Any chance for me to visit San Francisco is a good one. I love the city, I love its shopping and I love that the Aussie dollar remains confidently hovering around parity with the US greenback.
And because flights from San Francisco to Sydney depart very late in the evening – 10.30pm for United’s UA863 and 11pm for Qantas QF74 (until Qantas axes the service from May 6) – that leaves a little time for some shopping before heading to SFO.
As a frequent San Francisco visitor and a serial shopper I’ve got a handful of favourite shops for adding to my business wardrobe. They happen to be located fairly close together, clustered around one block at the north-east corner of Union Square – making it easy to cover them all off in one or two hours before you grab dinner and make tracks to the airport.
They all offer good value at the best of times, and doubly so when there’s a sale on.
Pre-shopping: coffee and/or lunch
If you’ve managed to carve out some time in the middle of your day rather than the evening I suggest starting your shopping on a full stomach or at least fortified by a coffee. It can be surprisingly challenging to find really good coffee in San Francisco, as so many cafes are just part of a national franchise.
My pick for a pre-shopping coffee in this part of San Francisco is Paladar, a Cuban cafe at 329 Kearny Street (but it closes at 3pm, so don’t dally).
Paladar serves sweet Cuban-style coffee, and if you’re there for lunch I recommend the picadillo Cubano estilo Elena – a plate of seasoned Niman ground beef served with sweet plantains (just get them to swap out the white rice for the ‘congri’ Cuban black beans & rice). Add a glass of the fruity home-made sangria and you’re set.
(If you’ve opted to stay over on Friday night so you can spend Saturday in Fog City, then make a beeline for the farmer's markets outside San Francisco’s Ferry Terminal along the Embarcadero at the foot of Market Street – the best way to get there to hop an F Line tram from anywhere along Market Street – you can find plenty of great food and coffee at the stalls around the side and rear of the building.)
One reason I suggest Paladar for your afternoon shot of coffee is that it’s a short stroll back from 329 Kearny to the corner of Kearny & Sutter, where you turn right and head one block along to reach the city’s flagship Banana Republic store on the corner of Sutter and Grant.
Banana Republic is the upmarket sibling to Gap and most of the ground floor of the San Francisco store is given over to menswear. While there’s a decent selection of casual gear the range of trousers, jackets and shirts – especially from Banana Republic’s signature Monogram line – offers a quick way to freshen up your business wardrobe.
A few doors down from Banana Republic, at 210 Grant, is one of only two US outlets for Cafe Coton, an upscale French boutique brand with its selection of elegant business shirts and ties.
Don’t let the mention of ‘boutique’ put you off – the shirts are as affordable as they are fashionable, especially the ‘treasure chest’ specials in the corner. I can’t recall ever walking into Cafe Coton and walking out empty-handed.
Sough on Grant Avenue
After Cafe Coton you have two options. One is to continue strolling the three blocks down Grant Avenue, which takes you past a mix of upscale and chi-chi brands, until you reach Ted Baker (80 Grant, on the same side of the street as Cafe Coton).
I’m a big fan of Ted Baker’s unique styling for suits and shirts, and the Endurance line is a perfect match for business travellers, but if you’ve got plans to visit the UK then don’t buy anything here unless it’s on sale.
The reason? On leaving the UK you can claim back most of the country’s 20% VAT at the airport; in the US there’s no such rebate of the San Francisco’s 9.5% sales tax.
East along Post Street
If you’re tight for time or don’t want to check out Ted Baker then after leaving Cafe Coton, turn left and walk to the corner of Grant & Post.
Another left and another minute takes you down Post Street to Brooks Brothers (150 Post).
By every measure, Brooks Brothers is about as far as you can get from Ted Baker: think crisp corporate shirts, ties and suits – a look that’s sharp yet safe (although the company was behind the then-radical introduction of button-down collars in 1896). One of the best bets here are their travel-friendly non-iron 100% cotton shirts.
West along Post Street
Double back along Post Street, or just turn left instead of right at the corner of Grant & Post, and you’ll be walking up Post Street towards Union Square.
This block has several stores worth checking out, especially during the big sales seasons (ranging from January through to special times like Presidents' Day (the thirds Monday in February) and northern summer clearances from late July through August.
This includes the Saks Fifth Avenue Men's Store at 220 Post, which tends to be at the higher end of the price scale unless you happen upon a sale.
At any time of year, however, Ecco (at 236 Post) is a good stop for picking up a pair of smart yet comfortable dress shoes for business travel (you’ll usually spend more time on your feet and in the same pair of shoes when on trips than you would at home).
Of course, the casual and sports shoes are also a bargain compared to what you’d pay in Australia.
(If you’re in the market for some casual gear you'll find a small Gap store next door and a little further up, at 250 Post, is Zara.)
On the other side of the road is Thomas Pink (255 Post). Like Cafe Coton, this London-based chain offers superb shirts and ties with a very modern touch, but the same rule applies as for Ted Baker: if there’s nothing must-have on on sale and you’re heading to London soon, it’s better to wait.
Macy’s Union Square
Continue up the rise of Post Street and you’re at the north-east corner of Union Square, on the corner of Stockton Street.
The last stop on this suggested shopping stroll – although for many it will be their first – is Macy’s, on the corner of Stockton and O’Farrell, which is two blocks down (and diagonally across from Ben Sherman).
The entrance to Macy’s menswear department is on the left side of Stockton, flanked by a Peet’s sidewalk cafe and florist stall.
Now Macy’s isn’t going to rock anybody’s world in terms of style but they have an extensive range of reliable business shirts as well as essentials such as socks and shorts.
The main reason to put Macy’s on your list for these and other basics is that they provide tourists with a 10% discount card, which handily wipes out the state sales tax. The card is good for everything but fragrances and cosmetics.
To pick up your Macy’s card, head over to the main Macy’s store on the other side of Stockton and take the lift to level 6 – the same one with the Cheesecake Factory overlooking Union Square – and follow the signs to the Visitor's Centre.
The card is good for 30 days. Card in hand, head back across the road to the menswear department and stock up on a few basics.