Outer Sunset: Hip by the beach 

click to enlarge Connected: The Outer Sunset was once cut off by poor transit options, but the area now boasts trendy eateries, walkable parks and even a tattoo parlor. - CHRIS ROBERTS/SPECIAL TO THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Chris roberts/special to the s.f. Examiner
  • Connected: The Outer Sunset was once cut off by poor transit options, but the area now boasts trendy eateries, walkable parks and even a tattoo parlor.

Too far, too cold, too foggy, too empty.

When the Barbary Coast earned for San Francisco a reputation as unsavory and salacious, The City’s western edge was branded with its own black mark. Namely, nothing — as in, “There’s nothing out there” west of 19th Avenue in the foggy old Sunset district.

It’s a reputation that persists.

A lack of transit made the “outside lands” immune to development for much of San Francisco’s early history, and the miles and miles of sand that became the Sunset were so desolate as to be deadly — a woman once left for a walk in the dunes and three days later her corpse was found, said historian and author Lorri Ungaretti, whose “Stories in the Sand” will be released soon.

Despite a city hell-bent on expansion, the Sunset became a haven for hermits and freaks who lived in old streetcars, and a place beyond the pale and reach of the law where speakeasies and other mischief were tolerated.

Homes, businesses and entertainment — Ferris wheels, ice-skating rinks, a Southern California-style pier — followed the streetcar lines. But by 1972, all that was gone. What remained was almost entirely residential — and a bit inhospitable.

“I used to be scared to go on Judah in middle school,” said Andy Olive of T-shirt and art collective San Franpsycho, who’s lived in the Sunset for 30 of his 32 years. “We’d get jumped or mugged two or three times a week. It was rough.”

It’s rough today, too — just in a decidedly different way. You can spend an hour on the same Judah Street corner where Olive received a beat-down just to get a table at Outerlands restaurant.

Before the wait, grab a Gibraltar at Trouble Coffee, sit on a driftwood bench in the parklet, peruse locally made art at General Store and get a quick tattoo. Or, visit the vegan juice bar and buy homemade kimchee from the corner store.

It’s hard to say exactly when the Outer Sunset “made it” to the high standards of San Francisco hipdom. All the pieces were there — affordable real estate, public transportation and quirky locals who escaped to the Avenues for surfing, art, park access or to raise a family.

But when Patrick Maguire transformed a roughneck biker bar into Java Beach, immediately there was a crowd, said Buffy Maguire, Patrick’s wife and partner in what’s becoming a homegrown empire — two Java Beaches, the Beachside Cafe and a fourth venture on the way).

“They said, ‘Finally! Now we don’t have to drive to get coffee,’” Buffy Maguire said.

The transformation appears largely home-grown.

“There’s an energy that’s very unique in the Outer Sunset area,” said Supervisor Carmen Chu, who represents the area west of 19th Avenue and south of Golden Gate Park. “But what I’m seeing are families and people who have been there a long time becoming entrepreneurs.”

For Hilary Passman-Cherniss, co-founder of the 8-month-old Devil’s Teeth Bakery on Noriega Street, it’s been a long time coming.

“I always wondered why this wasn’t a hot neighborhood to begin with, out here by the beach,” Passman-Cherniss said. “There was just nothing down here … there was no draw.”

What changed? Maybe it was when Dimitri Vardakastanis opened Noriega Produce. Or when The Pizza Place opened up. Or when merchants started the block party. Or when the Sunset Co-op Nursery School — where Olive works, completed its renovation in 2007. (Folks from as far away as Mill Valley and Dogpatch drop their kids off there.)

Perhaps it was like this all along and nobody noticed. That’s changing too.

“I am seeing more and more fixie bikes out here,” Maguire noted. “The other day, I overheard someone say, ‘This is exactly what I moved out of the Mission to avoid.’”

Big retail chains still kept at bay

New coffee options are usually welcome in the Outer Sunset district — three new spots have opened in the past year.  But one caffeination station ran afoul of merchants and residents, who in 2003 and 2004 gathered 5,000 signatures and withstood a marathon City Hall hearing to block a Starbucks.

Mission accomplished.

The far reaches of San Francisco are one of the few places where formula retail is almost entirely nonexistent. Sure, there’s a 7-Eleven on Judah Street and a Walgreens on Taraval Street, but that’s about it.

And while the housing stock has advanced from the days when the area was called “Carville” — when old streetcars served as beachside getaways for city folk, along with year-round homes for hardier sorts — there has not been a significant redevelopment project in a long time.

A plan to demolish the Roberts Motel on Sloat Boulevard and replace it with retail and housing was approved in 2008, but funding evaporated after the recession.

What’s left is a scintillating mishmash of prewar Mediterranean homes built by developer Henry Doelger; postwar Craftsmans; tiny cottages holding out from the 19th century; and the random Edwardian tucked between the “Westside Special” of garage space stacked underneath three flats, according to the Western Neighborhood Project’s Lorri Ungaretti.

It might always be like this. Dig a few feet underneath the pavement or turf in a backyard and you will soon hit sand.

And the spirit of Carville isn’t exactly dead, judging by the RVs and at least one small home on wheels that frequent La Playa Street and Great Highway.

— Chris Roberts

Welcome mat

Neighborhood mainstays such as Java Beach, Mollusk Surf Shop, Cajun Pacific and Toyose have new neighbors.

Beachside Coffee Bar & Kitchen


Description: Irish breakfast sandwiches; multiple pour-over coffees ground fresh from rare beans; rotating locally sourced dinner menu on weekends

Address: 4300 Judah St.

Devil’s Teeth Bakery


Description: Doughnut muffins; lasagna; breakfast sandwiches on fresh biscuits; made-to-order beignets Sundays, along with cookies, pies, brownies

Address: 3876 Noriega St.

Sunset Shapers

Opened: 2010

Description: Shaping surfboards fit for your ride on Ocean Beach’s challenging break

Address: 3809 Judah St.

General Store


Description: Handcrafted artistic and functional items for home and hearth

Address: 4035 Judah St.

Tuesday Tattoo


Description: Outer Sunset’s only tattoo parlor

4025 Judah St.

The Pizza Place


Description: East Coast-style pizza with an ocean breeze

Address: 3901 Noriega St.

Source: Office of Treasurer-Tax Collector

About The Author

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has worked as a reporter in San Francisco since 2008, with an emphasis on city governance and politics, The City’s neighborhoods, race, poverty and the drug war.
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