In most cities, when a formerly gritty neighborhood becomes hip, Banana Republic and the Gap soon invade. Not so in San Francisco's SoHo-ish Hayes Valley, a zone of indie clothing boutiques and mod housewares shops near Davies Symphony Hall. Businesses in the increasingly trendy area southwest of the Civic Center recently banded together, getting City Hall to approve a measure that effectively bans national chain stores and restaurants.
The Victorian-filled blocks of Hayes Valley began to gentrify in 1980 after the symphony moved in. Then the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake toppled the freeway that cut through the neighborhood. "That overpass coming down really freed up the area," says Greg Henson, owner of posh imports haven Worldware. "People used to fear Hayes Valley. They'd park their cars here and run to the symphony. Now they come because it's such a diverse place to shop."
That multi-culti mix is on parade along the 'hood's main drag, Hayes Street, where, on a recent afternoon, a pair of teenage fashionistas in ruffled minis and knee socks chatted with a hippish dude conducting a makeshift sidewalk sale. Restaurants like Belgian French fry hut Frjtz (579 Hayes St., 415-928-3886) and Paris-chic bar-bistro Absinthe (398 Hayes St., 415-551-1590) add to the eclectic vibe. Stores along Hayes Street (between Laguna and Van Ness streets) and on side streets like Octavia and Gough offer uber-stylish goods for the house, plus cool clothes for guys and gals. There isn't a Pottery Barn in sight.
Among the most interesting shops:
* Alabaster (597 Hayes St., 415-558-0482) hangs graceful, bowl-shaped light fixtures made of -- what else? -- alabaster in its front window. The pristine atelier for antique and new furnishings spreads unusual merchandise -- vintage globes, sailboat models, art deco armoires -- through five rooms and a Zen-like interior garden with a burbling fountain. Many of the accessories (picture frames, cocktail plates) come in black and white, just like the shop's friendly, resident French bulldog, Fanny.
* Bulo Women's Shoes (418 Hayes St., 415-255-4939) and Bulo Men's Shoes (437A Hayes St., 415-864-3244), brother and sister footwear boutiques, sit across the street from each other. Both shops sell au courant Italian shoes like metallic pink sandals for her and Aketohn's square-toed, pirate-y loafers for him.
* Find (425 Hayes St., 415-701-7100) traffics in warm modern styles. This means glossy, dark-wood platform beds, jade-green silk quilts and stripy zebra wood coffee tables. If the haute housewares make you feel dowdy, there's a back section with women's sportswear like flower-print tops and Super Lucky Cat's wild skirts patched together from vintage sports T-shirts.
* Flight 001 (525 Hayes St., 415-487-1001) has a mod interior designed to mimic the inside of an airplane. The curvy-walled place specializes in jet-setty travel goods: Orla Kiely's carry-on bags in Pop Art patterns, sheep-print eye masks, leather luggage tags in hues from bubblegum pink to Barney purple.
* Manifesto (514 Octavia St., 415-431-4778) channels a rockabilly vibe with men's, women's and kids' clothing. The Daddy-O-esque bowling shirts and shapely cowgirl-print dresses seem ideal to wear to a concert by local singer -- and retro style icon -- Chris Isaak.
* R.A.G. (541 Octavia St., 415-621-7718) stands for "Residents Apparel Gallery." The funky collective shows off edgy, affordable men's and women's clothes from about 50 local designers. Bios tacked to the racks give the scoop on these up-and-comers like Chelsea Snyder, who has "been sewing since I was 10" and now creates placemat-size paisley miniskirts. Closed for renovation until mid-July.
* Tazi Designs (599 Hayes St., 415-503-0013) recreates a Moroccan souk in a softly lit basement. Its stash of imports includes glazed pottery, minaret-shaped tin lanterns and silk-cushioned daybeds fit for a sultan.
* Worldware (336 Hayes St., 415-487-9030), a glitzy zone of overstuffed sofas and silk pillows, stocks nesting goods from 68 countries: French bubble bath, gem-bright Italian pottery, Peruvian armoires. Over-the-top floor lamps with beaded, velvet shades come from L.A.-based Kathleen Caid, who uses old Hollywood costumes in her creations.
* Zonal (568 Hayes St., 415-255-9307) overflows with weathered, primitive antiques that fit owner Russell E. Pritchard's motto "always repair, never restore." After entering via a red screen door, aficionados of shabby-chic uncover unusual pieces such as a cupboard with peeling green paint and a folk-art folding screen decked with 1920s-'40s matchbook covers.
-- Jennifer Barger