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Where the beats meet to eat.

In San Francisco, head to Valencia Street for coffee, tapas, and cutting-edge theater

NOT LONG AGO, THE stretch of San Francisco's Valencia Street between 16th and 24th was an expanse of industrial glass shops, used-furniture emporiums, and appliance barns, enlivened by a few Mexican restaurants and lesbian bars. A few long-established businesses drew customers from beyond the immediate area, but in general not many outsiders chose to explore this turf on the fringe of the city's Mission District--especially at night.

Lately, a new vitality has found its way into the old neighborhood. You can experience it at popular new coffeehouses and cafes, at smallish international restaurants with low prices and high-quality food, and at off-beat venues for noncommercial (or perhaps pre-commercial) new writers and performers. A garage on 22nd Street just east of Valencia now provides low-cost, attended parking and has encouraged an influx of visitors who, while curious, might not have felt comfortable with street parking.

Don't expect total gentrification, though. Drug trafficking remains an unfortunate fact of neighborhood life. Be particularly careful around Valencia and 16th. Still, there's much more to attract than discourage a foray.

COFFEE WITH ATMOSPHERE, NOT ATTITUDE

Hanging out is back. The era of the power lunch has lost out to the natural urge to relax in a public but undaunting place, at a sociable but unhurried pace. Scattered along Valencia are several cafes, many with a thrift-store-poetic, neobeat ambience.

Among the newer cafes, two we like are Cafe Ruins (590 Valencia; 415/621-6213) and Radio Valencia Cafe (1199 Valencia; 826-1199). At Ruins, try a tiny cup of sweetly potent Arabic coffee or a snack of falafel or baba gannuj while seated at a table or lounging on a flight of carpeted steps. At Radio Valencia, each table has a menulike list of recorded music programmed for the day from the owner's vast and varied collection (there's also live jazz Sunday evenings at 8:30). We nibbled grilled eggplant on focaccia on a recent Afro-Cuban afternoon.

NEW FLAVORS FROM AROUND THE GLOBE

Mexican fare is expected in the Mission District. But these days, a half-dozen or so excellent and inexpensive international restaurants are also attracting students, artists, and other diners seeking value and variety. Call for hours, and be forewarned that some of these restaurants do not accept credit cards.

Ti Couz (3108 16th, just west of Valencia; 252-7373) specializes in Breton-style buckwheat crepes with both savory and sweet fillings. Wash them down with a mug of French cider (alcoholic or non) or Kronenbourg beer.

Timo's (842 Valencia; 647-0558) turns out superb Spanish tapas in somewhat surrealistic surroundings. We found everything cooked to perfection, from the simplest roasted potato to fresh salmon in puff pastry, and prices amazingly reasonable.

At Val 21 (995 Valencia; 821-6622), sparkling fresh ingredients go together in unpredictable international combinations. On a recent visit, a chicken breast with aioli came with a surprise accompaniment of fried plantains and black beans.

We Be Sushi (1071 Valencia; 826-0607) opened with a naming contest that Herb Caen eventually made notorious (contenders included Desperately Seeking Sushi, We Maki Sushi, and Sushi or Not Sushi). Tasty and inexpensive sushi is served in a tiny room adorned with Grateful Dead posters and Budweiser signs.

Esperpento (3295 22nd, just east of Valencia; 282-8867) is a festive eatery enlivened by lots of light, warm colors, and Spanish artifacts (including a witty portrait of Salvador Dali). It serves weekend lunch and excellent tapas, including a tasty version of the shredded-beef dish called ropa vieja ("old clothes").

Saigon Saigon (1132-34 Valencia; 206-9635) offers delicately flavored Vietnamese dishes at modest prices in an understated setting of white and pale gray, with vivid accents from fresh flowers.

Gravity Spot (1136 Valencia; 282-4271) is identified from the street by only a business-card-size announcement that "Finding us is half the fun." Inside, Mediterranean dishes, sometimes with a Southwest accent, are skillfully prepared.

THEATER OF THE UNHEARD

The Roxie Cinema (3117 16th, at Valencia; 863-1087) has been rotating reels since 1913. It shows international films, historic films, and contemporary "art" films. Pick up a free schedule.

Intersection for the Arts (446 Valencia; 626-2787) is the city's oldest alternative performance space. Through November, it premieres a new work by San Francisco playwright David Barth called A Dance along the Precipice, based on the Whittaker Chambers-Alger Hiss case.

A more recent presence, The Marsh (1062 Valencia; 641-0235), provides an intimate forum for emerging solo and small-group theatrical performers every night of the week. During November, Ian Shoales will present Roadkill on the Information Highway. Artistic director and founder Stephanie Weisman especially likes Monday nights, when four newcomers perform for about 20 minutes each. Performances sometimes include unscripted whoops and thumps from the martial arts studio upstairs.
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Title Annotation:Valencia Street, San Francisco, California
Author:Williamson, Marcia
Publication:Sunset
Date:Nov 1, 1993
Words:789
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