Justin Roja’s Haute Handbook to the SF Good Life

Justin Roja

Photo Credit: Jodee Debes Photography

Justin Roja is a modern-day gentleman. He’s an old-fashioned sort of guy: the kind who will open a door for women of any age; the kind who has a guy for everything (a tailor, jeweler, etc.); the kind who doesn’t mind putting on a tux for a fantastic evening on the town. He’s a contemporary quintessential man about town. Thanks to his numerous ventures, he’s a partner at Barry’s Bootcamp and several restaurants including The Rambler, we’re betting he can’t go anywhere in San Francisco without running into someone he knows. But we’re certain he’ll greet each and every one of them with a warm smile and ‘hello!’ Roja is also one of the few people who was born and raised in San Francisco, so he is full of wisdom about the city—which is why we asked him to share his haute secrets. Here, in his own words, is Roja’s guide to this beautiful city by the Bay.

Where were you born: I was born at Kaiser Hospital on Geary and Divisadero. Yes, I’m a San Francisco native, which basically makes me a unicorn. 

How long in San Francisco: My entire life, with some time in Marin and Los Angeles peppered in for good measure. 

Neighborhood: Russian Hill.  Home of 1st edition classic reads at the Russian Hill Bookstore, fancy cigars at Smoke Signals, sweet treats at Loving Cup and Swensen’s, and fresh paella a la Valenciana at Zarzuela.

Occupation: Jack-of-All-Trades.  Partner at boutique fitness studio Barry’s Bootcamp (Marina, SOMA, and the newly opened studio in the Financial District), Redford Bar, Rambler at the Hotel Zeppelin, and later this year, August Hall, a live music venue replacing 17-year-old nightclub Ruby Skye in Union Square.

Favorite Restaurant: Impossible to answer in a city with such an incredible food palette.

Best Sushi: Atami. If you blink, you’ll miss it as you drive by on Lombard. Set aside at least an hour and a half for dinner (great for catching up with friends), as Michelle and Wylie (a husband and wife team) present each roll exquisitely one by one. The Burrito and 49er rolls are everything.

The back patio at Marlowe

Best Sunday brunch: (Secret) Outdoor Patio at Marlowe or Foreign Cinema.

Best Italian: In another life, I’d be Italian.  And this place, Firenze by Night is the classic old school San Francisco North Beach throwback.  Stiff cocktails, local Italians telling stories, down-home family-style service (ask for Paolo, he’ll take care of you) and some of the best gnocchi and pappardelle out there.  New school, Cotogna is my first choice.  No question.

Best Dessert: Anything at The Ice Cream Bar in Cole Valley.  Mixology and dessert?  Great combo. Floats, sundaes, ice cream sandwiches, milkshakes and floats?  Absolutely.  Pick your poison.

Best place for a romantic date: Pt. Reyes.  There is nothing like hopping in the car and heading up north for hikes, tide pools, lighthouses, beautiful coastlines, wine, cheese, and oysters.

Best place for a power business meeting: Nothing says power lunch like the Cioppino with a bib at Tadich Grill in the Financial District.  

Favorite shopping venue/boutique: Wilkes Bashford in Union Square.  In an hour, I sipped on a scotch on the rocks, got fitted for a perfectly tailored tux, picked up a few style tips, and left feeling like a million bucks. Ask for Tyler. You might learn a thing or two.

Favorite place to buy jewelry/watches: L.A. Giacobbi on Maiden Lane. This family-owned San Francisco business has been around since 1886. You can’t teach experience. Ask for Joel. He’s produced my wife’s engagement and wedding ring, and if you play your cards right gentlemen, he might even give you a how-to-guide to proposing to your-soon-to-be fiancée. Come with your checkbook and a great sense of (Joel’s very dry and extremely entertaining) humor.

Best Spa: The steam room at the Olympic Club.  Crank the eucalyptus steam, sweat out those cocktails from the night before, bring a disposable razor in with you (there’s a sink in there), and voila. No shaving cream required.

The Hotel Zeppelin

If you have out of town guests, which hotel would you recommend?  Hotel Zeppelin. 

Favorite Charity Event: GLAAD Gala. 

Favorite Cultural Event: Symphony Opening Night. San Francisco was once a very dressed up town, and this night brings it back. I’ll take tuxes and ball gowns over hoodies and jeans all day long.

Favorite Cultural Institution: Glide Memorial Church on a Sunday. No matter what religion you belong to there is nothing that compares to the soul that exudes from that choir.  Nothing. 

Best Steakhouse: House of Prime Rib. A San Francisco institution. Stiff martinis and Manhattans accompanied with a Sidecar, salad, creamed spinach and the finest cut of prime rib in the City. It’s now fairly casual, but when I was a kid, my family and I would dress in our Sunday best every time we dined there.

Best Pizza: For locals, Golden Boy Pizza in North Beach is it. If you hate crust like I do, ask for a center slice of this square-cut Sicilian style pie (combo or veggie). Sit at the counter and fork and knife it with a beer if you have some time to spare. For a full pie, Una Pizza Napoletana in SOMA is every bit as advertised. Whoever said that you should do one thing and do it really well, must have thought of this place. 

Best Lunch: Swan Oyster Depot, Zuni Café, or an Olympic Club burger after a round of golf.

Justin Roja, center, with his partner at Barry’s SF, Adam Shane (left), and Barry’s CEO, Joey Gonzalez (right)

Photo Credit: Drew Altizer

Best Gym/Athletic Facility: Barry’s Bootcamp. All biases aside, Barry’s offers everything you need in a complete workout experience. A mix of cardio and strength training, this boutique fitness concept offers a fun high-energy class, and you burn upwards of 1000 calories! You can also enjoy complimentary towel service, state-of-the-art locker rooms, and sip on a delicious protein shake from our Fuel Bar, in 60 minutes or less.   

Best Massage: Hotel Healdsburg

Best Limousine/Driving Service: I have a 2013 White Vespa named Coco. If you choose to take the plunge, this decision to go to two wheels instead of that SUV that guzzles gas and causes bouts of road rage, look no further. You will get from the Marina to the Mission in 15 minutes flat, steer clear of traffic, and never have to look for parking. With no blind spots, you’ll see the City liked never before. And it’s beautiful.

Best Museum/Exhibit: I am still at a loss for words at how incredible the Oscar de la Renta exhibit was presented at the De Young Museum in Golden Gate Park.  It was a true encapsulation of an incredible body of work. He was a real visionary.

Describe your city in three words:  Home.  Sweet.  Home. 

Favorite historic/legendary place to see or explore: Muir Woods. Each New Year’s Eve I venture out to the land of the Redwoods to reflect on the past year and breathe the crisp oxygen from thousands of years that came before me. 

All-around favorite spot in San Francisco: AT&T Park. The memories are endless, the World Series victories plentiful, and I was lucky enough to propose to my wife on the field in an empty stadium in December of 2014.

Best Aspect of San Francisco:  In no other city will you find multiple neighborhoods with distinctly different personalities in just a matter of blocks.