by Melanie Warner

San Francisco is known the world over for culinary excellence. It has become the epicurean epicenter for foodies and wine-lovers who travel from every corner of the world to sample the best that the Bay has to offer. What better way to sample, than to experience the true San Francisco as a local – with your own private tour guide? At Avital Tours, we had the pleasure of experiencing food, wine, and art – each in their native environment. Artisans share their vision, their secrets, their recipes, their kitchens, plus plenty of morsels and libations. Owner and host, Avital Ungar, also shares the history of murals in the district that range from tigers to… birth canals. This unforgettable tour is truly an experience of passion incarnate. The Mission District is the perfect backdrop to feast your eyes, your appetite, and your soul.

The Mission tour is a 3-hour walking tour commencing at the Women’s Building, which is rich in history as the first woman-owned and operated community center in the country. The building is covered in meaningful murals of well-known and celebrated women. In fact, the Mission district of San Francisco has more murals per capita than any other city in the US.

Our first stop was at Mission Cheese which is a hip cheese bar celebrating American artisan cheese. The shy owner and self-proclaimed cheese snob, personally shared her favorites with us. Our fave was the aged raw goat cheese from Two Rock. It Pairs well with Le Merle Cezanne ale, which is served on tap. It was so good, it made our taste buds hum “Come to Cheddar…right now…over Brie”. Another little gem was the Winnimere cow’s milk cheese that is washed in beer and belted in Spruce. It goes great with a stout ale.

Next stop was Hog & Rocks, owned by Scott Youkilis, brother to Red Sox star, Kevin Youkilis. It could be Valhalla for oyster eaters, ham fans, and whiskey lovers. It’s the only ham and oyster bar in the country. It takes 6 months to age oysters and cure ham. This dish pairs great with a Calabria lemon drink. We also enjoyed the Frond Song cocktail, which was artfully presented with gin, green chartreuse, and anise hyssop leaves concocted by their talented “mixologist”.

All hail Northern California BBQ at Hi Lo BBQ! The words San Francisco and BBQ are typically not synonymous, unless you are making a bad joke. But these folks actually did it right. And I’m from Texas, so I’m allowed to vote. The secret to their authenticity is the American oak smoker from Mesquite Texas. It smokes 1500 pounds a day – almost as much as the clerk in Haight Ashbury. Two exes can actually fit inside this massive smoker. It’s rare to find this type of dedication to BBQ outside of the fine state of Texas. This could start a new dangerous trend of addiction in San Francisco.

Next, we went deep inside the kitchen at Venga Empanadas with owner Manuel Godino to “help” him crimp and bake these mouth-watering treats.  The Argentine-style empanadas are made by hand, then artfully baked – not fried. He and his staff hand-make thousands each day. They also made them for the US Open. Manuel hails from Madrid and Buenos Aires, which is evident in each authentic bite of his cooking.

The next stop was Bi-Rite Market. It’s a fresh local market with fruit, artisan charcuteries, local produce, and organic foods. It’s one of the old-fashioned neighborhood markets that you don’t typically see in larger cities anymore. They now have a second location on Divisadero Street. Bi-Rite has been creating community through food since the 1940’s.

Our last stop was my favorite treats! Bi-Rite Creamery is just across the street from the market and always has a line wrapped around the block. Since we were with Avital Tours, we walked right in without waiting. Their salted carmel ice cream is considered one of the top five desserts in America, according to GQ Magazine. They have a 4.5 rating on yelp which makes it the highest-rated and most-reviewed ice cream in the country.

Avital Tours features three different tours that are all walking tours of San Francisco. The Mission Tour ventures through the Mission District and includes a walk down Clarion Alley, a notable street for community and arts activity with murals and other art projects. Avital also offers the Union Square Cocktail Tour and North Beach Food and Wine Tour. I’ve traveled extensively all over the world and this was truly one of the most pleasurable and unique experiences so far. It’s a sure way to score major points on a date for originality. It’s designed for both locals and tourists to see San Francisco in a way they have never seen it before – from the inside out. Bon Appetit!