy Store
Folks who enter this 85-year-old mom-and-pop sweet shop will feel like a kid in a candy store—albeit one who has traveled back in time. This West Portal institution serves up Mitchell’s ice cream, homemade fudge, cotton candy and pretty much every other sort of candy. Behind the glass display cases are jars and jars of what we once called penny candy. There’s a great Pez collection, including super-sized Pez. Sure there are a plethora of new and delectable places to OD on sugar, but why not show the kids how things used to be done?

122 West Portal Ave.
San Francisco, CA

Photo: Erin Feher

Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory
You may have cracked open dozens or hundred of fortune cookies (depending on how much you like Chinese food) but most people have not watched a fortune cookie turn from a hot slab of circular dough into the folded sweet cookie that will tell you your future. The Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory has been supplying its cookies to nearby restaurants in Chinatown and all over the world since 1962. Its in teeny storefront down Ross Alley, which is the oldest alley in San Francisco and was once known for gambling and brothels. Today you can see murals of Chinese American street life. Where do the fortunes come from? One of the employee’s grand-daughter told us that retired Stanford professors write them. Drop in and enjoy free sample of the flat fortune cookie, hot from the press!

56 Ross Alley
San Francisco, CA

What other old school haunts are a must-see for kids? Let us know in the comments below. 

–Erika Milvy