First American Title is helping us in defining each neighborhood in the city.  As a first time homebuyer where do you want to live?  Here is a brief overview into the “free spirits” areas in the city by the bay.

Noe Valley, The Mission and The Castro

During the dot-com boom, Noe Valley was like the overlooked teenager suddenly discovered by the cool crowd.  Wannbe high-tech millionaires came for the easy access onto Highway 101 heading directly in to the Silicon Valley and stayed for the pretty Victorians and charming shops and cafes along the 24th Street.  Competition for homes in the neighborhood became fierce and dipped only slightly after the economy went bust.  On sunny weekend mornings crowds of residents pushing strollers or leading dogs on leashes down 24th still wait for brunch tables at Miss Millie’s or Savor for over an hour.  Browsing through the unique gift, home decor and clothing boutiques that line the street helps pass the time.  The original location of Martha Bros. Coffee attracts a crowd of locals reading the paper or chatting on the benches outside every morning, but if it’s full you can always get your cup filled a little further down the street at Tully’s or Starbuck’s.

For dinner, San Franciscans form all over the city come to Eric’s for Chinese food.  Eric doesn’t deliver, but double-parked cars stack up on Church Street out front in the evenings to pick up take-out orders.  On the next block, Incanto has developed quite a reputation for its wine selection.  Head back around the corner to 24th for a myriad of casual options, including Italian. burgers, Korean BBQ, Mexican or pizza.

The border of Noe Valley snakes the beautiful, palm tree-lined Dolores Street until it hits Dolores Park.  The small neighborhood surrounding the park and the Mission Dolores is something of a buffer neighborhood that exhibits characteristics of its three neighboring district: Noe Valley to the south, the Mission to the east and the Castro to the west.  The block of 18th Street between Dolores and Guerrero is home to a surprising concentration of good food – Dolores Park Cafe with its tasty sandwiches and salads at one end, Delfina, one of the city’s top restaurants, and BiRite, a lovely gourmet food store, in the middle of the block, and Tartine, the delectable French cafe, and Platanos, an inventive nuevo Latin restaurant, anchoring the other end.

Continue heading east to wind deeper into the Mission.  Valencia Street sometimes referred to as the Trans-Mission Corridor shows of the neighborhood’s artsy independent side with cafes, coffeeshops, restaurants and bars that cater to hip and ethnically diverse young clientele.  The most bustling area is around the intersection of 16th and Valencia streets, with chic restaurants like Limon and Ti Couz, and unique storefronts continue all the way down Valencia to 24th.

The next block over is Mission Street, the main artery for which the neighborhood is named.  If you were to wake up on Mission Street anywhere between 16th and 24th Streets you might think you had been transported to Mexico City itself.  Taquerias, pupuserias, Guatamalan and Salvadoran restaurants are interspersed with clothing and luggage stores, Mexican travel agencies and produce markets.

Gentrification is slowly chipped away at the strong Latino flavor of the Mission neighborhood.  As housing prices continue to rise throughout the city, buyers have flocked to the Mission in search of affordable flats.  Although deals can still be found, the market is hot and many of the buildings need a lot of work.  Sunday open houses will reveal everything from original construction rented to the same families for 30 years, to Victorians showing the wear and tear from their younger renters, to gleaming remodels and new construction.

If the rundown Victorians in the Mission are the “before” picture, the shining beauties of the Castro are the “after.”  First-class taste and a profusion of discretionary income have meant good things for this leafy residential zone.  Approximately 85% of the Castro’s residents are gay, lesbian or transgender and the neighborhood is a mecca for gay tourists from around the world.  The corner of 18th and Castro has been dubbed the gayest spot in the world and it was from there the community leaders organized their neighbors as political force in the 1970’s.

Restaurants, bars and shops in the area cater to a neighborhood audience, but for the most part are open and welcoming to all.  Dinner at Mecca on Market Street followed by a movie at the landmark Castro Theatre makes for a fabulous night out.  For more casual fare try Chow Cafe on Church, they’ll come find you at the bar next door when a table is available if the wait is long (as it often is).  And once you move in, Cliff’s Variety will become an indispensable resource for everything from home improvement and decorating supplies to Halloween costumes and Mardi Gras masks.

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