SAN FRANCISCO — Sometimes I get a craving for Paris that is almost physical: a yearning to smell fresh croissants, to eat a croque-monsieur, to walk down quaint streets surrounded by the lyrical sounds of the French language.
When finances or weather prevent my boarding a flight and then walking along the Seine, I seek solace in San Francisco's little-known but historic French quarter.
Little Paris, as I like to call this area, is a tiny neighborhood tucked among Union Square, Chinatown, and the Financial District. It is easy to take in its sights in a few hours if you're in town for a short time.
I begin my visit, as I do many times when I am in Paris, at Notre Dame. This "French church," as it is called, is Notre Dame des Victoires, and it has been the heart of the city's French population since Gold Rush days. The pioneers called this area Frenchmen's Hill, and it was here that French immigrants lived in tents in 1850.
The church, founded in 1856 and rebuilt after the 1906 earthquake, was modeled after St. Ambrose Church in Paris. Lovely stained-glass windows are visible from the street. Inside is a 1915 grand organ and a 16th-century tapestry of Jesus at the Mount of Olives, which brings to mind the unicorn tapestries in Paris's Cluny Museum.
Continuing down Bush Street, I come to the gates of Chinatown, at Grant Avenue. Across the street is a bastion of French culture, Café de La Presse, where tables full of people sipping café crèmes and reading Paris Match spill out onto the sidewalk. The sight may bring back memories of outdoor cafes in the City of Lights.
Inside Café de La Presse are French periodicals and books, as well as various European newspapers. I particularly enjoy looking over the children's books, with French versions of "Le Petit Prince," Beatrix Potter books, and comic books.
The menu contains many Gallic favorites - confit de canard, steak frites, escargot de Bourgogne, mousse, and crème brûlée - all of which can be enjoyed in the informal cafe, or next door in the pleasant dining room. The meal of the day is $15.75, probably cheaper than you would spend for a comparable repast in Paris.
Adjoining the cafe on Grant Avenue is the Triton Hotel, a bold and artsy spot whose lobby is punctuated by large gold-leafed columns, hand-painted walls, and whimsically crafted furniture. The hotel features individually designed suites such as the Jerry Garcia Suite and the Love Letter Suite. Guests can enjoy afternoon cookies in front of the lobby fireplace.
Strolling down Bush a little farther, I stop at the windows of the venerable Le Central to consider the lunch menu, featuring salade niçoise, onion soup, cassoulet, and choucroute, with a cheese selection for dessert.
Although tempted, I continue to Claude Lane, an atmospheric one-block pedestrian way, lined with old brick buildings whose walls have been painted black. Café Claude evokes a Parisian scene in the middle of the lane with its green umbrellas; tiny, round tables; and the green, metal folding chairs so typical of Parisian parks.
There is also a women's designer clothing shop in the lane, which advertises its wares as "Prêt à Porter" - ready-to-wear.
In Café Claude I pick up some newsletters and handouts promoting local French events and businesses. There are French films, some night spots featuring French DJs, and information about an online newsletter for Bay Area Francophiles.
Across Kearny Street is Belden Place, a pedestrian-only street that is bustling at lunchtime, with many excellent restaurants and cafes. Smiling young wait staff with French accents stand on the sidewalk with menus to entice the passerby. Because outdoor tables fill the lane, I preview the various menus by walking along the alley and seeing what the other diners have on their plates. Café Bastille evokes the Parisian look with Metro lampposts and a menu that offers crepes, quiche, and chocolate mousse. Nearby, the celebrated Plouf seafood restaurant features mussels done a dozen ways.
The sights and smells wafting all about me break down my resistance and persuade me to settle in at an outdoor table at the Café Bastille, where I enjoy the melange of people in the alley: businesspeople on break from the nearby Financial District; elderly Chinese lugging bags of produce; and hip young women in short leather skirts and pink hair. My chicken-and-mushroom crepe arrives quickly and is tasty andample.
After lunch, I head back up Bush Street, past the tricolor flag outside the French consulate. As I walk, I contemplate ways I could connect more with San Francisco's French community: perhaps by taking a French conversation class or enjoying a movie at the Ciné Club of the Alliance Française. I vow to check on local French events like those on Bastille Day (July 14), whenrevelers help transform Claude Lane and Belden Place into a big outdoor party. At the minimum, I can come back to this neighborhood and have a café crème and dream.
By BART: Montgomery stop.
By car: Park in the Sutter-Stockton garage, exit onto Bush Street.
Café Bastille, 22 Belden Place; (415) 986-5673.
Café Claude, 7 Claude Lane; (415) 392-3515; www.cafeclaude.com.
Café de la Presse, 352 Grant Avenue (at Bush); (415) 398-2680.
Hotel Triton, 342 Grant Avenue; (415) 394-0500; www.hotel-tritonsf.com.
Notre Dame des Victoires, 566 Bush Street; (415) 397-0113.
Consulate of France, 540 Bush Street; (415) 397-4330.
French Chamber of Commerce, 425 Bush Street; (415) 398-2449.
Alliance Française de San Francisco, 1345 Bush Street; (415) 775-7755.
The French Class, 500 Sutter Street (at Powell), Suite 310; (415) 362-3666; a free two-hour session is offered Fridays from 2 to 4 p.m.
More information on the Bay Area Francophile community, including films and social events, can be found at www.sfbacc. org/bac.