Cole Valley is the smallest neighborhood in San Francisco.
Despite being in the middle of the city, it has more of a small-town feel. People make way for large strollers on the sidewalk, the mom and pop shopkeepers know residents by name, and people actually say hello to each other when they pass on the street.
It really is in the middle of everything. It’s on the corner of Golden Gate Park, tucked just south of Haight-Ashbury. If you take a hike up Tank hill on the southeast corner of the neighborhood, you can enjoy a nearly 360 degree panoramic view of the entire city.
At first there was nothing there but a pond surrounded by farms. The area has a relatively temperate microclimate, with neither extreme highs nor lows, and just the right amount of fog. The soil was rich, and because the forecast is relatively consistent from April to late November the farming season was longer there than the surrounding area. Its distance from the city center was the only thing keeping it from being a popular residential location.
Through the early 1920s, citizens lobbied for a new streetcar service to what were then considered the Outside Lands. Work on the Duboce Tunnel route began in 1925, and the Sunset Tunnel was opened in 1928. The tunnel is just under a mile and was a massive engineering project. (The original superstructure remains to this day.)
With transportation to and from the area finally manageable, Cole Valley grew around a streetcar stop at the entrance to the Sunset Tunnel at the intersection of Carl and Cole Streets. The stop is now where commuters now catch the N-Judah line, so it continues to be a popular transportation hub. It is only a 20 ride to downtown, and a 35 minute drive to South San Francisco (during rush hour).
During the 1990s dot-com boom, Cole Valley was popular among young professionals in the tech industry. Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist, is a former resident. It is such a hotbed of tech workers, that there are several pickup spots where the major tech companies pick up their employees to shuttle them out to their campuses. It is also extremely popular with families.
And it really is small, too. The district covers less than a fifth of a square mile of land. It has shaded, tree-lined streets and Victorian row houses. It’s hard to find a house for sale not only because there aren’t as many lots as in other neighborhoods, but also because once people move here they never want to leave.
Three blocks along Cole Street and part of Carl Street make up Cole Valley’s main commercial strip. It includes more than a dozen restaurants and cafés. Almost all of the stores are small mom and pop shops that serve local food and goods. It’s so ridiculously quaint, the side of the local auto mechanic’s shop has a mural of dogs that actually live in Cole Valley.
Grattan Elementary on Grattan and Shrader Streets performs above average on math and English language arts on the California Smarter Balanced Assessment Exam. There is no guarantee that your kid would go there, however, because the San Francisco Unified School District operates on a lottery system in order to keep classrooms diverse. There is also the Ashbury campus of a private school with French immersion classes for preschool through fifth grade, Lycée Français de San Francisco, that is just outside of the neighborhood. There are no public middle or high schools within Cole Valley’s boundaries.
Cole Valley truly merges all the best qualities of living in a small town with all the modern conveniences of living in the big city. A large part of this culture has been cultivated by the local stores, so it’s worth taking a closer look at some of them. The Ice Cream Bar on Cole Street, for example, is a 1930s-style soda fountain where the staff wear bow ties and they make their ice cream from scratch.
Zazie is probably the best known local restaurant, and it draws patrons from all over the city. They are most famous for their brunch (which is always worth the wait) and their fantastic seasonal menu. What makes Zazie most charming to Cole Valley locals, though, are their off-night specials. On Mondays you can bring your dog and get $10 off a bottle of wine. On Tuesdays there is no corkage fee.
InoVino, a cozy wine bar, is unique in that it only offers wines from Italy. If you can get over the sacrilege of the complete absence of any California wines on the menu, you will be rewarded. The owner/wine director can bring you exactly what you’re looking for by asking just a few questions.
Say Cheese is a popular family-owned shop on Cole Street where you can buy wine, cheese, and charcuterie as well as deli sandwiches. When a major storm caused flooding and power outages, the owners put out the cheese, bread, and meat and let locals take what they needed on the honor system.
If you’re still having trouble believing that this quaint atmosphere is actually possible right in the center of the 14th largest city (by population) in the United States of America, you should visit on Halloween. Cole Valley's Belvedere Street is transformed into a pedestrian only spook town from Parnassus to 17th street. Hundreds (sometimes thousands) of people come from all over town to enjoy the festivities. Kids, adults, and even dogs in halloween costumes walk house to house enjoying the safe, festive environment.
The small town feel, however, does come at a (literal) price. The median price for single-family homes and condos in Cole Valley was $1.55 million. This is down from $1.8 million in 2018 and $2.43 million in 2017, in line with a trend of prices cooling all over San Francisco. Renters often pay over $2000 for a studio and over $5000 for a 2 bedroom apartment. Ask anyone who lives there, though, and they’ll assure you it’s worth it.