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Amy Tan's San Francisco: Dim Sum and Then Some

Amy Tan in San Francisco's War Memorial Opera House, located in one of her favorite neighborhoods.
Amy Tan in San Francisco's War Memorial Opera House, located in one of her favorite neighborhoods. (By David Paul Morris -- Getty Images For The Washington Post)

Straight out her living room window, you see Angel Island, the green one with no obvious buildings. Hidden from view are the historic buildings that once served as the West Coast's entry point for immigrants. Now it's parkland open to visitors and accessible by ferry, with trails that lead to the 788-foot summit of Mount Livermore, miles of bike paths and campsites.

"It's rare to find a beautiful city where you can go hiking and within minutes be downtown watching opera," Tan says. "Paris and New York are fabulous, and you can walk everywhere, but you can't walk 20 minutes and be hiking in the wild, with nobody else there."

Below her windows is San Francisco's greatest asset: the water. "It's what people love, and it's constantly changing, from glassy to choppy, gray, blue, sometimes with hints of gold, or the pink and orange reflections of a sunset."

As we head down the hills of Sausalito to catch a ferry into the city, Tan points out two restaurants worth the journey from downtown, if the ferry ride and its views of the skyline, water, bridges and islands aren't enough: Poggio, a moderately priced Italian trattoria, and Caffe Trieste, a coffee shop with sandwiches, pastries and live music on weekends.

First stop cityside: Tan's favorite bookstore, Book Passage, where she is greeted with a hug by owner Elaine Petrocelli. In the best tradition of independent booksellers, Petrocelli in the past 30 years has hosted more than 6,000 authors at this and another location in nearby Corte Madera.

One section features books set in San Francisco -- a major display with novels by, among many others, Isabel Allende, Dashiell Hammett, John Lescroart, Armistead Maupin and, of course, Amy Tan.

As for guidebooks, Tan likes "San Francisco Off the Beaten Path" (Globe Pequot Press) by Michael Petrocelli, Elaine's son. "That's the one I give friends visiting me if I'm working and am sending them off on their own," she says.

For now, though, we're off to savor the city's food.

Operatic Spirit

A Chinese family that long ago immigrated to Vietnam before moving to San Francisco and opening the Slanted Door in the Market Street area serves us one of the best meals I've eaten and the only Vietnamese fusion food I've had. No wonder that even lunch requires a reservation four to six weeks in advance, unless you're lucky enough to get one of the few tables set aside for walk-ins.

We're joined by Zheng Cao, a regular with the San Francisco Opera. Come September 2008, she'll debut in the starring role of an opera based on Tan's 2001 novel "The Bonesetter's Daughter." Tan has a special treat in mind: Cao will give us a backstage tour of the War Memorial Opera House. Such tours are available to the public for $5, but minus Cao.

Their chatter turns briefly to the new opera being written by Tan and composer Stewart Wallace. It will be the first to meld elements of Western and Chinese opera, Tan says. Cao and other Western-style opera singers will be joined by acrobats and percussionists from China, and by Wu Tong, a huge Chinese star who sings pop, rock, classical and folk music. After its local run, plans call for the production to travel to Bejing.

It's an audacious and risky trial, but San Francisco audiences are particularly open to new things, Cao says. Besides, given that a third of the city's population is Asian, where better to try it?

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