Planning a Saturday evening trip to San Francisco with friends for dinner and a symphony concert would seem to justify a nice luxury sedan. However, with the heavy rains that weekend, we were grateful that our press car was the all-wheel-drive 2016 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid.
Priced at under $35,000, our test car was perfect for the assignment. From the driver’s point of view, the high driving position, large windshield, confident handling and responsive torque with the electric motors made the RAV4 a great choice to contend with the sheets of rain sweeping across the highway. In the Performing Arts Garage near Davies Symphony Hall, the vehicle’s small footprint, tight turning radius and good back-up camera and mirrors facilitated maneuvering.
For the passengers, the spacious back seat, comfortable ride, quiet cabin and easy entry to avoid puddles was better than any low-slung fancy sedan would have been.
We didn’t really even need to apologize for the looks of the RAV4, which just underwent a mid-production styling face-lift at the same time the new hybrid powertrain was installed.
As a hybrid (the only one in the compact market segment), the RAV4 answers a previous criticism of this compact SUV, now providing good fuel efficiency at 33 mpg in combined driving (34 city, 31 highway) and 195 horsepower from the gasoline/electric powertrain.
These cultural evenings are always a treat for us, no matter what we drive. Within the Civic Center/Hayes Valley area in San Francisco, a person who appreciates great performances can find the War Memorial Opera House, home of the San Francisco Ballet and San Francisco Opera; Davies Symphony Hall, with a full schedule of musical performances centered around the world-renowned San Francisco Symphony under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas; and the newest additions to the area: the SF Jazz Center – a great venue for performers from across the jazz spectrum – and the Nourse Theatre, the new home of City Arts & Lectures.
Where to eat
Of course, with performances of this caliber every night of the week, there is a great symbiotic relationship with restaurants – there must be at least 30 within a few blocks of Davies and the Opera House. We have a few particular favorites, which we rotate for variety and depending on the occasion.
On this rainy evening, we had booked at the Dobbs Ferry Restaurant, a relative newcomer to the neighborhood, which bills itself as “marrying West Coast cuisine with old-school, small-town New York nuances.” It never fails to meet that definition in its cocktail list, menu, friendly service and traditional ambience.
First on our list when we’re in the mood for simply prepared fresh seafood is Hayes Street Grill, and we usually order their famous french fries and a goat cheese or beet salad. This traditional restaurant, which judging from the pictures on the wall was a favorite performers’ gathering place well before Davies was built, maintains that old San Francisco style.
For slightly more formal occasions, we frequent Indigo Restaurant, also known for American cuisine and half a notch up from Dobbs Ferry in its interior style.
For very special celebrations, Jardinière never disappoints, with its two-level dining room around a spectacular bar. Its Parisian ambience is carried into the menu that emphasizes a French style of cuisine built around the best local ingredients.
For a change of pace in a more informal but still old San Francisco setting, we’ll go to Caffe Delle Stelle. The eatery may not go the whole checked-tablecloth and straw wine bottle route of Little Italy anymore, but it still has a neighborhood atmosphere and the cuisine that was once the mainstay of the City by the Bay.
All of these restaurants are in high demand. Even when we arrive at 5:30 p.m. (we like to attend the 7 p.m. pre-concert talks), we often watch walk-ins being turned away. But if we’ve grabbed tickets at the last minute for a jazz performance or Nourse Theatre program, then our fallback is The Grove-Hayes restaurant with its walk-in, order-at-the-counter menu of simple entrées and sandwiches served in what feels almost like a communal dining room updated for the trendiest casual Hayes Valley crowd.
We have been driving up to the city nearly monthly for the past 25 years, and of course have watched the traffic grow out of control, but we’ve found some workarounds. The fastest and most reliable way into San Francisco on a late Saturday afternoon is Interstate 280 all the way to the 101 Cesar Chavez off-ramp, and then on Van Ness or one of the parallel side streets into the Civic Center area. A quick left-right-left off Van Ness to Hayes to Franklin to Grove puts us at the Performing Arts Garage entrance.
On an afternoon when a ballet matinee is just getting out and the symphony is performing, the Performing Arts Garage may be turning away those without pre-booked space, so we always buy a parking pass with our symphony tickets. The fallback is the Civic Center Garage, which is usually reliable for space even on performance evenings and only a block farther away.
A fancy evening out in a compact hybrid SUV may seem like a contradiction in terms, but when neither traffic nor rain are likely to relent, the Toyota RAV4 is the ideal vehicle for the occasion.
Los Altos residents Gary and Genie Anderson are co-owners of Enthusiast Publications LLC, which edits several car club magazines and contributes articles and columns to automotive magazines and online services.