I was 21 years old the first time I boarded a plane. I had dreamt of visiting San Francisco, and was lucky enough to win travel scholarships from the Royal Society of Arts while studying design at art school. I arrived in the city on a cold and foggy Friday night, late in the summer of 1989. Despite the disappointingly chilly greeting, over the following days I discovered Jackson Square, North Beach and Chinatown, and I fell in love.

I still remember the quality of light, the shadows, the sounds and the vitality of these neighbourhoods with surprising clarity. All the city’s ferocious, intoxicating history is felt here, if not always seen. This used to be the shoreline until tens of thousands arrived in the 1850s during the Gold Rush and, in the giddy scramble to make their fortunes, abandoned their ships in the bay. Dozens of those ships are now buried beneath our feet.

The shopfront of City Lights bookshop
City Lights bookshop in Jackson Square © Ami Sioux

Jackson Square was San Francisco’s commercial centre back then. A few of these beautiful brick buildings have survived earthquakes, fires and the lawlessness of the Barbary Coast. It has at different times been home to merchants, bankers, dance halls, wine houses and whiskey stores, and to a colony of writers and artists including Mark Twain and the Beat Generation.

Here are San Francisco’s bones – the adventure and ambition, optimism and resilience that still define the city. I feel certain that the pioneering creativity and idealism of Silicon Valley thrived because of this place. I have learnt and grown, been inspired and found courage because of being here. I owe this place. I love this place. LoveFrom, the creative collective I co-founded with Marc Newson, has made Jackson Square home. We have dreams and plans for our buildings and our studio, but that’s for another time.

The shopfloor at Lost Coast Outfitters
Lost Coast Outfitters fly-fishing store © Ami Sioux
The neon sign for Tosca Café near Chinatown
Tosca Café near Chinatown © Ami Sioux

My dear friends Michael and Lindsay Tusk own the restaurant Cotogna – and also Quince, which has truly earned its three Michelin stars. I have enjoyed countless happy lunches and dinners made with produce grown on their farm across the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin. They can do magical things with even the humble garden pea; their English pea tortelli are a favourite.

During that first visit more than 30 years ago, I walked up from Chinatown, past Tosca – a glorious bar with an opera jukebox, an intriguing bullet hole and meatballs to die for – and had an eggplant focaccia sandwich for lunch at Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store. Jackson Square borders North Beach, San Francisco’s Italian neighbourhood. They no longer sell cigars but the sandwiches are marvellous and you can eat overlooking Washington Square park. In Chinatown, I like Mister Jiu’s for contemporary Chinese food. The beef tendon is a speciality.

The dining room at the three-Michelin-starred Quince
The three-Michelin-starred Quince

Back in Jackson Square, I recommend a drink at Vesuvio, the Beat bar next to the legendary City Lights bookstore. The exquisite Sentinel Building is to your right when you leave, the headquarters of the American Zoetrope film studio co-founded by Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas.

William Stout is one of the best design and architectural book stores in the country, and I have been visiting for decades. The story goes that Bill’s store is in what was one of the first Gold Rush banks, and that his basement once contained the original vault. Halfway down the enticing alley next door is Bix, a jazz bar and dining room. Step though the unassuming doorway into a soaring, exhilarating space filled with music and cocktails.

Among all these bars, bookshops and restaurants there is also a fly-fishing store: Lost Coast Outfitters. It’s a real gem. I am shamelessly seduced by the little aluminium tackle boxes with their fly-specific compartments and the forest of fishing rods swaying in the breeze of the open door. If you visit, say hello to Diesel the dog. 

I discovered many of these places on that very first trip more than 30 years ago. Few neighbourhoods retain so much of their character and people for so long. Jackson Square’s humility and resilience only makes it more endearing. Every time I step out of our studio, in the shadow of the glorious Transamerica Pyramid, I feel the gentle exhilaration of our energetic, joyful little community.

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