Right Up Our Alley

Wandering through back alleys may not be high on your list of exciting things to do, but we have a handful of alleys in San Francisco that are definitely visit-worthy. So much so that they are mentioned in guidebooks and on city tours. Visiting these alleys will take you into four of our most distinctive and interesting neighborhoods (the Financial District, Chinatown, North Beach, and the Mission District), and collectively they provide a very diverse experience (food, drink, art, culture, and history).

01 Mark Lane (Z28-0-523)

Mark Lane

If you walk down Bush Street from Grant toward Kearny, you will be in the Financial District and will be surrounded by midrise office buildings. Midway down the block on the right there is a half-block long alley called Mark Lane. Before you get to it, take a good look around, because once you turn the corner into the alley, you’ll be in another world. Mark Lane has been taken over by the Irish Bank, one of San Francisco’s most popular Irish pubs. During operating hours, they swing a decorative wrought iron gate into the alley to partially close off the end and create a backdrop. They setup green plastic tables and chairs and open rollout awnings. The Irish Bank’s brick walls are painted white and covered with signs, antiques, and bric-a-brac; it looks like a whitewashed Irish cottage.

The Irish Bank also has indoor seating, but unless it’s cold, the alley is the place to be. It’s open daily from lunch until late. The food is very good, they have Guinness and Magners on tap, the restrooms are nice, and the ambience is great. It’s one of my favorite San Francisco pubs. Oh, did I mention they have Magners on tap.

02 Belden Place (website 12)

Belden Place

Called the Latin Quarter of San Francisco, this block-long alley’s claim to fame is that it’s lined with seven restaurants. While all seven have indoor seating, several of them also have al fresco dining in the alley. Everyday, the alley is scrubbed clean, tables and chairs are set up, tablecloths and planter boxes are added, and, after dark, strings of overhead lights provide a festive canopy. It’s a pretty amazing transition.

The seven restaurants are Brindisi (Italian), Taverna (Mediterranean), B44 (Catalan), Plouf (French), Café Tiramisu (Italian), Café Bastille (French), and Sam’s Grill (Seafood). Most of them serve lunch during the week and dinner every night, but check the website for operating hours before going. Belden Place is in the heart of the Financial District off of Pine or Bush Streets between Kearny and Montgomery. The photo (left) is from the Belden Place website.

04 Fortune Cookies (Z28-0-405)


Ross Alley

This Chinatown alley, with its assortment of small stores and shops, has a delightful secret. It’s home to the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory. This little factory produces “20,000 fortune cookies” a day, and — unlike other factories in the city — the cookies here are made by hand. A conveyor that looks like a line of  “miniature waffle irons,” transports freshly baked cookies to women, on a production line, who pull the flat cookies from the press (one at a time), place a fortune on one side, and fold the cookie over a rod. It has to be done quickly before the cookie cools. Visitors are welcome to come inside and watch, and, for fifty cents, you can also take a photo. Ross Alley is located off of Jackson between Stockton and Grant.

The aroma of the fresh cookies is reason enough to visit this alley and factory, but you can also buy bags of cookies. They come in both chocolate and vanilla flavors, and you can also get them in their flat, fortuneless form. They are especially good when they are fresh and warm. And, yes, I do know that fortune cookies are an American invention and are not authentically Chinese. Ross Alley, however, is an authentic San Francisco treasure.

05 Jack Kerouac Alley (Z28-6-612) 06 Jack Kerouac Alley (Z28-0-536)


Jack Kerouac Alley

This short alley between Columbus and Grant was renovated and renamed in 2007. It’s now called Jack Kerouac Alley after the beat generation novelist and poet who hung out here in the ‘50s and ‘60s. The alley passes between City Lights Books and the Vesuvio Café and connects two entirely different neighborhoods: the Columbus end is in North Beach; the Grant end is in Chinatown. The renovation included streetlights, flower baskets, and granite block pavement. 

«««« The pretty young women, in Jack Kerouac Alley, is my granddaughter 

The pavement has brass engravings of poetry and prose from John Steinbeck, Maya Angelou, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and more. My personal favorite is this Chinese proverb: "In the company of best friends, there is never enough wine.”

In the evening, there is often a musician or two in the alley to entertain passersby.


07 Balmy Alley (Z28-0-547)

Balmy Alley 

The Mission District is San Francisco’s Hispanic neighborhood. This is a vibrant, lively neighborhood where Spanish is the prevailing language, Mexican is the prevailing food, and colorful murals cover many walls, fences, and buildings.

The murals were influenced and Inspired by the works of the Mexican Muralists and motivated by the 1970s civil rights movement; they are art with a message. Some depict Mesoamerican legends and history, some are about the timeless struggle for equality and justice, some rage against the horrors of war or cry out for peace, and some, as you might expect, are comical or whimsical.

Balmy Alley is the best-known mural site in San Francisco. There are at least two-dozen murals in this one-block alley. The paintings, which began here in 1971, run non-stop along walls, fences and garage doors. Many are political but peace is the dominant theme. Balmy Alley is located off of 24th Street between Folsom and Harrison.

If you trek into the Mission to see Balmy Alley (and perhaps some of the other murals, stop by the Precita Eyes Mural Arts Center. They sell maps of the Mission Murals and lookout for the interests of the artists; they also conduct mural tour

Each of these alleys is, for their own unique reasons, worth visiting. Or, you could make a day of it and visit them all. Lunch at the Irish Bank, followed by a tour of the Mission Murals, followed by a trek through Jack Kerouac and Ross Alleys and then dinner at one of the eight restaurants in Belden Place — sounds like a great day to me.


Giving credit where credit is due:

Kerouac Alley has face-lift - By Carl Nolte, March 30, 2007

Kerouac Alley is restored with cheer - By Carl Nolte, April 1, 2007

© Virginia E. Vail 2012