A few years ago I was looking for a great birthday present for the pasta-loving bf, and came across a walking tour of North Beach (the infamous Italian district of San Francisco). The tour, which is hosted by Bay Area food guru GraceAnn Walden, ended up being one of the best birthday presents I could ever give. Not being one to miss out on a food adventure, I bought myself a spot on the tour as well, and I was definitely glad I did. GraceAnn is a vivacious, well-connected SF food institution (she wrote for the SF Chronicle's Inside Scoop - local food & industry news column - for 14 years) and has been running various culinary/history tours of San Francisco for over 20 years. This particular 5+ hour tour was called Mangia! North Beach and we started it with an empty belly and ended it barely able to move.

The tour changes slightly over time, but when we were on it some of the highlights were: North Beach's oldest store, receiving traditional Italian baked goods and fresh focaccia, a lesson on how to make chocolate truffles, tastes from a new neighborhood hot spot, and a full meal at a fantastic restaurant. Since GraceAnn is quite vibrant and very well connected, she has relationships with every place she takes you. The chefs/owners know you're on the way and set aside some time (as well as goodies) to share with you. At this time, the tour costs $80 a person, but in my opinion, it's worth every penny, if not more. And even if you're not interested in the history of the region, Grace Ann's infectious love for the area will have you gobbling up every morsel of knowledge (and food).

I recently had the opportunity to catch up with GraceAnn, you can read the interview after the jump, or checkout GraceAnn's website for information on her history/culinary tours of San Francisco,

YumSugar: What did you eat today?

GraceAnn Walden: Breakfast: toasted onion bagel with lots of butter, 2 cups decaf; Lunch: chopped liver sandwich with sliced raw onion and a Diet Coke; Dinner: homemade textured soy protein & veggie loaf with tomato sauce, salad and two glasses of water. Weird huh?

YS: For a reader who might not know who you are, can you sum up your foodie career?

GAW: Julia Child once said, “I was never really interested in anything, until I got into food.” The same could be said of me. I enjoyed it all: cooking in a restaurant, catering, cooking for families, writing for a host of publications and creating a popular restaurant news column, the Inside Scoop, that has been copied a zillion times.

YS: What has been your toughest obstacle in your career?

GAW:Coming from a working class background. Not many of us get a leg up.

YS: How about the most exciting part?

GAW: One of the biggest thrills was to cook my first entrée for a paying customer, not a guest, not a friend. I snuck out to the dining room to peek at them eating my grilled swordfish with mango salsa. That was like 1983.

YS: How did your walking tours begin?

GAW: I had a cook’s job working weekday lunches. Since I had weekends off, I used to hang out in Chinatown and North Beach in SF. I am also a history buff. I just got this idea to put the history of a neighborhood together with info on food, tastes along the way and a terrific lunch… That was 20 years ago.

YS: Which tour is your favorite and why?

GAW: I lived for many years in North Beach and I know a lot of people there, so, Mangia! North Beach. But I enjoy Secrets and Tastes of Nob Hill, because I take people to Grace Cathedral, the Fairmont for a wine tasting, the Big 4 for lunch and dessert at the Ritz.

YS: If someone is visiting San Francisco for one night, where should they eat?

GAW: What a dilemma. I think the modern quintessential SF restaurant now is Nopa.

YS: If I opened up your refrigerator, what would I find?

GAW: Hahaha More of that soy-veggie loaf, homemade chicken soup, soy milk, homemade Bolognese sauce, hazelnut wheat bread, bok choy, napa cabbage, onions, cottage cheese and a couple of apples.

YS: What's your guilty pleasure food?

Avocados, butter, chocolate, macadamia nuts, a whole crab. I NEVER feel guilty about food.

YS: Anything else you'd like to share with our readers?

GAW: Eat with gusto and share food with friends and family. No eating standing up or on the fly.

Tour photo courtesy of about.com