Henri Lee’s Guide to San Francisco Bay Area, Presented by Watchonista

Henri Lee’s Guide to the San Francisco Bay Area, Presented by Watchonista

Following our city guide to Rome, we return stateside to showcase the charm of San Francisco, known as the “Gateway to California.” After spending time here, you’ll be sure to “leave your heart in San Francisco,” captivated by its timeless magic and beauty.

By Henri Lee

Every time I fly home and gaze out the window as the plane circles around San Francisco International Airport (SFO) before landing, I am filled with gratitude for the good fortune of calling the beautiful San Francisco Bay Area home.

Sunshine, ocean breeze, a vibrant cultural scene, endless outdoor activities, delicious culinary delights, and a global hub of cutting-edge technology – these are just a few of the treasures that make this region so unique and inviting.

San Francisco is the city where my wife and I first met and where our first child was born. I purchased our wedding rings from a local jewelry and watch store, thinking I would never need to go back. Funny how things turned out – many, many years later, I referred to the wedding ring as a purchase history to convince the salesperson to sell me a coveted Rolex!

When friends and relatives come to visit this city by the bay, I naturally take on the role of a tourist guide. The city and the extended San Francisco Bay Area are such dynamic and fast-paced metropolises that I often discover new and exciting places while entertaining guests. Today, you are my guest, and I am thrilled to share my favorite spots with you.

Watch Browsing and Shopping

In the land where the iPhone and Apple Watch were spawned, there is a strong community of mechanical watch lovers. To serve their growing needs, there are many watch stores and boutiques catering to various interests. These venues often become meeting places for local watch enthusiasts. Here are three recommendations I would suggest to out-of-town visitors who want to explore the watch scene.

Topper Fine Jewelers is a family-owned store in the charming town of Burlingame, south of San Francisco. It is an authorized dealer (AD) for many top watch brands, ranging from major names like Omega, Zenith, Breitling, Longines, Blancpain, Glashütte Original and Grand Seiko, to independent brands like H. Moser & Cie., Armin Strom, Parmigiani Fleurier, and Czapek.

Topper has a history of collaborating with watch brands to produce unique limited-edition pieces that watch enthusiasts covet. Recent popular collaborations include sought-after pieces from Fears, Halios, Oris, and Armin Strom. Topper also offers a large selection of pre-owned watches in-store and online, with new inventory added weekly.

Topper recently moved into a new and improved location including an Omega Boutique, which has become a top venue for regular watch events in the Bay Area. It’s a gathering place for local watch enthusiasts who enjoy hanging out in the spacious store. You’ll love the friendly Topper staff who are watch aficionados themselves. Say hi to Rob, Russ, and Jay for me!

Stephen Silver Fine Jewelry is a high-end watch boutique located inside the posh Rosewood Sand Hill Hotel near the offices of the world’s top venture capital firms. The store is the AD for prestigious independent brands including MB&F, Urwerk, Greubel Forsey, H. Moser & Cie., Laurent Ferrier, Krayon, Speake-Marin and Ressence. They used to carry F.P.Journe and Richard Mille before those brands opted for their own standalone boutiques. So Stephen Silver is the premier AD for independent watchmakers in Northern California.

Another top destination for watch shopping is Westfield Valley Fair, perhaps the largest shopping center in Northern California. This mall enables watch enthusiasts to visit many brands and boutiques in one location. You’ll find mono-brand stores like Rolex, Vacheron Constantin, Patek Philippe (opening Spring 2024), IWC, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Panerai, TAG Heuer, Breitling, Bulgari, and Cartier. There is also a multi-brand AD, CH Premier Jewelers. The knowledgeable staff and exceptional service set these boutiques apart.

So, if you want a spacious one-stop shop, Topper Fine Jewelers is a great choice. But if you prefer boutique hopping, Westfield Valley Fair offers easy access to all the major Swiss brands. And for rare, exclusive timepieces from independent watchmakers, check out Stephen Silver Fine Jewelry. Getting to see these in person is often a treat in itself!

Home Away from Home

The St. Regis San Francisco is one of the premier luxury hotels in the City, highly regarded by guests for its unmatched location in the financial district. It provides easy access to the waterfront, fine dining and shopping, museums, and other iconic San Francisco attractions.

The hotel opened in 2005 and was renovated in 2020, sparing no expense. The exquisite art collection showcases works by acclaimed local artists that have been carefully curated to reflect California luxury. Throughout the hotel, the collection exudes an old-world charm in a contemporary new-world style.

Another must-visit is the St. Regis Bar in the hotel, considered one of the best cocktail bars downtown. The friendly bartenders can mix up any cocktail, and you may want to try the St. Regis’ signature Bloody Mary – the Golden Gate Mary. Red and orange ingredients from tequila to chili pepper give this drink the vermilion hue of a Pacific sunset. Alternatively, you can enjoy a drink from the extensive list of local wines.

The well-lit bar is perfect for wrist-shooting your favorite timepieces against the backdrop of beautiful decor for Instagram. It’s a relaxing venue for people watching and timepiece spotting.

Pasta Paradise

For lovers of Italian fare, I would highly recommend Perbacco in Downtown San Francisco, featured in the Michelin Guide. Owner Umberto Gibin has been generously sharing his passion for the food and wine of Italy with Americans for nearly three decades. With Perbacco, meaning “my gosh” in Italian, Mr. Gibin strives to offer each guest a taste of authentic Italian dining.

The menu shines with excellence! Perbacco offers pasta dishes in both appetizer and entrée sizes, perfect for sampling. Signature pasta dishes include “Agnolotti dal plin,” pasta filled with roasted meats and vegetables, and “Tajarin,” a delicate egg pasta cut into long, thin strips.

Cantonese Delights

With so many wonderful Chinese restaurants in the San Francisco Bay Area, it’s difficult to pick just one. However, for excellent food and views, Harborview Restaurant & Bar truly stands out. Situated on San Francisco’s iconic waterfront, this Cantonese eatery offers stunning views of the Ferry Building and Bay Bridge from its upper deck patio.

Included in the Michelin Guide, Harborview was founded by the same restaurateur behind another top Chinese dining destination in the city, R&G Lounge. For lunch, order from the extensive dim sum menu or passing carts. The dinner menu has ample choices, all great in my opinion. House specialties include salt and pepper Dungeness crab, ginger and scallion lobster noodles, Harborview beef, roast squab, and Peking duck. Be sure to try the soups and desserts too. With its perfect blend of cuisine and scenery, Harborview is a San Francisco treasure.

Only in San Francisco

The best seafood in town? A place with a “secret” menu? Anthony Bourdain’s “happy zone?” Our Executive Editor Mike Espindle’s favorite lowbrow spot? The answer is Swan Oyster Depot, a fresh seafood institution with over a century of history. The handwritten menu on the wall dates back to 1985. With just 18 counter seats and always a line outside, Swan Oyster Depot is a deliciously irresistible experience.

What draws tourists and locals alike is the incredibly fresh seafood prepared in ways perfected over decades. Popular dishes include seafood combination salads, seafood cocktails, half cracked crabs, clams & oysters on half shell, and smoked salmon or trout. You can order like a regular and try off-menu items like Sicilian sashimi, thinly sliced raw scallops called “dozen eggs” and crab legs playfully dubbed “crabsanthemum.” With its legacy of quality, charm, and nostalgic decor, a visit to Swan Oyster Depot is a quintessential San Francisco experience.

Sausalito Side Trip

Among the many famous side trips from San Francisco like Napa Valley, Half Moon Bay, Carmel, and Santa Cruz, a hidden gem worth your time is the seaside town of Sausalito. You can take a ferry to Sausalito from the City waterfront at either Pier 41 or the Ferry Building. Alternatively, drive over the breathtaking Golden Gate Bridge on the way to Sausalito from San Francisco.

Sausalito is a relaxing place for shopping, dining, seaside strolls, and taking Instagram-worthy pictures of the San Francisco skyline views. It’s romantic for couples and fun for families with kids. The many gift shops, art galleries, and specialty stores are ideal for picking up souvenirs to remember the “City by the Bay.”

On the drive back to the City, a great stop right before the Golden Gate Bridge is the Golden Gate View Point. It provides awe-inspiring panoramic vistas of the majestic Golden Gate Bridge and surroundings – the ideal spot to capture stunning photographs and immerse yourself in the area’s mesmerizing natural beauty.

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